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My Life: climbing Mont Blanc

Victoria Martindale finds inspiration in reaching the summit of Mont Blanc


My heart was thumping, my chest was tight, all my muscles ached and I couldn’t speak. Letting my legs give way I crumbled onto the snowy slope and looked around. The sun beat down and the dazzling snow lit up our jubilant faces. I was a strange jumble of ache, headiness and jubilation all at once. But above all I was happy, ecstatically happy, on the summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe.

For as long as I can remember I have loved the outdoors. Anything that gets me “away from it all” and out into open natural scenery brings me a sense of soul soothing and mental focus that I find hard to get elsewhere. Combine this with any kind of physical activity; be it skiing, hiking or just a long walk in the countryside, and it really is my kind of thing. 

Having said all that, Mt Blanc was not something I had given much thought to before. I’ve climbed the highest peaks of Britain and have often wondered about attempting a more exotic one but something always comes in the way, whether it is work or study commitments or just the wrong season. But here I was, I had just finished exams and three long empty months stretched ahead of me before all the entrapments of a proper job began. I woke up and thought to myself, “I may not get this opportunity again. What would I really like to do with this time?”

Everybody has their own way of doing things and while there were some members of the expedition who had booked their place on this trip of a lifetime several years in advance I certainly wasn’t one of them. In my spontaneous fashion I wanted to make the best of this window of time and do something extraordinary. So that morning, I rang up every Mont Blanc expedition on the internet, to discover that there was only one place left among them all and it departed the next day. Barely pausing for breath or allowing hesitation a chance to steal the opportunity I snatched it up at the eleventh hour. Hey presto, a few hours later I was on the plane to Chamonix.  

While not considered technically challenging, ascending Mont Blanc does require good physical fitness and the use of crampons, ropes and ice picks. Books describe the climb as a ‘slog’ and recommend ‘running five kilometres in deep wet sand’ in preparation. I certainly hadn’t done any training of that kind but looking back I suppose I was reasonably fit. I often went on 10km runs, frequently went to the gym and had run a marathon in the months beforehand. But I hadn’t ever done any mountaineering as serious as this before. However, as long as you bring the fitness, everything else is taken care of when you join a guided expedition of this kind, and unless you really are highly experienced at mountaineering there is no other way to attempt to ascend Mt Blanc.

There were four mountain guides among our group of ten and they assiduously went through each of our kits and clothing and made a list of anything that was missing or needed replacing that we then bought or hired locally. Finally, we were all fully kitted out with everything that we could possibly need nearly 5,000m up a mountain.

The equipment we had to carry was so bulky and heavy that personal items were soon deemed superfluous. We even got down to one toothbrush among us all and even that had its handle sawn off to keep weight to a minimum. None of this bothered me in the slightest however. In fact it was all part of a trip that was about the basic unrefined things of life and being in the moment. Somehow, my sense of feeling alive was magnified by the simplicity of the lifestyle set against such a dramatic panoramic backdrop.

Being the only female of the group, it would be fair to say that initially I was thoroughly spoilt among the niceties of the valley chalet, the perfect weather and nine charming gentlemen. That all changed however on the first night of roughing it in one of the mountain refuges with no showers, hot water or change of clothes when it quickly became apparent that I certainly wasn’t going to be granted any concessions.

For the first six days before the ascent we acclimatised by tackling smaller ice capped peaks in the Mt Blanc massif roped up in teams of three and a guide. We set off each morning from one of the mountain refuges onto immense stretches of vast glaciers sometimes before the sun had even begun to rise. We climbed for anything up to ten hours before sitting out all afternoon on cabin verandas under flawless blue skies and a blazing sun to be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking and spectacular scenery of my life.

On the day of the ascent itself a display of cheerful spirits concealed our underlying nervous anticipation. Boots were obsessively checked, feet were covered in plasters, layers of sun cream were applied and kit was meticulously inspected over and over again. The most common obstacle to a successful summit ascent is the weather. It may be baking hot and a picture of alpine paradise down in the valley, but above the snow line things are a very different story and can change within minutes. Fortunately, this was one of the few weeks of the whole season when we had luck on our side and the weather was conducive to the whole group achieving victory.

Climbing Mt Blanc was by far the hardest thing I have ever done physically and running a marathon pales into insignificance in comparison. But my guide played a big part on keeping me focused at each step while all the time having to judge there was enough in the tank to get back again afterwards. I was exhausted, aching and light headed but the exhilarating sense of achievement and the sheer thrill of the experience made every second and ache worth while. It really felt like I was at the top of the world as I gazed down at white fluffy clouds and the surrounding peaks from a perspective high above them. It was also a surreal sight to be standing above a helicopter, hovering at the mountain side and see its whirling blades and roof someway below me.

The memory of this tremendous adventure and the lessons I learnt have stuck with me. Life is full of mountains that spring up at every event, phase and turn. Be it love, work, relationships, friendships, family, travel, hobbies etc. Initially they can appear overwhelming but now every time I come up against a mountain I take a step back and am clear in my mind about where it is I want to get to and what lies at the top. I prepare my attitude so I can move ahead one step at a time. If you deal with a mountain in this way it changes from something overpowering into something manageable and you’ll be amazed at what you are capable of. 

Victoria Martindale

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