Excerpt republished from Summits of My Life by Kilian Jornet with permission of VeloPress.
Mont Blanc: The Summit Of Pioneers
Mont Blanc, standing at 15,781 feet tall, is the crowning peak of the Alps and one of the most emblematic symbols of alpinism. In fact, it’s where modern alpinism was born when the pioneering expeditions of the late eighteenth century began to attempt the journey to the summit at the request of Geneva scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, who offered a reward to anyone who could make it to the top.
Upon their arrival at the summit on August 8, 1786, Jacques Balmat and Dr. Michel Gabriel Paccard had completed what at that time was considered a real feat, the firstsuccessful attempt to reach the peak of Mont Blanc. The entire trip—leaving from Chamonix, climbing up to the Grands Mulets, and passing between the Rouchers Rouges before making a beeline for the summit—took them 18 hours. After stopping at the top for half an hour, they began their descent down to Chamonix, arriving on August 10.
It was the first of many ascents; the next year, de Saussure himself made it to the summit alongside a large expedition, led in part by Balmat. A few decades later, in 1808, Marie Paradis became the first woman to make it to the top of Mont Blanc. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were many expeditions and ascents, many of them for scientific purposes, but some merely for the purpose of sport. We’ve begun to see evidence of this sporting trend with the discovery of the registers of the earliest records for the ascent and descent of Mont Blanc, like that of Englishman Frederic Morschead, who completed his trip in just 16 hours and 30 minutes on July 20, 1864.
In the twentieth century, the times clocked got more and more impressive. The next man to establish the record was the legendary skier and mountain guide Alfred Couttet, known as “the quickest guide in all of Chamonix.” In 1910 he ascended and descended Mont Blanc in just 12 hours and 45 minutes. This record held firm for 58 years. In the eighties, this time was cut in half, to just over six hours. In 1990, the Swiss Pierre-André Gobet set the new record of 5 hours and 10 minutes. He was 35 years old at the time.
Today, there are many routes to the top of Mont Blanc from Chamonix, including the classic route that passes through Grands Mulets. In any case, alpinists usually take two days for the trip, staying overnight in a high-altitude shelter and taking another day or two to complete the descent. Mont Blanc is one of the most visited mountains today, with about 20,000 alpinists setting foot there each year.
Records and Friendship on Mont Blanc
After adjusting our watches and starting the stopwatch, Mathéo and I shake hands and set off on a run. It’s 4:50 a.m., but it’s not cold out as we leave from the plaza in front of the Chamonix church. We set off in shorts and thermal shirts. Following the principles of the project, we head off with as little gear as possible: a headlamp, 50 feet of rope, 16 ounces of water, two energy gels, and a windbreaker. Mathéo is wearing a hat, but it’s not his usual hat with a pattern that mimics the red polka-dot jersey given to the best mountain climber in the Tour de France; he lost that one in a gust of wind on the Bosses Ridge the last time he attempted the record. The one he has on today resembles the rainbow jersey, with its striped pattern only worn by reigning world champions in cycling. He’s not so sure about this change: “I hope it doesn’t bring me bad luck,” he says to me.
Hats aside, the nerves and the emotions we’re feeling in this moment allow us to concentrate on one thing only: the challenge ahead of us. We know that conditions are good and that today is the day to go for it. Mont Blanc, majestic as always, is only just waking up. It’s still dark out in Chamonix, but from the plaza we can see the headlamps of all those who spent the night at the refuge and are today making their way to the summit. Less than four hours ago, Seb and Vivian headed up ahead of us on skis with their recording equipment to get ready and, on the way, check up on the snow conditions.
We start our climb off well, taking just the amount of time we’d planned. This is a mountain that we know well; we’ve been up and around it so much it feels more like home than anything else. We’re able to follow the usual route up, which we’d checked out a few days before. We have the advantage of running a familiar terrain and a route that we’ve been able to establish in advance. We leave the trees below us as we approach the ever-more rocky terrain that will lead us to Jonction. Then we hit the ice on the Bossons Glacier. Given the heavy snow accumulation over the year, we tie ourselves together for safety as we approach the bergschrund at Grands Mulets. Halfway up we spot Seb and Vivian, who’ve come to cheer us on and film us.
The sun is just now coming out, and it’s an incredible sight. The two of us are using poles to help us ascend more quickly and lightly. The path we carved out a few days ago has held up well, and we continue to follow it; this allows us to make it to the summit faster.
In the last section of the ascent, the headlamps we’d seen from down below become groups of people who are about to do the same thing as we are: make it to the top of Mont Blanc. Once we make it, Mathéo and I stop for just a moment, but we look at each other and immediately know what the other is thinking: After days of planning, intense preparation, and some large doses of hope, we’ve made it to the halfway point of this adventure. It’s been three and a half hours since we left Chamonix, and without losing another second, we start our descent.
Mathéo and I fly down the mountain and make good time on our descent. These are moments of pure joy, and Seb and Vivian are there filming us—us on foot, them on skis. Halfway down, we once again tie ourselves together, but even then we don’t slow down, probably because we’ve made this trip so many times and know it inside and out.
Just when the record seems within our reach, we make a misstep and Mathéo falls, tensing up the rope that unites us. For a few moments we’re worried, but we soon see he’s okay. He’s tripped and fallen into what is thankfully only a small crevasse in the glacier. He’s able to get himself out, and he hasn’t hurt his leg badly. He wants to go on. We continue our descent. Mathéo tries his best; he keeps on running, but after just a few minutes he signals to me and says that he won’t be able to finish the adventure with me. He won’t be able to keep up with the pace we’d set. It’s a tough, unexpected, and emotional situation. We really wanted to make this journey together, and it’s always hard to have to chase a dream like this alone, but Mathéo makes me promise I’ll finish for the both of us. In a moment like this, decisions have to be made in a matter of seconds. I tell myself that I must go on, that I’ve got to give it my all…but it’s a sad, painful moment. We’d been together up until then, and we wanted to finish together, too.
We embrace, and I prepare to resume the descent. I move quickly, but now I don’t have Mathéo to keep me company, to laugh with when we stumble over the rope, or to trade quick words of encouragement with. Seb follows me through this last phase of the descent. I make it back to Chamonix at 9:22 a.m., having left 4 hours and 57 minutes earlier. I’ve set the record, but with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth since Mathéo isn’t here with me. I know how much he would have loved to have been able to stop our watches at the same time. If I had to describe this day with one word, it would be friendship. It’s been amazing to be able to share this with a friend, and I know that even though I’ve finished alone, I share this record with him.
And yet another surprise upon arrival: One of the men waiting for us in the plaza walks up and gives me a red polka-dot hat! He explains that he heard how Mathéo lost his and makes me promise that I’ll give him this one as soon as I see him. I do just that. As soon as we see each other after he arrives in Chamonix, I wave to him with the hat in my hand—what a smile! We hug again, overcome with emotion. Who’s that man who gave me the hat for Mathéo? His name is Jacques Cousin, and he’s the brother of Pierre Cousin, the man who had the Mont Blanc record before Pierre-André Gobet and, by extension, us.