Let me preface this story by revealing that I failed in my attempt to summit Mont Blanc. Europe’s tallest peak stood unconquerable while I withered on its snowy slopes. If you were expecting a story about success against all odds, this isn’t it. No, this is a story about failure and the lessons that you can glean from it.
Last year, the luxury brand Montblanc, known for its timepieces, writing instruments and leather accessories, asked if I would be interested to climb the mountain it is named after. The trip was part of Montblanc’s campaign for its 1858 watch collection, which was inspired by mountain exploration. The brand had also invited veteran local mountaineer Khoo Swee Chiow to lead the expedition.
If there was a human embodiment of the Spirit of Exploration, Swee Chiow was definitely it. On the other hand, my explorations were usually limited to finding the best local-frequented bars in foreign cities.
But I have never turned down a challenge. I’ve run marathons – in proper running gear and in a suit. I’ve fought in amateur bouts. In my mind, climbing a mountain would just be yet another obstacle that can be hurdled easily enough with physical strength and endurance combined with mental fortitude. So, I said yes.
Before the Climb
It wouldn’t be my first time on the Alps. I’ve been on those rocky bits before, just below the parts where global warming had yet to impose its dire effects and snow six inches thick made for pretty postcards. This was in 2016 when a sports giant held an ultra-marathon team relay that I was part of. So I felt I had some idea of what to expect, and all I had to do was to prepare myself physically for the challenge.
My training for the Mont Blanc ascent comprised long steady state runs to improve my cardio, and climbs up Bukit Timah Hill on weekends, on top of my usual lifting and rock climbing regime.
In rock climbing, each route you tackle is graded. A higher number is indicative of a tougher climb. Similarly, alpine peaks are graded on the universal Alpine System, which starts from F, for ‘Facile’ which is French for ‘easy’, to ED for ‘Extremement Difficile’. The route we were going to take slid in with a grade PD+ which is ‘Peu Difficile’ or a little difficult with a cherry on top, thanks to the addition of the plus sign. By comparison, the easiest route up Everest is rated as AD for Assez Difficile denoting fairly hard, one grade above PD.
However, according to Swee Chiow, the use of siege tactics – establishing routes with fixed ropes, ladders and other equipment – and porters have made the Everest ascent significantly easier, and less difficult than the Mont Blanc ascent.
“In fact, you can probably reach the summit without ever using the ice axe,” he said, right at the moment when we plunged our own ice axes into the snow in an effort to steady ourselves on a particularly steep incline on our way up to Aiguille du Midi.
Mont Blanc is also the world’s deadliest mountain, averaging 100 fatalities a year and an estimate of 8,000 deaths in total.
On the other hand, Everest has claimed about 375 people.
These statistics weighed heavily on my mind on the first day of the ascent, which was a crash course on alpine climbing.
Alpine climbing is different from rock climbing, as I found out on the treacherous glaciers. First, walking on snow requires you to wear crampons on your boots. These spiky foot implements help you to plant yourself on the soft snow. However, when you’re scampering up and down slippery rocks, they can be a hindrance.
Secondly, you’ll need to be adept with the ice axe and ski poles. They can be tricky to use, especially when you’re not accustomed to swinging or stabbing them deep into the snow. But they’re important tools for saving you from the final danger.
Lurking beneath the snow are giant chasms that can swallow mountaineers whole if they’re not careful. The ice axe and ski pole prevent you from sinking in too deep into the snow and into the hungry crevasses. They’re easy enough to spot if you have ample alpine mountaineering experience. Swee Chiow had 10 days of training on the slopes of New Zealand a decade ago and since then, has clocked multiple alpine summits. I had eight hours.
Last summer, French officials imposed an eight-day climbing restriction after a spate of deaths, many of which involved ill-prepared and badly equipped climbers. It was the first time such a restriction had been imposed. Only mountaineers with a reservation at Gouter Hut, a pit stop for climbers to spend the night before making the final push towards the Mont Blanc summit at 2am, would be allowed anywhere near the mountain.
I wasn’t sure if I would be considered ill-prepared but after having only worn crampons the first time in my life on that glacier and repeatedly plunging my feet, more used to grass and cement, into minor crevices that made my heart stop more than once, I was beginning to respect the mountaineers and military personnel who climbed this very mountain back in the ’20s and ’30s armed with only a Minerva pocket watch and sheer force of will.
It was these vintage watches they wore on their expeditions that inspired the Montblanc 1858 collection, which welcomed two new colours – bronze and green – into the family this year. The memories of their adventures, however, motivated me to carry onward.
I had also underestimated the physical exertion required. Having dwelled at sea level my entire life, my body was used to oxygen-rich air. Prior to the trip, I knew that the atmosphere would be a lot thinner at 3,000 metres above sea level, having experienced it first-hand during my run around Mont Blanc two years before. But that was at 2,000 metres above sea level. A kilometre makes a huge difference, as I found out while climbing the massive glacier on our way to the Aiguille du Midi peak.
Two hours into our snowy trek that seemed to stretch upward towards an uncertain end, my leg muscles were leaden with fatigue. Each step was harder than the last, and became exponentially more painful.
In the first hour, the only stops we made were for taking photographs. We steadily made our way to the peak, confidently striding through snow and climbing up rocks.
By the fourth hour, however, our consistent progress had turned into a crawl and we would take short breaks every 10 steps, our lungs desperately gasping for any oxygen that the thin Mont Blanc air could provide us. As each hour passed, these breaks got progressively longer.
By the seventh hour, every step was accompanied by a wheeze, a swear and a wipe of the brow. The body refused to follow the mind’s instructions and it felt like the mountain had sapped all our energy.
I had to mentally push myself forward, to put one leg in front of the other, but even the strength of the mind could not overcome the enormous amounts of lactic acid that had built up in my body.
Reaching the Aiguille du Midi peak also required us to climb a jagged rock face. Fortunately, my rock climbing experienced proved useful in spotting hand- and foot-holds. However, I had never climbed with a heavy backpack on my back and crampons on my feet, which subtly shifted my centre of gravity. And on one particularly tough route, this change would affect my climb.
We had to traverse a 90-degree incline to reach our next objective. Below us were jagged menacing rocks. I remember gingerly making my way across and making sure that I had at least three points of contact on the rock face. Then, as I slowly shifted my body weight onto another foothold, my backpack lurched forward. My leg slipped and before I could react, I was sliding down.
The rope around my waist pulled me taut and I sprung back like a marionette. The French guide had looped the rope around a boulder, stopping me in my plunge.
No Superstars Up Here
The mountain humbles you. Any inkling of an ego and you will likely find yourself a statistic. I had accomplished many things in my life but the Mont Blanc peak was beginning to prove a bridge too far.
During dinner on the first evening, I made the decision not to push for the summit. The memory of the fall as well as the whiteout that rendered visibility close to zero while we were descending the mountain were still fresh on my mind.
I felt dejected and Swee Chiow kept quiet, sensing the turbulent emotions I was feeling. Then, he said, “You know, the mountain is like life. It’s always going to be there for you to conquer. You can choose to avoid it, which is fine, or you can try to summit it again.” That was all he needed to say.
For many folks, the slogan for Montblanc’s 1858 collection – the spirit of exploration – would be just that. A slogan. For me, two days on the mountain made me realise it was more than that. It was a way of life.