The line: 41 Km and 5000m of ascent. Les Contamines to Aiguille du Midi

The line: 41 Km and 5000m of ascent. Les Contamines to Aiguille du Midi

July 7th 2013

Mont Blanc Traverse Single Push

Enchainments are a funny thing. I guess it’s more of an endurance challenge than anything technical, but it feels far more committing and serious — the terrain is easier but when you’re feeling totally exhausted and you’ve still got another 5 hours to go it becomes a really powerful mental game.

You can’t just stop and you cant just retreat back down as you’ve gone too far — often the fastest way out of there is to keep climbing for the next few hours and when you’re at a total low that can be hard to deal with in your head. You feel very naked and vulnerable in these situations.

But it’s been really interesting doing big link ups over the last couple of years. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes as well. The most notable being the Cassin on Denali, the Peuterey Integral, linking up the Verte, Droites, and Courtes N faces last winter, and just recently traversing the Mont Blanc from Les Contamines. I guess I find it really interesting to see where the limit is for me, and then seeing how far I can push it. The limit though is complicated to define at times- sometimes it’s just having to deal with physical exhaustion, and sometimes it’s a nightmarish mix of physical and mental from having been up for over 24 hours. Learning how to cope with this and know how to move past it has been a painful learning curve. Every time I head out now I can go further time wise and distance wise without feeling tired and that’s really important. I seem to have conditioned my body in to missing a nights sleep without feeling at all tired during the whole next day. Still, it can’t be very good for you.

This summer hasn’t been great for climbing and with Pakistan looming I had to go dosomething before my summer was over. My plan was to link the massive ridge that starts at the tail end of Les Contamines and ends at the Aiguille Du Midi. As you drive up the valley from Sallanches you get a good view of it- it’s basically the whole Mont Blanc Massif, and I’ve been wanting to do it for a while now. I have heard of people doing a similar traverse but via Les Durier and Glacier du Plan and some even doing the traverse but starting from Les Conscrits hut. But I’ve not heard of anyone doing it single push from the very beginning.

Going via les Tret la Tete glacier and doing the Domes de Miages traverse, as opposed to the Glacier du Plan, makes it about 15km longer and more than 1000m of extra ascent (I GPS tracked both ways). It was basically the longest way I could think of, and whilst the technical climbing is just centred on the Bionassay it is nevertheless an incredibly scenic high Alpine Ridge across Europe’s highest peak.

Unfortunately the weather hasn’t been playing ball recently and as I left the car park at Le Cugnon there was still some residual thunder and lightening around. But I figured I would at least get to the Tre La Tete glacier and see from there; hopefully it would have cleared up. Walking in the rain was not a great start but the lightening seemed to be holding fast on the Italian side of the massif which was good for me.

The first crux of the climb is really at the start. Navigating on to the glacier and then off towards the Dome de Miages is super complicated in the dark. I don’t really know the way and landslides have blocked the track at times meaning I got lost and a bit stressed within the first couple of hours. Climbing up a steep ice bank on the glacier and my crampon binding broke as well which didn’t help. Things weren’t looking great- I was lost, wet, and the refreeze from the rain was terrible. After a while I eventually found the track again and with a sigh of relief I got off the glacier and on the track to the hut- I knew the route from here, it was just a case of endurance now.

On one of the Miages Summits

On one of the Miages Summits

By the time I got to the hut the snow was firming up, the skies had cleared, and I was drying out fast. Things were looking up. I tracked over to the Beranger and the snow turned bullet hard which was perfect as I started to make faster progress and cramponed across rain-hardened nevee. I bumped in to some fresh tracks coming up from the Col Infranchissable and wondered whether I would have a partner for this climb but the clouds came in and it started to rain again. It seemed very localised though and apart from softening the snow up again by the time I summited the last Miage it had dissipated and the lights were shining down at the Durier hut far below. Breakfast beckoned…

Dawn over Italy

Dawn over Italy

I got to the Durier at day break and happily stopped for some tea and bread. I’d felt good till here but the threat of thunderstorms kept the stay short at the hut and I was soon on my way to the Bionassay as the sun rose around me. It felt great to be out on such a beautiful morning- I couldn’t see a soul and the traverse felt attainable. Life was good. I even stopped to take some self portraits as it was so stunning.

Sun = Happy

Sun = Happy

Looking down the rock sections on the Bionassay

Looking down the rock sections on the Bionassay

Sunrise over the Bionassay and Mont Blanc

Sunrise over the Bionassay and Mont Blanc

Final summit slopes of the Bionassay with the Domes de Miages in the background

Final summit slopes of the Bionassay with the Domes de Miages in the background

The rock sections on the Bionassay passed without incident and an hour and a half after leaving the Durier I was on the summit. I spared a thought for Ally, who’d survived a huge avalanche here, as I crossed the knife edge ridge over to the Gouter Route and eventually arrived at the Vallot. Things got tough about here. I wasn’t at all acclimatised for anything above 4000m and right now I was climbing up to 4810m. But I was expecting this and knew that the only way to deal with this was to put my blinkers on and just set a steady pace without stopping till the top. Easier said than done though as the altitude, exercise, and not having slept for over 24 hours were all hitting hard. I was starting to hallucinate and the squeak from my poles were sounding suspiciously human. Still it’s nothing new, but I was finding it hard to see how the hell I was going to make the summit as I really did feel totally fucked from the altitude. It was a living nightmare in my mind and I wasn’t sure how I was going to continue on and traverse to the Midi in this state. It didn’t seem possible- but as usual what doesn’t seem possible sometimes is, and you’ve got to tell yourself that.

Pano from the summit of the Bionassay showing part of the route I came from on the right, and still to go to the summit of Mont Blanc on the left

Pano from the summit of the Bionassay showing part of the route I came from on the right, and still to go to the summit of Mont Blanc on the left

Two climbers on the Bionassay ridge, Mont Blanc in the background

Two climbers on the Bionassay ridge, Mont Blanc in the background

Two climbers on the Bionassay ridge, Mont Blanc in the background

Two climbers on the Bionassay ridge, Mont Blanc in the background

The Gouter route up Mont Blanc- a hellish nightmare

The Gouter route up Mont Blanc- a hellish nightmare

Feeling battered on the summit of Mont Blanc

Feeling battered on the summit of Mont Blanc

Eventually I topped out on Mont Blanc, snapped a couple of shots, and started my descent before I had the chance to convince myself to head down the Gouter route. What followed was a hellish time of ups and downs, heat and cold, and general ‘I cant be fucked’ sentimentality. But when I got to the Tacul the altitude was low enough that my mind totally cleared and I was heading down the serac slopes and actually running up the arete to the Midi.

It felt great crossing through in to the Midi station- I’d soloed one of my big summer projects and it had turned out to be even longer than I first thought. 41 kilometres and 5000m of ascent…I think that’s got to be one of the biggest days in the mountains I’ve ever done!

The Alpine Exposures coffee table photo book