"I think the word 'adventure' is really each our own to define' - Jonny Stage
The Sandgrouse Explorers Club: High Altitude Cirque du Soleil on Mont Blanc
Words by Jonny Stage. Pictures by Zsolt Kovacs.
The ultimate prize: 2m by 2m at 12,605ft above sea level or, rather, standing on top of the famous Aiguille du Midi with my friends. From here the alpine town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc on the valley floor looks more like it might if you were sat comfortably cruising on a passenger jet on your way to your next vacation. The sense of achievement on reaching our goal is intoxicating; yet still I only allowed the emotion to simmer away modestly. Best to keep composed, as I am reminded by the sheer drop of thousands of feet that one false move could be it!
(Standing on the Aiguille du Midi, having climbed the famous Arête des Cosmiques - Mont Blanc).
To the uninitiated it's hard to describe this tiny spot and the feelings that go with being here. The views are utterly spectacular. The air is thin and both crisp and clean. It feels healthier than where we've come from. Our senses are heightened up here: I find myself acknowledging even the simple act of breathing, where usually the process is totally tucked away in the realm of the subconsious. Each breath I now take stings my nostrals. "Savour it", I tell myself, "drink that view in, Jonny" - it's moments like this I feel most alive.
How did I find myself on top of the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc Massif?
The journey to get to this special place was a long one, although the actual act of our climb was short by comparison. Months of training in posh London gyms, several snatched, very wet weekends in the dreary Welsh mountains followed by days of endless kit drying spread throughout my cramped city flat, (much to the dismay of my housemates). Some of the many steps, all part of getting here.
Four hours non-stop climbing up the iconic Arête des Cosmiques or Cosmiques Ridge. Having only taken up rock-climbing 6 months earlier and most of my experience being on an indoor wall in Britain, I was having a baptism by fire into the world of alpinism! But cruicially I was loving it.
(With views like this, it was hard not to be in awe of the environment we had entered).
"I learned in this short but absolutely exhilarating climb that throughout it all a mind-over-matter outlook is paramount in all our endeavours and that in the end, I was looking to prove something to myself most of all." - Jonny Stage, Sandgrouse Travel.
(Using a crack in the granite rock face, we shimmied ourselves gingerly further up the mountainside).
Reaching this particular summit has been part of a calculated, steady procedure. Gently we have increased our exposure to altitude and the world of alpine mountaineering, for over the course of this week we are on our way towards the roof of Europe. The Aiguille du Midi is on paper, a mere stepping stone to greater, loftier achievements; however it is for me just as exciting. Pretty much all famous mountaineers have done this route at some point in their careers, cutting their teeth so to speak. The Aiguille du Midi is also hugely identifiable, as it's an obvious landmark locally. High above the alpine town of Chamonix with its cathedral-like spires, she stands looking most formidable.
(Abseiling down one of the many gullies. Along the ridge in order to go up, it was occasionally necessary to go down).
(As the sun sets on the Aiguille du Midi, the whole mountain takes on a glorious red-orange glow. Form the valley floor this often looks pink, but from up here we were blessed with a spectacular colour display).
"Because in the end, you won't remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb the goddam mountain." - Jack Kerouac.
Life begins outside your comfort zone
At times on the way up, I did wonder what I was doing. Could I even do what I had set out to achieve here and what was I truly looking for up this exposed peak? Questions I could not answer during the ascent. Was I looking for some recognition? Surely not, here on a lonely mountainside above the charmingly peaceful town far below, no one can even see let alone acknowledge what you're actually doing.
On reaching our goal, the summit, I think it all clicked for me. I learned in this short but absolutely exhilarating climb that throughout it all, including the many months leading up to this brief moment, that a mind-over-matter outlook is paramount in all our endeavours and that in the end, I was looking to prove something to myself most of all.
Cliché it may be, but this mountaineering experience changed me.
(Looking out across the Vallée Blanche and the rest of the European Alps).
Now back down off the mountain, I am fortunate enough to be able to go to that place whenever I like - which is something not many people have the privilage of doing. Standing on the peak again now (if I recall it in my memory), looking out across most of the European Alps, I'm pleased I kept wriggling up the cracks and tight chimneys. Of course I wouldn't have reached this special place without constant encouragement, every step and hand-hold of the way, from my experienced and highly professional mountain guide.
From here we can see Mont Blanc behind us (our final aim to be tackled later in the week), Monte Rosa in Italy (another favourite acclimatisation peak before Mont Blanc) and even the most iconic mountain in Europe, perhaps the world, the Matterhorn over in Switzerland.
Words by Jonny Stage. Pictures by Zsolt Kovacs.
Do you dream of climbing Mont Blanc? The highest mountain in Western Europe.
Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions offer the chance to climb Mont Blanc along with the Aiguille du Midi and a number of other european peaks. Look out for more details on our website soon.
All expeditions are accompanied by a professional alpine guide with a ratio of one guide to two climbers and availability is limited so it is important to start planning your trip with us many months ahead of your departure date. Remember, training is also a vital part of success in the mountains so the earlier you have decided on your trip dates the sooner you can start your training regime which we are happy to advise on.
(The Aiguille du Midi stands proud in the pre-dawn light).
(Other expeditions on the Vallée Blanche dug in for the night - they look more like craters on the surface of the moon. Rewards of our mountain endeavour.).