Mont Blanc, Aiguille de Grises - Day 4 and 5

The adventure started on Italian side (read about Day 1-2 here), and continued up to Gonella hut and the camping next to it (read here). The next day was to be the summit attempt. First, there would be walking upwards, then a ridge traverse or two, and then more upward until the very top.

We decided to leave at midnight, so we woke up at 23, had breakfast, and started walking. The sunrise is visible some time before it shows from the lower grounds, so we enjoyed greatly these astonishing views.

Sunrise on Mont Blanc
We were in a hurry upwards. The faster you go, the more chance to reach the top before the sun heats up the snow too much and it becomes very difficult (and dangerous) to go. However, one should be walking in a calm pace. It's the amount of stops that determines how fast you will be on the summit. You can slow down, but you should not make a lot of short stops. This was proven by myself as I brought a group up to Elbrus a few years later, and we observed that our average speed was much higher than most other alpinists, because we did not make so many stops.

As we were traversing the ridges, the clouds gathered and obscured the view. This was most probably a positive thing, because it's much easier to cross then, instead of having to look into an abyss on both sides.

Dramatic clouds over the mountain tops
As we were not completely acclimatized, the altitude let us suffer quite a lot. It's like having the worst of your hangovers (headache, weakness, hyperventilation and nausea), while having been kicked in the stomach (abdominal pain). And then you have to walk upwards! Panting and struggling, it's easy to forget why you are doing this. The only thing you want to do is to turn back. Or even better, to take a nap in the snow. Just lay down and close your eyes for a few minutes... Of course I realize that it would be deadly. And of course I walk on, despite every cell in my body screaming for me to get back. On that trip, I had learned the importance of proper acclimatization, and has been respecting the acclimatization rules ever since. One does not have to suffer from the symptoms if acclimatized correctly. But one needs time for that.

On the way to the top. Three members, one rope
Despite the symptomes, we took a detour to the top of Dôme du Goûter (4304 meters), to check off another 4000+ top in the Alps. Now, the only thing left was to walk down from it, and up again to the top of Mont Blanc. At the hut, many more people joined in on the way to the top. Many of these take the cabin lift almost all the way. We chose the hardest normal route, and we were still keeping pace.

The cold was very present along the way. I had forgotten to bring my thermoisolated gloves, and should I not have borrowed a pair from Joel, the summit would have to be cancelled. It was so cold, that several layers of winter clothing barely kept me warm at all. The mobile phone was not functioning well because of the cold, it was extremely slow and the battery just disappeared. So there were not many pictures - but the ones I took were the most memorable.

At 07:30, we had reached the top of the highest mountain in all European countries: Mont Blanc.

The view from the top

Lena Padukova on top of Mont Blanc

View from the top
We did not stay so long on the top, due to ice-cold winds. It was easy going downwards, but this time we got to see the steep sides of the ridge traverse. Here is an idea of what it looks like, but no camera can capture the deep abyss on each side, it just does not fit into the picture.

Traversing ridge on the way back
We reached our camp at 12:40 that day - going down was almost twice as fast. The snow was slushy and mushy, and one of the members who was tallest and weighted most, had trouble walking. He just stepped through the soft snow all the time, it reached up to his thigh. At the end, we also had use for the ropes, since there was one fall that could be stopped by the rope. If he had continued, he would have hit a minor crevasse. It was non-dramatic, but a good thing to have tried out.

Here is what you feel like after the summit.

We drank tea, ate and rested, the altitude symptoms were gone, left was a sense of happiness and accomplishment. On the next morning, we packed the camp and went down all the way to Lac du Miage and beyond. It was a long hike despite going downwards, some more scrambling and via ferrata with a big backpack and very tired legs. That night's camping was near a beautiful ice-cold river. The summit was completed. We were already talking about the next...

As we arrived back to the camping, I could pick up the stuff I left there. I had been to a wedding, to a Microsoft conference, visited friends in Spain, now been on alpine adventures, and more stuff was waiting to come! I had luggage for several months, from fancy dress to business suit and ice axes, and I still cannot fathom how I got it on the plane and back home.

Back in Chamonix - the Big White Mountain in the background!

I had borrowed alpine shoes (large plastic shoes) from Joel. Unfortunately for me, they were half a size too small. Of course I could not just refuse to have them, I had no choice. So I continued walking in them despite the pain. The nails of my big toes had turned blue, and started to leak a foul-smelling liquid. A few weeks later, the nails on my big toes fell off. Don't worry, new ones have grown back, and everything is fine. But this is a good example of the price one sometimes has to pay for success. Either you give up to the pain, or you continue and reach your summit. Your choice!