It should have been the mountaineering seasons' grand finale: climbing Mont Blanc (4809m) via the Trois-Monts route. The weather cooperated with a stable three day forecast of perfect blue skies and sun. We took Friday off and spent two and a half great days in the fantastic scenery of the Chamonix Mont Blanc mountain range. Then we fucked up and ended the trip in a humiliating helicopter ride. No one but our egos got hurt.
A full ten people signed up for climbing Mont Blanc this weekend. This complicated logistics significantly. We roughly split into two groups, one group of paraglider pilots around Tom and one group of hikers around me. The plan was for the pilots to take the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi on Saturday, acclimatize, fly and come back up on Sunday to meet with the hikers to climb the mountain and fly from the summit.
My ambition was to climb the mountain in good style, valley to valley, without taking any of the trains or cable cars in the area. I thought this would give us the best chance to slowly adapt to the altitude. Of course it also implied an itinerary of more than 4000 meters of elevation gain and loss in just three days. The season for the high mountains was already over and most of the huts closed. This didn't deter us and Oleg, Andrey, Ivan and I set out from Chamonix at noon on Friday, headed for the Refuge du Requin at the top of the Mer de Glace.
The Mer de Glace, "sea of ice", looked more like a sea of rubble - the glacier was mostly covered in black soot and gravel. It has retreated so much from its former glory that to even get to it now you have to descend more than 200 meters of metal ladders bolted to the polished granite walls. A mountain guide had advised us that the glacier might be completely impassable this late in the season and at the very least route finding would be "epic".
True enough, it took us some back and forth to find our way through the maze of crevasses. It was all fun and games however and we had a good time with it. Until we glimpsed our hut that is. The Refuge de Requin thrones high above the glacier and it wasn't immediately apparent how to reach it. We could see some ladders and markers on the smooth granite, but no exit from the ice. So we decided to scramble up a steep couloir next to a waterfall, thinking we'd be able to traverse to the ladders later.
The couloir turned out to be a trap with lots of loose rock and sand. No way to safely traverse out of it. Even as it was we triggered a lot of rockfall and had to be very careful not to kill each other with flying boulders. At one point I stood on a rock the size of my torso when it suddenly started moving. It took the entire hillside below with it and literally tons of rock tumbled down the mountain. I only escaped by reenacting the (in-)famous Legolas scene from the Hobbit.
We gave up on the couloir and returned back down to the glacier. We continued scouting the maze of crevasses until we spotted a rope ladder connecting the ice with the via ferrata leading to the hut. Ascending a few hundred meters of ladders bolted to steep rock with a heavy backpack does get you sweating!
The refuge was already closed down for the winter and only a tiny kitchen and a sleeping room were accessible. No other guests. No gas. So we lit a wood fire outside and cooked our pasta in the open flames. Adventure cooking followed by a nice candle light dinner in the hut. Very cozy. I think we went to bed around 8 in the evening, just after darkness fell. After climbing more than 1500 meters that day we wanted to get as much rest as possible.
We woke up to more route finding adventures through the glacier du Tacul and the Glacier du Geant. The terrain was much steeper than on the Mer de Glace and even more fragmented. Still we made good progress with only a few zig-zags and no major detours. We reached the busy Col du Midi at 3522 meters altitude in beautiful sunshine. The col lies just below the cable car and is the local alpinists playground. Tracks through the snow criss-cross it every which way and all the (many! beautiful! spectacular!) granite spires are crawling with climbers.
We checked in to the Refuge de Cosmiques at 3613 meters around noon. Proximity to the cable car means that this hut was still maintained and we got some soup and later a spectacular dinner. We had an afternoon nap, waiting for the pilots to arrive. We reshuffled the teams a bit. Oleg, Ivan and Andrey were suffering from the altitude to various degrees. Andrey, who was very strong on the way up and carried our rope most of the way, kept vomiting. So Andrey and Ivan decided to take the cable car down in the morning while Oleg would fly his wing from the hut instead of the summit. Meanwhile, the other pilots had similarly decided to forgo the Mont Blanc summit and instead fly off Mount Tacul (4248m), a peak on the way to the main summit. This left only Mark and me with ambitions for the original objective of Mont Blanc.
We left the dorm room at 2 in the morning, put our crampons on and roped up right in the hut without having a breakfast. While there had been lots of tracks the day before a strong wind during the night had covered them all in fresh snow. Thus we were breaking trail right out of the door. This made finding the route through the seracs of the steep face of Mont Blanc du Tacul challenging. The wind was still strong and we'd sometimes get sandblasted with snow from above to such an extent that the fifteen meters of rope between us were enough to completely cover the tracks of the leader again.
Mark had spent the entire week climbing in the Chamonix mountains as part of a mountaineering course. Thus he was well acclimatized and rested from a day off in the valley and coming up here by cable car. He was our "lung on legs" and extremely strong trail breaker, digging through the knee deep snow. My legs were a bit heavy from the long ascent on the days before, but as a team we were still making good progress.
We reached the shoulder of Mont Tacul and traversed towards the Col Maudit. It was here that we made our fatal mistake. It was still dark before dawn and we were still digging through the snow with no tracks to follow (only a single party had climbed this route in the previous days and their tracks had been blown away during the night). We looked at the imposing seraced face of the aptly named Mont Maudit ("Cursed Mountain", 4465m) and neither one of us could really remember the correct route. We both had some vague recollections of looking at guide book pictures the night before and that we had to go "left of this rocky outcrop". I don't know what drove us to trust this fuzzy memory, but we did. Despite the fact that we had not one, but two different maps of the area with us and a single half second glance at them would have told us we were wrong. You didn't even have to read the map, just blink at it. I could still kick myself all the way up to the frickin' summit for this.
Anyway. We started up the face in a South-Easterly direction. It quickly became apparent that this was way steeper and more technical than it should have been. However, we were cocky and feeling strong and the climbing was great and fun and so we pushed on instead of reconsidering the route. By now we suspected we were off route but believed we could fix it by reaching the ridge and traversing back onto the normal route. Mont Tacul was steep with 40 to 45 degrees ice. This was steeper. At one point I stood on a sketchy snow bridge over an open crevasse, cutting steps into the vertical section of ice above me. We climbed past that and into a technical section of mixed rock and ice. The rock offered the first protection in quite a while, allowing us to sling the rope around protruding rocks. But mostly we were simul-climbing unprotected. I tried placing an ice screw once, but the thin coating of ice on top of the packed névé didn't take them - I could pull it out with my pinky.
I gained the ridge and looked around. We were screwed. The ridge was an overhanging cornice over a vertical rock face. The summit spire looked fun to climb, but required rock climbing gear which we didn't have. Retreating back the way we came would be exceedingly risky because of the vertical step described earlier and no good way of improvising rappel anchors (and too short a rope anyway). We could try traversing West to regain the normal route, but that path was also cut off by very steep rock and a maze of seracs. Trapped.
We discussed our options and argued back and forth. I'm still second guessing our decision and think maybe we should have gone for it. We didn't though. We decided to accept defeat and call for rescue. It was the most shameful and humiliating experience. The sun had just come up, beautiful weather, we were warm, safely attached to the rock, feeling strong and still had the whole day ahead of us. It felt completely ridiculous to not have a way out of that situation. Yet we were blocked.
In our defense I have to say that we expected the helicopter would cost us dearly in terms of money. As it turns out these flights are free in France. Makes me feel even more guilty. I called them and we were put on a wait list. We had seen the chopper before and apparently they were picking off a lot of people that day. We had to wait about forty minutes before it circled overhead. They lowered someone on the winch and picked up Mark. At that altitude the helicopter didn't have enough carrying capacity to get both of us at the same time so it later returned for me.
If dangling off a winch from a helicopter and making a mid-air James-Bond style entry into the cabin wasn't already exciting enough, the pilot decided to show off: he flew underneath the wires of the cable car and hugged the glacier in only a few meters distance at breakneck speeds. Looking out the window you saw a wall of ice rushing towards you one instant, blue skies the next and then the branches of trees almost smacking the pane. For the final approach to the landing field the pilot pointed the nose of the chopper straight up into the air, rose high and then dropped back down while performing a 180 turn. The flight lasted only a few minutes, but if it had gone on for a few more I'd have thrown up. Nauseating.
We left our names with them and returned to the car with our tails between our legs - what an embarrassing ending. It was both some of the best and most exciting climbing I've ever done and the most idiotic fuck up ever. But we live to tell the tale, I guess that counts. We met up with Andrey, Oleg and Ivan at a cafe and drove back to Zürich.
The next day I learned that our group of paraglider pilots suffered a similar fate. While climbing the steep face of Tacul one of them fell while trying to cross a crevasse and they got lucky and caught him with no harm done but nerves on edge. They all gained the summit plateau and prepared for take-off. Tom, the most experienced pilot of the crew, would go first in a tandem with Sebastian. The wind was dangerous though and they had to abort the take-off attempt at the last second before being dragged down the mountain by their wing. This rattled everyone enough that no further attempts at launching were made. Tom and Sebastian hiked back down to the cable car while the others got air lifted off the mountain.
Aftermath: Weekend-of-Shame self help group: "My name is Sören and I got a helicopter ride off the mountain." ;-/