CocoPro ambassador Amy Kilpin shares her incredible experience of achieving her lifelong goal of reaching the Mont Blanc summit. As a triathlete, Amy explains how the differing demands of mountaineering challenged her, whilst she reflects on how pushing herself beyond her anticipated capabilities resulted in the trip of a lifetime.
Taking on Mont Blanc
I might be a triathlete, but by default this puts me in a certain ‘personality type’ bracket. I am a fully self-confessed, unadulterated, goal-driven over-achiever. What does this mean, apart from slightly anal non-conformist tendencies? Well, it means I always want the next thing. The bigger thing. The better thing.
Before I got into triathlon in a big way, I spent a few years quite obsessively rock climbing. Not that I’m a typical Type-A or anything… I also did a bit of mountaineering, and it was this big scary stuff in the mountains that really lit my enthusiasm for the sport.
I completed an alpine mountaineering course in 2011, learning how to use an ice axe and crampons, and I climbed all over the UK and even around the world, including Thailand and Spain. I even did a spot of ice climbing (yep, a frozen waterfall). I read every book on mountaineering that’s out there. Basically, lots of people die. It’s actually quite depressing.
But apart from the more masochistic side to this dangerous activity, it really is amazing. My passion didn’t just die away when I started to take triathlon a bit more seriously, but it took a back seat while I ran around learning how to swim and ride a bike (still learning). I managed to do the odd indoor climbing session and bimbled around UK mountains a bit, but as for the rest of it – it sat in my head like some hazy dream I’d one day (maybe) return to.
It came back though, and on my (rather ambitious) bucket list, a mountain sat in majestic pipe-dreamery: Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.
When planning my 2018 year of “stuff I want to achieve”, I decided to bite the bullet and booked the Mont Blanc summit climb trip. Originally, I was going to do this climb three weeks after IRONMAN Austria (easy), but after having to pull out from Austria due to a tendon injury in my foot, I was quite glad to have this other challenge to focus on. Training? Nah. I’m pretty fit anyway, right?! It’ll be fine….
I arrived at the airport and met the five solo travellers (all male) that would accompany me on the expedition. Standard. Banter flowed and spirits were high as we went higher and higher into the mountains, with ever-more incredible views, ever-thinner air, and an ever-growing sense of trepidation and excitement about what was to come.
We spent some nights in mountain refuge huts to help us acclimatise for the summit attempt. Here’s the thing about mountain huts – they’re an interesting deviation from real life. No phone signal, no running water, no shower for days, pretty much non-existent hygiene, and sleeping on a bunk bed of unwashed linen with 20 other people in the room. And the same clothes you’ve been wearing (and sweating in) for days. Because in the mountains, it’s pretty important to carry as light a pack as possible.
Other than that we were well-fed and certainly well-acclimatised to card-playing at altitude. I was nursing some pretty brutal blisters (I think that’s putting it lightly – half the skin on my heels was missing!) but knew that if I wanted to make this dream summit, I’d need to block out superficial pain like that.
We headed up to spend the night before the summit at an altitude of 3200m, full of trepidation and excitement over what was to come. On summit day, we were up at 4am in the pitch black, getting kit together and forcing down a breakfast of cereal, and cake with Nutella spread on it. (It’s the small wins in life).
The first section of the climb was known as “the wall” and is a literal rock climb up a vertical face. After two hours of vertically-exhilarating exertion and some minor rock fall across the sketchy ‘death zone’ called the Grand Colouir, which is known for potentially fatal rock fall, we arrived onto the snow field. We took a brief rest stop in the next mountain refuge hut to refuel and psych ourselves up for the first of many, many very steep snow fields towards the summit.
Hours and hours dragged on – it seemed to go on forever. After 4000m the altitude really kicked in, I was struggling to breathe and my vision was spinning around like I’d had a few too many wines. Each step became an effort. We were making slow progress, every breath and every step was taken with concentrated focus. I looked at the last section of steep snow, which seemed to stretch up forever, and said aloud “I don’t even know how I’m going to make it.” I felt exhausted, I wanted to lie down in the snow.
I closed my eyes, took a breath, and stepped forward.
That last section was painful. I was blocking everything out and just taking one step at a time. Finally, after four hours of steep, intense climbing, and a walk along a ridge which was as wide as both feet and thousands of meters drop either side, we reached the summit.
Mont Blanc, highest mountain in Western Europe at 4800m.
I burst into tears. This moment felt incredible. It was the culmination of years of desire, years of reading about this venerable mountain, years of wanting to achieve something this momentous. It was also probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve run over 10 marathons and completed two Ironman triathlons.
For me, this was a truly incredible experience. The summit moment itself is something I will never, ever forget – very few moments in my life have come close to that feeling. Mountaineering is a completely different beast to triathlon – yes, endurance swimming, cycling and running is extremely hard and is a great personal achievement, but when you add in the teamwork and camaraderie that is absolutely essential in the mountains, the massive challenge of altitude, of being so far removed from civilisation, of the rawness of living in such a basic environment, and aside from all that, the sheer danger of risking your life in the mountains, it really puts everything into perspective.
I know I’ll remember that experience forever and ever, and really, that’s what life is all about. Pushing ourselves beyond expectation and creating memories that will last a lifetime.