The Wall Street Journal - The Highs of Climbing Mont Blanc
October 31, 2014

Hiking up western Europe’s highest mountain in a weekend is a steep — but satisfying — task.

It's just after midnight but the snow is glistening in the light of a harvest moon—and our headlamps. I look up, enchanted, at the silhouettes of jagged Alpine peaks and processions of fellow climbers. Despite the physical task ahead—and against my guide’s wishes—I pull out my camera to capture some video. But halfway up the first face, I realize I’ve forgotten my ice ax in the scramble to repack and have to hike back to retrieve it. As much as I cherish that footage, I realize I should have conserved my energy. There’s a serious mountain to climb.

To scale Mont Blanc on the Cosmiques route, climbers must first tackle two peaks of around 4,300 meters each. There’s the steep, exposed terrain of Mont Blanc du Tacul and the more technical climb up Mont Maudit. Two days into the expedition, with those two behind us, and after six hours traversing ice fields and skirting crevasses, I know we must be close to the target. Still, I feel uncertain about my own stamina, and I can already hear myself muttering, “I am reaching my limit.”

Not that my guide, 15 meters ahead of me at the other end of our connecting rope, can hear. I want to tell him I’m done but I feel too exhausted to draw breath and shout. It’s easier to push on. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because I don’t want to quit.

I’ve climbed on other continents, but the highest mountain in the Alps has fascinated me since I was a girl. I’d sworn to myself I would reach the top—a foolish promise. When it comes to mountains, the weather, snow conditions and physical ability should always take precedence over personal ambition.

I can barely feel my feet, rubbed raw by rigid boots, and when an ice bridge collapses and I fall into a crevasse—dangling by my rope in midair—my overwhelming emotion is relief at having the weight off my feet. When my guide winches me out, my body is giving up but my mind takes over. I focus on planting one foot in front of the other. I mirror my guide’s pace so the rope doesn't become too taut or too slack. There are sensational views all around, but I can only stare at my boots.

With my eyes cast down, the summit appears suddenly. From 4,800 meters up, the world seems to sweep away. We high-five, secure the mandatory summit photograph and then slump down on the snow. For one still moment, I gaze about me at the ethereal view. Then we turn to head back down.

Everyone who’s attempted a mountain knows the summit is only the halfway point. The descent is often the tougher stretch, with the pull of the peak gone and any “summit high” wearing off quickly. My pace slows despite the very real threat of falling “seracs,” irregular masses of glacial ice, and I find myself fantasizing—almost hallucinating—about a helicopter rescue. I cannot speak about grit or determination. I make it back by plodding. When I finally pull off my boots, I feel as if the laces have somehow kept me tied together.

Without question, I asked too much of myself. But perhaps that’s the point: asking too much of ourselves makes us feel more alive. Mont Blanc rarely offers solitude or serenity at the summit. But it does give climbers huge satisfaction, and it’s astonishing how swiftly the trauma morphs into triumph. When friends ask about my trip, I hear myself speaking of adrenaline highs and spectacular views. And I confess I’m soon dreaming up a plan to climb a near-6,000-meter peak in Ladakh.

THE LOWDOWN // Mont Blanc in Three Days

The Timing: June-September

The Guides: The French Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne ( and Italy’s Guide Alpine Italiane ( offer information on guide services to the peak.

The Itinerary: Thursday night // Fly into Geneva, hire a car and drive about an hour to Chamonix. Check into your hotel and meet up with your guide. Friday // Leave for the Italian side of the Alps. Head up by cable car to the Torino refuge to test gear and begin acclimatizing. Sleep at the refuge. Saturday // Cross the Vallée Blanche, up to the Aiguille du Midi. Arrive at the Refuge des Cosmiques for dinner and a nap. Sunday // Wake up at 1 a.m. to push for the summit before dawn. Descend to Chamonix. Drive to Geneva and take the last flight home.