A look back at my training and the experience that led to two solo ascents, and the entire Goûter Route in 8 hours 36 minutes and 50 seconds.
Like much of the world, 2020 probably wasn’t your year (unless you were Jeff at Amazon or that bloke who owns Zoom). So come June, the announcement of travel restrictions being lifted for a handful of countries was a very welcome surprise. Dying to get my fix of the mountains, I jumped on the opportunity.
Since the first time I climbed Mont Blanc in 2013 with my eldest brother, I had wondered if I could do the whole thing in a day; up and down. That trip was my first time in the mountains. We’d gone without a guide, and it had taken us 4 days to reach the summit
and return. Fast-forward 7 years, and I’d gained months of cumulated climbing experience, bagging a handful of Himalayan peaks along the way: 6000, 7000, and even 8000 metres without oxygen. I was curious to see how far I’d come and what I could achieve if I went back to where it’d all started.
I had somewhat let myself go in the three months of lockdown; ping pong in my garden and the odd jog had been my only pathetic attempt at keeping some fitness ticking over. With my flights booked for 5 weeks’ time, I set a training plan to get maximum “bang for my buck”. This is my running log of those weeks prior to departure:
It is easy to see the structure of each week: 5 sessions, one semi-long-run (over 17k) highlighted in beige, one long-run (21km or over) highlighted in pink, and a bunch of easy/recovery runs to fill the rest of the week. The whole plan ending with a slightly over-threshold effort of the half marathon distance (at 3:58/km). I tapered the few days before departure, and I threw in some VO2max intervals to keep myself sharp. Every session was done at sea level at home in London. This really is very low mileage!
Without prior acclimatisation, I planned the first ascent to be exactly that. I took things steady; I moved as fast as I felt comfortable while giving my body enough time to adjust.
The day after I arrived to Chamonix I went up to the Tete Rousse hut at 3167m. That night I left at 01:26 and headed directly for the summit. The mountain seemed eerily empty with most people not being prepared to risk getting stuck abroad during the lottery of snap-travel-bans. What a privilege that meant for me, climbing one of the busiest routes in the world with next to no one around.
Crossing the Grand Couloir alone was tricky and unnerving. That altitude is a little below the snow line, and so the snow above became a slightly icy trickle of water running over the bear rocks of the traverse. When slippery, the Grand Couloir becomes uncomfortable to traverse without the safety of a rope. It isn’t too steep, but if you slip, you’d have difficulty stopping yourself before your body reached the bottom of the couloir hundreds of metres below. Of course, I only discovered the icy stream when I was in the middle of the traverse. Up to that point on the morning I had not needed crampons as I hadn’t encountered enough snow or ice to warrant them. I was then met with a decision: turn back to the start of the traverse and crampon-up or try to push across the slippery rocks in my boots. The key to the Grand Couloir is to be fast – you minimise the time you are exposed to potential rock falls which happen multiple times a day. My ears were listening intently for the tapping sound of rocks coming down from above while I sharpened my focus on not slipping to my death. I had opted to cross the metre or so of smoothly glazed rock before continuing the rest of the traverse. I made it across (obviously).
With no head torches to follow on the rocks above, I was finding my way through the route by looking for crampon scratches on the rocks. There are permanently fixed cables in place on the more exposed sections, which were easy to spot, but everything in between was more challenging to navigate.
I didn’t see another soul until just below the Dôme du Goûter at around 4200m. Then there were the usual trains of guided groups who had left from the Gouter hut; all moving as slow as their slowest member. We exchanged friendly words while I moved passed, just as dawn broke.
I reached the summit at 07:28. It had taken me almost exactly 6 hours from Tete Rousse; the slightly better end of average, but I was happy. I had no issues with the altitude and felt a consistent effort over the duration of the climb. I stayed on the summit for a little over an hour - as long as I could bear the cold - in order to maximise my acclimatisation.
I called my mother from my satphone. I thanked her for giving me life, allowing me to live these experiences. It is a call I am grateful to have made.
I headed back down to Tete Rousse and spent the night there, still trying to bag more time at altitude, descending down to Chamonix the next day.
The next two days were total rest. I didn’t leave the hotel – just down to the restaurant to devour an abundance of nutrition, and back up to have a bath, give my legs a massage, and have a beer.
Round 2: Time Trial.
I checked the weather and called the lodge at Nid d’Aigle (the foot of the Gouter route, where the Tramway du Mont Blanc ends). I booked a room for the night for Friday.
I had to hit the summit on Saturday morning and be back that same day - my flight from Geneva was on Sunday. There was no contingency. It would be an expensive mistake if I couldn’t complete the round trip in one push.
I told “The Nid” I would be leaving for summit at about 11pm that night. They kindly left me some coffee and some breakfast. I didn’t manage any sleep, but I rested well. At 2315 I kicked into gear. I packed my gear and stood outside. I started my GPS watch (Fenix 5 Plus) at 2342 and set off. The clouds were low and soon surrounded me. Visibility was maybe 20 metres. All I could see was the rain particles in the fog around me, illuminated by my headtorch. I relied on my watch to go in the general direction of the peak.
I got lost on the plateau near the old Cabane des Rognes. When you can’t see the massive cliff above, that whole section is simply flat rocks with no reference. I stumbled around there for far too long. I heard one of the loudest and longest rock falls of my life, It went on for a solid 3 minutes. I began to feel concerned as it got louder - I was picturing huge rocks flying at me from out of the fog. It must have been of epic proportions. I was slightly disappointed I couldn't see anything in all the fog.
Beneath the traverse that leads to Tete Rouse, I swapped my trail running shoes for my climbing boots (La Sportiva Nepal Extremes if anyone’s interested). This time I wasn’t being caught out, I put my crampons on too.
Back to the Grand Couloir… It had snowed the day before, and this time there was a few inches covering the rocks. Annoyingly, it made for a similar crossing as the previous time, even with crampons! The whole lump of snow would crumble and slide beneath each foot placement. The snow covered everything so determining what was solid ground and what was precariously placed shingles or smooth rock beneath was almost impossible. I also couldn’t see the usual place where people cross the Couloir. Again, I was breaking trail, so there were no tracks to follow. I think I was about 5-10 metres higher than where the couloir is usually crossed. For a solo climber, the Grand Couloir is the only overtly dangerous section on the Gouter route. The Crevasse danger is minimal en-route which is, of course, a big factor when planning solo climbs.
The rocky section above was now even more difficult to navigate than last time as the snow covered all the crampon scratches that I had previously used as a “bread crumb trail”. I was slow through there, but I popped my head out the top a few hours on. I knew nothing could stop me between there and the summit.
I stopped my watch on the summit 8 hours and 36 minutes after having left Nid d’Aigle.
I spent 56 minutes on the summit. I drank coffee, ate snacks, and befriended an Estonia climber who was also climbing alone. We descended some of the route together, and subsequently stayed in touch. I invited her on my Everest Expedition, which we embarked on together some months later.
After I re-crossed the Grand Couloir on descent - in now easy conditions of the midday sun - I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew it was an easy walk down from there back to the tramway. I stopped many times to take breaks and eat snacks.
When your body is tired because you’ve used it. When you’re among beautiful surroundings with your head above the clouds, and you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve… that is living the dream as far as I’m concerned. When I am older and I am unable, I will miss that.
Ascent: the whole Gouter Router, Nid d’Aigle to summit: 8h36m50s
Up and down, Nid d’Aigle - summit - Nid d’Aigle: 14h58 (including 56 mins spent on summit)
Average heart rate on ascent: 101 bpm
Max heart rate on ascent: 175 bpm
Total ascent: 2438 metres
For me, there is an hour or two to knock off the ascent to the summit, if the visibility was better on the night and I didn’t get lost in the flat section by the Cabane de Rognes, and if I didn’t have to break trail through a fresh snow fall through the rocky section around the Grand Couloir and the scramble above... but I did the best that I could on the day that I had, and the shape that I was in.
There are more like 3-4 hours to knock off the round trip if I took the descent seriously.
Traditionally, speed ascents of Mont Blanc start from the valley floor. I did not. Climbers who ascend via the Gouter Route get off the Tramway du Mont Blanc at Nid d’Aigle and go from there, which is what I did. Everything between Chamonix and end of the tramway du Mont Blanc is forest, and although it would add many hours to the journey, I simply had no interest in getting lost in the forest and getting eaten by monsters. I set out my goals in the mountains for myself, based on what interests me. Our lives in the mountains are personal endeavours. As I wrote in my notes when I was planning this trip “I don’t climb to appease the pointless rules of others. The mountains don’t have rules, other than take your rubbish down with you."
Photos: Simon Ferrier-May, unless otherwise stated.
This year, subject to sponsorship, I'm hoping to climb Nanga Parbat without supplemental oxygen. Follow my adventures on Instagram: @simonfm