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“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”

Derek Watson
Derek Watson

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"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”

When my cousin, my dearest friend, called in early 2019 to suggest that we climb Mont Blanc to mark our birthdays, I jumped in with euphoric abandonment. I love a challenge, and one that would allow me to work out to conquer the highest mountain in western Europe was right up my Strasse. 

The challenge was set and the training regime underway, it was only when I started reading and youtubing about the task ahead did I really realise the enormity of the undertaking, comments such as “only 1 in 5 succeed to summit” and “Ascending Mont Blanc is not hiking but ALPINISM!” along with a bunch of risks that included warm weather avalanches, rock falls, altitude sickness and extreme weather, did the magnitude of the challenge that lay ahead along with the tools that would be required to succeed become clear. With this knowledge, I started to meticulously plan and take my training to another level, upper body conditioning, endurance training in the Wadi’s of the UAE along with a regime that was based on heart rate and recovery times that proved to be genuinely invaluable.

 

Sitting above the Cabin Du Trient overlooking the Glacier du Tou

We arrived in Chamonix on the 28th of August, collected our rental equipment of an ice axe, harness, crampons and a helmet and on the 29th met with our guide and started our acclimatisation. This consisted of 3 days of training on and around the Glacier du Tour, including climbing Aiguille du Tour, the highest point at 3640m. We spent nights at the Albert Premier Refuge and Cabin Du Trient in Switzerland. After this, it was time to go back to Chamonix and get ready to summit Mont Blanc.

Ice axe climb out of a glacial crevasse


We started the day taking the Bellevue Cable Car from Les Houches and then the Tramway du Mont-Blanc to Nid d’Aigle on the Glacier-de-Bionnassay, this got us up to 2400m. We then started the first part of the hike/scramble, heading to the Tête Rousse hut at 3167m. We stopped here for lunch and then headed for The Goûter hut, standing at 3,835m. We set off by crossing the Grand Couloir, also known as the “corridor of death”. A very unstable 200m narrow path must be taken to get across. The timing of the walk in between rock falls is critical. Needless to say, we made it, and then stood at the bottom of the Aiguille du Goûter, a 600m plus vertical accent.

View of the Goûter hut from the Tête Rousse Hut

After an exhilarating climb of vertical walls, boulders and navigating tiny ledges we arrived. After a great mountain hut dinner, we hit the sack for an early night with another 20 or so aspiring mountaineers. The altitude snoring orchestra along with the headlamp light show put pay to any ideas of a good night’s sleep and I could not wait for my 5 AM alarm so we could get cracking.

Summit day had finally arrived, 4km as the crow flies and 1000m ascent was all that lay between me and standing on the top of western Europe. We set off at dawn with our inspirational guide, Andrea Fusari, and stomped our way to our goal, zig-zagging up never-ending walls of snow-covered ice.

Zig zagging up the walls of snow and ice.

Ridge after ridge appeared, a relentless march that seemed never-ending at times, the oxygen becoming ever scarcer, it was head down and one foot in front of the other, a mind game that had little to do with physical conditioning. 

 

We reached the Vallot shelter, an emergency bivouac, the halfway point by time and leaving us with just the Bosses ridge, the two lumps which form the distinctive skyline seen from the valley, to climb along before finally summiting.




 

 

The Bosses ridge

At this point, any doubts of succeeding disappeared, with my eye on the goal and knowing it was only a matter of time the journey continued.

 

 

Summit insight

 

 

We plodded away in temperatures as low as -20 Celsius with the wind chill. Finding methods to take my mind off the overall task and just executing what was immediately ahead by setting goals and objectives served me through this period.

 

 

 

Until eventually, after just over 4 hours we hit the summit, 4810 metres. The elation was magnificent, the view, breathtaking, and the feeling of accomplishment overwhelming. As we set our minds to the return journey, as this was just the halfway point, we enjoyed a moment of congratulatory self-indulgence before the relentless plodding ensued.

 

 

Mont Blanc summit.... BOOM!!!

 

Back at the Goûter hut, it was time to reflect, the takeaway has to be that a challenge like this can be compartmentalised into knowledge, preparation, positive mental attitude and the ability to execute short term objectives while keeping a clear view of the overall goal.

 

Now, sitting back at my desk, the focus 100% on N2, I look forward to achieving our goal.

Until next time with peace and love,

Derek.