“Mont Blanc and the Valley of Chamonix, and the Mer de Glace, and all the wonders of that most wonderful place are above and beyond one’s wildest expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime. If I were to write about it now, I should quite rave – such prodigious impressions are rampant within me.” — Charles Dickens
Rising 4,808 metres above sea level, the majestic bulk of Mont Blanc has inspired climbers for over 150 years. This beautiful and famous mountain, the highest in Western Europe, is a true high-altitude mountaineering objective that had been a dream of mine for three years. Finally, in 2005, that dream became reality…
Route: The Pope Route (Italian Normal Route)
Alpine Grade: PD+
Ascent: Day 1: 1,300m; Day 2: 1,800m
Location: Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy
Route summary: A long and beautiful glacier climb on the quiet Italian side of Mont Blanc
1st attempt: Myself, Pete Collins, Will Flegg and James Karn
Day 1: 19.08.05
All adventures must begin somewhere — this one began with us auspiciously landing the final parking space at the very top of the Val Veny road. Personally, I took this to be a good sign and, if nothing else, it had at least saved us from a mile of road walking. Setting off, laden with supplies and equipment, we were buoyant and excited about the adventure ahead. The walk up the massive and imposing Miage glacier was awe-inspiring, tiring and rich in alpine scenery.
Looking down the Miage glacier
James climbing up the cables to the refuge
We spent a lot of time taking photographs. A navigational error on the glacier landed us amongst vast gaping crevasses, and required some backtracking and bold leaps to get us back to the safe side of the glacier. An interesting but steep and exposed scramble through an unwelcome hailstorm led us to the sensationally placed Gonella hut just in time for dinner. Aside from one Italian gentleman and the staff, we were the only guests that night.
The spectacularly located Refuge Gonella
Day 2: 20.08.05
The purpose of the day was to acclimatise and reconnoitre our route up Glacier du Dome. The weather was excellent — we hoped for weather like this the following day — in fact, the weather was too good really, as the intense heat from the sun began to render the snow-bridges unsafe. Still, we managed a useful two hours of work, scoping out the route. We rested and ate for the remainder of the day — splendid!
The route of our ascent
Day 3: 21.08.05
The plan was to wake at midnight, wolf down a quick breakfast and stride out for the summit. Alas, the reality was quite different. During the night, the worst of mountaineers enemies came to thwart us: several inches of fresh snow fall. Despite feeling strong, acclimatised and ready, the weather had rendered the glacier unsafe and the avalanche risk too great. We were gutted — I felt deeply frustrated and despondent, as this was my second attempt in as many years — but there was nothing we could do. Our course of action now lay down, and returning safely back to the car became our priority. The route over the steeper sections was “interesting” now that it was covered in snow. We made it and then drowned our sorrows with a few beers back in Geneva. We resolved to come back, to conquer in style.
2nd attempt: Myself and Will Flegg
Day 1: 28.08.05
After a few days interlude climbing via feratta routes in the Italian Dolomites, Will and I returned to the Italian side of Mont Blanc for another crack at the summit. It had rained all through the night and morale was fairly low at this point – we were expecting another washout on the route and too much snow up high, but we had one last roll of the dice. The walk up the Miage glacier to the Gonella hut was straightforward this second time and we arrived at the hut mid-afternoon, in time for some shut-eye before dinner. After a wholesome dinner and an attempt at sleeping (not easy when you are so hyped), we would be ready.
Would the route be ready for us this time?
Day 2: 29.08.05
Yes, yes, yes! No fresh snow, cold temperatures and a completely clear sky were as close to perfect as we could have wished for. We began walking at 12.45am and soon reached the glacier where we roped up. The next few hours were superb — cramponing up the Dome glacier, navigating our way through the marvellous architecture of nature’s grandest creation. The ridge was a climber’s dream: narrow and exposed, calling for a cool head and exact crampon technique.
The final haul up to the summit was brutally tough and bitterly cold. We had to draw deep on our reserves of stamina altough we knew we would make it. My legs were heavy, and only getting heavier as I neared the summit, but I could feel my heart getting lighter with every step. Having wanted to make this climb for the past three years, having been turned back twice already, the summit view was well overdue.
We stood on the summit at 8.15am. Stunning views in every direction, with a multitude of snowy peaks and cloud-filled valleys as far as the eye could see. This was a defining moment for me, strengthening my kinship with the mountains. I rarely feel so elated and fulfilled as when on top of a hard-won summit. I knew at once that this was just the start of grand designs for many more ascents…..
Me and Will on the summit of Mont Blanc
The descent was tiring, but rapid. Once we arrived back at the car that evening, we were truly worn out, having climbed for sixteen-and-a-half hours. A supreme adventure and one of my proudest outdoor achievements.
Me on the steep descent, photograph Will Flegg