What's the best way to climb Mont Blanc? At the double

Independent on Sunday (Sportsactive), Sunday August 11, 2002

Crevasse jumping wasn't in the brochure. Nor were the 100 kph winds and ever-deteriorating visibility. But brochures always lie.

'What do I do with my ice axe?' The leader of the expedition, Mark Smyth, shouted back: at me: 'Don't worry about it, just jump'. There was nothing for it. Jump I did, across a five foot wide, unfeasibly deep crevasse, with the knowledge that a tumble on the other, lower side would result in an express-ride to the perilous Bossons glacier. Miraculously, I made it. So did everyone else. Sod this for a game of soldiers.

That, however, was what it was. I was the 13th and civilian man on 'Exercise White Wolf Diamond', a military expedition to climb Mont Blanc involving soldiers from the 7th and 24th Transport Regiments of the Royal Logistic Corps. As Major Bridget Smyth, expedition organiser, put it: 'The aim of the expedition was to put the soldiers into a challenging environment in order to develop the qualities of courage, team spirit, self-confidence and resourcefulness. Adventure training often places a soldier in a situation where the perceived danger is greater than the actual danger, and this helps them to develop the qualities which they will need to cope with the physical and mental stresses of active service.'

I'd met Bridget and her husband Mark – also a Major – a year previously on a climb in Russia. They were impressive climbers, who clearly knew what they were doing. Among other things I'd remembered about Elbrus, one thing stuck in my mind: Mark and Bridget would be climbing Mt Blanc sometime in late June 2002...

I'd had a rough time on Mt Blanc in the past, failing to reach the summit because of altitude sickness. If I could hook up with Mark and Bridget, here was a chance to try again, in the company of serious mountaineers. Mark and Bridget climb regularly, and Mark is chairman of the Army Mountaineering Council for Germany. If I climbed with them, surely I'd be OK?

But when I rocked up in Chamonix, having a pretty good idea they'd be in the area, there was a hitch. They were leading a full military expedition, and I couldn't join it. I could 'tag along.' As Mark said: 'Put it this way, if I find you half way up the mountain, I'm not going to let you fall off.'

This was good enough for me, though one thing nagged at the back of my mind – how fit are this army lot? If I asked I knew it would be met with a wry laugh. They would be very fit, and I'd better be able to keep up. But could I, as 36 year old, averagely fit civvie?

I didn't feel too optimistic when I learnt of the route. This was the 'Grand Traverse', with descent via the Grand Mulets route. The traverse takes in two other mountains – Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit – and is often done in a day following a 1.00 a.m. start from the Cosmiques hut, near the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique station. It was chosen precisely for its difficulty, magnified by the fact that the soldiers would be carrying full rucksacks with food for three days, tents, fuel, cookers and kit. As Mark put it: 'Climbing Mont Blanc, via the Grand Traverse, is not technically difficult but is never to be underestimated. The weather can change in a matter of minutes and freezing temperatures and 80 mph winds are common. At over 15,500 feet, these extreme conditions and lack of oxygen test the endurance limit of all but the hardiest of mountaineers.'

To add to my apprehension, it was the Traverse route that had done for me last time around. But there I was, in late June, tagging along with the army in Chamonix. They seemed a decent bunch and didn't look too fit...

But gym-conditioned biceps are no guide to real fitness. I soon learnt this as on the first day's acclimatisation walk - from Chamonix to Le Brévent (2525m), a height gain of some 1500m – the army 12 left the civilian one for dead. I fared better on the next day's walk, from the village of Le Tour to the Refuge Albert (2706m), but by the end of a day's ice axe and crampon training on the Mer de Glace, a glacier near Chamonix, I was fit for nothing but sleep by 8.00 p.m. Meanwhile, the army 12 drank on into the night.

Come the climb itself, we camped on the Col du Midi (3542m) beneath Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m), having hiked down the hideously exposed ridge from the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique. Snow pits were dug for the tents. Everyone was coping fine with the altitude and the clear skies and warm afternoon sunlight made Mont Blanc, at 4807m Western Europe's highest mountain, seem benign.

Around 3.00 a.m next morning we packed up and began the long slog up Tacul. From the shoulder of Tacul we had a perfect view of the route across the Col du Mont Maudit and up Maudit ('The Accursed Mountain', 4465m) itself. It was on the Col that I'd turned back two years ago with acute altitude sickness.

This time, the climb of Maudit went well save for the near-vertical ice wall which stood before our next bivouac stop, the Col de la Brenva. My calf muscles screamed with pain as we dug the front spikes of our crampons into the ice and laboured up the wall. My lungs were rasping in the dry air and I was scarcely able to stand by the time we came to camp. By this stage, though, everyone was suffering.

Digging snow pits for the tents was a real struggle. Teams of two or three soldiers and officers dug holes, got their tents up and got warm. On my own, I was the first to start digging and the last to finish. Once my tent was secure I fell into it and had to force myself out half an hour later to melt snow. No one said much, too exhausted to waste energy on speech. Mark and Bridget looked serene.

After another early start in temperatures of about -20 we made it to the summit. The wind was now roaring with gusts up of to 100 kph and I barely registered the peaks of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa before heading down. It was just too cold to linger. The wind grew in ferocity and storm clouds gathered to the west.

The descent made everything else seem easy. The 'corridor' from the Col de la Brenva falls steeply away before joining the Glacier des Bossons. After our Vertical Limit antics we staggered down to just above the Bossons glacier - all that lay between us and safety. The ice on the glacier would be unstable but there was a chance we would make it. A serac (a lump of ice the size of a house) crashed to pieces right on our prospective path, its boom like thunder. The decision was made. We trudged back up the mountain and spent a night at the Grands Mulets refuge.

Next morning we headed off to cross the glacier. It only takes a moment in the mountains to make a mistake, and they usually happen when you're tired. Sure enough, as I forced my legs to go down the agonisingly steep slope, I slipped. Though I managed an ice axe arrest, I committed the cardinal sin of failing to secure my feet before I stood up. I slid further down, ice axe stuck in the snow above me, into Tai, the next man on the rope. Fortunately neither of us slid any further. 'Sorry about that', I said. 'Fine', said Tai. On we went.

On the glacier the ice had already started heaving and cracking despite our early start. I found some extra energy to move quickly when I felt the ice beneath me shudder. Eventually, thanks to superb route-finding by Mark and despite many slips and stumbles, we made it over the moraine and to the cable car down.

We had done it. We had climbed Mont Blanc the hard way. 'That is the hardest thing I've ever done,' said Tai, a PT instructor. Bridget said the glacier crossing was the scariest she'd ever experienced. Everyone looked washed out and no one seemed keen to take up mountaineering. For Mark, though, this was bread and butter. 'The aim of the expedition was achieved,' he said, looking as if he could nip back up any moment, 'now they know what it's like to be on a mountain.'

And now I know what it's like to stand at the top of Mont Blanc. Bloody cold and not a place to hang around. As for a mid-life career change, I have a feeling the army 12 are fine without me. I'm too old anyway. But if any of them ever want some help on civvie street, they can give me a shout any time. One thing's for sure, life's a bit easier down here.

Alex Wade tagged along with members of the 7th and 24th Transport Regiments of the Royal Logistic Corps. 'Exercise White Wolf Diamond' was organised by Major Bridget Smyth. The expedition was co-led by Major Mark Smyth (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and Staff Sergeant Steffi Wright (Royal Engineers), both army-qualified mountaineers. Major Andy Hall organised equipment. They were accompanied by Ben, a 2nd Lieutenant, two female soldiers, LJ and Chantalle, and Tai, Wilkie, Bobby, Scouse and Little Andy. All could see active service at any time and at one stage looked likely to go to Afghanistan. For non-experts, Mont Blanc should realistically only be attempted between late May and early October by fit, acclimatised individuals who have prior experience of mountains. A guide can be hired in Chamonix and the climb undertaken via the less demanding Gouter route