In July 2008, a group of 26 women from throughout Europe summited Mont Blanc to mark the bi-centenary of the first female ascent of Mont Blanc and the start of the French presidency of the EU. British representative Lynn Robinson reports on the trip.
6.30pm, 30th June 2008, Goûter Hut (3,817m). Something strange was going on. Instead of the usual male domination round the dining room tables, there are streaks of laughter from a large group of women, 26 women to be precise; each representing a European Union country, I was lucky enough to be representing the UK. By 8.30am the next morning all but three had summited Mont Blanc (4,807m).
The purpose of the trip was twofold: to mark the start of the French taking over the presidency of the EU (highlighting their key messages on climate change) and to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the first female ascent of Mont Blanc by Marie Paradis, a chalet maid from Saint-Gervais.
The previous July I had ruptured my Achilles tendon. It had been a frustrating year, a slow recovery and unable to check routes for the draft new BMC peak guidebooks. However, my rehabilitation was over now and this would be my first big route.
The trip had started the previous week in Paris with speeches and good luck messages from Roselyne Bachelot Narquin, Minister of Health, Youth, Sport and Associations and Bernard Laporte, now Secretary of State for Sport, Youth and Associations, and formerly the head coach of the French national rugby union team.
Once in Chamonix, not much time was wasted before I found myself on the Valle Blanche, having reached it via the cable car to Point Helbronner in Italy. I had never been here before, but had studied all the famous climbs and peaks in books, so it was wonderful to see them up close. My ‘rope partner’ was Rodo from Cyprus and with our excellent French guide we slowly made our way to the Cosmiques Hut (3,611m). We spent a night acclimatising here, not much sleep was had, but we tried to rest. The next morning our acclimatisation programme continued with a traverse of the pointe Lachenal, normal route. A great little mixed route which was good for sharpening up cramponing skills (although they were blunter after the route!).
We then navigated our way up the arête to the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) and examined the route up Mont Blanc that we would be following in a few days time.
That evening we were treated to a special train up to the Montenvers Hotel and several lectures on climate change and its effect on the mountains. For me, the main messages were:
• There has been a 1.5 oC rise in temperature between 1960 and 2004. Global warming is more significant in the mountains than on the plains. The average snow cover is half what it was 50 years ago. The pattern for the future will very much depend on our CO2 emissions.
• Anyone who has visited and revisited the Mer de Glace will be aware of how much it has retracted. In fact, it has lost 150m of thickness since 1900.
• Landslides on The Dru coincide with the years of highest temperatures.
• In relation to biodiversity, buds are arriving 30 days earlier on trees.
The next morning we had a gentle stroll along The Grand Balcon Nord from Plan de l’Aiguille to Montenvers marvelling at the mountains towering above us; The Dru, most prominant. We then attended a debate on sustainable tourism and how Mont Blanc can be kept ‘clean’ – should permits be introduced? Should the number of people on the mountain be limited? There were lots of questions – now it’s time to find and act on solutions.
Our rope work and reaction to exposure were tested the next morning with a via Ferrata; accompanied by Nicolas Sarkozy’s Chief of Staff. In the afternoon a rare rest was allowed at the Spa in Saint-Gervais, in order for us to gather our strength for our ascent.
The next morning a special train had been commissioned to take us from Saint- Gervais up the hour long journey to Nid d’Aigle. We were accompanied by Bernard Laporte and many other dignitaries and well-wishers. After a splendid lunch at the Tête-Rousse Hut (I passed on the wine, although some did not!), Bernard Laporte paraglided back down to Chamonix, whilst we headed up. Thankfully the Grande Couloir was crossed without incident and then an enjoyable scramble up to the Goûter Hut (3,817m). Time to rest/eat/rest – notice I don’t mention sleep. Even though I have ‘slept’ at higher altitudes several times before, I experienced Cheyne-Stoke breathing for the first time – I blame the Swedish representative next to me who started first.
At last the hour to get up arrived and it was a mad scramble to get breakfast and fully geared up before setting off by head torch at 2.40am. It was magical watching the stars twinkling above us, and the head torches winking above and below us. We were treated to hot, sweet tea, pan au chocolate and other goodies at the Vallot observatory (4,362m) that had been opened up especially for us. My ankle was sore and the altitude affecting me but I was confident now. At 8.10am I summited, and posed for the compulsory photos; relaxing, laughing and joking with my new European friends. The weather was magnificent; with a light breeze and a clear sky. The mountains and clouds were laid out before our feet.
All that remained was a mere 2,500m of descent! Luckily I had more hot tea at the Vallot observatory and a big bowl of spaghetti bolognaise at the Goûter Hut to help me on my way. I really enjoyed the descent, as I felt my mountain legs had properly returned for the first time since my injury.
We regrouped at Nig d’Aigle and from the train station at Saint Gervais were whisked straight off to an award ceremony, where my favourite memento is a specially engraved ice-axe, with my name, the event and date of ascent.
Throughout my time in France I was treated extremely well, and I would like to thank everyone who was involved in making the trip such a success. Apart from my personal success on summiting the mountain, I really enjoyed the strong teamwork and friendship that was experienced with the women from around the EU.
For all of us who love the high mountains, the effects of global warming and how it can be stopped needs to taken seriously. The key message for me is THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL, if we want Mont Blanc to be climbable in another 200 years time. Have a read of the BMC’s Environment Policy
and act on it now.