Out of Office AutoReply...Iím climbing Mont Blanc

The Sunday Times, December 24, 2006

All around appears still, snowy and serene. You’re dizzy from the effects of high altitude but mesmerised by the exquisite panorama stretching as far as the eye can see. You have worked hard to get here — so hard that there have been times when you’ve wondered what on earth you’re doing.

As you’ve struggled up the interminable slopes, through the fresh snow and rasping winds, you’ve had ample time to reflect on mountaineering’s notable literary tradition. Perhaps, like Mo Anthoine in the Al Alvarez biography Feeding the Rat: Profile of a Climber, you are here because an inner demon has been gnawing away so insistently that now, at last, it has to be sated.

At the top of Mont Blanc, statistics are so much spindrift, borne away into nothingness by the endless wind. You have reached the summit of western Europe’s highest mountain at 15,771ft. You might know that Mont Blanc was first climbed by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard in 1786, that in 1808 Marie Paradis became the first woman to ascend, and that in 1986 Stefano De Benedetti skied down the Innominata face on the Italian side.

Yet none of this means much when your own moment on the summit comes round.

You realise then that “because it’s there” is an inadequate explanation for the urge to climb mountains. In the distance are two other Alpine colossi, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. It is always cold at the top of Mont Blanc, and its outriders Mont Blanc de Tacul and Mont Maudit (“the Accursed Mountain”) are challenging in themselves. The urge to stand still and gaze at the pure whiteness, punctuated by specks and spires of granite, is irresistible. It is at such moments that you feel more alive than ever.

There is a variety of serious climbs on and around the Mont Blanc massif, but three “easy” routes to the summit exist from the French side in Chamonix. Each could be undertaken by a fit hill walker prepared to become acclimatised and familiar with basic mountaineering techniques.

Hiring a guide is essential unless you are an expert, for each route — the Aiguille de Goûter, the Grands Mulets, and the Trois Mont Blanc — carries the risks of any high climb. There are crevasses, sheer drops and dangers of rockfall and altitude sickness.

Major Mark Smyth, an army-qualified mountain guide, advises caution. “Climbing Mont Blanc is not technically difficult but is never to be underestimated. The weather can change in a matter of minutes and freezing temperatures and 80mph winds are common. At over 15,500ft, these extreme conditions and lack of oxygen test the endurance limit of all but the hardiest of mountaineers.”

As Anthoine says in Alvarez’s book: “Every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering . . . That’s why I like feeding the rat . . . To snuff it without knowing who you are and what you’re capable of. I can’t think of anything sadder than that.”

How to do it

What Climb Mont Blanc, at 15,771ft western Europe’s highest mountain

Why? Not because it’s there but because the view to the Matterhorn from the summit makes you feel more alive than ever. Celebrate with a beer back down in Chamonix

When Between June and August when the threat of avalanches is diminished

How Being fit is essential so spend time running and hill walking before you go. Mont Blanc has so-called “easy” routes for novice mountaineers but a guide is vital (consult www.montblancguides.com). Best bet is to sign up for a minimum six-day course. World Expeditions has a seven-day training deal for £995, at www.tinyurl.com/y9kmmq and Infohub offers a seven-day course for beginners for £750 at tinyurl.com/yeq6h4 (air fares not included)

Be warned Every year people die on the Mont Blanc massif. Know your limits