Mountains are forces to be reckoned with. I somehow knew this but came to fully realize it this past week.
After successfully summiting Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest summit at 5895 meters, I felt that the world was at my feet. As soon as I had recuperated from the strenuous climb I started to plan for my next adventure. Eventually I decided to climb Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak at 4810 meters.
The one week adventure started with a three day course on Alpine climbing. Ten strangers came together from all over the world and were led by three guides through the
Mont Blanc mountain range. The climbs involved strenuous inclines on rock and snow, crossing glaciers, skirting crevasses, and scrambling up rocks with 3500 meter sheer drops. For the first time I used crampons (sharp undersoles that are clamped onto the bottom of one’s mountaineering boots to help hold onto the snow) and was harnessed and connected to other team members by ropes in case one of us fell through a crevasse.
This was not a course. This was real climbing. The climax of the climb was the Aiguille du Tour at 3544 meters. To get to this peak, every three climbers were roped to a guide and scrambled up sharp rocks using fingers and toes to leverage themselves. Misplacing a foot could literally mean dropping off the mountain if not for the steady hands, feet and ropes of our trusted guides.
The Alpine climb – the “course” – was much more difficult than I had expected and more technically and physically challenging than Kilimanjaro was for me. A one hour climb up a 35 degree incline of snow left my heart screaming to burst out of my chest. Snow was my greatest challenge. Even though I grew up in the Midwestern United States where snowy winters were the norm, I discovered that my Egyptian genes dominated and my ability to stay standing in the slippery white fluff was limited. I slipped while going uphill and slid while walking downhill. No matter how many times our guides taught me the techniques – press your heels into the snow while bending your knees…force the toe of your boot into the snow to make a stair for yourself – I’d still fall.
Each day ended with a night at an Alpine hut. Each hut accommodated around 150 people and hot food was available throughout the day. Co-ed dormitories were a challenge, but if one wants to climb a mountain, one must make do with the circumstances one is placed in.
On the second night everyone in the 20-strong dormitory I was placed in woke up to the bright flashes of lightening and the angry rumbling of thunder. This continued throughout the night but by early morning while we prepared to continue our climb the skies had cleared. The storm of the previous night brought with it, however, 30 km per hour winds. It was cold and the winds made us feel colder. At certain points during the climb we had to stop in order to stabilize ourselves against the wind.
The three days of partnering with new team members and close confinement in dormitories allowed the team members to get to know each other well: Dave and Kate, the young married couple from the UK; Mark, a British ex-military man; Nick, a young and very polite banker-turned-world-traveler from the UK; Damian, a sweet and funny middle-aged Brit who owns a construction company; Colin, the man with the sexy Scottish accent; Dena, the vet from Australia; Vasyl, the muscular Ukrainian; and Yoshito, professor of biology in Japan.
As always, I was out of place in this group. All group members were athletic and some had climbed mountains before. I struggled to keep pace with everyone; managed a few times and failed most times. But the group was cohesive. They all had a great sense of humor. It’s amazing how complete strangers can gather from around the world and become like brothers and sisters over the course of a few short hours.
I have mixed feelings about my experience with the guides. They were very professional and dependable. They all had vast experience in climbing mountains all over the world. They knew what they were doing and were very good teachers. But I could read their minds: they were not happy with my poor fitness and skills. This was quite the opposite to my experience on Kilimanjaro where the guides constantly poured out their belief in me and my ability to reach the summit despite the fact that I was slow and a big huff-puffer. On Kili, it was that faith in me that motivated me and kept me going. In the Alps, the looks of disappointment in the eyes of our guides were discouraging and demotivating.
Face-to-Face With Mont Blanc
The Mont Blanc climb started on day 4. The hike from the valley up to the Tete Rousse Hut at about 3100 meters was steep and physically demanding for me. It is possible
that the exertion of the past three days had started getting to me. It is also possible that I was very stressed about climbing Mont Blanc, making the climb more difficult. I huff-puffed all the way up and took longer than any of my climbing pals. My feet were not steady while walking on the twisting ledges of the mountain. I refused to look anywhere but where I placed my feet and managed to miss the amazing mountain views I was passing, including a family of ten Ibises. But I reached the hut, rested a bit and felt more confident. I walked out of the hut to look at the dark, steep, rocky mountain face we were to climb up the following day. At the top of that face lay the Gouter Hut, and beyond that a four hour climb on snow to the summit. It was intimidating to see the very steep incline. But I was willing to give it a try; so much so that I had wished we were able to try to do it that day rather than put together the hike to Gouter and then to the summit all in the following day.
But my mid-afternoon there was talk about bad weather. My confidence in my ability to keep pace with the group was also plunging. It was important to get to the summit and back in a certain amount of time to avoid staying at altitude for too long. The main guide, Mark, then said that 60km per hour winds were expected for the next day. This was twice the wind-speed we had experienced earlier. I thought about scrambling up a sheer rocky face and trekking across a snowy ridge the width of a twin-bed while struggling against 60km/hr winds. If I was willing to give the final summit climb a try under normal conditions, I was not willing to do it under these circumstances. I could barely stand up on my own two feet in snow with no wind at all to struggle against. How could I walk on a small ledge of snow to reach the summit with 60km/hr winds at my back?
The official nightly team meeting confirmed the windy conditions for the morrow. Nevertheless, we were all divided into teams of two climbers to one guide. I was to be teamed up with sweet Nick and my favorite mountain guide, Eve. I spoke quietly to Nick about my concerns. In addition to my concern about my personal abilities, I was worried that a failed attempt on my part would compromise Nick’s summit attempt as well, since were both roped together to one guide and if I could not make it to the summit our guide would need to bring me down, in which case Nick would have to come down as well.
Nick tried to convince me to make the trip. He felt I could do it and he was not worried about my slow pace. “We came here to summit Mont Blanc, so let’s just do it,” he told me confidently. I was not convinced. We then moved to meet with Eve, the 49-year-old French guide. Eve was the only guide who seemed to have confidence in my motivation to summit. If anyone could push me on to the summit, it was him. I told Eve my concerns. He said that he did notice how hard it was for me to reach Tete Rousse but perhaps I was just having a bad day. I told him I did not think I could make the summit attempt with such bad weather circumstances. We talked some more. Eventually, I announced my decision: I saw no reason whatsoever to try to summit a mountain when my strength and skills were still lacking and the weather conditions were so bad. I had nothing to prove to myself or to anyone else. The risk was just not worth taking. We agreed. And I cried, making both Eve and Nick uncomfortable. After a couple of minutes, I was able to control my tears and we got up to go to our dormitory. I quickly washed my face in the bathroom. I did not want my climbing friends to notice my anguish over coming this far and not going further. They were preparing for the climb of their life so this could not be about me. They needed encouragement and optimism; not a cry-baby who needed comforting.
I put my head to my pillow feeling both failure and relief at once. I had made a brave and what I felt a sensible decision. But it was one I did not enjoy making. To me it felt that I was a weakling of a sort. I was not prepared enough to climb mountains of this sort while other people were. At the same time, I knew that there are only a few people in this world who really are prepared – mentally and physically – to do this sort of activity. I was lucky enough to be in their company. Yes. I was still blessed.
The winds were audible throughout the night. I reconfirmed to myself that there was no way I could attempt a summit climb in such strong winds. I woke up with the group
at 4am and we all had breakfast. I bade them goodbye as they headed out into the windy dark. I wished the group of crazy people good luck and wished I had it in me to be as crazy as them. I went back to my bunk and slept.
I woke around 8:30 am and walked out of the hut to take a look at the sheer, black face of the mountain my colleagues had climbed that morning. By then, if they were successful, they should have reached the Gouter Hut and were on their way to the summit. I used my video camera to zoom in on the climbers on the mountain. I could see a large group of climbers who had stopped half-way up. The group did not look like my friends. They must be on their way to the summit, I told myself.
As soon as I walked back into the hut I saw the British guide, Simon, stomp in and lay his backpack down on the ground. His face looked grave. My heart fell to my feet and I quickly tried to remember who the two climbers were that were supposed to be teamed up with him. They were Dena and Mark. God, please keep them safe, I thought! “Why are you back?? Are you all right?” I asked. Simon slowly shook his head and said that the weather conditions were very bad. “Who’s back then? Is it everyone?” “We’re all back and everyone is all right,” he confirmed.
I walked out into the outer changing room of the hut to find nine very disappointed faces. That’s when I heard the stories of huge falling rocks that could easily throw a man off his feet and send him to his death. Only the week before two men had died on this same part of the mountain due to the falling rocks. Rocks had started falling on our group of climbers as they were almost two-thirds of the way up to the Gouter Hut. My friends had to dart to avoid them and some slipped and hurt themselves in the process. The guides communicated with each other by walkie-talkie. They agreed that the conditions were too windy and that the falling rocks were too dangerous to continue. Even if they managed to reach the Gouter Hut a summit would still be impossible that day. They rushed back down the mountain face to the Tete Rousse Hut.
Eventually our guides confirmed that a summit would be impossible. The weather was worsening. The winds were picking up, the weather was getting warmer, rain was expected. All this created even more suitable circumstances for rock avalanches. No one was going to summit and our only option was to return to the valley and spend our remaining time doing other activities.
I have absolutely no regrets. I now fully realize what it means to climb a mountain. I know what should be expected. I know what skills and what fitness level I would need to be at in order to be successful. I know that no matter how fit and skilled one is, there are many other variables that determine an actual summit. I’ve learned that on the mountain, you are your own savior. You need to keep your head on your shoulders at all times and make sensible decisions no matter how many other people are there to protect you. And I made great friends. I’ve come to appreciate the craziness in people who want to achieve nearly impossible goals. Watching their drive gives me more motivation to pick up my game and become a better me.
Kate, Dave, Dena, Nick, Damion, Mark, Colin, Yoshi, and Vasyl: cheers and here’s to better and greater things!