Together with Alan Silva we took the final steps to the summit of Mt Blanc at 1130hrs, Monday 9 September, 2014 to finish Peak to Peak in 21 days, 19 hours after departing from the summit of Ben Nevis in Scotland.
We travelled over 1900km, completely under our own human power (apart from that frustrating 6miles of the French shipping lane), by foot, bicycle and kayak, through four countries, in rain, wind and sunshine, with no rest days and with as little support as practically possible.
I will write-up a more in-depth trip account when I get back to the comforts of home and have a computer however attached here is a brief overview of what happened these last few days as we had a hugely challenging yet very fitting climax to our adventure with the climb of Mt Blanc – France and Western Europe’s highest peak.
Days 19, 20 and 21 saw us cycle the remainder of the way to Chamonix at the base of Mt Blanc. Day 19 was 115km as we rode from Dijon to Champangole in the French Alps, which involved a leg burning steep 500m ascent. My legs were screaming as my wife Stephanie’s bike (which I am borrowing for this trip) does not have low enough gearing for steep hills.
Day 20 involved more climbing, as we crossed right over the alps, over the Col de la Faucille at 1300m elevation and the highest point on the entire cycle. This was a three hour climb, followed by a glorious 16km downhill run into Switzerland and the beautiful city of Geneva with pleasant views of Lake Geneva.
Alan Silva cycling up through the Chamonix Valley on the final 90km ride.
We overnighted here, resting our legs for the final 90km push uphill all the way to Chamonix village in the French Alps at 1000m elevation. We cycled along in lovely sunshine and slowly ground our way up until over 1900km from Ben Nevis and with less than 2km to go BOOM! My backtyre blew out again inside a tunnel and I swore and cursed at my luck as I fixed it beside the road.
Reaching Chamonix was a magic experience, it almost felt like the trip was a success by making it this far. I love Chamonix having visited twice before many years earlier to climb. Nestled in a valley surrounded by huge mountain peaks, the skies littered with paragliders, cable cars and stunning alpine views, it is a place I would love to spend some time resting but unfortunately we did not have much time to sit and enjoy the relaxed village atmosphere as our weather window to climb Mt Blanc looked open for the next three days only.
It was a quick rush to pack the bikes away, buy supplies and get the mountain gear ready before setting off the next morning for our assault on the world’s deadliest mountain(if you are into statistics!). We decided to attempt to finish our adventure with a truly classic climb of Mt Blanc, a complete traverse of the entire Massif, starting all the way in Chamonix village and walking/climbing all the way up and over the two subsidiary summits (Mt Blanc du Tacal and Maudit) to the very summit at 4820m, then down the other side for the descent via the normal route. Yes a classic route, the problem being, a very long one, in only three days, with tired legs from 19 days on the go already! (most people will use cable car’s to cut-off at least the bottom 1200 – 2200m) of the climb. The total vertical gain we would need to ascend was 3800m in three days, which is a huge amount of vertical gain, equivalent to summiting Mt Everest from basecamp.
We set-off with heavy packs with four days of food and all our gear on day 20 and made our way up the Mer-de-Glace glacier. Hour after hour we worked our way higher, leaving the crowds of people on the lower slopes who take the train up for a day trip, until we were alone on a river of fractured, broken blue and gray ice, littered with massive crevasses. And then the rain came. All afternoon and into the evening it poured on us as we shivered away, struggling to find a path through the crevasse fields, through huge cracks in the ice with no bottom in sight we carefully tiptoed past in our crampons. Our objective was a mountain hut at 2200m elevation, perched high on a rock buttress , 200m above the glacier. Trying to reach the hut was very challenging, as getting off the ice of the glacier and onto the steep rock buttress with water pouring down in floods was very dicey. Our combined experience climbing in poor conditions in the southern alps in NZ over the likes of the Hooker, Tasman and Linda Glaciers proved invaluable and we eventually worked our way off the glacier and up a series of ledges on the steep rock buttress, climbing very carefully unroped in the rain and arrived tired and bedraggled at 6pm. A huge bowl of pasta and some warm tea later, I crawled onto a bunk with my wet clothes on, in an attempt to dry them with my body heat during the night.
Working our way up through the messy Mer de Glace
Alan Silva searching for a route up the rock buttress in the rain on day one of the climb
We woke on day 21 to sunshine and had the opposite problem of the previous day as we got absolutely roasted. It felt like being in a microwave oven as we made our way higher up the glacier, route finding through the crevasse fields, past a search team dropped off by chopper looking for the body of a person who had met their fate in one of these icy tombs.
We plodded along on our tired legs all day, up, up and up until we stumbled into the Refuge Cosmiques (mountain hut) at 3600m around 5pm, pretty well spent. From here we now had a further 1600m of vertical climbing to reach the summit of Mt Blanc at 4820m. On the way we had to traverse over Mt Blanc two subsidiary peaks (du Tacal and Muadit) and we had to carry all our gear as we were descending the opposite side. We really were knackered by now after after 21 days continuously on the go. I was sunburnt and dehydrated as I drank two litres of water and prepared for the summit attempt at 3am the next morning. Sleep in the dorm rooms in the hut was basically impossible, with people farting, burping, moaning and rustling all night. We rose at 2:30am on day 22 and as Alan put it “felt more exhausted than when I went to bed”. After a quick breakfast and a water bottle filled with hot tea, we donned our packs, crampons and ropes and set-off under the moonlight for our climb to the summit of France.
I lead the way, following the tracks of previous climbers by my head torch and trying to set a pace that I could keep up hour after hour, would keep me warm but would not make me sweat. Sweating is my curse in the mountains, it makes me uncontrollably cold when I stop, and dehydrates me badly.
Up, up and up we went, roped together we worked our way up and over Mt Blanc du Tacul’s shoulder, arriving around 6:30am, then descended down into the col (saddle) between du Tacul and Maudit. Mt Maudit was the steepest and most technical section of the route, and we climbed 300m vertically up through crevasses to a final steep 50m pitch which lead to the summit ridge. I slowly kicked steps and fought for every metre as my axe bounced off rock hard ice covered by a layer of snow. I felt like vomiting I was so exhausted when I reached the top with considerable relief. This was not a place where we could have afforded to slip.
Ascending Mt Maudit
From here it was another 500m of ascent but very easy, just a mind numbing snow plod, with howling winds blowing airy tails of clouds over the summit and freezing our bodies and our fingers. The altitude and lower oxygens made it tough work and it was very cold. Other parties had been turning back all morning due to various reasons including the wind, one climber kept collapsing on the snow in the prayer position, but when I enquired if he was ok and needed help, he said he was ok and they headed back down past us. Our way down was up and over though the summit and after working so hard to get here, there was no way we were turning back. I got into a rhythm for the last two hours and my strength returned as I got higher, reaching the top at 1130am, magically as the wind dropped.
What a glorious feeling it was to stand on the summit, officially 21 days and 19 hours after leaving the summit of Ben Nevis. I shed some tears on the final few metres to the top as I thought my grandmother who passed away a few days earlier. It was a beautiful spot to remember a beautiful person and part of me wished I was able to be back in NZ to say my final goodbye to hear. Instead I said it from the summit.
Summit! 1130hrs, 7 September 2014
After the summit photo and video, we spent the afternoon ascending the normal route, Alan’s knee became very painful and he could hardly walk by the time we reached Goutier refuge at 3800m at 5pm. The hut was full but around 9pm one bunk became available so we flopped into this top and tail style and slept a few hours. Still feeling tired the next morning, we descended down through the nasty rock and snow coiloirs on the Goutier route which have killed 74 people alone in the last 20 years from rockfall. Safely through at 2200m, we took a mountain tram and cable car back to chamonix. The ‘normal route’ on Mt Blanc is an amazingly asthetic route, I see why so many people like to climb this way every season.
Descending the beautiful Goutier route
A huge thanks to Stephanie my wife for her support, to UFIT and SWORKE, to Bill Stuart, Barclay Morrison, Ian Slack and family, Tim and Sally Sarginson, Tony Ebsworth,Jacqui and Kate, to the people like Max and Harry in France who we met along the way and helped us out. Thank you to Therese and Ada, friends of Alan’s for the nice messages of support. And finally a huge thank you to Alan, my partner in this crazy quest. A more solid, dependable and long suffering man I am yet to meet.
I have had an amazing trip, – I feel honoured that France, England, Switzerland and Scotland gave me the opportunity to push myself beyond my known limits, to experience their cultures, spectacular landscapes and amazingly diverse range of people. Almost everywhere people have been warm, genuine, helpful and friendly, especially when they see the NZ badge sewn to my jacket. So to my NZ friends reading this, you can also be proud of the great reputation our little country has, far away even on the opposite side of the world.
So Peak to Peak 2014 is complete, I rush this blog out before heading for the Geneva and the long flight home with my gear. The final piece of the logistical puzzle to solve! And that is what probably gives me the most satisfaction out of this entire journey. Putting a plan together which is influenced by so many variables outside our control. The realistic possibility of successfully completing this trip, much like our Peak to Peak 2013 in NZ was very small. Having the mental and physical strength to work our way through each challenge until we finally solved the puzzle is the reward and at least for a few days will allow me to relax and saviour the feeling that comes only after very hard work. Before the pain from the cold in my fingers and my sore legs subsides and my mind begins to wander, as it started to do this morning…. hmmmm, crossing an ocean by human power…..
Au revoir from France and Bon voyage!
PS: for those of you who read the last blog, I am pleased to say that Max finally murdered the rooster!