"A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
We came, we climbed, we conquered. It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves! Mont Blanc, what an experience, what a mountain. The mountain that just keeps going, incline after incline from rock climbing to pick-axing your way through ice and snow one step at a time. Pushing all your limits mentally and physically for 3 days in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius. It takes pure grit and determination to reach the summit of Europe's highest peak, standing at 4834m, surrounded by the best team. But wow, what a view.
Before I delve deep into my experience, let's look at some facts. Mont Blanc is located in the French Alps on the boarder of Italy. It is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. Although 20,000 adventurists climb Mont Blanc annually, statically 1 person a week can die trying to summit and only 1 in 15 actually reach the top per trip.
There are several routes up Mont Blanc; we took the Gouter Hut Route which is the classic and most popular route to climb Mont Blanc. Although sometimes referred to as the “normal route”, the Gouter route still commands respect, and requires fitness and acclimatisation as well as skills in scrambling and using crampons.
We took the Bellevue cable car from Les Houches and then the Tramway du Mont Blanc to the Nid d’Aigle at 2372m to get to the start of our trek.
This part of the trek is around 3 hours long. The path gets gradually steeper and more exposed as it zig-zags up to the ridge to our first stop Tete Rousse hut, where we stayed for the night. We had to cross the Tete Rousse Glacier to reach the refuge and the first snow we crossed - we knew I would be warm in shorts! Starting here on day two allows you to cross the Grand Couloir in the cooler temperatures of the night rather than in the heat of the day which is much safer.
Summit Day, Friday 13 July 2018
Our day started at 4am with coffee and breakfast before grabbing our equipment and setting off before sunrise. We were harnessed together in groups of 3 - they chose who paired by assessing our fitness levels and of course me being me wanted to be up front! This is when we started on a steady incline to the Grand Coulior.
This is the most dangerous part of the ascent to the Gouter hut which was our next stop, and serious rockfall accidents occur here regularly so you have to be very aware of your surroundings and listen to your guides.
Some of the path before the Couloir is exposed to rockfall too, with only the very last few metres before the crossing being sheltered. It is glaciated terrain and crampons are required to help grip the snow. We also had our walking poles and pickaxes with harnesses and ropes for safety.
It is essential to move quickly up to the Couloir, pause to check for rocks, and then move quickly across it. Although it is only 30 metres, it requires the most focus. After this you have a 700m vertical climb to the Gouter hut with risks of stonefall so its important to keep moving and aware of your surroundings. The view after this hard climb is incredible, standing at 3800m with the sun still low in the sky. A true sense of achievement!
If you were lucky and quick enough up the vertical climb you could have a second breakfast before the final part of the ascent.
The final ridge before summit, the Bosses Ridge, is an exposed ridge which requires concentration and good crampon technique. This route takes about 4 and a half hours to reach the summit and it really is the mountain that keeps going - you don’t really realise the immensity until the descent!
I had to dig deep and use all the mental strength I had to get me up one very small step at a time but it was 3 steps forward 2 steps back for some parts, with gradients steeper than black ski runs. This is why I train my mind harder than anything because what your mind believes your body will perceive, your body can achieve anything, it is usually your mind you have to convince. For me, my fitness wasn’t the problem it was the perseverance on a challenge that only gets harder as you progress.
This challenge was possibly my toughest one yet, but that only excites me because I’ve pushed limits and understand what I am capable of. The mountain has made a new woman out of me, and a more fierce one at that.
Aside from the immensity of this experience, it was life-changing and unforgettable, my lungs did not complain once. They did not struggle in altitude at all - trekking with Cystic Fibrosis is always a little more challenging with having to take all your medications with you on the mountain but I must say, all the times I have found myself at high altitude I have never felt fitter or stronger and my lungs felt clear and healthy. I believe for me it is these extreme challenges that keep me motivated and alive, thriving for more. After all, this is what I am most passionate about.
It is true to say that a mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to old dimensions. If you have the courage to find a challenge that pushes your limits then do it because your life will be changed for the better, not only for the experience itself but for what you gain! You will know what you are capable of, who you are, what you want out of life and most of all no feeling can beat achieving something that tests everything you’ve got. Trust me when I say, do it once, you will be hooked on finding more.
I am a true believer that we are here for a sole purpose and mine is to leave a legacy behind by being happy, defying odds and living outrageously. I love adventuring despite what others think or what I am told by doctors because of my Cystic Fibrosis and doing extreme challenges such as climbing Mont Blanc which push my mind and body to grow.
I feel so happy, grateful, and lucky to not only have had this experience and stood on the summit that only 5% of the world will see, but to have been able to connect with my inner soul in the mountains with some amazing friends and laugh a lot and it’s only added fuel to the fire and my burning desire to keep adventuring and seeing what I can achieve.
Fill your life with adventures to have stories to tell, it will fill your soul with so much depth, connection to the earth, happiness and love and strengthen your mind knowing you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
About the author: Sophie Grace Holmes was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as a child, a condition that affects the lungs and leaves most sufferers with a life expectancy of only 37 years. She is an inspirational speaker, trainer, and blogger and continues to show the world that through hard work and determination, you can defy the odds and prove that anything is possible.