On the list of Seven Summits, Mont Blanc deserves an honorable mention. The birthplace of mountaineering, it is the continental European highpoint based on topographic considerations. For this reason, a few climbers in recent years have opted to ascend nine, rather than seven, peaks in their quest: both Mt. Elbrus and Mont Blanc, for Europe, and both Carstensz Pyramid and Mount Kosciuszko, for Oceania/Australia. At least one scholar has thoroughly explained the distinctions and proposed that the list should include as many as eleven peaks!

It was raining the day I arrived in Chamonix, and so cloudy that, if you didn’t already know it, you’d never suspect that the highest peak in Western Europe is visible from town. As I walked around the place where mountaineering was born, I spotted the bronze statue of the early climbers Horace-Benedict de Saussure and Jacques Balmat pointing toward heaven. I assumed this indicated the direction of the summit. For ten days, I waited for the weather to clear. First, on the French side, then after a week, during which time it got even worse, over on the Italian side, in Courmayeur, located 18 miles away via a tunnel that goes directly beneath the summit. Restless, I spent my days hiking the nearby hillsides, whose blooming alpine wildflower fields were frosted with snow. Finally, I decided to make a partial ascent, via the Aiguille du Midi cable car, knowing that great peaks surrounded by clouds can at least make interesting photographs.

As I paid the woman in the ticket office €47.00 for a one-way ride to the top (I planned to walk down), she warned, “But Madame, zere eez nussing to see up zere right now!” I rode alone in a gondola big enough to hold dozens.

Just a few hundred feet up the clouds grew so dense it was like looking through a glass of milk. And so it remained, all the way to the top. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch of fondue in the charming high alpine restaurant, hoping that, given time, there might be a break. But there was no change at all, so I carefully picked my way toward the downhill trail, and wished I had crampons for the first quarter mile.

While looking through Facebook later that week, I noticed that my friend and great mountaineer Ed Viesturs was also in town, leading a group to the summit as part of a charity drive. He posted a photo of himself postholing in thigh-deep snow, the accumulation of an unseasonable storm that had now lasted ten days. That’s when I called off my own expedition. If that’s what it looked like up there, it would take at least five days of sun to pack it enough to satisfy my concerns about avalanches. And there was no sun in the immediate forecast. I retreated to the South of France, where I could climb and hike in the Calanques, and perfect weather was a sure bet.

I would later learn that the summer of 2014 was one of the deadliest in the Mont Blanc region. At least 14 people were killed and others caught in avalanches during the month after I left. Mont Blanc will be there next year, and hopefully, so will I.

Mont Blanc
Picture 1: Mont Blanc, Photographer: Frederic Gibrat, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli, 2011)
Picture 2: Map of Mont Blanc
Picture 3: Panorama of Mont Blanc, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 4: Ed Viesturs postholing on Mont Blanc, Photographer: unknown
Picture 5: Bronze statue of climbers Horace-Benedict de Saussure and Jacques Balmat, Chamonix, France, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 6: Climbers on Mont Blanc, Photographer: Frederic Gibrat, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli, 2011)
Picture 7: Aiguille du Midi cable car, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 8: The Alpine Club, Chamonix, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 9: The first ascent of Mont Blanc, vintage print, unknown
Picture 10: Climbing a ridge, Photographer: unknown
Picture 11: Mont Blanc covered in clouds, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 12: Mont Blanc range, Photographer: Vincent Favre, published in Mountain, by Sandy Hill (Rizzoli, 2011)