“The “roof of Europe”, the world’s third-ranking most visited natural area, continues to attract millions of visitors and thousands of mountaineers every year. Conquering Mont Blanc is a dream shared by many amateur mountaineers and enthusiasts. This dream is possible as long as one does not underestimate the apparently easy slopes of this legendary mountain.”
– Chamonix Valley Official Website –
Fear Is Man Best Friend
That morning I woke up early, we would meet up with the group at the Chamonix Express office around 9 am. People who had run or trekked with me, knew that I always tried to be upbeat and did my best not to complain much. But this morning, the fear hit me. I saw how fast the weather in the Alps could change from gorgeous day into nasty thunderstorms or just cold freezing rain. Also a few days before I flew to Chamonix, there had been 2 deadly accidents there. Mont Blanc average causality is around 100 hikers every year, with around 12 rescue mission only in summer every year, which was pretty high. (article)
I tried to occupied my mind. I reviewed my pack and my day by day plan, to make sure I had everything I would need and not over-do it. I knew I was physically prepared, I was doing pretty good with my crampons and axes training, the weather was not bother me much, and we got some awesome professional guides. I thought it just between me and the monkey. I just needed to be extra cautious, not too excited in the mountain and having fun. Some wise man says that fear keeps man alive, I guessed that was exactly what I needed at that moment.
Day One Was A Great Day
Dan and I walked to the Chamonix Experience office and met with the group and guides. We found that it would be only 7 of us from the original 9, would attempt to summit the Mont Blanc.
We arrived at the cable car station at Les Houches (1010 m) and got a ride to the train station at Bellevue (1794 m). I joked with Denis that we were cheating, we would only climb a half way of the mountain.
When we arrived at Nin D’ Aigle (2380 m), we started our hike. The terrain was pretty much rocks, but the view was amazing. Both, the open landscape beneath and the snowy peaks, they were just magical. The hike was pretty long since we got a few bottleneck from other hikers who had huge packs. I glad that Raphael had ran through my stuff the day before and I had a pretty light pack.
After we passed those hikers, we started to pick up our pace, before we stopped for a break. It was on the valley of rocks, between 2 hills. When I suddenly got surrounded by ibexes. And they just kept popping up. I guess, because they had a skin color that match with the rocks, they could blend in and we would not notice them if we did not look closely. I took a couple of bite my power bar and a gulp of Tailwind, put on my light jacket, and we were back on out boots and marched to those white color above us.
After a while, the trail became more narrow, probably about 2 person wide and started to swirl around left and right. The further we went, the more slippery ice and snow started to decorate our way. It was really slippery in some part. When I looked back, I just realized that I was above the clouds already, like in the UP movie.
I believe we arrived at the Refugee de Tete Rousse around lunch time, because I was so hungry when I got there and ate a huge plate of pasta. Then we just hung out and relaxed at the hut. Raphael went through my pack again, and he shed off more junks from my pack. Basically it was only jackets, axes, crampons, a thermos bottle, a few power bars, and walking poles. He even took out my backpack’s frame.
After dinner, we went to bed early since we need to get up around 3 or 4. Oh they didn’t have running water in this hut, I had to bring water bottles for brushing my teeth. They used a non water flush toilet, instead, I had to use the foot crank to run the rolling waste mechanism.
In addition, I believe this hut was the last place for hikers to camp, and tents were only allowed from the sundown till sunset. The rangers would not allow any hikers with huge pack to continue.
She Was Moody
We woke up way too early. Half of me was telling me to go back to sleep, the mountain would not go anywhere.
I ended up manage to get my buttocks moving, brought my gears down and had our simple breakfast. Literally simple. Since I did not make a special order for breakfast, all I got was bread, jam, juices, and coffee. Oh well.
We got out with the whole metal gears. From head to toes, it was a sunny day, but not the temperature was like a thousand needles punctured my face.
The whole hike to Goûter was a combination of snow hike and rock scrambling. In some area, they had safety cable on the wall if any one needed to secure themselves or just to hold on. It was really fun, it crossed to my mind that this would be interesting to hike down. I think this was one of the very dangerous area of Mont Blanc. Rock fall could happen anytime. Miss footstep or slide rock could be fatal. This was the exact area where a father and two of his kids got into a disaster and almost didn’t make it. The children fell and dangling on the safety rope from their father and their guides. Luckily they were able to climb up and back to the safety.
Then when we got into the end of the trail, for a few hundreds meters before the Refugee du Goûter, the track became a deep snow plow. The scenery was just ridiculous. On our left was a multiple peaks with massive white color on their toppings. And on our right side was an endless clouds with a massive void of empty sky.
The hut itself was something that hard to miss. It looked like one of those mother ship in star trek movie. It was silver, it was rounded, it was slick and the best part was environmental friendly. I think it was opened in 2010 to replace the old wooden hut that was made on the 60s.
We had to stop at this hut for a few hours since the weather was getting worse. The wind was picking up and stronger than the safety speed. It think the gray area was 60-70 km/hour. I ended up get some nap.
Around 9 am, they woke me up and we put our gears back. I had to re-applied my Trail Toes, boots and crampons did not get along with my feet. Then we started to do our last push to the summit. Our guides were pretty strict with our safety, which was great. They only allowed 2 hikers with every guide in the same safety rope. So it was Raphael, Clark, and me. When we started our trek, it was frigid cold. Probably because we were inside the hut and got warm too long. Also the strong cold wind just made it perfect.
The hike was not too technical at all. It just a long walk on a thick blanket of snow, endless wind that ready to knock me down anytime, long steep rolling hills and off course it was too cold for my jungle skin. Slowly but sure that we started to catch up with everyone. Because the bad weather, we pretty much didn’t stop at all. We just kept pushing and tried not to get caught in a bad weather anytime soon. Between the Goûter hut and the emergency shelter (Refuge Vallot), we only stopped once I think. It was on a valley between two hills, when caught up with Denis and Alex group. I took a quick sips of my Tailwind syrup and water, grabbed my power bar and continued to the shelter.
The shelter was a pretty small space on the ridge that was covered by a boulder or wall on one side. The entrance was a shape of letter n, which provided a protection from wind. Inside the shelter was a mess. So much trash, mostly was emergency blanket. But it was good enough for us to take a break and waited till the wind get a little calmer.
After about 10 minutes, we decided to continue. Half of me just wanted to stay. Here was good, here was no wind, it was cold out there. But not sure why, my body just keep moving, grabbed my gears and headed out to the frozen land, exposed, and I had no clue where was I on the map. The whole trip I was wondering how could those guides find the path. From day 1, they had never pulled any map at all. My guess was, they memorized the contour, although those hills all were looked the same for me.
The hike was kept going for more than an hour. My mental was broken at that moment. I was cold. My feet hurt from these boots and crampons. Good lord that I re-applied my Trail Toes before I left this morning and I ended up with no blisters after all. On the top of those, my goggles were frozen from my breath condensation. I started to think about how nice was it if I just stayed in the Goûter hut, there would be beer, food, warm, bed and the awesome view of the summit. I was really in the brink of quitting. For you who did not know, at those period of months, I was running a charity to raise a fund for my friend’s daughter rare disease cure research. Her name was Dylan. At that moment, I was thinking that I could not just stop and gave up, I could not tell that story to her. And I could not give up on her. So I decided just to put one foot after another, followed Carl’s foot print.
I Am The Human Kite
Suddenly I stood there, a hundreds meters away from the peak. And we stopped. I did not know why on earth that Raphael made me to lead the last pitch, so here I was dragging my feet to the last frozen steep snowy slop. I was stiff frozen like a popsicle and I could barely see through my frozen goggles. Even better, the wind suddenly hit us so strong that brought me down to my knee and fell on my face. Wake up call! I scrambled to plunge my axe for rescue, I was afraid that I would roll over and slide down over the ridge. The path to the summit was a one man wide path, so it was not so much space to move about.
Then in a few blinks of eyes, I was on the top of Europe. Because of my frozen goggles, I did not notice it until Carl and Raphael started to hugging me. After I cleaned my google, then I saw there was no peaks beyond us. It just an ocean of clouds and a barrage of summits around us. A minute later, Denis and Alex came up with their huge smile and their Brazilian flag. And yes, I was so miserable cold that I forgot that I brought my Indonesian flag in my pack.
On the way back, the wind was getting stronger. We started to make our way down with our poles and axe. I was the worst person to lead a downhill trek. I always wanted to run down, poor Carl and Raphael had to hold me back like a human kite. Or like a labrador on a leash. Suddenly I felt the rope pulled me back into a full stop. I looked back, Carl was bleeding all over his face and his jacket. I was like, SHIT! I thought he hit his face with his axe or something. But he said it was ok, he always got a bleeding nose every time he got overwhelmed. He was too excited from the Mont Blanc peak. I guessed he was like that City Hunter character. So we decided to make a quick stop at the shelter to clog up Carl’s nose.
When we got out, suddenly I was blown away by a strong wind, again. The combination of my light body weight and using a wind-proof gore-tex jacket made me become a perfect human kite, literally. If not because of my rescue axe and safety rope that attached to Carl and Raphael, I might had been in Chamonix in a few hours.
The good part was, the weather getting calmer the closer we got to the Goûter hut. And probably it was a little bit warmer too. And at that moment, I just remembered about my flag, so I asked Carl to take a picture of me with the flag by the Goûter ridge. Also I found out that I lost one of my hiking poles. I bet I lost it at the shelter before we went back to Goûter. Maybe when I blown away by the wind and scrambled back onto my feet. Well, if any of you are going to summit the Mont Blanc, using the same route, you got a free Black Diamond hiking pole at the Refuge Vallot shelter.
A Bitter Sweet
When I got into the Goûter hut, immediately I got myself some beers. I thought I earned them. When we had a big dinner, I was happy that I could sit there with everyone, we came back alive in one piece. I was drained that night, I wished I could stay and drank all night, but I ended up hit the sack pretty early. The best sleep ever.
Early in the morning we wake up and started to hike back to the Refugee de Tete Rousse. I remembered well that it was not an easy climb when we hiked up, so this would be an interesting to climb down. Many people told me, this section probably was one of the most dangerous area.
Step by step we went down. Again Carl and Raphael needed to pull my leash, I was just too excited to get into technical downhill. Those snowy boulder was really a breathtaking, in a good and in a bad way. The steep step was a bit scary, but at the same time, the scenery was just unreal.
When we got into the Refugee de Tete Rousse, we only made a quick break to retrieve our gears that we left there, and continue descending to the train station. Our train was sometime around noon or early in the afternoon, and if we missed it, it would be a long wait for the next train late in the afternoon.
The descending part from this point was pretty leisure. I did run a little because I needed to take a pee. Then the weather became moody again, suddenly we had a heavy fog for the last 20 minutes to the train station.
We were all get back to the parking lot. We drank beer, shared story, and off course got some pictures. I was happy that I did get onto the top of the world, but at the same time, I would miss these awesome people. I felt I just found my distance brothers and sisters. We had shared sweat, blood and fart for the last 5 days. I prayed that someday I would meet these guys again on my next adventure.