We awoke at 12:45am. Andrea packed her teddy bear (she would claim ‘mascot’) in her rucksack and we stumbled towards breakfast, which was set for 1:00. At 1:30 we strapped our crampons on and tied into the rope. By 1.45 we were off on our “Father and Daughter Big Day Out”, our attempt to climb Mt Blanc (4810m), Western Europe's highest mountain, via the traverse from the Cosmiques Hut.
We joined the line of people plodding across the col du Midi and on to the steepening slopes of Mt Blanc du Tacul. Then my heart sank. In front of us was a queue of people all staring at a 5-metre high serac (ice cliff), and at its foot a moat-like crevasse barring the way.
One by one people attempted to scale the wall of snowy ice. Quickly it became clear to me they were totally out of their depth, having (like so many people before them) been led to believe Mt Blanc is just a walk. Andrea and I stood around for 20 minutes and I was very concerned that this could thwart our climb. I decided to see if I could climb around them, taking a chance that people would not shout at a young girl. In addition I was quick - after all this is my job - I was up the wall in 20 seconds and immediately yanked Andrea up on the rope and we were on our way.
We continued up the face with a steady rhythm. I had instilled this in Andrea as being the critical key to success, “slow and steady wins the race”. Next, we had to slalom through debris from a massive serac fall, which had had tragic consequences for the people who were hit by it the week before. My judgement was that “to be forewarned is to be fore armed” in the sense we knew there was a real danger and we needed to pick up the pace to cross the danger zone. Thereby keeping the risks within manageable limits.
Two hours into the climb we passed over the shoulder of Mt Blanc du Tacul, where the route takes a slight descent before heading for Mt Maudit, normally the hardest part of the climb. We paused for some food and a drink and put some extra clothes on. Andrea has a very sweet tooth and viewed her attempt on Mt Blanc as her chance to eat as many chocolates as it’s humanly possible to consume.
We shouldered our rucksacks and continued with a slow metronomic pace. It was not long before we got stuck behind another group of people who were becoming intimidated by the ever-steepening slopes. They were climbing painfully slowly one by one on terrain that they should have been able be able to gallop up. Andrea and I just kept our same pace and climbed around them, scrambled up some rocks and we were past all the difficulties.
“That was fun Dad”, said Andrea.
The key to getting kids to enjoy climbing is to try and make sure the ground underneath their feet is always interesting. They seemingly get tired, not because it is difficult, but because it’s boring.
Everyone who had left the Cosmiques Hut was now behind us. We stopped for another rest and put some more clothes on and packed away our head torches. Ahead of us was the final dome of Mt Blanc - it did not look very far away, the ground is easy, but it is tremendously hard work especially when you’re only 14 years old and it’s your first-ever mountain.
Like many mountains Mt Blanc seems to have many false summits and the inevitable “Are we nearly there yet?’” questions had to be sympathetically managed. Then suddenly we were there. 7.45am. A quick call to Mummy and some photos, but it was too cold for even Andrea to stop and eat more chocolate.
We ran back down the slopes the way we had come up. With seemingly every step, the air got denser and consequently we felt more comfortable. We negotiated the tricky ground of Mt Maudit with me lowering Andrea down the slope on the rope, and then I down-climbed past the same parties we had passed on the way up who were still struggling on. Next we passed the jumble of ice blocks on Mt Blanc du Tacul, and then our last but one challenge: getting down the serac wall and ‘moat’. I lowered Andrea and then cut a bollard in the snow, threaded the rope around it and abseiled the serac wall to join Andrea.
Our last challenge was one that faces every mountaineer who climbs Mt Blanc by this route: the climb back up to the Aiguille du Midi cable car station. It is a very unwanted struggle of 300m vertical height gain. Andrea was amazing; she just tucked in behind me, switched on her internal metronome and plodded onwards. Just one short rest on the whole climb back up, and we were safe and sound in the cable car station by midday.
This had been an exceptional trip. Andrea had become one of only a handful of children to climb Mt Blanc. We were able to take advantage of perfect conditions, both underfoot and meteorologically. She had a few other advantages: being very fit, self motivated and having a father as a mountain guide who has climbed Mt Blanc more time than he cares to remember…
Above photo: Andrea with ‘mascot’
Cover photo: Mark and Andrea on the summit of Mt Blanc