A number of you have asked about my climb of Mont Blanc last year so i’m keeping this Blog update on the main menu. Further HD pictures will be added as I get the site completed. I hope it makes for a good read.
Luke Lawrence summits the ‘rooftop of Europe’ – Mont Blanc (4810m) 28th August 2014
It’s been a dream of mine to stand on the rooftop of Europe for over 18 years. I first went to the Alps with my parents skiing and we all went up to Pic Blanc (3330m) the view was simply astounding from there, and I gazed over towards Mont Blanc and could not even imagine what it must be like to be on a summit that’s another 1.5km higher! Since then Mont Blanc has always been in my thoughts when I’ve been to the Alps and I’ve often gazed up and wondered…
Over the years I went on to read a number of mountaineering books that mention how the first ascent of Mont Blanc really started ‘the golden age of mountaineering’ and generated all the interest in high Alps climbing, as it had mine, so the passion in me grew to one day stand on the summit that dwarfs all of the other Alpine peaks.
Sadly on August 1st 2013 I lost my father. He had had a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Something that I learnt from my Dad was that if you want something you just have to make it happen. Too many people talk of dreams without making steps to turn them into reality. So shortly after his death I took the decision to not stand still in life, and push for all the goals and dreams that I wanted to achieve.
Now tackling Mont Blanc is not without its risks. Whilst very experienced Mountaineers deem it as a less technical climb than others (in particular the Alpine North Faces) the area has over a 100 fatalities each year. All of the routes to the summit come with risk – from avalanche, serac (a large tower or block of Glacial ice) collapse, crevasses (cracks in the Glacier to fall into) and rock fall. With the ever present risk of Altitude sickness to manage throughout the journey.
In the week prior to us leaving the UK 6 climbers died in the Mont Blanc area, on a Glacier. Additionally during our first week a further 3 died. It’s a serious place.
For this trip my mountaineering partner would be a good friend Simon Small. We train together at a local bootcamp in Essex (www.bootcamprevolution.co.uk) so I know have we similar levels of fitness (nb – well he’s a little slower but as he’s a decade older I’ll give him similar 😉 and we have the same outlook on life and adventures. This winter I managed two trips to Scotland for mountaineering practice / training and the weather was just incredible – there were snow conditions similar to the Alps just a bit lower! Becky and I went on the first trip, and she scaled her first ‘Winter Munro’ and on the second trip Si and I topped out on Ben Nevis. So the highest point in the UK was completed, now it was for Europe, over some great food in the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe we put together the final touches of our plan.
Originally we started to plan to climb the mountain following the 3 Monts or Cosmetiques route, a less popular path but more technical and combines two other dominating peaks – Mont Maudit and Tacul. But terrible summer conditions this year meant that was not an option for us due to the high snow volume, and risk of avalanche / serac collapse. So we opted to take the Gouter Route. Although notorious for injuries and fatalities from rock fall on this route, the higher Glacier section carries less risk than with the Trois Monts – and as with all mountaineering it’s about mitigating and managing risk.
And so expedition planning was in place. Simon had recently completed a week’s Ice Climbing with an esteemed climber & guide – Twid Turner. The man is a legend and his website speaks volumes – http://www.themountainguidingcompany.co.uk/
Next we had to plan equipment. It’s easy to get carried away with equipment purchases for a big trip, but I kept everything in perspective. I made sure I spent the money that needed, buying new / important items from the correct brands such as Crampons and outer layers. I managed to find a number of the less critical items second hand on ebay which really helped the budget.
I also thought about Nutrition. Given the level of training I do in the UK, and my ideal weight for racing I have to be careful on my diet, we follow the Eat Clean principle and I knew I wanted to take this approach into the Alps with me. Lots of people see a holiday as a time to indulge, and I understand that but for me I like to feel good – and you are what you eat!
Bio Synergy have supported me with nutritional supplements for over a decade now, and I can’t speak highly enough of their products. However for the Alps I needed something more transportable for on the hill – Protein was top of my list, but also thinking about having compact products, weight and taste! I went through a huge amount of research and contacted a number of brands that I was interested in. (Edit – from 2015 Bio Synergy have a range of perfect transportable Protein options, I’d like to say following my feedback 😉 – RTD (ready to drink) protein bottles, whey protein sachets & the best Billtong I’ve ever tasted)
The first was BattleOats. I had already tried a BattleOats bar in the past and knew these come stacked with almost 20g of Protein. Flapjacks are a perfect snack on the mountain and easily carried. I made contact and found out that a new recipe was about to be launched – and best yet it was going to be Gluten free. The owner also transitioned a number of other ingredients to perfect the bar and make it cleaner. Great work! The bars are delicious and come in a Berry flavour or Chocolate and I consumed two a day for the fortnight! Everyone that tasted a bar wanted more so that’s a testament!
Next on my list were a company that makes the Beet IT shots. Basically these are 70ml concentrated Beetroot drinks intended for athletes. I’d already looked into the benefits of Beetroot to support my training, as they help with Oxygen Consumption, as an asthmatic this is something I’m interested in! Additional research led me to understand that vasodilation can help at Altitude where there is less oxygen, so any support to the system in that environment is a positive impact. Additionally they are one of your five a day (on trips fresh fruit / veg is hard to come by on the mountain so the shots help all round nutrition!) I would consume two shots daily through the trip.
Last of all I wanted a savoury protein snack so opted for biltong. I bought from a company called Chichester Billtong ‘ProBeef’ a cleaner form of biltong that offers 30g of Protein in a 50g packet – with the equivalent of half a steak in each pack once dried. Perfect lightweight transportable recovery fuel. I ate these either for lunch or early dinner at the end of the day. (Edit – ProBeef is a little dry, I have now switched to the freshly launched Bio Synergy Billtong)
I’d like to thank all three brands for coming on board, I’m without a doubt that without your support the trip would not have been the complete success that it was. Nutrition is everything in extreme environments.
The expedition lasted two weeks. Initially a week spent in the Swiss Alps summiting 3-3500m peaks to start acclimatisation. This was a great week, we managed 5 x 3000m+ peaks and had some stunning weather, I particularly enjoyed the Platthorn & also the Becs des Bossons on the final day, it’s a fun scramble. Actually prior to that we scaled the nearby Pointe Des Tsevalire in darkness and it allowed us to watch the sunrise over the alps which lit up the Mont Blanc summit to the West first – it was a great omen of what would come a week to the day! My wife Becky also summited the Becs and one section that’s particularly tricky / risky pushed her to her limits, there was an exposed edge each side and a climbing sections with ropes, and one of the established ropes on the route snapped, but the safety rope held her tight – but she did well to overcome her fear and continue on to summit.
From there we all drove round to Lausanne and stayed in a fantastic Spa Hotel. It was a great treat for the night to rest the legs ready for what would come! The next day both wives left for the UK and Simon and I travelled around Lake Geneva to Twids house who would be our guide for the high Alps.
Frustratingly the week started with the news that a summit bid on Mont Blanc would be unlikely due to a bad weather front coming in. Although the plan for the first two days remained the same (we needed to start to build up to higher altitude in order to acclimatise anyway) the lack of a clear weather window really meant we would need to change the end of our weeks plan to another lower summit in a different region. Although I love all mountaineering this news was a real setback for me, this trip was all about Mont Blanc and the time and finances invested were already quite high – but in mountaineering you can’t argue with the weather and expect to win!
We summited the Allalinhorn (4027m) as a training and acclimatisation peak the first day, it was great to be back in crampons – the walk up is along a fabulous ridge and great view from the summit. This was an all snow climb and was great practice for how we would work once up on a Glacier on a higher climb.
Then the following day we summited the Lagginhorn (4010m) which requires a lot more work scrambling and climbing across rock. In turn this summit would help us adjust to working on rock as we would on the climb up the Gouter Hut IF Mont Blanc happened. I enjoyed both climbs but I was still quite down heartened that the weather forecast really meant I would not be summiting Mont Blanc this trip & the implications of that (cost, time and a further trip away from home & Becky)
We stayed up at altitude in a hut overnight again to at least gain in our acclimatisation, and the following day the weather was appalling, low visibility and heavy rain so we had to settle for returning low in the valley. We had a lot of fun along an advanced Via Ferrata cable route (like rock climbing but with metal rail supports allowing you to tackle more extreme routes – the concept originated in the war when partisans would use secret routes to cross the alps) it was during this day that we discovered a possible weather window to actually move up to the Gouter Hut on Mont Blanc which acts as a base camp for the summit. Big winds were still expected following the storm, and large dumps of snow but the front looked like it would clear enough to allow us to at least take the summit bid to stage 1. This news had me seriously excited. At least we would be attempting the climb even if conditions turned us back later on, we would have at least tried!
We returned to Twid’s to pack for the big trip, and anticipation was building. We stripped out everything we didn’t need out of our packs – weight is vital at high altitude and all the grams can add up. You only carry what you need. Once sorted we settled down to a night filled with dreams of snowy summits.
We awoke early to mixed conditions and made the journey to Chamonix. Weather was certainly good enough for us to start the climb so finally the trip I had waited 18 years for was ON. All systems go.
The first stage is to gain some height using the Chamonix lift then TMB (rail system) up to the Nid D’Aigle. From here we started a gentle rocky trek amongst Chamois and Ibex (mountain goats) to level with the Tete Rousse Hut. I’ve never seen the animals so tame, normally in the Winter they are very shy & suspicious but these seemed very inquisitive.
Once almost level with the Tete Rousse hut things start to get very serious. First you need to cross the Tete Rousse glacier using crampons and ice axe. From there it’s up into the Gouter Couloir (dubbed the corridor of death) in short this is a vertical corridor of around 120m that must be crossed, however there is a large amount of rock fall funnelled into the gulley – both naturally as the snow / ice melts under rocks but also as others are kicked down by other climbers on the ascent. It’s a high risk section with over 30 deaths in the last decade and 100’s more injuries. We stopped to sort our equipment and rope up with time to fuel up on Billtong and a BattleOats bar!
As we started to cross the Tete Rousse glacier we had not been moving for ten minutes before we heard cries up ahead and a large boulder the size of a TV came bouncing down the mountain, and narrowly missed (it actually went between them) a team of two French climbers just 50m ahead of us. When we got closer to them afterwards we saw that the boulder has smashed clean through one climber’s carbon fibre poles! The power of the mountain and the level of risk was suddenly very clear in our minds. Twid made sure that we knew from this point that Mountain would be in control.
As we approached the Gouter Corridor crossing we made sure we had a gap ahead (people often get backed up in the crossing lengthening the period of exposure) and roped together we quickly made our crossing focusing on being sure-footed. Thankfully there was no rock fall as we crossed and all 3 of us were relieved. Following the Couloir we started to climb the Gouter Ridge. This section was more technical that I thought it would be, it was a tough scramble in crampons mainly over rock but with a lot of ice and snow to manage as well – with the ever present danger of rock fall from above. (even though past the Couloir there was still a high risk of objects getting kicked down from above)
The climb from here took around 3 hours and was exhilarating to finish. You arrive at the old Gouter Hut, now closed due to the new building built in 2013 and it’s pretty impressive to turn around and look back at what you have climbed. We arrived late afternoon and stored our kit and sorted bunks in the refuge ready to be on the go from 2am for the summit.
It was still in doubt if we would have the weather to make it to the top, as a storm was forecast to come through the next morning – but on the whole it looked like we would make it up. After dinner I went outside to watch the sunset, somewhat of a custom of mine in the mountains. And I have to say I was treated with a view that words cannot describe, but the most magnificent sunset one could ever imagine. We gazed down onto the Cloud below as it slowly moved along the valley floor – and as the sun set the colours constantly changed with the mountains around us and the horizon burning a fire orange in the final minutes. It was….breath-taking. I’ve not felt closer to my Dad in the last year than in that moment, and it’s hard to imagine if Heaven itself could be more beautiful than that view.
The anticipation in the hut was very high as we all settled down to sleep, luckily I sleep particularly heavily as some people find rest at 3800m uncomfortable. In fact one individual looked very sick, suffering from the altitude and believe he returned to the valley the next morning. We awoke at 2am and started to assemble our equipment. I took my days rations of Beet IT and had my customary cup of sugary black tea and BattleOat bar. The previous day’s storm meant there was a lot of fresh snow fall on the mountain, and the high winds mean it could have drifted heavily – so our guide’s advice was to let some other teams start out first to break trail. We were fit and could always take up the lead later, but breaking trail via one kilometre of vertical ascent would be exhausting.
For many the idea of a 2am start in the dark on a Glacier to slog uphill is not appealing, but for me – it’s one aspect of Mountaineering that I love. The task ahead is big, you’ve trained for it – now is the time to put your head down and dig in – to persevere. The initial few hours of the morning passed like this with us making good speed up the Dome De Gouter and over taking other teams as they flagged. The wind speed was gradually increasing and as we approached 5am it grew and grew in the darkness as a very heavy storm set-in. suddenly visibility was reduced to only a few metres and the cold harsh winds of the high Alps started to batter us with 40-50mph speeds.
We quickly managed to put layers on however in the initial melee of the storm we lost our bearings. Our guide knew our approximate location on the Dome however on this serious a climb it pays to know your location to the metre. We started to run through a number of navigation exercises to confirm our location and bearings, and in the darkness met with two other teams in the same predicament, one pair with no guide and no clue as to what to do. I was particularly glad to have someone of Twid’s experience as our guide at that stage as things felt serious. The sunrise was due, but there was no trace of light in the darkness of the storm and for almost an hour this continued and we just got to the point where we needed to take out our storm shelter to brave out the storm when, as quickly as it had started the storm suddenly stopped.
From howling 40-50mph winds to silence is an eerie sensation and with the silence we suddenly caught a glimpse of the sun rising in the distance. It was a very special moment, the path before us was clear in the dim light and we had the conditions to continue….. Both Simon and I had been silently praying to our Dads for some help and shared a glance at the significance of that moment.
Following the storm we made good time up to the old Vallots observatory and from here started to ascend the Bosses ridge. This was an enjoyable climb, the sunrise was almost as beautiful as the previous night’s sunset. The colours on the clouds and mountains around us were simply amazing and breath-taking. Suddenly it dawning on me that I was looking set to achieve a boyhood dream of making the summit of Mont Blanc. I enjoyed the next few hours as we climbed higher this time in daylight. However the wind was starting to build and a metrological phenomenon that forms on the summit of Mont Blanc called ‘the Donkey’ had started. Basically it’s a cloud that can obscure the summit of the mountain and often has extreme winds blowing inside it.
Ahead we saw several teams returning down the trail. And as each passed they informed us that they had to turn back – the wind speed had reached 100kph (60mph) and was simply too much to take. We decided to press on, the next group informing us they made it within 40m of the summit and could go no further! At this news my stomach sank. To come all this way, to come this far and to fail in our objective just 40m’s away was unthinkable! Summit fever is dangerous as you must manage all risk but to be so tantalisingly close would be unbearable.
For the next hour of the climb the wind blew against us so hard, and all I could do is to pray that the cloud would clear and the wind abate. I prayed non-stop, with every step it seemed the wind got more violent then just as I thought it would be too much and Twid would tell us to turn around I looked up to see the cloud clear on the top, blown up into the sky…..then as quickly as it started the wind dropped. We were on the final section of the climb and pushed on, and on towards the summit – and finally there was no more trail ahead of us – we had made it!! As we crested the top the emotion was really too much for me, hugging my friend Simon and just savouring the moment on being on the very top of Europe. Incredible. Magnificent. Beautiful!!
To stand on the top of the Alps, looking all around at mountains that once seemed huge to me appearing so small. To see ski resorts that looked like toy towns far below. It was just the most perfect summit that I could have imagined, and with just the right amount of challenge to make it up there! We were pushed, we were tested – and we persevered.
We savoured every moment and took time to photograph product sponsors that supported my expedition. BattleOats bars, ProBeef and Beet IT. All three of these products are performed amazingly. The Flapjacks are so tasty, a perfect snack for powering a day on the mountain. Billtong is a great way to get a high volume of Protein for low weight – mega expedition criteria and I now swear by Beet IT shots. I had already noticed a gain in my training from using them prior to the trip, however these really boosted me on the mountain and I saw zero negative impact from being at altitude. I can’t recommend all three products highly enough.
I also took a second to eat a Yorkie. This is a summit treat tradition of mine and I have to say those frozen hard lumps of Chocolate were some of the best I’d tasted – one each for Simon and Twid and of course 3 for me!
Another tradition that I’ve had for some time now is to bring home a rock to lay on Dad’s grave. Parkinson’s robbed him of the chance to finish many of his big expeditions, however now I can be his legs and bring the summits to him. Mont Blanc is all snow, so I used a Beet IT shot bottle to scrape a small amount of snow from the very top that I will take to the church for him. I think he would have liked that sentiment.
From the summit we had the long journey down back to the valley. It’s an important time to focus as really the journey is only half over, and you have tired legs and mind – But of course we were boosted by the fact that we had made our goal. The journey back to the Gouter was without incident where we stopped for a coffee & BattleOats bar – and were met with the news that most teams had turned back in the initial overnight storm. The ones that continued had turned back from the summit due to the high winds on the ridge – so we were so fortunate to be one of the very few teams that managed to make the top – if we had not been lost for those hours in the storm we would have missed the perfect slot on the summit – so it goes to show everything happens for a reason!!
From the Gouter hut we had a long journey down the rocky ridge, and sadly we saw two incidents requiring climbers to be helicoptered from the mountain. The second looked likely a fall but the first most probably from rock fall – which we saw an alarming amount of. It was an anxious moment as we got back to the Couloir as we knew this was the last high risk section between us and the valley. As we prepared to move I had a small moment and caught the rope with my crampons, a small stumble – but enough to send all our hearts racing. This was the time for focus indeed!! Simon and I had some small pebbles hit our ice axes on the way across the Couloir but nothing serious. We got across safely and once down off the Tete Rousses Glacier the crampons came off for the last time, text messages sent to our waiting wives in the UK and we were safe, but with memories that will last a lifetime…..
In summary I have walked the path to complete a dream. I made this happen. I had some great support from friends, companies and most of all my wife Becky. And my advice to anyone reading this is that if there is something you want to do, if there is a goal that you always say you will do ‘one day’ well make a plan, and not tomorrow – start today. Make some steps to make it happen, however small – beat out that path to your dream as it is there for the taking.
And the last lesson from my Dad, is the official Lawrence family Motto – ‘Ceddo Nulli’ (Never Yield)
Luke Lawrence September 2014
Expedition Mont Blanc : Summited 08:30 August 28th 2014
Expedition Supported by:
Bio Synergy – http://www.bio-synergy.co.uk/
BattleOats Bars – http://www.battleoats.com/
ProBeef – http://www.probeef.co.uk/
Beet IT Shots – http://www.beet-it.com/
Twid Turner – www.themountainguidingcompany.co.uk/
Simon Small (Perfect Mountain buddy)
Becky Lawrence (Perfect Wife!)
And all my friends & family both those living and passed.