I am a software engineer, and working as a software engineer basically means that you work sitting / or laying in the bed in front of your Mac, without much moving at all.
I believe that in order to perform at the highest level at the job you need to be also in a great physical shape. It goes pair in pair, the work serves as a recovery from the physical training, and the physical training serves as unloading of all the stress or pressure that comes with the job.
So I often come up with some overreaching goals that keep me motivated and driven, benefitting what I do at work, and my physical fitness at the same time. This time, after few mountaineering trips in the Polish Tatra mountains and the Alps, I decided to climb the highest mountain in Central Europe — Mont Blanc 4809m (Elbrus 5642m comes in September, but that’s a different story).
There are these organized trips for 3 or 8 days, where the mountain guide basically pulls you up to the summit. I knew upfront, this is not for me and there is also no fun in it that way.
What I want to do is do go up on my own, as fast as I can possibly manage. I contacted a mountain guide with whom I was on an expedition previously as I knew he was on the Mont Blanc summit. He called me stupid and told me to book a guide as the trip is dangerous.
Reason One: it’s 3000m daily ascend, it takes extreme fitness and you can get altitude sickness,
Reason Two: the Grand Coulair — a narrow rocky “korridor” with a steep gradient in a mountainous terrain, where rocks roll down and can kill you in one splash,
Reason Three: Crevasses, “deep splits” in the glacier. If you fall unsecured and unseen, you pretty much left alone there for a morbid and scary death
I can’t argue with these dangers, but there are two types of dangers — objective ones and subjective ones. The objective ones are such dangers are external ones on which you have no influence or control, and there are also subjective dangers — these are the perceived dangers. For example, in kitesurfing — it can be really dangerous if you don’t know how to control the kite. But you are pretty much fine, even under a strong wind, if you know what you are doing.
So, my engineering background commanded me to split the complex problem of climbing Mont Blanc into smaller pieces, and then solve them one by one.
- Am I able to ascend 3000m in one day?
- How can I ensure that I am acclimatized so there is no option of attitude sickness?
- How to get prepared for the Grand Couloir?
- How to handle the risks of falling in a crevasse?
- How do I deal with a mental side of it and ensure that I don’t quit it?
Let’s tackle one-by-one.
Am I able to to do 3000m daily ascend in one day?
3000m daily ascend is 10 times an ascend of 300m. It so happens that in Heidelberg there is a small hill — Königstuhl, with steep steps leading to the top of it, and the ascend is more or less 300m! It’s called “Himmelsleiter” — the “stairways to heaven” in German.
So theoretically, if I am able to get up and down 10 times in one go in this controlled environment — I would be able to do the 3000m ascend.
Within the last month and a half, I have gone up maybe 30 times, sometimes just once, sometimes just twice, and sometimes three times. My record on the way up is 14 min 40 sec, and my first way up was at above 17 min!
In the coming days I plan to go up and down 10 times after work in one go. If am able to do it, I would be in a good physical shape enough for the 1-day Mont Blanc.
Of course, the way to Mont Blanc is much longer, and at times much more steeper, in a different terrain, and for sure there are no stairs up there!
In result, I will test if I can do an ascend of 3000m in real mountains, within one day — preferably also on a trail that I know well. I know the Polish — Slovakian Tatras mountain range very much — I also climbed the highest peak in Slovakia and Poland, Gerlachovský štít 2654m and Rysy 2503m, respectively.
I planned a trip of 36km with 3000m combined ascend — starting in Kuźnice, going over Zawrat-Pass to climb Rysy, and then going down on the Slovakian side.
Because I’ve done parts of this trail many times over in the past, this test is in a controlled environment.
As of now, I feel rather comfortable, as I did a similar trip of 30km in this region in winter — but winter is easier in my opinion.
Prior to this challenge, I will have run for around 3–4 hours everyday in mountainous terrain in the very morning before work, with one full day of rest and a lot of alcohol-free beer to accumulate calories!
Once this test is passed, I go directly to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France.
How can I ensure that I approach my climb already acclimatized so there is no option of attitude sickness?
This is easy.
- Drink a lot of water
- Spend some time at 3000–4000m
After arriving to Chamonix, I will be running up for two days straight in the morning to the Refuge du Nid d’Aigle — the first hut on the way to Mont Blanc — which is at 2372 m, getting a breakfast up there, and then running down — hopefully everything before the daily meetings start :)
Then, I will climb Gran Paradiso in 2 days on a weekend — spending one day in the Chabot hut at 2710m, and then almost entire day above 3000m climbing Gran Paradiso at 4061m.
This will 5 days before the Mont Blanc climb. The remaining five days will be mostly resting days, with just one run up the Nid d’Aigle 2372 m.
I also planned another week in Chamonix thereafter, so if it turns out that I am not handling the altitude good enough, I will return, and try again the next week.
What do I need to do to be prepared for the Grand Couloir?
At 3340 m altitude this gully has to be traversed on foot, to reach the scramble beyond. The main danger here are the falling rocks. This is actually an objective danger — you cannot eliminate it, but you can make the danger of getting hit by a rock smaller.
75% of the rockfalls at the spot occur between 10 am and 4 pm. The rocks starts to fall when the ice above starts to melt. Then, after the loose rocks are already down, the frequency of a rockfalls is smaller again.
You need to pass this gully twice, one the way up and on the way down. I need to be there before sun rise, before the ice starts to melt. But on the way down, the risk will be at the highest.
So basically, it’s a Russian roulette, and you still must take a shot if you want to play the game.
With the rules below and this gully being less than 800m, I think this is the best I can do here.
- Be aware of the danger,
- Pass it one by one,
- Pass it quickly,
- Be silent, and listen for falling rocks before you start,
- If the rocks start to roll, fall to the ground and wait till the danger passes
How to spot and avoid crevasses?
As a layman, I watched all the movies about people falling in crevasses, then progressed to GoPro shots of skiers that fell into a crevasse, and then I studied a bit of a physics behind crevasses. This scared the shit out of me and it still does — I cannot think of a more scary thing than falling into a crevasse.
Basically, if a crevasse is visible, and not covered by a snow, then the task of spotting and avoiding it is pretty much trivial.
It gets complicated when a crevasse is covered by a snow made of the previous years’ accumulation and snow drifts. This renders it invisible, and thus potentially lethal to anyone attempting to navigate their way across a glacier.
So, here you cannot eliminate the danger, but you can mitigate it by being prepared for the event of falling into a crevasse.
So, what I could read up online is to learn to use a rope and form a rope team. Each member of the rope team needs to be 8–10m apart. Everyone on the rope team must know the technics of “self-arrest”, putting an anchor into the ice, redirecting pulling force from the body to the snow anchor and then howling a person out of the crevasse.
I think the most important is the self-arrest and the anchor part.
This is because once you get there, the situation becomes stable and you could wait for help.
Also, I think I could figure out the howling system with blocks as a physicist, at least I can remember designing 1:5 pulling architecture with pulleys from my studies— meaning you can pull 50kg with just a force of 10kg. Also, this is a crowdy trail, so I am sure that one of the other groups with a professional mountain guide would help us in such event.
Nonetheless, I called one of the “Expedition companies” in Chamonix and ask for a training for a crevasse rescue. So, long story short, I’ve got an alpine training here in Heidelberg, and I’m getting a Crevasse rescue training after arriving to Chamonix.
How do I deal with a mental side of it and ensure that I don’t quit it?
Your body can do more than you think it can do. If you think you are exhausted, then it just means that you still have the energy to think — it just takes a bit of persistence to redirect it to keep pushing.
It’s just about setting the mindset not to quit. I find it very much useful to just announce it publicly — this is what I am going to do — and the accountability drives me not to quit and to keep pushing.
Part of it, is also writing this post.
I planned the climb on 30.07.2021 with 31.07.2021 for the second try window. I’m also flexible on the dates and can easily shift it to the next weekend if the weather turned out bad or I needed more time for acclimatization.
If you are in Chamonix then, let me know! If you have already climbed Mont Blanc and want to share your experiences, let me know! And if you’re interested to get to know more: follow me on Instagram — I’m certainly gonna post a shot from above!