tip off

Once climbed, you never draw a Blanc and forget

The Mont Blanc massif is a vast glacier-draped beast that no one who has climbed on it will ever forget, and the tragic images of the avalanche on the slopes of Mont Maudit, which lies high on the ruff of the beast, brings back a tumult of memories, the good, and the alarming, from the summer of 1968.

France was on fire. The chant, acheter, tais-toi, crevé, colloquially consume, conform and perish, filled the air as the student riots spread across the country.

Chamonix-Mont Blanc was a good place to take a break from the action, if you were young, single, a climber, and bullet proof, as you were so long ago.

In two successful climbs of Mont Blanc, my climbing friends and I consciously chose not to go either up or down the great mountain via the accursedly named Mont Maudit, not because we were superstitious, but because it was a slog, whether coming or going.

Also, to use it you had to pay mega francs to ride the two-stage teleferique to the station atop the nearby Aiguille du Midi to make logistical sense of climbing up the higher slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit to get to or from  Mont Blanc, and we’d done that once, to go scrambling in a break in the weather on the arête des Cosmiques, a ridge near the Tacul, during which it had avalanched right in front of us, injuring several climbers.

The climbers swept to their deaths yesterday had to climb or descend the avalanche-prone slopes of the Tacul and the Maudit to complete their routes. In fact, the previous big avalanche accident a few seasons ago was on the Tacul, in similar circumstances to yesterday, and some of the victims remain in the glacier, which drains down the Vallee Blanche and into the Mer de Glace, before they are released, probably forgotten and unnoticed like so many of Mont Blanc’s victims, decades from now.

There is no real technical difficulty on either of the transit faces of Tacul or Maudit to or from Mont Blanc, just the enemies of time, exposure, and the manifest risk of a slab of wind-packed snow/ice breaking away.

What happened yesterday will happen to you, at different times and places, if you climb long enough, and sometimes, with serious consequences. That was how we took our chances then, and I know it is how climbers continue to take those risks today. Move fast, move safely, and be lucky.

The first time we climbed Mont Blanc that season was via the Bossons route, once the most popular of all, now all but closed by rock falls and collapsing ice seracs as glacial retreat makes it manifestly dangerous just to walk up to the start, never mind onto the route proper.

The second time we had to pass near Mont Maudit, as it was to one side of the crux of the Brenva arête, one of the more serious routes on the massif, which we had climbed in rather trying conditions, after which we turned away from its summit slopes and went up and over the summit of Mont Blanc to descend via the most popular route of these times the Goûter, in the face of a thunderstorm rising from the Chamonix Valley. We went right through the debris field of a crashed Air-India 707, where the fragments of metal and sadly of people had began to emerge from snow burying the Rochers de la Tournette, which the flight had flown into more than a year previously after a navigational error on approach to Geneva.

That wasn’t a good memory. My friend and I were exhausted, and it took a while for the meaning of what we saw to sink in, and then we kept going, trying to find the correct route in a white-out down into France, without blundering off course into a much more technically serious descent into Italy.

Mont Blanc is always going to draw the adventurous and curious. It is marvellous, but unforgiving, even where it is technically easy. And once you have been there, it never really lets you go.

So the Alps was a good place to be as a young, single, and arguably insane climber, in between various violent assignments and twice, Mont Blanc allowed itself to be climbed, once by the Bossons route, now all but lost to global warning and rock and ice falls, and once by the Brenva arête, which escapes from that side of the massif near Mont Maudit, the accursed peak.

5
  • 1
    John Bennetts
    Posted Friday, 13 July 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this short but informative perspective, Ben. The breadth of your knowledge and experience is amazing.

  • 2
    Posted Friday, 13 July 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Nice Ben. It never lets you go (Mt Aspiring, NZ).

  • 3
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted Friday, 13 July 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Tom,

    Love Aspiring. My first alpine peak, climbed with a guy who became a renowned Tasmania based wilderness photographer I’d name if I had his permission. Back in 1965, after going to an NZAC climbing school organised by the late great Dorothy Butler at Ball Hut on the Tasman Glacier, back when the Ball joined the Tasman at an icy junction several hundred metres thick, all melted away now. Back then the Bonar Glacier remnant of today that you crossed to the base at the Colin Todd hut was an ice shelf that over rode part of the walls above the Matukituki river. It remains a precious wilderness region, especially beyond in the Volta and so forth. I hope it works for our descendants like it worked for us.

  • 4
    Sherry Mayo
    Posted Saturday, 14 July 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I climbed Mont Blanc via the Tacul-Maudit route many years ago. You’re right both about it being a slog but it still stays with me just as you say. The Maudit traverse was the most indimidating part because of the avalanche potential.

  • 5
    Rohan
    Posted Sunday, 15 July 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m a rockclimber, not an alpine climber/mountaineer, but love reading about the latter.

    Kiss or Kill” by Mark Twight, which is predominantly focused around routes in Chamonix/Mont Blanc almost made me want to try alpine climbing.

    On the off chance you haven’t read it, very entertaining, albeit heavily opinionated ramblings.

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