Years ago, when I first heard of Chamonix, it wasn’t for its climbing or skiing. Back then I didn’t climb and though I skied I rarely ventured outside the poles that marked the sides of the pistes. Instead it was for the running. At the time, running was my thing. I’d regularly put in a hundred mile weeks and take part in races on weekends. The races that got me particularly psyched were the long distance events in the Alps and it was these that brought me to Chamonix. Each year I would look forward to August when I would take part in Chamonix’s Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or one of its sister events. Running day and night along the trails of the Mont Blanc area, covering many thousands of metres of elevation gain, these races would push me to my limit and I loved taking part in them. The trails were amazing, the scenery unbeatable and the challenge of finishing them captivating. I was always gutted to have to leave and return to normal life back home in London. Such was my psyche for the running scene around Chamonix, I ended up leaving London and moving out here permanently. Ironically though, almost as soon as I arrived the running took a back seat and was instead replaced by climbing and skiing. Nevertheless, that motivation for long days in the mountains has not left and many of my biggest projects in the Mont Blanc area involve big days, covering large amounts of terrain that might usually take competent teams several days to cover.
One such project I’ve long had in mind is Mont Blanc’s Royal Traverse, a vast outing through high mountain terrain that summits eight alpine peaks, ultimately reaching the summit of Mont Blanc itself. Though technically easy with only a few brief passages of proper climbing, the Royal Traverse is exceptionally long, involving 5,000m of ascent, much of it at altitude. There are few (if any?) other routes in the Alps that are so long in terms of sheer amount of ground covered. As a result, most teams attempting the route break it up into three or four days, staying at refuges along the way. My goal was to skip all the refuges and to try to climb the route in a single push.
I first attempted to do so last year. I was acclimatised, fit and well rested. What I didn’t have was a good weather forecast. Most forecasts suggested snow, zero visibility and gale force winds. Nevertheless, I set off clinging to the hope that the single positive forecast I had seen would be correct. Unfortunately, it was not. As I traversed the Dômes de Miage, nearing the half way point, the weather came in. I soon found myself in a white out. Driving snow on strong winds made progress along the ridge slow and difficult. When I finally reached the Durier refuge, the half way point, I knew my chances of success were slim. I lied down for a couple of hours, hoping the weather would improve. When I woke it looked no better. A little while later a team walked into the refuge. They had set off for Mont Blanc earlier that morning but had retreated when faced by the conditions. With the wind showing no sign of respite, I realised I was going to be heading back down. Later that evening I arrived back at my car exhausted. Nearly 4,000m of ascent in the bag, the same in descent, but no summit. I resolved never again to let psyche so blindly overrule common sense.
Bad weather about to hit on my first attempt.
A year later and motivation to have another go at the traverse had returned. Conditions up high were reportedly excellent and the weather forecast perfect. What I didn’t have this time was a good level of fitness. I’d spent most of the past two months rock climbing in Wales. The sum total of the vertical gain I’d covered hiking and running during this period was considerably less than that of the Royal Traverse. Nevertheless, I figured I’d have a go, relying on a strong base level fitness accumulated through years of putting in long days in the mountains.
As I left the car park to start the route I did not feel confident. Doubts caused by my mediocre level of fitness were front of mind. I pushed hard at the start, aiming to reach the Tré-La-Tête refuge, the first landmark on the route, in a time no slower than last year’s attempt, hoping this would give me a slight morale boost. I arrived there three minutes quicker than the year before. Considering my setup was several kilos lighter than last time and the extra effort I’d put in at the start, it was hardly a huge confidence boost. Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite slow enough to make me give up and turn around.
My setup for the first attempt. This year’s setup was considerably lighter. No waterproofs. No ski goggles. No Jetboil/gas (this time I planned to resupply water at the Durier refuge). Certainly no 2kg DSLR setup. Still just as much sugary junk food.
I pushed onwards to the next landmark, the Conscrits refuge. In the darkness I made a mistake and started on a path descending to the Tré-La-Tête glacier. Though the refuge can be accessed this way, I intended to take a different route and had no idea how to approach the refuge by the glacier. I burnt valuable time and energy trying to scramble directly back to the correct path only to ultimately retrace my steps. I was pissed off that I’d made such a stupid mistake so early in the day. Continuing onwards, I wound my way along the long path to the Conscrits. The path is often hard to identify, especially at night. Constant attention was required to make sure I stayed on route. During the day I imagine it’s a nice alpine walk with stunning views, but I was simply glad to get it over with and arrive at the refuge.
Leaving the Conscrits, I arrived at the first summit, the Aiguille de la Bérangère. Psyche was still low. The year before I remember the ascent to the summit feeling easy. This time it felt like proper work. Still, I was happy to get established on the ridge proper. Carrying on, I focused on just trying to enjoy myself rather than stressing over timings and fitness. A little while later I arrived at the Durier refuge. Things were looking up. Though I felt fatigued and nauseous, I’d made good progress on the traverse from the Bérangère and had time for a little rest.
On the summit of the Aiguille de la Bérangère, the first of eight summits on the traverse.
After a brief lie down and a litre of tea I had a new lease of life. Starting up towards the Aiguille de Bionnassay, I felt strong once again. The sun’s warmth and the views it provided were much welcome after the dark, claustrophobic night. Just before the summit of the Bionnassay I encountered the sole section of sustained rock climbing. It felt good to finally climb some proper rock after a repetitive series of snow ridges and I was sorry to finish it all too quickly. Leaving the rock section, I soon reached the summit of the Bionnassay. I was psyched. Though Mont Blanc was still far away, it looked attainable and I started to think I might actually pull off the traverse.
The Aiguille de Bionnassay, one of the major peaks on the route. The rocky area beneath the snowy summit is the one section of sustained technical climbing.
Part way up the rock section on the Bionnassay.
Psyched! On the summit of the Bionnassay. The pointed peak in the background is Mont Blanc.
The thin ridge separating the Bionnassay from the Dôme du Goûter went smoothly and thankfully did not feel quite as perilous as it’s reputed to be. Nevertheless, it was not a place to dwell too much on the consequences of catching a crampon.
Leaving the Dôme du Goûter, I approached the Vallot refuge, a small emergency shelter situated about 500m beneath the summit of Mont Blanc. It was at this point that my energy levels dropped markedly. For the first time I started to count steps, pausing to rest and catch my breath between sets. On reaching the Vallot, I sat down to try and bring some life back into my legs. The Arête des Bosses, the final hurdle between myself and Mont Blanc, looked more grim than ever. Though ‘only’ 450m of height gain separated me from the summit, I knew I was going to have to suffer to get there.
Mont Blanc, the final summit on the traverse. The Vallot refuge can be seen to the left. After being on my own all day, it was both comforting and at the same time unwanted to be surrounded by other people as I joined Mont Blanc’s crowded Goûter route, the trade route to the summit.
Resting outside the Vallot and feeling pretty wasted.
I set off from the Vallot, Rage Against the Machine’s Know Your Enemy pumping through my headphones. I was determined to reach the summit, but this didn’t mean my legs were going to cooperate. Sets of 30 steps soon became sets of 20 steps. Sets of 20 steps were soon interrupted by a sitting rest, a standing rest simply not enough to recharge my legs. The summit seemed farther than ever, but eventually I crested the final bosse and saw the distinct airy ridge that signalled I was only a couple of minutes from the top. Reaching the summit a few arduous steps later, I was filled with a sense of relief. I had little desire to hang around, only to get down and back to civilisation.
The obligatory summit shot. The forced smile disguises a world of pain.
I started down Mont Blanc’s Trois Monts route, aiming for the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. Guidebook time for the descent is five hours. I hoped to do it considerably quicker, doubting whether I had the energy to stay on my feet for that length of time. My already poor physical state started to deteriorate further and with it my mental state. I started seeing brightly coloured snow cannons over the slopes, hallucinations that I knew not to be true but could not block out. My footwork became clumsy and the simplest of tasks became complicated. As I traversed from the Col Maudit to Mont Blanc du Tacul’s west shoulder, about half way through the descent, I started to wonder just how much I had left to give. It occurred to me that I had perhaps bitten off more than I could chew. Reaching the summit wasn’t the end. I had to get down too. A brief uphill section that wouldn’t usually give me any trouble took everything I had. Finally able to descend the Tacul’s north west face, I was relieved to lose elevation and get back below 4,000m. I felt little better, but it was just enough to keep me going. The final slog up to the Aiguille du Midi lift station was brutal. To the occasional ‘courage!’ from passing alpinists, I painstakingly put one foot in the front of the other until I was finally able to push open the small gate guarding access to the lift station. I felt no joy, no excitement or pride in having completed the traverse, simply relief that it was all over.
As I write this, enjoying a well earnt rest day, the toils of yesterday are still much felt. The skin around my quads is heavily bruised, broken blood vessels clearly visible. Walking up the stairs to my apartment isn’t quite the thoughtless exercise it was a couple of days ago. A good night’s sleep gives perspective. Am I psyched and proud to have completed the traverse? Yes. It was the journey I was hoping it would be and then some. Never before have I had to push so hard and for that it was all the more rewarding. Though part of me feels it would have been prudent to go in better trained, more fit, in many ways this would have devalued the experience. To be tested, to be challenged, to tread that fine line between failure and success was the very reason I embarked on the route in the first place; and in this respect, the Royal Traverse more than delivered.
I couldn’t finish this write up without saying thanks to Manon, the guardian of the Durier refuge. I can’t think of many other guardians that would be so warm and hospitable when woken at the crack of dawn by someone asking for tea. The little things make all the difference. Thanks.