2018: Ultra Royal Traverse of the Mont Blanc Massif

Posted on: March 24, 2020


[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Vivian Bruchez at the Col de Bionnassay. [Photo] Ben TibbettsVivian Bruchez at the Col de Bionnassay. [Photo] Ben Tibbetts

APRIL 21, 2018: COLIN HALEY and I huddled just before midnight at the little chapel above the lake in Champex, at the northeast end of the Mont Blanc massif. We planned to climb and ski an eighty-nine-kilometer high-altitude route across the entire massif in a single push. Though we'd checked the avalanche forecast and the weather appeared stable, we were uncertain about the condition of some of the corniced ridges. I'd barely slept the previous night, and the haziness of my mind now compounded my anxiety.

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Outside the chapel, a streetlamp lit the scene with a dull, orange glow. I put the camera on a wall and set the video to record. Colin shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as I read out a poem, "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver. It was as close to a prayer as I would allow myself. Her words about finding compassion in the wild echoed through me, as if imploring me to question my motives to search for the limits of my endurance.

THE MONT BLANC ROYAL TRAVERSE follows glaciers and snow crests for forty-one kilometers along the main axis of the mountain. In 2012 Kilian Jornet and Stephane Brosse had the idea to extend this classic route into an end-to-end traverse across the entire massif. Their attempt ended abruptly when a cornice collapsed beneath Brosse on the Aiguille d'Argentiere, and he died in a long fall.

In the spring of 2013, Misha Gopaul, Ally Swinton and I set out to try the first half of Jornet and Brosse's traverse. We began at 2 a.m., breaking trail in crusty snow. As we climbed, the fresh drifts became deeper than we expected. By mid-morning, the wind was starting to blow plumes of spindrift off Mont Blanc. Just after noon, Ally went first down the east ridge of the Bionnassay. Misha and I followed in his tracks for a couple hundred meters until they vanished at a small step in the snow. I stopped for a few moments before I realized what had happened: Ally had tumbled down the steep south face in a slab avalanche.

Since we knew there was no safe way to descend to Ally, Misha and I telephoned the rescue services. Time passed slowly while we waited for the helicopter to arrive. But within fifteen minutes, we saw Ally staggering down the glacier 600 meters below. The helicopter rose up the valley to pick him up before it returned to winch Misha and me off the mountain.

IT WASN'T UNTIL THE START of 2018 that I felt ready to try the traverse again. In January, while I was still training, I was caught in a massive avalanche. After skiing across an open slope, I'd waited at a blunt rib that I thought was safe while my friend Lara Kesterton glided toward me. Suddenly the whole slope above us released. Lara was swept 400 meters down the mountain. She was fortunately unhurt, but I was pushed against a tree and buried. Snow blocked my airway, and I was unable to move. I quickly began losing consciousness. Luckily, the third member of our group, Stuart Johnston, found me and dug me out within minutes.

The accident haunted me throughout the rest of the winter, diminishing the appetite I had for risk. I spent the rest of the season skiing on terrain below thirty degrees, where the gentler slopes posed fewer avalanche hazards. Still, the idea of completing Jornet and Brosse's unfinished project drove me. I had no interest in setting some record time while crossing a whole mountain range. But trying to travel nonstop has a certain ascetic appeal. By moving continuously from beginning to end, we'd push through fatigue, hunger, snow and rock to condense all the pain and joy into one discrete experience.

There would be significant risk in attempting this journey that I had begun to refer to as the "ultra-traverse." Even if the snow remained stable, any slip would be fatal on the long, steep ridges. In early spring, I hit on an idea that would give us a much greater security margin: by reversing the route and traveling from the north, we could cross the most exposed slopes at night when the snow was cold and firm.

When it came to preparing with Colin, I realized my aims as a photographer were still somewhat at odds with my drive for security. As he pointed out, the camera I carried weighed more than all our safety equipment.

AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT, Colin and I shuffled up the long Arpette Valley on skis, skittered over the icy snouts of recent avalanche debris and continued to the Col des Ecandies. As we crossed the Trient plateau, a steady breeze kept us moving. We slowed only to unwrap an energy bar or to adjust our boots. The moon had already sunk below the western horizon, and we moved under a vast canopy of stars.

At the Col du Chardonnet, we forfeited our crampons for the sake of speed and dragged our way up a fixed rope. Our boots groped and slid on the icy gully. Crossing the border into France, we put our skis on and carved lazy turns down the coarse snow. The faraway lights of other teams had already appeared high up on the great north faces, little stars flickering on a vertical sea of ice.

Just after 5 a.m., we met our friend Sebastien Montaz-Rosset in the middle of the Argentiere Glacier. We set off upslope as the half-light of dawn filtered over the walls around us. I skinned in circles around Seb and Colin and took a few photos until the exertion left me dizzy with fatigue. At the Col des Cristaux, Colin, Seb and I discussed whether to ski or climb down the south side. Given the hard snow, I thought that it would be safer to down climb. Moving like a gecko, Colin set off in a whirl of limbs and darted out of sight. I rushed after him, more like a marionette than a lizard, until my foot plunged through the crust, and I nearly somersaulted down the slope. I stopped for a moment to calm myself, and then I carried on more slowly.

We gathered on the glacier and skied out into the sunshine. The air temperature began to soar. Battalions of skiers were already pouring down the Vallee Blanche. Three hours later, our friend Vivian Bruchez joined us at the Col du Midi. Colin and I stripped off our boots and dried our fetid feet in the sun. Grumbling about sore heels, Colin muttered something about quitting. An hour slipped by before we finished eating several days' worth of pizza and soda that Vivian had brought in for us. Seb headed back to the valley, and Vivian joined our party for the rest of the climb.

The afternoon passed in a haze. As the evening approached, my lungs rasped in the brittle air. The biting wind froze the right side of my face into a grimace. I bent over my poles, and every time I closed my eyes, the world seemed to dissolve. Seconds later, I would wake with a start to see my boots ablaze on a sheet of blinding gold.

The sun set in the gathering magentas of dusk over the Aravis Range. We put a rope on to pass a few crevasses and then dropped down the crest past the Piton des Italiens and into the darkness. I broke trail for a spell, stamping footsteps into the narrow snow crest of the Aiguille de Bionnassay. As I slowed, Vivian took over and led us to the summit. Trailing a little way behind, Colin's lamplight wove from side to side in the dark.

On the descent, the terrain seemed much steeper than I remembered. From the base of the Bionnassay, the Domes de Miage towered above us in ghastly shapes. We stopped at a hut and drank a few liters of hot water. At 3 a.m., we began the crawl up the crenellated Miage ridge. Over the next few hours, my senses became even more disoriented. When Colin or Vivian spoke, I had to focus all my attention to catch the words and juggle them into meaning. I felt as if I were repeatedly waking up from a general anesthetic in a cold, darkened room.

Denied sleep for yet another night, my consciousness seemed liberated into another dimension, as though I'd entered a dream state. Perhaps that was the very state I hungered for, so far from everyday experience.

When we reached the Montjoie Valley, the sun had risen again on another clear day. Hobbling up to the church in Les Contamines, I found it difficult to express any joy at our achievement. It took a full day of sleep for my senses to recover. As the fatigue wore off, I looked through the few photos I had taken—images that only hinted at the intensity of the experience we shared. I tried to write, urgently piecing together the threads of memory before they faded. After two days, I even wondered if my desire to be up high in the scintillated light had been completely exhausted. For a while I nurtured that luscious perspective, a near bewilderment at the comfort of valley life until it too faded again into habit.

Perhaps somewhere amid my dreams of blinding mountain light, I had found a little of that sense of belonging that Mary Oliver wrote about. No doubt there was more to be found in the search.

[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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