“And while we’re there, it would be rude not to climb Mont Blanc!”
Sat in the Cosmiques refuge, Oli, Nico and I were wondering what to climb the following day. We had settled on climbing Tour Ronde – a popular peak on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif – although none of us were that excited about the 2.5 hour approach walk across the heavily glaciated Vallee Blanche. I had stumbled on a mixed snow and rock climb up the North West ridge of Mont Maudit, which stands at about 4450m and is just below Mont Blanc. The best thing about it was that the “approach” to the climb involved scaling Mont Blanc du Tacul – a peak of over 4000m in its own right. Nico and I had been forced to turn back 50m below its summit two days before in favour of a sprint, slide and rush back to catch the last lift. So we had unfinished business there.
In one voice, we exclaimed “let’s do that!” And of course we all knew that after attaining the summit of Maudit, all we had to do to reach the roof of Europe was walk – no climbing involved – another 500m higher. We would then continue on to the Goutier hut and therefore complete the traverse of Mont Blanc. Simples! We changed our breakfast time from 5am to 3am and immediately went to bed, we were so excited.
The warm up
Nico, Oli and I had five days in Chamonix. We made the most of glorious weather and spent the first two days at around 4000m. Day one saw us climb Aiguille du Toule on the Italian side with Harry. It’s a short rocky peak and afforded amazing views of the Massif and the Gran Paradiso range to the south (it was very satisfying to see all the ridges between us and Gran Paradiso in the distance and think: “I ran across that! “) We made it back with five minutes to spare for the last lift – narrowly avoiding an unplanned stay at the Torino hut!
Nico and I climbed the Contamines-Grisole route on the Tacul Triangle the next day. As the name suggests, it’s a triangle of rock – about 350m high – ending below the summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul. The route was perfect for us. It was mainly steep snow which we could fly up, but has some “mixed” snow and rock sections which were fun and challenging. My main mistake was not adding to my two thin layers after leading the first mixed pitch. I had a very long wait at the shady belay point as Nico had to retrieve some kit left by a guided party (you still owe us a beer, Jeff!) and then had to climb to me and lead the most challenging pitch of mixed terrain. Meanwhile, I slowly froze.
I followed Nico up the mixed pitch with no feeling in my fingers. I pretty much sprinted up the next snow slope in an effort to get warm, set up a belay, put my down jacket on and gritted my teeth as the blood started to return to my fingers. Poor old Nico had to put up with a string of swearing as I tried to focus on belaying him safely up the pitch. I was in agony and I suddenly realised that I was in no state to recognise the symptoms of a hypo and had no blood in my fingers to even contemplate testing! I stuffed six jelly babies into my mouth, knowing that whatever my blood sugar had been it definitely wasn’t low now.
(Nico was polite enough not to remind me of my earlier pontificating: “whenever I’m in a little bit of discomfort, I just think of Bonatti on a North face in winter in the 50’s with no waterproof clothing. And then I don’t complain.” I did think of that, and I felt sick from cold and pain, and I complained. Afterwards I thought – again – that no matter how brave or fast or capable I think I am, the world is full of people who are tougher and faster.)
The challenges of climbing with diabetes
So back to the cosmiques hut the evening before the climb, and I almost torpedoed our climb before we even started. There was so much to think about with getting our stuff together that I forgot to test my blood or have jelly babies handy as I went to bed. I realised as I lay there and almost couldn’t be bothered to wriggle out of my sleeping bag and get my tester. I did bother though: 3.2!! And it was going down because I still had fast acting insulin in my system. I haven’t had a hypo whilst asleep yet but thank goodness I’d tested, I was destined for the mother of all hypos the night before one of the biggest physical challenges I’ve ever faced!
Breakfast in mountain huts is all about carb loading. Sweet cereal, white bread, honey, jam and nuttela. Considering I won’t take fast acting insulin before aerobic exercise (such as climbing a mountain!) it’s the worst possible food for a diabetic! Luckily I now expect this and carry a sausicon and bag of nuts to eat for breakfasts in huts.
Lunch started as soon as I walked out the door, and continued for the next 12 hours of effort. I didn’t need any fast acting insulin and grazed on jelly babies, cereal bars, fig rolls and bread through the climb. Regular testing plus the huge amount of experience I’ve gained with managing my blood sugar whilst exercising and whilst at altitude meant that I could manage my blood sugar effectively and safely whilst climbing. I had learnt from my Tacul Triangle experience too, and made sure to wear enough layers and, vitally, keep my hands warm enough to allow me to test.
We left the refuge under a starlit sky. It was magical to be walking up amongst the ice with Orion’s Belt above and the lights of Chamonix glittering far below. We made quick progress up the Tacul and were soon at the final mixed pitch to the summit. My head torch hadn’t been working (thank you weather gods for allowing me to see my way by starlight!) so Nico led the way up to the summit. It was longer and more difficult than we expected so despite having put all our clothes on we were cold. The sun rose whilst we were climbing and the view was just stunning! We didn’t hang around on the summit, we were frozen and still had a long day so abseiled off as quickly as we could.
Next stop was Maudit. Crossing the bergshrund (the crevasse which marks the start of the glacier) was challenging and fun. We then made our way up a steep snow slope before another wonderful exposed mixed climb up to the ridge. The views of Mont Blanc’s wild South face were stunning and Nico and I couldn’t help but exclaim “I love climbing!” several times. After the ridge the summit was gained by a simple walk along another short knife edge ridge. It was airy, with a thousand metre drop into Italy, but there were big smiles as we contemplated the views and the summit of Mont Blanc, which seemed very close by now.
We’d done all the difficult stuff and all that remained was a walk up into the thin air of the summit. The weather was perfect: cloud below, blue sky above and almost no wind. Despite this I was surprised at how cold it was. I was again wearing all my clothes as we approached the summit. It was a good lesson: I was comfortable but if conditions has been any less than idyllic I would have frozen. More clothes next time.
Nico and Oli are very strong – both physically and mentally – but they had already mentioned that they were digging deep on the way up. It made me realise that even though all we had ahead of us was a “walk” we were still a long way from civilisation and safety. The way back was also long, so we knew that we had no option but to make it to the summit and onwards to Goutier. Anyway we successfully trudged to the top, feeling a bit like spacemen wrapped up in all our kit, and after hugs, high fives and photos, we continued, following the knife edge snow ridge onwards.
We stopped for a brief snack and drink in the Vallot hut – an emergency bivoac at 4400m. It was covered in litter left by desperate mountaineers and smelt like a cross between a sewage works and a cow barn. I have never seen anything so squalid in the developed world and it was a relief to get moving.
The views continued to be magical, with virgin snow, monstrous crevasses, walls of ice and the green of the valley far far below. I’d never particularly wanted to climb Mont Blanc before – I’m ashamed to say that I had a kind of snobbery about it: too touristy, too busy, “just” a walk etc. But now I’ve done it I have respect for anyone who’s climbed it, no matter what route. And it’s worth going for the ambience: walking besides towering cornices and deep crevasses is other-worldly and we felt a long way from the comforts of home.
After climbing every day, including an enormous day out two days before, Nico was totally exhausted, but luckily not broken. I have never been more impressed at any feat of endurance than by Nico’s ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other as we descended the last few hundred metres to the hut. We arrived twelve hours after we had started, happy and relieved at what we had achieved and all feeling awful! We had done the bare minimum acclimatisation for our climb and it showed. I felt sick, hot, cold and lost my appetite. Luckily dinner sorted us out, and we all fell into a deep sleep, despite being at 3800m.
The descent, via the infamous Grand Couloir
Feeling refreshed after our sleep, we decided that accepting “mechanical assistance” would be unethical(!), so we decided to walk all the way to the valley floor (please don’t ask me why it was perfectly acceptable to take the lift up to 3800m two days before).
To get down from the Goutier, one has to descend the Grand Couloir, and cross it near its lowest point. Rock fall is a constant danger, and we had a dramatic demonstration. As we were twenty metres and about thirty seconds from our crossing, someone dislodged a rock hundreds of metres above us. There ensued a veritable barrage of rocks flying down the couloir, fizzing and smoking as they bounced off the rock. (Youtube video of a similar incident here.) We were safe cowering under a rock to the side of the couloir, but it was like a warzone in there! After things had quietened down we literally sprinted from one side to the other before the enemy could continue its deadly volleys.
A couple of hours later we were sipping coffee outside the church in Les Houches luxuriating in our achievement and reliving every moment of the past 36 hours, which felt like it had lasted a week and been on a different planet!
Is climbing with diabetes really harder than climbing as a “healthy person”?
Whilst writing blog posts like this, it’s tempting to blow my own trumpet and say how amazing I am to climb Mont Blanc with diabetes. The truth is I’m not. It’s barely different from climbing it as a healthy person. Climbing Mont Blanc or running an ultramarathon are challenging things to do and most people don’t do them. Therefor most diabetics don’t do them either! But diabetes isn’t a reason to be put off.
There is a risk that I might forget something about my diabetes management – like not testing before going to sleep. But that’s in my control – I just have to remember. Then there’s cold hands and the challenge of testing whilst climbing. But it’s really not that hard to do the odd finger prick, or to remember to eat jelly babies and fig rolls. There’s loads of stuff to manage whilst climbing: ropes, protecting climbs, glacier travel, body temperature, fatigue, altitude. And for me there is diabetes. It’s just one extra thing on the list, and to be honest I quite enjoy the challenge of keeping my blood glucose in a safe range whilst doing exercise.
My advice? If you fancy climbing Mont Blanc, do it. It’s awesome. If you have diabetes and want to climb Mont Blanc? Do it! Top British climber and diabetic Jerry Gore led a type 1 expedition to Mont Blanc as part of Jerry’s Insulin Challenge (JIC) this year, and a team of young type 1’s stood on the top of Europe.
I love climbing, I love running and I love moving independently in the mountains. As well as doing some more mountain ultra marathons next year, I’d also like to return to Mont Blanc faster and lighter. Having experienced the icy world up there, I think it will be possible to climb directly up from Les Bossons in the valley and back in a day.
I’m not sure when I’m next going to have time to be fit enough, acclimatised enough and to reccy the route, so its one for the future, but I’m definitely going to do it. The other thing is that I’m not sure if any of my friends are fit enough. Phil might be. He had an anaphylactic shock after being stung by a bee at the weekend, and now has to carry an epipen everywhere he goes. We could be some kind of special needs speed climbing team carrying various hormones in pens!
In the meantime, I just plan to get fitter and better at climbing. Life is good, and it’s short. So I’d better stop writing this post and get out for a run!