Friday, 5 July 2013

Mt Blanc ascent and ski descent

There are three reasons for me not to have attempted Mt Blanc.

I could mention a fourth, however she is more protagonist.

On any alternate lifeline, I see myself as a rural GP after having married a gorgeous Aussie girl.

Life would be smaller, but simpler. Easier. I probably would have taken up something like golf. I'd be fatter and possibly more content. I'd have more disposable time. I might watch television.

But you bump into a French girl in the streets of Saigon, and suddenly your entire event horizon shifts north of the equator.

Before you know it, you have three heavenly children.

It is impossible to not be touched by the Alps.

They are the most famous mountains on the planet, made more so by the history of humanity itself: for a history of the Alps is the history of alpinism. This extraordinary mountain range has divided nations, been party to countless conflicts, and fostered evolutionary engineering marvels.

I still remember my 15th birthday spent atop Schilthorn in summer, gazing across at the North Face of the Eiger and wondering at the nerve of anyone who could climb it. How was such a thing possible? I'd been raised on skis in the Aussie hills, but skiing down from that restaurant made famous by secret agent 007 seemed something better left to fearless spies. For me, the cable car was frightening enough.

So though I never thought of marriage because of the Alps, they have abetted and then continued to make mine ever more attractive.

She was only a girlfriend back in those halcyon Viet evenings.

But then her only brother died suddenly, accidentally - and I found myself, after a couple of years in Vietnam having not even mentioned skiing, in Courchevel staring at his skis.

They are still in the chalet today. Two metre ten GS given to him by Salomon as part of a loose racing sponsorship.

I never met him which adds to the tragedy as he would have doubtless become my best friend.

My girlfriend was now an only child, and her parents' grief was almost unbearable.

You come home one afternoon from skiing, and your girlfriend's aunty asks in passable english whether you'd like to phoque with her.

You're intrigued. 

We French love to phoque, she insists.

Soon you find yourself phoquing away like there's no tomorrow up a mountain in the Alps with your girlfriend's aunty.

Phoquing, it seems, is an entirely new way to ski. 

The skis are light, thin and short, but still have metal edges. The bindings are hinged at the toe but can click in at the heals: they seem flimsy.

And phoque is French for seal. Seal skins are stuck to the ski base for uphill traction, then ripped off for the descent.

As we phoque up the mountain, dusk turns to night and the lights of a dozen villages in the valley below is just about the prettiest thing you've ever seen.

My girlfriend's aunty is twenty years my senior, but I can't believe how fit she is.

A new kind of fitness - mountain fitness.

On the descent, her metal edges catch grit creating sparks which light up the snow in orange and blue beneath her skis. And there's a green luminescence in her trails apparently caused by microscopic algae that thrive even in a solid snow pack.

We've just climbed two hours for a five minute descent in the dark, and already you know that you'll be phoquing for the rest of your life.

Skiing en piste will soon become passe, and sharing the mountain with others ever more boring.

You are now an unrepentant phoquer.

Her uncle starts pointing out all of the surrounding peaks.

Although his english is excellent you're soon conversing in effluent french.

The Grande Casse, Grand Bec, Mt Pourri, Bellcote, Mt Jovet, La Breche Portetta...

But rising up above them all, magnificent and unmistakable, is Mt Blanc.

Soon you find yourself climbing one of these massive peaks with your new wife and her aunty and uncle. You have a mountain guide called Pierre who meets you at a tiny refuge that we've reached after climbing a thousand meters from the valley.
Then, having set off in the dark at three in the morning, you soon learn how to wear and use a climbing harness, crampons, a piolet (axe), ropes and knots.

It feels good to have an axe in your hands.

We witness a carving serac, and cross crevasses.

A guides' real job, you come to realise, is your own gambol against death. At several points nothing separates your arse from a two thousand meter free fall, than two iron teeth attached to your boots and a rope connected to people who you're otherwise fond of.

You're scared, and the entire exercise seems really stupid. Hardly a family activity at all.

At the summit, I experience vertigo for the first time ever. It's terrifying. Pierre meanwhile has telephoned his friend in a chalet two thousand meters below to tell him to get his telescope out. Then he is jumping up and down on a rock on the edge of an abyss, waving his arms and shouting as if he's in a school ground sandpit.

You can see the family chalet, and just wish that you were there instead of clinging onto a rock for grim life at nearly four thousand meters. 

On the way up, your new wife has been embarrassingly breathless. You carry her pack on top of your own, and wonder at how altitude has made her so un-co.

In a week's time we will understand that this is what it is to be pregnant.

And two days later she bleeds and spends the next few months in hospital whilst you head back to the antipodes alone.

Didier Givois publishes his 'Les Cles des Trois Vallees', which becomes a bible.

If my wife's brother were alive, I'd possibly be skiing with Didier.

However this will never be my backyard. My backyard is the Victorian Alps. I feel safe in my backyard. I know and understand it through having grown up amongst it. I understand the topography and how the snow falls.

As off piste loops become ever wider, I start phoquing around in Australia.

'Randonee' is the newest french word for it, and soon they're doing it everywhere.

There's an explosion of new equipment.

We have two more babies and over the next few years I climb and or ski all of the great un-lifted peaks in the Vanoise. 

All except one. 

The biggest. 

Visible from just about every peak in the Alps, a constant reminder.

Forty guides graduate from the school in Chamonix every year. Many more don't as it is possibly one of the more gruelling degrees attainable on the planet. Graduates are exceptional human beings in every facet. And of these higher beings ten or more will, on average, die violent deaths every year. 

Who would ever undertake higher studies with a twenty-five percent mortality? 

A good guide might command four hundred euros a day when weather and clients collide. 

Soldier is possibly a better career option. 

One hundred alpinists die on Mt Blanc every year. Many more will climb it, however the introduction of such risk into one's life runs contrary to the rational brain. My life insurance in fact (I am fairly certain) has an exclusion clause specifically for mountain climbing.

When my wife decides she misses her home and folks this year and wants to holiday in the Alps over the Northern summer, I start taking a passing interest in the Courchevel webcams.

This years' Northern winter in the Alps as luck would have it has been harsh and long. Some of the high mountain passes when cleared have snowdrifts twenty meters high.

When we arrive at the end of June it is still snowing up high. 

And even though the Australian ski resorts are firing up for winter, I have packed my skis for France.

The email correspondence from the Courchevel Bureau des Guides has been reserved. 

Don't I know that it's climbing season? Haven't I heard of the Tour de France? 

But Roland, head of the Courchevel Bureau, can see on arrival that I'm fit, keen and serious.

The next day we're phoquing together up to the Dome de Polset. Runners on the Tour des Glaciers Vanoise are surprised to see skiers. 

At three thousand meters we put on our crampons and start climbing cliffs, then the Glacier Gebroulez to top out at 3530m. We are the only ones up there and the descent down fifteen hundred meters of glorious fresh corned snow is magical.


It is high summer in France and I've just had one of the best ski tours of my life - however the entire descent has been under the commanding shadow of Mt Blanc.

And I can't help thinking: how about it? 

Mt Blanc has been on my mind now for several years. 

Loose arrangements with French friends have, one by one, fallen by the wayside (usually to my relief). 

And only ever to climb; never to ski. 

I don't have any friends who can do that sort of thing at short notice.

The new Refuge Gouter has just opened for business the week of our summer holiday arrival. 

The highest refuge in the Alps, it is another engineering wonder. 

I would go for the architecture alone. 

But then I read about 'the bowling alley' or 'shooting gallery' that is the rock and ice fall of the Gouter Corridor en route. 

I read about the head torches of entire groups being extinguished suddenly in the night by a serac the size of the Opera House. 

The Chamonix website does its best to dissuade amateurs like myself.

And then there's the legacy of my wife's brother. 

Would he climb it with me were he still with us, with children of his own? 

Would he ski it?

What would he think of me skiing it as a father of three? As the husband of his sister? 

What if I die?

Could I possibly bare parting with my children forever? 

What could possibly be worth that? 

The answer is surely, nothing.

I receive a text from Roland. 

There's a weather window later in the week: conditions are looking very favourable...

And so you text back:


An effective (and perhaps an only possible) way of silencing your wife and mother-in-law, emotions in the chalet become decidedly awkward. 

My five year old daughter is inexplicably sad for the following few days.  

On the drive to Chamonix the radio announces the deaths of three gendarmes after having plummeted from the Aiguille du Midi. A rope had failed. They'd been training for a higher degree in alpine search and rescue techniques, all of them obviously fitter and more experienced than me. 

The oldest was my age. Two of them were fathers.

The mountains have no prejudices.

When I am discussing the issues of risk with a patient before any anaesthetic, I am legally and morally bound to mention the small common problems such as nausea, and the less common risks such as dental damage, which might affect my career. (People are generally fussy about their teeth - both of my parents-in-law are dentists - which perhaps introduces some insight into the depths of my own sadomasochism...)

However I seldom discuss the odds of death. Some of my colleagues do; I find it introduces unwarranted and undesirable anxiety. In the end statistics are only numbers. And if your number is up under my anaesthetic, at least you will have no memory of your passing.   

The terror then is of those final few, probably painful moments.

The terror of knowing.

We are met by Roland's daughter at the Aiguille du Midi tramway. I immediately grasp that mountain people have a heightened rationalisation of risk. Chloe, an ex-Olympian, has only ever known a lifetime of accepting that every time her father Roland ventures off to work he may fail to return to the dinner table ever again.  


Roland and I are the only people in the aerial tram carrying skis. 

Chinese tourists take photos of us.

As we alight at the Plan de l'Aiguille 2300m, there are a couple of helicopters buzzing around under the massif of the Aiguille du Midi. They are searching for the third and final body of the gendarmes. 

With crevasses up to a hundred meters deep, Mt Blanc is perhaps the largest cemetery on the planet.

And then we are off, and I have no choice in the matter.

Once, on a summer ascent of La Grande Casse, my guide (Pierre, the scoundrel) realised that he'd left his crampons back at the refuge five hundred meters below. With the astonishing fitness of only a guide, he'd scampered back down the tumbling moraine in the black of night to retrieve them. Merde, Putain! Stay here and don't move, he'd sworn. For an hour I had scarcely dared to even fart, before his bobbing head torch reappeared. High up above I'd watched chamois dance improbably down cliffs by the encroaching first light and realised that I didn't belong here.

I don't want to climb, I'd declared honestly as he sweated his crampons on.

You make me run all the way back down to the refuge for nothing? He was laughing: you funny Aussie fucker! Allons y!

Three hours later we summited for another dose of vertigo.

Walk, climb, skins on - skins off, crampons on - crampons off. I am exercising now, so am comfortable again. It's the adrenaline, you see. I confess, I am a drug addict. Basically I'm addicted to endorphins, and the stuff my body makes must be like crack.

Then a glacier, which means a rope: which means crevasses and the potential sudden interruption of all one's anatomical and physiological constructions.

I am happy to be following the traces of others, although am aware that such can always lead to the discovery of a corpse. And as the summer sun emerges and begins to warm the ice, the sounds of carving seracs and collapsing snow-bridges starts to instil an old familiar uncertainty. 

I become aware of the fluid dynamics of a mountain covered in water in varying states of flux. 

Of the weight of it all...  

Your place in the immensity of such an environment, is of course insignificant. This is the oldest of cliches, but as a stone whips past your ear and thuds into the snowpack, I imagine steam emanating from the small hole it has left.

I put on my helmet; sage advice from my dearest who nearly had conniptions on my protests at the ridiculousness of a piece of plastic in the broader context.

Like a good medical professional perhaps, Roland has already instilled confidence. If he is frightened or anxious himself, I'm unlikely to know this. He leaves me to my own devices: if he's having to tell me what to do now then I shouldn't be here.
Even whilst traversing a giant's jungle-gym of seracs and icefall, he remains calm. 

I follow his words as if he were a God...

The merciful one, as opposed to those of wrath towering for three kilometres above.

On the High Route ski traverse between Chamonix and Zermatt last year, we'd ended up with Luc Berthelot, a guide old enough to be our father. Still fitter than our collective, it was a lesson to well align oneself with a proven survivor and family man.

MRI evidence on the developing adult male brain would suggest prudence in choosing any (male) guide less than 30.

We are hard-wired for risk.

Later at Les Grands Mulets Refuge, Roland will confirm that of all his qualities as a guide, judgement comes foremost - that borne of humble experience: of self, mountain, environment (particularly meteorology), and client. 

Les Grands Mulets Refuge has an anchored chain a hundred meters long like a giant toilet flush. Once scaled, the outhouse itself consists of a concrete platform with a hole. Any turd failing to vaporise will surely hit terminal velocity before impacting the glacier below to digest over a thousand years - or perhaps a little faster with climate change.

With a frenetic draft emanating up through the hole, I find toilet paper a problem. Every sheet of soiled tissue floats around the cubicle like at some unusual wedding. Then I realise that the crumpled morcels  of paper that I have been extracting from a plastic bag to wipe my derrier, are in fact pre-loved.

Beginners mistake.    

Of course, I am already well aware that personal hygiene has no place in the mountains. I haven't packed my toothbrush. In Australia, we are even expected to carry poo-tubes, a concept best left to the imagination.

Expensive equipment (another useless gambol against death) is better off burnt after the High Route; and certain parts of the body, particularly the toes, should be permanently cauterised. 

Christophe Profit arrives at the refuge shortly after us and I find myself averting his gaze to avoid embarrassing myself with any inappropriate hero worship. As it is, I don't have time before he is off again, cutting a thousand meter vertical skinning trace through melted afternoon corn for the rest of us whom he knows will otherwise struggle when it turns to ice overnight.

He is back in time for dinner to joke about how age, Sherpas, climate change or Killian have it all over him.  

Everybody is talking about Killian Jornet. 

How a generation of young bucks are now trying to emulate the effervescent Spaniard and run up and over Mt Blanc in their shorts and sand-shoes; with varying degrees of success, and mortality. 

It seems that a jaunt up Mt Blanc is no longer worth the effort unless you're setting some kind of new record.

For us mere mortals, it is all in-comprehensively relative of course. 

Summit and be back in Chamonix in time for Mass (interestingly, the town church still remains a reference point for records), or a cafe creme at La Terrasse? 

Whatever... Mt Blanc has become a game, which perhaps runs contrary to the codes of alpinism.

Killian's conclusion after having lost a dear friend my age (and a father), is that for those of us who need to be in the mountains, the pursuit of happiness is paramount.

I wonder whether he will hold the same conclusions if he chooses to have children.

What of their happiness?

Perhaps the best choice then lies in whether or not to breed.

Seldom such a choice! 

Back at Les Grands Mulets, I am expecting general mirth when the guardian announces a one-thirty a.m. breakfast. But nobody laughs, and I become a little glum upon realising that there is a task ahead, and that I shouldn't really be staying up to watch the glorious sunset if I want any more than a four hour sleep.

The 'alpine start' has now breeched a new dimension that virtually defies the point of 'refuge'.

Of course no amateur ever truly sleeps in a refuge at altitude.

Some, like my friend Hans, go into a pattern of breathing known as Cheyne-Stoke respiration, which is quite alarming if you're sleeping next to him.

There is always a snorer.

I take a dose of anti-inflammatories, codeine and benzodiazepines that some of my colleagues would find ill-advisable, yet still I toss and turn.

My special gift in this life (after a particular ability to choose the longest queues wherever) is that in every refuge, I can always pick the bunk that will be beside the snorer. 

And he tonight seems to have mastered, or is in the process of discovery, of more than a dozen new and exceptional ways to snore. 

As I finally drift into REM, I dream of gaping crevasses, crushing avalanches and, worst of all, being woken in the pitch black and freezing cold because of a decision that I now regret.

The lights of Chamonix below are erie.

I am glad there are other cordees setting off in front of us, but then they head off on a different tangent and Roland and I are all alone. 

A kilometre above us we see the tiny specks of head torches emerging from the Cosmiques Refuge. 

Tiny lights like fireflies converging from all directions with one common goal.

Then we are exercising again.

I am not worried about the physical, and wouldn't have contemplated this goal if I was. With Mt Blanc at the back of my mind, the past few months have involved lots of running at altitude whenever possible. A granted fitness will allow me to concentrate on the mental and technical, both of which I also presume proficiency.

But you can never know what you're up against.  

And so I become slightly alarmed when my skins start slipping, phoquing up on Christophe Profit's beautifully cut track. In fact these are poor skins cut badly from a pair of leftovers of Roland. My own for these particular skis were left in Australia.

Phoque it!

The ice has no frost, and I keep slipping backwards. We are not roped up at this stage, and any slip from which I cannot self-arrest will result in me having to be scraped off the N205 or railway below.

I don't panic, but know that I am burning far too much energy for the start of a six hour climb.

Roland suggests we carry our skis, rope up and put on crampons. In the transition he almost loses his spectacles. Maintaining all one's gear in the changeover on ice by head torch at forty-five degrees and three and a half thousand meters is challenging.

I knew it would be challenging. 

I only ever presumed this. 

And that every challenge would be met by method. 

Small steps. 

A double or even triple marathon where every step has to not only be considered, but perfect.

And so in this manner do we slowly make our way up the mountain.

Roland suddenly breaks through into a crevasse up to his waist and the rope tightens.

A yank on my harness like a giant salmon.

We put our skis back on and switch back to phoquing.

I am heartened by first light which starts to illuminate an alien planet of towering seracs and gaping crevasses, some with flimsy snow bridges which we cross gingerly once Roland has secured our lifeline.

Peaking over the edge because of a better curiosity, I am amazed by how dark, aquatic and lonely it appears in each abyss. 

Like giant wounds. 

I stop checking my altimeter over the hours because it seems to be moving so depressingly slowly despite our efforts. 

Four thousand, eight hundred and ten meters is still a kilometre of up...

Then the sun suddenly rises over Switzerland and nothing really matters for ten minutes of utter beauty.

A mountain apparently not so far above us is lit up candy pink. 

Voila, Mt Blanc, says Roland.

Catching the first photons for Europe on a new day as it has for always.

A tired and slow moving stream of climbers from Refuge Gouter now intersects us. 

From the Dome Gouter it stretches like an ant trail up the arete, and I am dismayed by just how many there are, and by how small those most distant.

At the Vallot Refuge we put crampons back on and join the slow religious congo line to the summit.

Of the multitudes, we are the only ones carrying skis.

"Good ski!" descending well-wishers greet us as we crunch up past them; in french, english, german, italian, and half a dozen other language.

"Ski" is one of the few universal words. 

I am amazed by how long it takes. 

The arete never looked that long when viewed from Courchevel.

Perspective, I guess.

We pass several people who are clearly struggling, and one remonstrating with his guide.

There must be the odd myocardial infarct on this arete...

And then we are suddenly there.

The dome flattens off and in fact, it all seems rather tame - more like the summit of Hotham or Kosciuszko than the dramatic peak you'd always imagined.

But, oh my, the view....

I stifle the lump in my throat and give Roland a big hug.

I am thinking of my children, and of my wife.

I am thinking of my wife's brother.

He is almost here with me, Pierre-Edouard, and he is young vital and happy to be facing the ski of his life.

It is the fifth of July in the year 2013, and the sun is rising over the great cities of Europe as we drink, eat, take the skins off our skis, pack and piss.

I can see every famous mountain in the Alps.

Every country in Western Europe, every vast and mighty valley mapping boarders and wine regions.

For several minutes, I am the highest person on the continent.

(I am taller than Roland.)

At four thousand, eight hundred and ten meters, it is still winter. 

The wind is furious and frostbite imminent. 

It is time to go.

As I push off, I am incredulous at what I am about to do. 

It almost seems wrong.

The mountaineers seem envious, although perhaps they think us insane.

But they know that we'll be off this mountain before they're even down the arete.

The top hundred metres is ice, and my tired legs are screaming to hold an edge. Then the snow softens, and I am suddenly linking turns in wind packed powder on the North Face of Mt Blanc.

Roland stops besides a serac the size of a small town and smiles. 

As I pull up beside him, I am surprised by how breathless I am - as if working with gravity has been more labour intensive than working against it. 

Someone has suddenly sucked the oxygen from the air.  

The partial pressure of oxygen here is half that at sea level. 

My brain doesn't intrinsically know this: it merely makes the necessary adjustments to maintain supply.

At a cellular level, things are desperate. 

Certain organs have never been so subjected.

But as my breathing eases, I feel fine: no headache or any other harbingers of acute mountain sickness, the cure for which anyway is descent. 

You must love this piste I tell Roland.

He replies that in thirty years as a mountain guide, this is the very first time that he has ever skied it.

Normally it is a sheer block of glacial ice.

He is making it up as we descend.

We traverse an obvious crevasse as wide as a car park, and then drop down a narrow steep chute that is effectively the crown of an enormous tilted serac.

We presently find ourselves under the wondrous battlements of a glacier being borne. Such things are still possible at high altitude, however there is already a tremendous sorrow even up here with the knowledge that an almighty glacial epochal endgame is upon us. 

Such beauty witnessed by so few.

Maybe if they could all see this, they would want to save it.

Unfortunately, climate change is not a belief system.

And as the climate changes, a guide's job will only become more difficult... perhaps they are a species in retreat like the glaciers they still command.

I am a father. My children's guide. 

Perhaps my job will become more difficult also as the planet heats.

We stop: eat, drink - and then continue on into spring, linking twenty, fifty, maybe a hundred turns in hero sun-warmed corned snow.

I am now feeling a part of the mountains. Already I understand that this time the mountains have been merciful, or that my confidence overrides anything that the alpine can be bothered throwing against us.

Or so I want to believe. 

I wonder if confidence is a tremendous power unto itself, or delusion. 

Perhaps Roland is the finest guide this side of the Dagobah System - or perhaps my wife's brother with whom I have conversed on the summit, is looking out for me. 

I start to wonder whether it's all as random as I've always believed... 

I have trained, I have come prepared, and have struck a perfect day.

But who are we really, we who venture into hostile environments? 

Are we madmen? 

Is courage destructive? 

In this age when most things are possible, are we too cavalier with our destinies? 

Do we venture to protest significance, or gain more from a needy insignificance?

I am indulgent and have embellished. 

Roland will drive home, have a nap, eat dinner, go to bed and then do it all again, like he has for the last thirty years, on another peak with different clients who will at least speak better french.

I will go home and write a frigging memoir. 


It is a long way back to the Aiguille du Midi cable car, and Roland remains hyper-vigilant: he makes me attach crampons when I can't be bothered, and rope up even when I insist not.

The entire way, I cannot stop thinking about how much I love my wife, and how I need so desperately to talk to her.

But not until I am one hundred percent safe... a fighter jet once downed a cable car in Italy, killing everyone.

At the cafe at Plan de l'Aiguille, Roland and I shake hands. Summer has finally arrived in France, and after having traversed moraine for a kilometre, we stink.

Chinese and French heading off on leisurely alpine strolls take photos of us before moving away with disturbed faces. 

We get a corner to ourselves in the cable car. 

I once read that meaning, as in life, may well extoll an acceptance of paradox - or at least ambiguity.

Exempting the three reasons I should never have done it in the first place, this day has been one of the highlights of my life.

I will never do it again.

Back in Courchevel, my children run to me and leap into my arms.

For them, I am suddenly (still) a hero!

But only for having returned.


  1. Brilliant Boodwah, brilliant. Or should that be c'est magnufique! Chris. aka VSG.

  2. A super read, well done, it must have been so exciting to achieve such a goal. As your children get older and independent the time comes when your are again released and can more freely enjoy extreme activities, however, the urge may dwindle and the body weaken! so good to have ticked this one off the bucket list :-) Chris (James Morris's cousins husband!)