We woke up without having any concept of what lies ahead, this was good as you have a kind of nervous excitement but with a real desire to just get on with it.
In my mind I had broken down the next 24 hours into 7 parts:
Part 1 - Train station (2,300m) to Grand Couloir (3,300m)
Part 2 - GC
Part 3 - GC - Gouter Hut
Part 4 - Gouter Hut (3,817m) - Mont Blanc summit (4,808m)
Part 5 - Descend Mont Blanc summit - GC
Part 6 - GC
Part 7 - GC - train station
The above gives you an idea to the level of importance that I had placed on crossing the Grand couloir!
The train ascends to 2,372m from Saint Gervais to Nid d'Aigle and takes you through some spectacular scenery। Our guide told us how the French had originally put in place plans to take the train right up to the summit but changed their plans perhaps realising how difficult it would be.
We were joined by an additional guide for this part of the trip - a Frenchman called Jean Luc who was clearly an experienced guide. The journey from the train station to the GC was step and hot (still 20+ degrees) we passed mountain goats that can bite your leg off with their teeth apparently and marmots and within 2 hours reached snow level at the tete rousse hut (3,167m)
The foreboding GC was visible and unnerving from here। As we approached the gully Andy told us that if he said 'RUN' then we were to run, his tone was serious which unnerved us. Andy changed the rope so we were linked together on a smaller 'leash' and we walked to the edge of the couloir.
The couloir is about 20 metres wide and its fair to say that we were nervous to the point of deciding whether we needed to actually go on, was it worth the risk? were we being irresponsible? The problem with the couloir is its steepness and when combined with the recent sunny weather from the last week the result was a deadly area very unstable। The aim was to hit it before the sun had warmed up the rocks and caused them to expand as then they would dislodge.
Andy told us to get ready he looked up (to check for falling rocks) then across then up again then he shouted 'RUN' My mind went blank and all I remember thinking was that he wasn't supposed to say that - were we trying to dodge the rocks had he seen some falling?
We got halfway across and then I tripped and hit the floor, my right knee taking the full impact of the fall, I nearly brought Anitia down with me। I scrambled to get back up conscious that any delay would put us in greater danger, my knee was throbbing but the adrenaline carried me to the other side.
We made it! We made it in one piece.......er but we have to cross that again to get back down....was my first thought!
We seemed to have managed to stop in what may have been the toilet! There was a distinct smell where clearly people who were as nervous as us had taken the opportunity to pause and reflect on the last 2 minutes of their life!
From the 'toilet' we could see a step scramble to the Gouter hut probably about an hour (more likely 2 hours with a problematic knee!)। The climb was tough going and reaching the hut mean't that the first half of our journey was completed successfully by 3pm. We celebrated with a sandwich and..... coffee in a bowl!
The rest of the evening panned out as follows:
3.30pm - 6pm - sleep with ice on my knee to prevent swelling
6pm - eat plus plenty of water
7pm - try to sleep
7.30pm - toilet
8pm - toilet again (altitude makes you feel like you need the toilet all the time especially just as you get comfortable in your bed).
This time on the way to the toilet we saw a helicopter flying overhead and landing at the bottom of the Grande Couloir। We also heard shouts from the bottom of the GC and then saw the biggest rock slide (see video)
Rocks the size of fridges came bouncing down and sometimes over the top of the gully, it lasted about 10 minutes। This was scary to think we had been there only 7 hours prior, the full force and speed of these rocks meant anyone who had commited to crossing the couloir stood very little chance। We hoped that the shouts were from people who had seen the slide early enough.......
8.30pm - try to sleep
9.30pm - toilet
10pm - 1.15am - try to sleep very ineffectively.