Kevin Rushby has always wanted to be a member of the climbing fraternity but has lacked the confidence and guile. So he jumped at the chance to test his mettle and join a guided ascent of Mont Blanc
I’ve always had a sneaking wish to be part of the climbing fraternity: to stand upon mighty summits reserved only for the cognoscenti with gnarly hands and cool kit. However, whenever I’ve been called upon to produce a figure-of-eight knot – the one that connects you to the end of a climbing rope – I usually manage to make something that looks more like a nine.
Fortunately, a slew of companies now offer bona fide mountaineering adventures to those lacking the knowledge and confidence to go it alone. In theory, they could put you on top of Everest. Surely then you would gain honorary membership of the climbing fraternity? I was more modest in my ambitions: Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in western Europe at 4,810m, a target high enough to cause altitude sickness, but much lower than the Himalayan giants.
There were four of us in the group that assembled in the bar of La Chaumière Hotel in Chamonix, a well-know haunt of real climbers. There was Chris, very Yorkshire; Pippa, very Kiwi; Douglas, very Scottish, and me, very nervous. We were all reasonably fit, though nursing various niggling injuries, hangovers and anxieties. We had all done a Scottish winter mountain training weekend but forgotten most of what we had learned. Supervising our training and ascent was veteran guide Jim Kerr.
The first stage in a climbing expedition is kit inspection. Jim does ours like a customs officer, casting a withering eye over unnecessary and unsuitable possessions. Toiletries? “There’s no showers where we’re going.” Long johns? “How are you going to get them off if the sun comes out?” Forty years of packing for mountains is distilled into one lesson. At the end, my bag is half the weight it was. Then Jim adds harness, ice axe, helmet, crampons, slings and prusiks – loops of cord that looks suspiciously like hairbands. “Have you got ear plugs?” I shake my head. Is he joking?
We drive into Switzerland, then take a short cable car ride to the head of a footpath that winds up towards the Trient glacier, passing glorious clumps of Alpine flowers. Our objective is the Trient hut, where we will spend two nights acclimatising at 3,500m.
If climbing has its fraternity, the Alpine hut is its chapter house. They can be tiny or they can be huge, but they all have a rough-hewn, jolly atmosphere. Tradition demands that the people of the valley select a person to run this place and they usually choose the grumpiest man. His main task is to ensure that no one ever, ever, enters the hut’s inner sanctuaries wearing boots or carrying an ice axe. There is no particular punishment for this crime, except to be sent to Coventry by the fraternity. Coventry, of course, is flat.
At around 7pm it is announced that the Guardian will serve dinner, which gives me a moment of panic as I haven’t brought my apron. But then the grumpy manager, le gardien, and his assistants serve dinner to the company, who all sit together even if they have never met and don’t like the look of each other. The food is invariably delicious because the one thing every gardien can do really well, apart from expel boot-wearers, is cook. Everyone gets along famously and pretends not to want the last potato.
Soon after dinner the real climbers go upstairs to their bunks and begin to snore very loudly. Unreal climbers like us, however, sit around, drink and play cards, then go upstairs to find the best berths have been taken by people who remembered to bring ear plugs.
In the morning we trek across the Trient glacier, scramble up a jagged peak known as Aiguille du Tour, and learn how to escape from a crevasse using two hairbands. We are all wondering if the weather will allow our Mont Blanc attempt and also if we, as individuals, can make it.
Chris is the fittest and the fastest walker, but he has never walked up anything bigger than Ben Nevis. The rest of us are slower. Maybe too slow? After another memorable dinner and snore-snagged night, we trek again, this time in a snowstorm, and descend back to Chamonix. We are now ready for the big white mountain that hangs ominously over the town.
There are several routes up Mont Blanc, but most non-climbers take the train to Nid d’Aigle at 2,300m, then walk up to the Tête Rousse hut, at 3,167m, for the night. In this hut I see a group of Koreans in splendid matching mountain gear, bearing “Mont Blanc Expedition” logos. Some of them have altitude sickness. Other climbers tell me of the notorious Grand Couloir, a snow-choked gully where rockfalls regularly cause disaster. Jim has decided that he will climb with Chris and me. Pippa and Douglas will go with a second guide and take two days, to allow for their slower pace. After dark
I go to my bunk, but don’t sleep.
At 1.30am Chris and I, together with Jim, wolf down some tea and bread, then set out wearing head torches. The Grand Couloir passes without incident, then we scramble steeply upwards for 650m. Can anything to come be more exhausting?
At the top of the scramble there is the Goûter refuge, a space-age addition to the mountain and another popular departure point. We pause here to put on more clothes, as the temperature is way below zero. Then we set off again, climbing on snow and ice now. Dawn breaks in magnificent orange billows of clouds, punctured by endless vistas of rocky needles, and we finally see the summit ahead, still defended by a sharp rolling ridge of ice known as Les Bosses. This, I discover, is the real test: at over 4,500m I’m struggling to maintain the pace and need regular breathers. A butterfly flits past. Was that real? It could be oxygen deprivation. My temper is certainly fraying. I pull on the rope: “You don’t need to drag me up!”
For a moment I start to wonder if I will make it, but Chris and Jim allow me some breaks and I find a new rhythm: a breath for every step. The last climb is ridiculously steep and I don’t look up or down, just at Chris’s heels. Then, quite suddenly, the knife-edged ridge opens out and we are on the top of western Europe.
You do not get long up there. The cold is as debilitating as the panorama is exhilarating. I can hardly bear to take my gloves off for a photo. Each precious minute up there, however, is savoured. Now all we have to do is go down, which proves to be far quicker and easier. Below the Tête Rousse hut we slide down 600m of glacier on our bums, a divine experience for tired knees, as is the hot shower back in Chamonix, a mere 16 hours after we started out.
Next morning Douglas and Pippa arrive back, jubilant. They made the summit too, and stayed an extra night at the Goûter hut. If you are capable of some strenuous British hill walks, it seemed to me, Mont Blanc, while hard, might not be beyond you.
With one final day left, I opt to go rock climbing with Jim at Lac des Gaillands crags. I’m wondering if, as a veteran of Mont Blanc, I’ve gained membership of the mountaineering fraternity. Jim climbs the first route, abseils down and hands me the rope.
“I’ll belay you,” he says. I tie myself on and stretch my shoulders. A bit of backache, but otherwise I am unscathed from climbing Mont Blanc. But just before I start, Jim steps forward and reties the knot.
“That looks more like a nine – and don’t stand on the rope.”
My brief glorious moment as a real climber is, I realise, over.
• The trip was provided by Jagged Globe (+44 114 276 3322, jagged-globe.co.uk), which takes groups to the summit of Mont Blanc on an eight-day expedition during the summer season for £1,795pp, excluding flights. Alternatively, and for the same price, you can climb Mont Blanc as a three-day extension to Jagged Globe’s introductory alpine techniques course, which is designed for complete Alpine newcomers. Flights were supplied by easyJet (easyjet.com), which flies to Geneva from various UK airports from £33 one-way in July