A beginner’s guide to mountaineering
Mont Blanc (pictured above) is 4,808m high. It was first officially climbed in 1786 and has since been a beacon for mountaineers the world over.
It is the temptation of this peak – the highest in the French Alps – that has lured me to the resort town of Chamonix. I’ve spent three winters living in the Alps in the past. Even though I’m no mountaineer, I remain curious about those places beyond the realms of lifts, accessible only by your own two feet. I’m here to take part in a three-day introduction to mountaineering. Who knows, maybe the next three days will be my first steps towards one day scaling Mont Blanc?
Day One: The Basics
Our first day will cover the basics on Chamonix’s most popular crag, Gaillands.
There are five climbers in our group. We’re all novices, and we’re eyeing the serious-looking equipment we’ve just been issued with uncertainty. Our instructor, Didier, explains that we’ll be focussing on rock climbing and snow and ice techniques over the coming 72 hours.
We’re split into pairs, and my climbing partner and I are left to our own devices to scale the rock. We take it in turns to belay each other on fixed rope points. Initially, I find Didier’s supervision quite blasé, but it becomes apparent over the next few days that this is what the UCPA course we’re on is all about – autonomy. The technique is to put you in complete control of your and your partner’s safety. It works because you’re forced to concentrate on mastering the basic competences; my partner and I learned, remembered and double-checked everything we both did.
Despite our newfound independence, it’s quite reassuring to see how quickly Didier rushes over and informs us of any errors we’re making. At one point, we are both trying to bilet and climb from the same end of the rope; a faux pas in the climbing world.
As the day progresses, the climb becomes more difficult. We shuffle our way further up the rock face, moving steadily towards trickier and higher ascents. Here, hand and foot holds seem to become more and more ambiguous. There are times when I find myself scrambling desperately for holds that don’t seem to exist – it’s amazing what strength you find to cling on when faced with the fear and humiliation of falling. But the mental challenge is almost harder than the physical one; for the descent, I have to put all my trust in my climbing partner, who I’ve known for less than 12 hours.
Day Two: Ice School
Day two sees us whisked up the Grands Montets lift to the Argentiere Glacier, one of the larger glaciers in the Mont Blanc massif. To look at us, weighed down by all our gear, you’d think we were about to tackle Everest. For the first time, it seems like all the kit we’ve accumulated is actually needed.
Today’s experience, at 3,275m, is completely different to yesterday’s “resort level” training. You can really feel the altitude; even a slight ascent is quick to make you feel short of breath. I begin to feel a creeping sense of panic that I should have paid closer attention to the course’s minimum fitness requirements. Luckily, Didier is quick to stress that we should do little more than a climber’s plod, with the emphasis on taking things slowly and taking regular rests to conserve energy for the day.
We spend the first half of the morning getting used to our crampons, practicing our steps on the snow and ice. While this sounds relatively simple, it’s made harder when Didier makes us walk up the steep slope criss-crossing our legs like we’re doing bad Michael Jackson routines. Not to mention when we’re encouraged to jump ‘like a duck’ down sheer ice. As he roars with laughter, I’m starting to wonder if some of the exercises are purely for his own entertainment.
It feels unnatural walking on ice. Ultimately, it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that the crampons will do their job. Once we’ve all grasped this to a passable degree, we begin our long descent down the glacier on a mix of heavy snow and sheet ice. As the terrain gets steeper, we take to roping ourselves together, the idea being that if one of us falls, the others will stop them careering into the abyss.
We are split into two groups, with girls on one line and boys on another. It’s not long before the boys’ line breaks away and my competitive nature kicks in. I am at the front of my group and the pace-setter, so I try to keep up my stride and block out the grumbling behind me.
Things soon come to a head when Didier picks up on one of the girl’s technique. Her reply is somewhat bitter, “I don’t have time to put my feet down properly, Rachel’s going too fast.” After a slightly humbling talk on the importance of teamwork, we set off again, this time focussing on getting down the mountain together.
The terrain changes as our descent enters the afternoon. Ice gives way to rocks and shale, which are tougher to navigate without the soft carpet of snow. This new terrain does not appear to be my forte, and I quickly become more sympathetic to anyone who struggled in the morning. Several hours (and falls) later, I am relieved to see the mid-station in sight. From here, we’ll be assisted back to resort level.
Day Three: Aiming High
Our final day takes us higher than before. We travel 3,842m to the top of Aguille du Midi, where all the major summits of the Alps are gathered. It’s here that we finally come face to face with Mont Blanc, the ultimate ambition of many of our group.
I can see the hunger in the faces of my fellow coursemates intensify. Even though we aren’t ready to tackle terrain of this level, it’s a glimpse into what might be. Standing in the shadow of that majestic mountain, each of us wonders if we’ll make it up there one day.
Rachel was learning to climb with action-outdoors.co.uk