Chamonix is my spiritual home. It’s a place I can easily get to often for adventure, high mountains and inspiration. I met my wife there too despite the competition. It’s quoted that there is only one woman for every ten blokes. The actual summit dome of Mont Blanc is set back from the town and not that impressive, nevertheless the massif dominates the valley. At 4810m high – nearly 4000m above the bars and boulangeries – Mont Blanc is truly Himalayan in scale. I’ve climbed it five times over 20 years, from three different routes on the French side, including a traverse with my future wife when I proposed on the summit. (On hearing our news her dad quipped, “Are you sure he didn’t say “will you carry me?”). I’ve also skied up and down it with my much younger chum and polar expert Tim Burton. Another ascent beckoned but this time my goal was to fly off by paraglider.
In September ’08 Tim and I were poised to attempt this but were foiled by the weather so we tried again this year. While 5600 competitors were battling their way around Mont Blanc in The North Face Ultra-trail du Mont Blanc at the end of August, Tim and I were firing emails back in forth getting ready. I was already in town to witness this endurance spectacle. It’s mind boggling that 21-year-old Catalan Kilian Jornet, the winner, for a second time, of the UTMB, covered 166kms and 9400m of ascent in 21 hours 22 minutes. The cut-off time is 46 hours and it is stirring stuff watching runners cross the finish line on the wire after two nights of sleep deprivation. I wonder why they put themselves through such an ordeal – perhaps as they might wonder why others fly off or climb big, cold mountains.
We needed a light wind (north to north easterly) to take off safely which is something not generally associated with high peaks. The forecast looked promising and we were reasonably fit having climbed the Gran Paradiso near Aosta to acclimatise.
On summit day, 8th September, my wedding anniversary, we started out with a hundred other climbers. A radiant full moon lit the way. The wind puffed lightly on our left cheeks, from the north-east, as we toiled up the west ridge at a 5m/minute ascent rate, careful not to top out too early when the light would be poor for photographs. It is a big hill and the crowds soon dispersed. At 4365m we rested and it turned much colder. We togged up in duvet jackets and big mitts and fired up our hand warmers. Climbers were already descending past us as we neared the summit. The wind freshened but neither of us mentioned this as if to speak it would guarantee it would be too strong to fly (20km/hr max is recommended). Suddenly, a glider wing reared up into view over the summit crest and the pilot was airborne. It was flyable!
Just below the summit, Tim got away first with an excited yelp. As I prepared to follow, the wind picked up and my glider sloshed around on the slick snow surface. The lines tangled and I descended 100m to sort them out in lighter wind. After an hour of flailing I was finally in the sky into silky smooth lifting air. I beat back and forth in front of and 200m above the summit, alone.
After 20 minutes of soaring, I settled back to savour the 40 minute glide to the landing field, with the occasional burble of turbulent air to remind me how vulnerable I was. The panoramic view was immense across into Italy and Switzerland and I thought about those 5600 runners who only a week before pitted themselves against this mountain too. Perhaps I have more in common with them than I thought.
Thanks to Martin Nemec at SKY Paragliders for my CIMA mountain glider.
All photographs © Tim Burton www.timburtonphotography.com