Of Ice and Men

The tallest peak in western Europe, Mont Blanc has centuries of mountaineering heritage and a storied corps of guides. Joseph Hooper makes his first ascent.

I’m more optimistic now that i see you," my French guide, Fabien Meyer, tells me when we first meet. We’re in the lobby of the Hameau Albert Premier hotel, Chamonix’s finest, and I hadn’t given Meyer much information in advance beyond the basics, such as my age. "At fifty you can have a big stomach," he says, "and I thought, ’To climb Mont Blanc, this will be hard, very hard.’ But you look fit."

Meyer is a compact, wiry 36-year-old, and his own fitness is hardly at issue. He’s just come down from guiding a client to the summit, and he still looks crisp and freshly pressed in his snappy Rossignol climbing outfit. After the red-eye to Geneva and an hour-long van ride to Chamonix, that’s more than I can say for myself. No matter. Meyer informs me that we’ll start up the mountain tomorrow, with no preliminary climbs for training and acclimatization. That’s not the standard procedure when you’ve contracted a guide for a full five days, but the weather is closing in and this is our only shot.

At 15,780 feet Mont Blanc is the highest peak in western Europe, and it was the world’s first great summit to fall, in 1786. The steeper Matterhorn, nearly 40 miles away, held out until 1865, but those two mountains have drawn both serious Alpinists and attention-seeking "peak baggers" ever since. The view from my room at the Hameau Albert is dominated by the skyline of the Mont Blanc massif, which is serrated by a ring of Gothic rock spires called the Aiguilles (or Needles), "rising in bare bristling granite from their skirts of glaciers," as the author James Ramsey Ullman put it. For the armchair mountaineer, this is sacred geography.

One of the best-known climbing books, Starlight and Storm, was written by Gaston Rébuffat, a member of the storied Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, which once controlled and still dominates the business of taking clients up Mont Blanc. Of the guide, Rébuffat wrote matter-of-factly, "Sometimes, it is true, he is killed by lightning, stone-fall, or avalanche. That too is part of the job; but so long as he lives he strives to lead his rope safely."

The Compagnie dates back to 1821, when local families in the valley realized they could make a living shepherding visitors to the mountaintop. The walls of the hotels in Chamonix are covered with prints from the old days, the guides in their capes, pointed hats, and alpenstocks, looking like characters out of Jules Verne. For more than a century, only young men born in the valley could apply for admission to the Compagnie, and the same family names—Charlet, Payot, Devouassoux—appear and reappear in its rolls. By the early 20th century, however, the gates opened to allow guides from elsewhere in France, and today it’s a freelancer’s world. I could, for instance, contract the services of U.S. superclimber Vince Anderson, who in 2005 shared with his climbing partner France’s highest Alpine honor, the Piolet d’Or, for their new variation up the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, the deadly 26,700-foot Himalayan giant.

Zoe Hart, another American in Chamonix, explained the different approaches taken by guides, which largely conform to international stereotypes. "The Frenchies have the stinky armpits and are smokers who drag up the mountains," she said. " ’Allez! Allez!’ They’re the locomotives. The Americans coddle their clients, and the Brits throw up because they’re hungover. They’re good at suffering, tough but not athletic."

For me there was no question. I wanted a latter-day Rébuffat. Call it snobbery, but if I summited Mont Blanc I’d rather get a clap on the back and a "Bien fait" than an "Awesome, dude!" There were practical considerations as well. Nobody knew the routes as well as the local Compagnie guides, and most of them had cars, so if the notoriously fickle weather didn’t cooperate, we could drive across the border to Italy for some lower-altitude rock climbing. With this in mind, Hart put me in touch with Fabien Meyer. "He’s special," another guide told me over the phone. "But I have to tell you in advance, he’s very intense."

The day before I left New York, I checked Weather.com and received such a miserable forecast that I sent Meyer a Gallic "That’s life" shrug of an e-mail. He immediately replied with a text message from 12,470 feet up the Aiguille de Goûter saying he thought we could sneak through an approaching window of clear weather. Now, in person, he tells me, "You won’t have a lot of preparation, but we take the chance."

Storms aren’t the only thing to worry about. Unless a climber is properly acclimatized, the altitude can be weakening, even disabling. A few hours after Meyer sent me that reassuring text message, he ran into a prostrate climber on the summit, half her body paralyzed from the most lethal form of altitude sickness, cerebral edema. He radioed in the rescue helicopter, which had her in a Chamonix hospital in less than ten minutes. Precisely because Mont Blanc’s most popular routes are only moderately steep and require no special technical expertise, many underestimate its less obvious perils. The length of the summit day, about 15 hours, demands considerable cardiovascular fitness. And the skittish weather has seduced even experienced guides to press on in iffy conditions only to perish in an icy whiteout. Chamonix’s dirty little secret: About 35 people die on the slopes of Mont Blanc each year, more than any other mountain in the world, Everest included.

The next afternoon we set out, catching the cable car at Les Houches, a resort village just south of town, which lifts us up to the high Alpine meadow of Bellevue. Next we catch, of all things, a train, a narrow-gauge Toonerville Trolley that takes us to Nid d’Aigle (Eagle’s Nest), a windy, treeless, rock-strewn plateau at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. From here the mountain looms very white and very large above us. With anticipation, and in my case a heavy fatalism that settles in the pit of my stomach, we begin the three-hour hike up a well-tended trail of switchbacks.

I’m relieved. The hiking is easy, even in my heavy plastic boots, and soon enough, as the early-evening mists and vapors enshroud the mountain, we arrive at the Tête Rousse hut, where we’ll spend the night. The Tête Rousse is a two-story dormitory perched on the edge of a large snow bowl that separates the leisurely approach from the snowy slopes above. It sleeps about 80 climbers in bunk beds and is a fitting place to rest before we face what Meyer calls a "not very nice gully"—the Grand Couloir, a natural chute down which rocks and sometimes massive boulders, thawed free of the mountain face, have a disturbing tendency to tumble. After a close call running the gauntlet at the Grand Couloir two years ago, Meyer declared a personal halt to climbing these classic snow and rock routes during the July-August season, instead limiting himself to the cooler months of June and September. Defensive climbing in the age of global warming.

That night I can’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, my heart pounding from nerves and the altitude. At 4:30 a.m. Meyer, two inches away on the next mattress, gives me a nudge. We switch on our miniature headlamps and start wrestling with our gear. The crampons go on last as we clomp out of the hut in darkness to begin the climb.

I’m not a total idiot. I’d taken a glacier-skills course in Washington State’s Cascade Range in July, so I know that the idea with crampons is to keep the ankles laterally flexed so your boots stay parallel to the angled slope, all ten vertical crampon points firmly lodged in the ice for maximum purchase. In the rock climbing I’m more familiar with, your rope is usually attached to some sort of fixed safety anchor; here, the rope connects guide and client only. Though your ice ax serves as a sort of emergency brake, a slip is just unacceptably dangerous. Sadly, my crampon technique proves primitive by the standards of the French, who, after all, invented it. "But it’s not your fault!" exclaims Meyer with as much good humor as anyone can muster at this hour. "You did not have a chance to train with me." At 5 a.m. Meyer clips his carabiner onto the Perlon rope that stretches across the 200-foot-wide couloir and, with me close behind, scampers across without incident or rock fusillade. For the next two hours we haul ourselves up a rock pillar called the Arête du Goûter. It’s more scrambling than climbing, and the steady upward progress is immensely pleasurable. The lights come on in Chamonix 11,000 feet below, a scene I’ve read about in countless Alpine memoirs.

We arrive at the Goûter hut at about 9 a.m., decision time. If the weather is encouraging and I am not debilitated by the altitude or simple exhaustion, we will take an hour break before heading for the summit. Everything checks out. In case I don’t realize how lucky I am (a good acclimatizer, who knew?), I look over at the pretty, young French woman at the next table who has been left behind by her group to cope with altitude sickness. "I feel like a dog," she says, and a moment later vomits up her breakfast.

The three-hour traverse across undulating snowfields to get to the crux of the climb is often written off as a long, boring slog. Most people on our voie normale, the most well-traveled route, never see it in the morning light, instead spending the night at the Goûter and pushing off for the summit before dawn to make it back to Chamonix that day. But I’m transfixed by the piercing cobalt sky and the view of the Aiguilles to the west. Even the rocks seem translucent. Then it’s time to put the hiking poles back in the pack and take out the ice axes to deal with terrain that is steepening to 45 degrees. I try to emulate Meyer’s crampon work as we make our way up and around huge but stable ice walls, or seracs, something like climbing through solid geometry diagrams.

Mercifully I don’t have the telltale high-altitude headache or nausea, but without any rest breaks—that’s not the French way— I am approaching my aerobic limit and my lungs are starting to hurt. Then we’re at the ridge, a six-foot-wide path of flattened snow that divides the fatal drop-offs down the mountain’s northern and southern faces. Under normal circumstances this would grab my attention, but by now I’m only locked into the steady rhythm of Meyer’s footfalls. At least we’re still moving steadily. I note other parties, ghostlike in the clouds that have rolled in. More than a few people are in distress, dazed and doubled over, but it’s neither my concern nor Meyer’s; he knows that if he stops to inquire he risks inheriting a new client.

The ridge goes slightly downhill, imperceptibly to me, and my guide gives me the welcome news that we’ve made it to the top. I’m pleased and proud, but right now it’s time to get out of here before hypothermia sets in. My thigh muscles are shot, but as we lose altitude my brain clears and I can take in the sheer scale of the mountain flanks that we, antlike, are traversing.

After a night back at the Goûter hut, we leave before sunrise to discover that Mont Blanc still has a few tricks. The rock pinnacle is iced over with a fine dusting of what looks like powdered sugar. Not so fun going down, and Meyer wisely keeps me on a tighter leash. The Grand Couloir seems safe—the dawn chill should have glued those rocks in place—except that after we’ve passed, we hear an unfortunate crashing noise. Rocks the sizes of tables come careering down the chute, as a French army team prepares to cross on its way up the mountain. "If it’s your day to die, so be it," yells the commander to his quailing troops. I ask Meyer what would have happened if the rocks had fallen a moment earlier. "We would have run," he replies.

I think back to that first night at Tête Rousse. Meyer found himself in a dinnertime debate with a neophyte climber, a British entrepreneur who that evening had descended from the summit in darkness, half lost, and, as he said, physically and emotionally "shattered." "I think people who aren’t real mountaineers and try to climb Mont Blanc have a void in their lives," the Brit announced to the table. This was wild talk, but I had to wonder, Was he onto something? Two weeks shy of 50, was I trying to climb my way out of some minor midlife crisis?

"Don’t you think everybody has voids in their life?" Meyer shot back. "And that going to the top isn’t the worst way to fill it? As a human being, the most powerful thing is to say ’I’m going to do this’ and to do it." On my French Alps expedition I realized I’d overshot the mark. I was looking for a climbing guide and wound up with a philosopher.

Local Heroes: the Best Guides in Chamonix

Guides are not technically required on Mont Blanc, but even an experienced climber would be foolish to try go- ing up for the first time without one. The ascent typically takes two to four days, depending on weather and one’s fitness level, and the maximum client-to-guide ratio is two-to-one. Look for a certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA), which requires training in ice and rock climbing, avalanche rescues, and first aid, among other subjects, and typically takes more than five years to attain.

All 150-plus members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix carry the IFMGA designation, making it a good place to start (from $1,700 per person, including fees, hut accommodations, and a mandatory technical lesson; chamonix-guides.com). Compagnie guides have led clients to the summit of Mont Blanc since 1821.

Another well-respected option is Basecamp (from $1,235; basecamp.co.uk), founded by British mountaineering veteran and author Victor Saunders. Fluent in French, Saunders offers not only mountaineering expeditions but also heli-skiing trips and steep-skiing seminars on the glaciers of Mont Blanc.

Brit Rick Marchant and Isabelle Santoire, a Québécois, are a married couple who work as guides in Chamonix (from $1,700; alpineknowledge.com/about.php). Santoire, one of just 13 IFMGA-certified women in France, started taking clients up Mont Blanc five years ago and climbed it three times while pregnant.

—Elettra Fiumi