Your legs are hurting, you are breathing hard, and your chest feels like it is going to burst out of your body. Yet, you continue putting one foot in front of the other and struggle on.
That’s the basic description of what you will feel like when you go up Mt. Blanc. As one of the characters in the movie “Everest” said, climbing is just pain.
It is the ultimate test of your willpower. It takes an enormous amount of mental strength and perseverance to be able to finally reach the top.
This especially applies for people who spend most of their year sitting in their office being desk jockeys. For them, this can be quite challenging.
It is not an insurmountable task though. Every year, thousands of people manage to climb it. The pain lasts only a short time, but the memories last a lifetime.
Struggle on for a few days, but from then on, you will be a man who climbed the mountain. That is something no one can take away from you.
Contrary to what some people think, Mt. Blanc is not the highest mountain in Europe. That honor belongs to Mt. Elbrus in the Russian Caucasian Mountains. However, it is the highest mountain in Western Europe and stands at 4808 meters high.
The climb is not technically challenging, meaning that you won’t have to do any specialist mountaineering techniques. All you require is a good stamina, and good acclimatization.
You will also need equipment for mountaineering in snowy conditions, such as ropes and crampons. If you are a beginner, don’t go alone, but instead with a guide or at least an experienced mountaineer.
Don’t underestimate the dangers, as every year, a few people die on the mountain and many more need to be rescued.
The hardest thing I have ever done physically
I stood on top of Mt. Blanc last week. For me, it was probably the hardest thing that I have done physically, ever. It really pushed me to what I thought were my limits, but I discovered that my real limits are still way beyond that.
So in that way, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding ones as well. Paradoxically, this pain is the reward of the journey.
By conquering this pain you prove to yourself that you have what it takes and can succeed at even the hardest things. You can succeed at things that the majority of people are too scared to even attempt.
What does a typical desk jockey need in order to be able to climb Mt. Blanc?
Well, besides the equipment and a strong mountaineer with him, the most important thing is a good preparation.
The first part of the preparation involves having good stamina. I really concentrated on getting my cardio up. The journey is long and hard, and you need to be physically prepared for it.
The best way to prepare is to do a lot of progressively longer (and more challenging) hikes in the mountains, but for many city folks, this is something they can’t do too often.
Most of my time training for this was spent in the gym, going up on these stepper machines. I started off going for less time and easier modes, but as I was getting more fit, I kept increasing the times and the challenge.
You can also go on daily runs or maybe even join some of those group fitness classes, if you think that you will get more motivated that way. Anything that improves your stamina is good.
This is the basic prerequisite, however no matter how hard you work in the gym, it does not ensure that you will be prepared to summit.
The key here is a good acclimatization. The most challenging part of hiking in mountains is that the higher you go up, the harder it gets. The reason for this is the lower amount of oxygen in higher altitudes.
This means that all the stuff that is easy at sea level, becomes quite hard in the mountains. You need to get your body ready for this, and this means that you need to spend a lot of time at higher altitudes as close as possible to the time before your ascent of Mt. Blanc.
The best way to do this is by scheduling a few hikes in the mountains a few days or the weekend before you go to Mt. Blanc. This way your body gets used to the altitude and you lower your chances of getting headaches or worse when you are there.
A bonus with this is the fact that you will also train some of the muscles that you don’t use in your desk jockey life, but which are crucial for mountaineering.
Doing these mountain hikes, really exposed how far we are removed from nature and “real life” in our modern lives. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and they all hurt! 🙂
It is all about your mental strength
All this preparation helps, but you will never be able to reach the top of Mt. Blanc, unless you have one key ingredient: mental strength.
Climbing Mt. Blanc hurts. It is pain. Every step makes you more and more exhausted, and this continues for hours on end.
You need to overcome your constant urges to quit and instead keep pushing on. There are different strategies that you can use in order to help you with this.
One strategy is the long-term strategy. For this, you need to situate the entire trip in context. That day is only one day and just like any day, it will end.
Picture the end of the day and the rewards that will come with it when you complete your mission. This will keep you motivated.
The other strategy is keeping in the moment. Just concentrate on being in your mind and keep reminding yourself to just put one foot in front of the other.
You can also concentrate on short-term goals: make it to that ridge, make it to that hut. Once you reach this short-term goal, you will most likely see that you still have power left and then you make another short-term goal to reach another ridge. These short-term goals will add up and at the end, you will make it to the top.
Most likely, you will need to resort to a combination of all these strategies and mental techniques when climbing Mt. Blanc.
The journey is long, but beautiful
There are different routes you can take to the top of Mt. Blanc. Probably the “easiest” one is the one that passes through Gouter Refuge. That’s the one we took.
It is a two day trip with a huge variety of sections to overcome. You start the first day early in the morning to catch a small train that takes you up to an area a bit below the Nid d’Aigle refuge, which is at an altitude of 2373 meters.
From then on, you start the first part of the journey, which is a classic mountain hike. At first the slope is not so steep, but it gets progressively steeper. However, going up, this is probably the easiest part of the journey. As a bonus, we got to see some chamois on the way!
This part of the hike ends when you come to the last remnants of a melting glacier close to the Tete Rousse refuge.
The glacier is now just a puddle of melting snow and a big testament to the rapid changes that the planet is undergoing due to global warming. It is not that hard to cross, but can get slippery, so watch out.
After crossing this glacier, you get to a very dangerous section of the entire trek. It is called the Grand Couloir and is notorious for its rock falls, which have been known to kill people.
What you do is try to run across as fast as possible in order to get to the other side. You can often see rocks falling and if one of these hits you, you can suffer injuries or worse.
Once you get passed this part, you arrive at a section which you could call a climb. From far it seems like you have to overcome an almost vertical section of rock above which sits the Gouter Hut, but once you get closer, you find out that this section is made up of a series of rocks which you have to navigate and scramble over.
This for me was physically the hardest part of the entire two-day Mt. Blanc climb. Here you are not only using your legs, but also your upper body in order to get over rocks, which can get pretty tiring quickly at this altitude.
You have to negotiate one rock after the other and some of them can get quite tricky. You have to look for better ways to get over these rocks and always keep in mind that you have to have 3 points of contact with the rocks in order to be safe and stable.
After this section, you are almost done for the day. The only thing you have to do is put on your crampons for the first time and negotiate a small section of snow to get to the Gouter Hut. Finally, you have arrived at today’s destination!
The Gouter Hut is the place where many people climbing Mt. Blanc rest for the day. You have to book it in advance.
You chill there for a bit, eat and try to recover as much power as you can for the next day. These are basically dorms and so a lot of people stay in the same room.
This can be quite distracting if you are trying to sleep, as some people are snoring, others are talking or making other types of noise. Let’s just say, I didn’t get much sleep.
The next day you wake up at 2 in the morning (yes 2!). You get breakfast and then put on your crampons and hit the mountain at around 3.
We started a bit later than the rest of the teams and could see a winding snake of lights going up the mountain. However, to my great surprise, we managed to surpass many of the teams on the way up.
Basically, you are roped in with the rest of the people on your team in order to avoid falling into crevasses and try to find footpaths created by other people in order to ease your ascent. On the way back (when it was light), I saw that there are indeed many crevasses, and in order not to fall into them, you should follow the paths already created by other people.
It’s dark outside, so you need a headlight. You keep on putting one foot in front of the other and continue on walking. Even in the middle of summer, it can get pretty cold and the temperatures are in the negative, especially during the night.
We made it to the Vallot refuge (at 4362 meters of altitude) when the light started to show up. Some people sleep at that refuge during the night (although it’s illegal), but we just rested there for half an hour, had some hot tea and went on our way.
We were still a long way off, and had to go through some pretty steep rises. Some of the ridges are very narrow and have drops of several kilometers on either side. It can get pretty scary, especially if there are team going in opposite directions and you have to make room.
Finally, we made it to the top at around 8:30 in the morning (maybe earlier, but I don’t remember the exact time). The view from the top is spectacular, but the sense of accomplishment is even more so. You are standing on the highest point of the Alps. Everyone else is below you!
We enjoyed our moment of glory, but knew that it was time to get back. The journey down can sometimes be even harder than the way up. Since I especially have problems with the knees, the way down was quite painful.
On the way down, many people cover the entire distance that they covered the past two days. So from the top, all the way to the train. That’s what we did. Paradoxically, the hardest part of the way down for me, was the easiest part on the way up.
The last stretch of the way down, the part after the rock fall valley and the melting glacier, was really painful for me, especially the knees, but also due to the fact that I had formed blisters on my toes that were really sore and hurt like hell!
Luckily, I managed to make it down in time to catch the last train. What a journey! It was hard and painful, but now and forever, I will be a man who stood on top of Mt. Blanc.
I had also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro during the summer of 2015. Read about that here:
Crazy Shit To Do: Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro