Gazing up at the mixture of fast-moving whispy mist and stationary lens-shaped clouds which often characterises the highest peak of continental Europe, I felt very small. And by most accounts I was, at only 8 years old.
My parents’ decision to leave behind a rural farming life in north east Scotland and emigrate to France for 18 months was a brave move in many ways. It happened before the spread of the web and mobile phones made such ideas seem so simple to execute. It was a choice that has had the most formative impact on my life to date.
Not only did it help cultivate an appreciation for adventure, multi-culturalism and foreign language, it also launched a love affair with all the smelliest types of cheese and snowy, white topped peaks.
It was during this ‘classe de neige’ trip, as 30 of us pointed, oohing and aching in chorus, that I first set sight on the Alps. This ‘snow-class’ – a rite of passage week-long school trip to the mountains which would certainly fall foul of most modern health and safety assessments, was when I became captivated by the highest of them all - Mont Blanc.
Now a few short years later, taller, hairier, with an ever-increasing appreciation of cheese and a new-found taste for fermented French grapes, I found myself again enchanted by the mystery and the history of the great white mountain. This time however, came not only the challenge of catching a glimpse of the peak but the significant challenge of trying to reach the top.
Summiting Mont Blanc is by no means guaranteed. Infamous for its highly unpredictable weather and narrow ridge ascent, it has the highest mountain fatality rate in Europe. It’s common, when bad weather strikes, for the more sensible alpinists to be forced to return down a mere 50 metres or so from the top, defeated by one last challenge. Others, lured by summit fever, take the chance and straddle this particularly exposed ridge, with the right foot dangerously close to slipping down to the Italian border and the left, shuffling cautiously through French territory.
Following two days of both altitude and technical acclimatisation, and despite poor weather for much of August on the mountain, the forecast looked good and we had our mountain legs. Hazel and I together with friends, Becca and Al, had taken on the ridge of the jagged Aiguille Marbrée for starters, followed by La Vallée Blanche glacier trek - interspersed with jaw-dropping crevasses – before finishing things off on the classic Arête des Cosmiques route. The latter, in a pretty special and surreal finale, entails a rickety ladder climb up onto the viewing platform of the Aiguille du Midi. The tourists seem as bewildered as we are.
The next day we began the Mont Blanc attempt. In good spirits and after some spectacular but gentle hiking past the Tête Rousse hut, we came across our first major challenge – the notorious rock-spewing gauntlet of the grand couloir. Here, climbers are forced to make a 45 second dash across a gulley to avoid rocks which are consistently yet sporadically thrown out from high onto those below. During the summer heatwave of 2015, which caused particularly dangerous freeze-thaw conditions, the Gouter hut – our target for the evening - actually closed its doors to deter alpinists from taking this route, with the temperatures making rock-fall more more frequent than usual.
After a quick glance up and with the finely tuned ears of our guides, Joe and Tico, indicating the time was right, we shot across. And not a moment too soon. The foreboding sound of pieces of mountain the size of footballs made us glance back. Thankfully no-one lay in their path this time, but it was another abrupt reminder that along with the excitement and adrenaline of mountaineering comes danger. We proceeded higher with an even greater sense of respect for the white mountain which lay ahead.