Camping at the summit of Mont Blanc
[VIDEO AVAILABLE AT END OF ARTICLE]
I had been passionate about this challenge for a long time, both because of the logistical and material organisation and because of the physical challenge. Sleeping on the summit of Mont Blanc, at 4810m is not an easy thing for the human body. During this 9-day mountaineering expedition, I surpassed myself to face the cold that sheared my extremities and the heavy load of my 35kg backpack.
For this expedition there are two of us: my rope partner, Alexis Romary, photographer and mountaineer, with whom I have been sharing my climbs for two years now, and myself, Axel Deambrosis-Larcher, adventurer. After finishing my engineering studies in the field of energy and environment, I decided since September 2022 to live my passion: Adventure. This story is therefore a testimony of surpassing oneself, of a friendship and of an adventure.
This challenge will be spread over several days to allow our bodies the best possible acclimatisation. At high altitude, the decrease in atmospheric pressure reduces the amount of oxygen available in the air and therefore its absorption by our bodies. This lack of oxygen causes accelerated fatigue during exercise, which can lead to acute mountain sickness (migraine, shortness of breath, loss of sleep, etc.). Complications, in the most serious cases, can cause pulmonary and cerebral oedema. Creating stages therefore allows the body to adapt gradually.
At the bottom of the valley, near the last dwellings, we buy the food supplies we need. In total, 7 days of food autonomy are embarked for this expedition. It's no less than 70kg that we share between us, my partner and myself.
At the bottom of the valley, near the last dwellings, we buy the food supplies we need.
Everything is carefully chosen and thought out. Food is stripped of excess plastic packaging to be compartmentalised in zip pockets. At high altitude, the body consumes a lot of calories. Moreover, a night at 4000m is far from restful. The body accumulates fatigue and becomes weaker day after day. An adapted diet is therefore essential to reach our goal. In anticipation of this, we are carrying a reserve of two extra days of autonomy in case our weather window closes.
Purchasing and putting away our supplies - Les Houches in front of the Carrefour.
Planning and anticipating your water is essential. For this, there is no need to weigh yourself down with water packs. We have provided 4 gas bottles with which we can melt the snow. From experience, the cold tends to reduce our desire to drink, so we make a point of drinking at least 1L at breakfast and 1L at dinner. We know that during prolonged efforts it is recommended to drink before/during and after the effort and especially to add minerals and mainly salt. No waste, the water from cooking pasta (with stock cubes!) is reused in soup.
In addition, the weather plays a key role in our progress. However, it is difficult to predict the weather conditions precisely a week in advance. That's why we have planned everything to face the wind! We take a four-season tent that can withstand winds of more than 100km/h and is adapted to snowstorms. A snow shovel to pack the ground, bury the tent and allow us to build snow walls to cut ourselves off from the gusts of wind. But also a windscreen for the stoves which despite the "winter specific" gas are already struggling to function with the cold and low oxygen levels...
To take up this challenge without putting ourselves in danger we therefore anticipated and meticulously chose all our equipment to deal with all the difficulties that can be encountered at over 4500m in autonomy.
Heavily loaded, I am focused in the walk. The abdominal strap is tight to take the 35kg of the backpack.
After hours of tidying and optimising, the bags are finally compacted. The ascent begins. Mont Blanc, an imposing peak, looms before us but what we fear most is the other mountain we carry on our backs. Our steps have to be delicate and sure, a crooked ankle and it's the end of this adventure.
October symbolises the closure of all ski lifts. It is therefore at Les Houches, at the bottom of the valley, next to Chamonix that we start this expedition at an altitude of about 1000m. This off-season period is marked by a low number of mountain huts, which leaves us with a lot of choice. From the end of September onwards, the mountain huts are unguarded. This means that hikers and climbers no longer have access to the services offered during the guarded period, such as meals, running water, toilets and sometimes even heating. For us it will be a room sheltered from the wind with bunk beds and wool blankets. A luxury not to be underestimated. That's why we have to take all our food up with us.
Many routes lead to the summit of Mont Blanc. For our challenge, we will take the normal route. On this route, there are 4 refuges: Nid d'Aigle, Tête Rousse, Goûter and the Vallot shelter. The famous Goûter hut, easily recognizable by its futuristic design, is not accessible in winter, so we will stay in the hut provided for this purpose: the Goûter Annex hut (visible in the foreground on the photo...).
Refuge Annexe du Goûter and refuge du Goûter in the background.
For the safety of all, each refuge is equipped with a distress system. Solar panels in the refuge provide power for an SOS box (Photo 4)
SOS box of the Eagle's Nest refuge, those of the other refuges are identical.
To charge our electronic devices, the SOS box has a USB-A output socket. However it delivers a low current making charging batteries time consuming. So to support our electronic needs, charge our video and photographic equipment as well as our phones and headlamps, we use a solar panel Sunslice Fusion Flex 12 and external batteries Sunslice Gravity 10. The solar panel is installed outside the huts or clipped to the backpack when travelling to use every ray of sunlight to our advantage.
The 2nd night of the expedition takes place at the Tête Rousse refuge at 3167m.
Huts are a place of reunion. That evening we share our dinner with 8 Polish mountaineers. Communication is in English and you don't need to know Polish to share the joy of warm food after the intense physical effort of the day.
After a short night of 3 hours sleep, we attack the ascent of the Goûter couloir, a steep and tricky passage of 600m of vertical drop. We decide to divide the weight of the bags by two, which means two return trips. For our own safety, we prefer to climb at night. The snow is more stable and rock falls less frequent. Nevertheless, halfway up the climb, I was frightened to hear a piece of ice whistle by my ear and a second one hit the top of my helmet. After 3 hours of climbing, we reach the Goûter refuge, perched at the top of the Goûter couloir at 3835m. At least its annex refuge, open in winter. We arrive just in time to admire the sunrise.
View from the Annexe du Goûter refuge
A well-deserved day of rest in preparation for the evening... Once sunset comes, we go back down to get the rest of the equipment and food. The same fright froze our blood on the second ascent of this cursed corridor. An imposing block of stone the size of a bicycle wheel started to tumble down the slope. Fortunately, we had already passed it a few minutes earlier. Probably a fall due to a night-time refreeze that spread the stones apart. But it's still much less dangerous than in summer because we benefit from a much lower number of people using the couloir and the snow that holds the stones.
We begin the descent of the Goûter couloir around 7pm.
The round trip up and down the Goûter couloir was done in the same night from 7pm to 3am. Following this intense and repeated effort, we allow ourselves a graceful morning. Physical recovery requires a period of rest and a good diet. In my experience, neglecting these two parameters has already caused me a drop in motivation and violent bouts of fatigue, even leading to medical complications.
A look back before starting the ascent of the Goûter dome.
On the 4th day of the expedition, the forecast announced a closure of the weather window. Out of excitement and fear of losing our opportunity, we attempt to bivouac directly to the summit of Mont Blanc in the afternoon. But the conditions deteriorated earlier than expected, and we became tired and cold. The clouds have encircled the landscape and visibility is very poor. Without a landmark, it is almost impossible to estimate distances. My mask is fogged up, I can hardly tell if I am going up or down. We need to rest...
So we turn back a few hundred metres from the summit. And we meet two Polish climbers lost in the storm who we help to get back down to the Goûter refuge. Compasses and gps are essential to find your way in these degraded situations.
We'll have to find a way back.
Visibility very reduced, we turn back.
Blocked for 2 days by bad weather at the Annexe du Goûter hut, it was on the 6th day that we entered the final phase of this expedition. Our provision margin allowed us to easily hold out until this new weather window. From the Goûter hut to the summit of Mont Blanc, 4 km of distance and 1000m of positive altitude difference separate us from our objective. These figures may seem insignificant but we are already very tired from the first days. With about 4000m of positive elevation change in only 3 days, the 35kg of our bags and the constant cold, our bodies have a hard time resting.
Given the weight left in our rucksacks (around 25kg) and the powder accumulated during the last few days of storms, we opt to make a stop at the Abris Vallot. This is an emergency refuge at 4362m altitude and located half way up the route. Perched in the clouds, it shares a rocky overhang with the CNRS scientific facilities. Composed of a single main room (35m^2) and metal walls, we feel like we are in a giant tin can. A shelter that offers us protection from the wind, but not from the cold that settles in.
Night walk just before reaching the Vallot shelter. The full moon makes this progress surreal.
When we wake up on day 7, the sky is completely clear. We know that this is the right time. Despite the fatigue and the cold, the time to make our project a reality has arrived. After a good breakfast, we are ready to face the last 500m of ascent that separate us from the summit.
We prepare in silence, focused for the next adventure - Abri Vallot
Ancient avalanche trace during the passage of the Dôme du Goûter.
Perfect conditions and great views on the climb.
Equipped with my Sunslice Fusion Flex 12, I charge my batteries during the climb.
The climb goes smoothly apart from a few gusts of wind which are part and parcel of the environment. The view is grandiose, with the height we are taking, the surrounding mountains seem insignificant. Thick clouds surround them, but we are already high up. The sun sets in the west, giving the landscape a yellow-orange tint. It takes us about 2 hours to reach the summit. From there, the race begins. No time to take pictures to admire the sunset. We put our rucksacks down and take out our respective down jackets. The aim is not to lose the heat stored by the body during the effort. I put on my two down jackets and just during this exercise my fingers are already paralysed by the cold. But there's no time to cry. My partner is ready. He starts to prepare the tent while I work hard to create a flat and compacted platform with a shovel. The snow is soft, which makes my job easier. We are organised and used to this exercise. The tent is quickly inked to the ground. Secured by our ice axes and walking sticks, lightly covered on the sides, we are ready in case of a gust of wind for the night. As for me, I can now take some time, sheltered in the tent, to reanimate my fingers tetanized by the cold.
Setting up camp after packing the ground with a shovel. The cold and wind make the task tedious - Mont Blanc summit
To cope with cold temperatures, we are equipped with feather sleeping bags, as well as insulating mattresses. We chose fairly light and compact mattresses given the amount of gear already needed... By optimizing the weight, our mattresses are just acceptable for mountaineering, so we compensate for this lack of insulation by using some of our equipment (ropes, backpack ...) that we place under our mattress. Different layers of air will accumulate and thus greatly improve the insulating power.
At the coldest point of the night, we will reach -15°C...
The tent is set up, 4000m below instils the lights of Chamonix.
This night at the top of Mont Blanc was deeply marked by a magnificent full moonrise. It took me a few seconds to realise what a dazzling orange star was rising in the west. It was the first time I had witnessed such a spectacle. As for the awakening, it was marked by a dazzling sunrise. This was very much expected given the coldness of the night. The first rays immediately had an effect by warming the tent and our minds.
Sunrise at 7:30 am, we are finally warming up little by little.
Imposing pyramidal shadow cast by the Sun as seen from the summit of Mont Blanc.
We were subsequently able to rest for a few more hours. Only to be woken up later in the morning by the sound of a helicopter. We soon recognise that it is a tourist helicopter. A wave to the pilot to let him know that everything is fine and he was already gone.
With repeated physical exertion and temperature differences, moisture builds up in the shoes day by day and eventually freezes. At the end of this expedition, we each ended up with superficial frostbite on our toes, fortunately not serious. A frostbite that will remain for a few weeks but memories that will be forever engraved in our minds.
Trust is the key to the strength of a pair and therefore to the success of an expedition. In certain delicate and technical passages, the mistake of one can lead to the fall of the other. Communication is therefore essential. During a roped climb, the first person announces potential obstacles by shouting or by a hand gesture ("CREVASSE" or the hand in the air to indicate a halt), while the second person must remain attentive, follow the pace of the first and always keep a tight rope. Alexis and I have been sharing our climbing and mountaineering adventures together for two years now. I am always surprised by how easy it is for us to communicate non-verbally. This soundless communication that allows us to make critical decisions sometimes 25m away from each other..
End of the expedition, the descent was done in 2 days.
Sitting on our backpacks, we enjoy the view and our last chocolate bars (Alexis on the right and me on the left)
Besides the physical and logistical difficulty that this challenge imposed, this adventure was very human. During the 9-day expedition, we made friends with other climbers. Mutual aid and sharing are important values when the environment puts the mind to the test. Moreover, this adventure has consolidated the cohesion I had with Alexis. We helped each other to overcome our limits, we assessed and shared our fears in the face of risks, and with each step we marvelled at the surreal landscapes offered by the high altitude. This expedition was certainly a challenge, but it was also a test of our bodies' ability to bear heavy loads and to sleep at 4810m. Height of the base camps for the 6000m peaks..
Because of the cold, the chemical reactions of batteries are slower. So I shared my sleeping bag with my mobile phone, my GoPro and my Gravity 10. I was nevertheless amazed at the resistance to the cold of the Gravity 10 which even after a whole day in the backpack was still operational. In contrast to my action camera would regularly switch off and my laptop would discharge very quickly. So to remember, at night, all electronic devices with you in the sleeping bag if you want to hope to turn them back on the next day!
On reflection, I'll go back next time with two Gravity 10s, which will simplify battery management. The combination with the Fusion Flex 12 portable solar panel and 2 Gravity 10s would have been ideal for me alone, but between the two of us, equipped with GoPro and power-hungry cameras, a Fusion Flex 18, or a solar panel and 2 batteries each would have been more suitable to cover our energy autonomy needs completely.
Written by Axel Deambrosis-Larcher - Photo Alexis Romary