Wonderland or the Wages of Fear

This strongly worded and honest account of a descent of the normal route on Mont Blanc was written by my French colleague Jean Annequin. A team of 3 people has translated it, trying as much as possible to preserve the spirit and emotion of the original, which you can find here. I contacted Jean to gain his permission to reproduce it after seeing the link posted by Jon Bracey. It’s a powerful piece that deserves to be shared with an Anglophone readership.

On 6 August 2013, exiting from the Innominata ridge on Mont Blanc, I asked myself how I should descend from the summit of the White Mountain. It was 8.30am; the wind was strong but not overly so. We’d just done the ridge in 6 hours. Everyone was in good shape: Jeem who I was roped up with, Mamat and his client Pascal. At the summit, we met teams arriving from the Goûter hut.

A few years ago I promised Christelle I wouldn’t go via the Goûter any more. Too long but above all too dangerous in high summer because of the rockfall, the crowds and especially the incompetence of most of the climbers on this route.

In the 90’s when I was an aspirant, I did back to back ascents and descents this way. It was total madness that made no sense except to earn money to pay the bills at the end of the month. Taking all routes together, I’ve been to the summit 117 times.

At any rate, the forecast on Tuesday morning was for strong wind and storms at the end of the morning. Descending by the Goûter meant we could lose altitude rapidly. Mamat had gone this way many times in July. Conditions were good.

We dropped down towards the arête des bosses to enter Wonderland: on the wall of the last “bosse” before the final snow ridge, we met a rope of 8 people….. yes – 8 people on the same rope on a 35° slope. Each one was lying on his ice axe, wrapped up in hats, balaclavas and hoods so that they could only see the colour of the boot soles of the one in front. These zombies staggered upward. Passing them, I thought “what a stupid way to rope up”. Nobody can hold anyone else or maybe everyone more or less hangs on thanks to the person in front. 10 meters lower, I realised that if they slipped it would be a disaster. They would cheesewire everyone below. Let’s get out of here! And most of all, let’s not look back.

On the descent of the Dome du Goûter, a mountaineer was sat in the snow in a hollow. Leaning on his flask, he wasn’t moving. Looking to the right and left, I realised that the hollow he was sat in was in fact a large crevasse and a few meters from where he was sat there was a black hole. I lengthened my rope and stopped to tell him he was over a crevasse. Haggard, he looked at me and lay down. I tried in English, but that didn’t work. I signed to him to not stay there… nothing. Quick, run away to avoid seeing what might happen to him

Arriving beside the new Goûter hut, a worker was trimming the cornice with a snowblower. What a nice engine noise up here, mixed with the beautiful smell of two-stroke. The ridge linking the old and new huts was equipped with thick ropes with stakes every 2 meters. A lovely fun fair! The ridge of the Aiguille du Goûter was littered with human shit. On average every 2 meters, hard ones, liquid ones, vomit…. You’d think the toilets of the new hut weren’t working or there weren’t enough for everyone or the food is so good that 20 meters after leaving the hut almost everyone needs to shit or throw up!!!! What a great place. We’d thought about stopping to have a drink and see inside but we said to ourselves that if the interior is as welcoming as the exterior then it would be best to get out of there. So on we went to the north face of the Aiguille du Goûter.

From the balcony of the old hut, I looked down the face. What a slagheap this face is.

I’ve often been accused of being a mountain elitist, of being pretentious because I had the chance to do other routes than this “voie normale”. And so I can honestly say that I’ve often been on this slagheap, and that I’ve contributed to the path on this vertical scree field.

Today, after 21 years in the guiding business and almost 37 years in the mountains, I can honestly say I think this face is ugly. Leaving aside the risks for the moment, nothing is attractive here. There are so many mountains where the route is aesthetic, where the colour of the rocks is attractive or where your eye isn’t drawn towards infamous gullies giving a vision of hell. So many easy mountains where the beauty isn’t only linked to the scenery but also to the route.

The ordeal started. Cables, cables, above all so you don’t leave the track and dislodge a rock. Watching the ascending teams to pass them at the right time, keeping an eye on teams descending above us to react in time if they dislodge a rock. I admire guides who remain calm and climb this route regularly. I admire less the ones without helmets. Maybe they’ve got harder heads than the rest of us. Or maybe they’re happy-go-lucky? It must be great to be so carefree!!!

We met more teams. Not so many guides that day. And even fewer French ones. Is this a sign the profession is evolving? Or the mess of a reservation system at the Goûter hut has put everyone off. They prefer to leave from the Tête Rousse or go by the 3 Monts? Perhaps.

At the crossing of the couloir there was a traffic jam. Lots of stones were falling and everyone was hesitating. I stepped over 3 teams, passed 2 more and arrived at the entry to the couloir. A shout came from above. In what language? I couldn’t tell. Mamat went first. I could watch the traverse and check for stones coming down. Then it was his turn to watch for me from the other side. An alpinist in front of us hesitated, committed, then turned back. I gave him a mouthful. Frankly all this shit really pisses me off. I went round the hesitating guy and committed. “Jeem – you just look at your feet. You concentrate and give it all you’ve got”. Snow for 15 meters, across some gravel then 10 more meters of snow. And don’t stop at the end. When stones ricochet you can even get hit on the arête. I carried on…. And imagine my surprise: in front of me are 3 blokes out for a good time. Kitted out for trail running: tights, skin tight t-shirts, 15 liter packs with tubes sticking out everywhere, low-cut trainers, helmet, harness but no rope. But if they let their tongues hang out any further they’ll catch all the flies in the couloir!!! I asked myself if the choice of wearing skimpy trail running kit was because they:

  • want to lighten their packs as they’re worried they won’t get to the top if they overload themselves
  • want to be like Killian Jornet but don’t have his skill as an alpinist

50 meters further, I met 2 more “alpitrailers”. I’m not sure if the term exists.

The one thing I hope is that the organisers of these big circus games (like the UTMB) don’t decide to organise these follies in the high mountains. Already I find that they mess up the lower hills for a week, so they mustn’t encroach into this small space of freedom. I admire the capacities of these runners. Last year I was in the Crête Sèche hut with Cathi, Jeem and Simon and we met a young couple doing a 5 day tour from hut to hut. Little mountain paths with a minimalist pack. It was really nice to see and a million miles from these village carnivals.

To conclude this little snapshot of the normal route on Mont Blanc, I felt distant from what I love about the mountains. During the descent from the Goûter, I was as tense as a bowstring. A kind of pressure was pushing me to get off the Goûter as quickly as possible. Is that mountaineering? Is it normal to want to run away, to be afraid of what other alpinists beside you will do? Is this why I go up there? To see this surrealist hut where they’re afraid that alpinists will get lost and so they put fixed ropes on the Goûter arête?

NO, NO and NO

Being away from the crowds, in a beautiful environment, on a beautiful route, being in a wild area. Whatever the difficulty.
For me the mountain is just a pretext to experience intense emotions together. The environment and the people who live there contribute to this enormously.

Happy mountaineering – enjoy it but be selective about where you choose to go.