14 May 2012
About 15 years ago I felt the need for an adventure. I asked my friends Tim and Chris Housler if they were up for it and dragged Stosh along as well. We flew to Zurich, Switzerland, rented a car, and then drove to Interlaken. A company called Adventure World operated out of Wildersville and we had arranged to do 3 days of fun mountain sports. We climbed walls, repelled down them, and used zip lines to traverse across mountain gorges. The 300 meter bungee jumping had to be called off due to rain. We stayed in a mountain hut in Grindenvald (sp) that was very basic and rustic. The mornings brought the sounds of rushing water and upon opening up our wood shuttered window we were treated to a direct view of the Eiger with waterfalls streaming off its face. From there we traveled to Chamonix were the big adventure had been arranged. One day we went onto the glacier and climbed ice walls, the second day we hiked up a mountain called the Brevent, and on the third day I had arranged for us to climb Mount Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe. Tim and Chris wisely decided that they weren’t up for the climb and went canyoning instead. Canyoning is where you put on rubber body pads and basically shoot down rapids then jump off ledges into the river below. They had a great day of it.
Stosh and I met our guide Maria at the mountaineering center in Chamonix. Maria was a very accomplished climber having been on Everest 4 times assisting with the shooting of the IMAX movie. We rented ice axes, helmets, crampons, and carried our gear in backpacks. Mount Blanc has two classic routes to the top. The first involves taking a gondola called the Aguile du Midi way up the mountain, and the second is the Route de Goutier (sp) where you take a train up the back side of the mountain, hike a very long path, do some light technical climbing, then spend the night in a hut located about 2/3rds of the way up.
The hut was about the size of two double wide trailers stacked on top of themselves. You would never guess how many climbers they could cram into it – about 200. You slept in a room that was maybe 14’ wide by 12’ deep. On both sides where bunks stacked three high. You would put you gear in towards the end and use it as a pillow then climb in to a space shoulder width wide. So each room similar in size to a normal bedroom held 36 climbers. They had a small commissary that served vegetable broth and bread. The toilets where tubes you sat on and your waste fell thousands of feet straight below them. It was weird to look down the toilet shoot and not see the bottom.
On the way up I started to develop altitude sickness. It became exasperated overnight as I couldn’t breathe but shallow draws of air. Stosh, sleeping next to me, knew I wouldn’t make it the next day. We started for the summit later then the rest of the climbers. It was around 4:00am when we left the hut and started the long trudge to the top. About ½ mile up you could see headlamps streaming up the mountain far ahead of us. I asked Maria if they were near the top and she laughed and said their only a quarter of the way up. That was it for me. I didn’t want to ruin Stosh’s climb so I want back to the hut.
About 8 hours later the door to the hut popped open and a man stumbled through it. Frozen with ice from head to toe he was unrecognizable until he came close and I saw it was Stosh. All he said is “I’m cold, so effin cold. He drank some soup broth and warmed up then told me the tale of the summit. Maria had him clipped into her on a short tether and mile after mile through blinding snow and darkness they had trudged along. Several times he doubted he could make it but she kept pulling on the tether saying “It’s ok, we’ll make it”. It was near dawn when they reached the summit, took a picture, turned around and unceremoniously descended.
We started down shortly afterwards and upon reaching the ice fields left the normal trail and walked out on the snowpack. We sat, took our crampons off our boots, and then slid down on our rumps, using our ice axes to slow our speed. Meanwhile, we saw many helicopters flying up the mountain sides. Hour after hour they made accents then flew back to town.
Before too long we were back to Chamonix only to find out that 8 climbers had died that day on the summit. Some had frozen to death and some had fallen in groups. It was the deadliest day on the mountain in 20 years. It was July when this happened.
I’m writing this story because for the second time I’ve dragged Stosh along on one of my adventures, only to have it come close to killing him.