From Berger to Blanc - in 29 hrs and 29 mins


I suspect that everyone has significant birthdays. I felt my 50th was a bit different as it preludes the onset of that awful period called middle age. I have been wondering what it might be like for some time expecting some magical transformation into a sofa bound, telly watching, beer swilling grethy old man. Now I was on the threshold to the delights of imminent decay I decided to celebrate doing something a bit different. So to it…

I nearly fell into the deep pool under me. It was totally dark, wet and cold and I really wanted to get a photo. I was 1122 metres underground and I still hadn't started my birthday treat Challenge. I'd been planning this for months. Could I do it? Well time to find out.

Stood at the bottom of the Gouffre Berger with my companion Jules Carter we had the minor task of climbing up 1122 metres of the cave, getting on our bicycles cycling 160 kilometres and then strolling up a hill some 4808 metres high, Mont Blanc. It felt a long way to go. It was!

It was 11:10am. We'd started.

I felt fresh and not too cold in spite being wet from the spray of the river. We wore lighter suits with single piece under suits for ease of moving, not waterproof but a good compromise. We had very light bags with food, a small amount of spare clothing, first aid and a survival bag. This allowed us to move with ease through the passages and up the ropes. In fact it was a joy to be so lightweight. It meant we could climb the pitches without needing to stop to catch our breath. Familiarity with the cave also allowed me to be relaxed and also know when to be cautious.

I had to remember to take photographs, not so obvious when you are under pressure to keep a steady momentum. We met many of our friends from SWCC coming down on their own bottoming trips. We all had ideal conditions with low water levels. We stopped for quick chats and then kept heading up.
I felt I was bounding along which is normally a good sign at this early stage but one to be cautious about. Keeping a steady pace is the key.

Soon we were revisiting the entrance series. Everything was fitting together fine. This was the first time I'd "bounced" the Berger as I'd always either rigged or de-rigged the lower cave on my previous visits. Doing the cave without hauling a great tackle bag [or two] made it seem quite a lot smaller and easy. We glided along the meanders without a hitch and exited 5H 19 min after we'd left the sump to the great surprise of the surface team. It was the fastest I'd ever done the Berger but we hadn't raced, I'd even taken some time out to climb into the gallery de DED at -950m.

We'd been underground 9H19mins.

Now we ate and drank. We lingered longer than I really wanted, some 45 minutes, but it was probably the best thing to do as we would only be stopping for short periods after this.

The normal way from the cave is back to La Moliere. But this wasn't a normal trip. At the top of the first climb we picked up two "mountain bikes". Jules referred to his as the chip shop special as creaking off for a bag of chips was all it was up to. We took off down a 600 metre decent to the village of Engins in a brake squealing hell descent. It took over half an hour and my hands felt like rubber from the over application of the brakes. It was probably the most technical part of the trip for me. Jules, more of a mountain biker than me grinned and used his standard statement "it's all a laugh really".


Now onto the road bikes and the great descent to Grenoble. I knew the road and shot off leaving a rather nervous Jules behind as never ridden his cyclo-cross bike with road tyres before.

All too soon we were in the Grenoble basin and a pleasant 30 C. As it was evening we were soon out of the glare of the sun and as the evening wore on the air cooled giving ideal cycling conditions, if not a bit tedious from being flat and through interminable villages strung out up the Gresivaudan valley.

Odd feelings of fatigue and the rather nagging knowledge that we were not half way yet kept coming to mind. I drank gallons of water [literally] to clear my system, requiring frequent pee stops. The cycle had to be the easy section where could recover. So we stopped every 20km for 10 - 15 minutes and ate. We passed a series of bistros and restaurants and tempting wafts of food filled our nostrils. This led to a near confrontation with my wife, Gill, who was following us in the car as support. She had a car full of food and nearly ran us over when we asked for pizza!
On the mind bending long straights on the route national leading to Albertville it went dark. We had all sorts of lights on our bikes and I was wearing my caving helmet as it was the best light I had. It was also on the same batteries I'd done the Berger on!

With relief we hit the climb up to Megeve. I'd been dreading the hill climbs on the bike section but they broke the monotony and the bends gave shape after the tunnel effect of the valley riding. As we got higher it got cooler and damper until I started to get cold accentuated by a deepening tiredness. Jules briefly lay on a bench and began to drift off. Behind him, silhouetted against the sky was a large white mass. Our objective, which looked unreasonably steep and large rearing up above everything else.

The end of the cycle ended with a vicious scorpion's tail. The most in line start of our ascent of Mont Blanc is from a village called Bionnassy at 1400m. A short road led up the hill from just south of St Gervais. The road was short because it was steep. Very steep. 1:4 type steep and it rose for nearly 500 metres. Just when I could at least have done with it I was at full effort standing on the pedals in the lowest gear I had [and I had 30 to choose from!]. At 3:35am I arrived at the top just before I did serious damage to my muscles after a half hour climb.
At our stop we did three things: eat, drink and sleep. I managed to get my head down [if crashing out in the seat of a car is sleeping] for 1.5 H. Then more food and finally off at 06:30 am.

Jules started up strongly and I felt that my edge was a bit dulled. We'd been going since 05:00 yesterday and we'd covered quite a bit of terrain. Three weeks before I'd climbed Mont Blanc to recce the route and as training and had made the summit in 7 hours from the same start. I now had the muscular baggage of the Berger and a stiff cycle. Stage three was going to be especially hard!

I had plans to ease this stage. At the Tete Rousse Refuge [3100m] a couple of friends of mine, Jean Charles Desheys and Pascal Verdier, were waiting for us with our boots, crampons and axes. Another advantage was the mountain was less busy as the train wasn't running.. This gave us the last moral boost before we got onto the real hill.
We soled up the messy climb to the Gouter hut. It was 11:00 and we were just ahead of the sun and the rock fall that really gets going when the sun gets at the ice. Jules and I slowly separated and it was me who was drawing ahead. The fact I live at 1000m and I'd been training for he altitude was starting to make a big difference. I waited for Jules and we had a conference. Jules was happy for me to go ahead and drink and eat at the Gouter and he'd catch up, and then decide.

Jules was over half an hour behind me and I was ready to go on. Jules was feeling the altitude and needed a good rest before he tried to go on. I knew if I stopped I'd loose my momentum and the lack of sleep would kick in. We decided to split and I would go for the summit alone. It felt a shame to break the team this close to the end but the altitude creates a whole new set of rules.


I began the soul destroying ascent of the Dom de Gouter [3817m] at 01:19pm. The guide book gives 5 hours from the Gouter to the summit, but I couldn't afford to be that slow. I was in the full glare of the sun but the warmth helped me. I was still in my running tights but had enough in my sack to survive -20 C if necessary.
At the Vallot hut [4362m] I began to get the effects of the whole journey full on. I pushed on up the Bosses ridge. It was a fantastically clear day with only a light North wind. I thought I was alone on the mountain now. I was slowing down. The continuous effort, lack of sleep and lower level of oxygen was getting at me. Before I attacked the last 3/400m of ascent I took the decision to dump some of my spare clothing and food. I dug a hole and buried it in the snow amongst the traces of human excreta. The mountain is climbed by too many who are too far beyond their limits to care.

I spied a team ahead of me. Could I finish my ascent before they arrived and left the top? Could I make it? I was now dropping to a painful 40 steps and panting. Last time I'd kept up a continuous pace and this slowness made me feel like a decrepit old man. I seemed to be gaining ground very slowly but I was surprised as I topped a small rise and found I'd caught up the other team! They insisted I pass them as they thought I was racing up. I felt like a snail over taking a slug. I had to keep my speed just right to avoid over burn and exhaustion.

And finally I arrived. 29H 29 minutes from the bottom of the Berger to the top of Mont Blanc. The elation lasted 3 seconds before the wind bit through and forced me to hide in a hollow and get a few more clothes on. The other team arrived and I got my summit shots. After 10 minutes I started down. This is when I had to really concentrate as the trip was far from over. I had to get to at least the Vallot for safety and I could feel my energy levels were low. My ability to eat was severely reduced and drinking wasn't easy.

I passed through the Vallot and stopped for 45 mins to recover and finally made the Gouter at 7:38pm looking like a zombie. Jules gave an excellent welcome but the refuge staff wouldn't sell us any food at all as we hadn't booked it [!!]. I could barely eat anyway. At least the hut had some space and I had two whole wooden benches to lie out on. At 01:00am we were up whilst the other climbers got up and ate for their ghastly alpine starts. They couldn't eat, which was wonderful as we got all the left over's for free. We crawled into their empty beds and I slept like a log until 08:00 am.

After breakfast we popped down the ridge and gully in an hour to the tete rousse hut where Gill had come up to meet us. Finally w could relax. It was a long stroll down to the car and time to reflect on what was an extraordinary journey of complete contrasts. Combining three such different activities had worked. They had come together in closer harmony than I had expected.

The first, the cave, is a team effort. The environment is almost constant with small variations in temperature and an aggressive 100% and chilly humidity ready to suck the heat out or you when you stop. Progression is varied and uses all the muscles in your body. The view is limited by the curving walls of the cave and the reach of your light. It is very isolating and at the extreme end of the cave you are acutely aware of the remoteness of the place.

Cycling is much more a part of normality. You are rubbing shoulders with people leading their daily lives. Your body is locked in a limited position for hours on end and you become partly a machine.
Finally there is the mountain. The climate changes continually from the heat and green of the valley to the white and sterility of the summits. Yet it can feel claustrophobic with the streams of people on the popular routes and the crowded huts. The dangers can be out of your control with hanging seracs ready to collapse at their own whim. The environment can change from one minute to the next. It has a similarity to caving in the feeling of remoteness but you can see the villages below you which can offer a false sense of security. The weather can change and cut you off totally..

I had toyed with the idea of doing the whole trip in reverse yet a summit is a clearer end than the gloomy sump at the bottom of a cave. Also the thought of having to go UP out of the cave after such a long ordeal had even less appeal. Against that was the combination of physical and mental tiredness plus altitude that can so easily confuse the mind and be dangerous. This is what I trained to be able to cope with and ultimately what I had to deal with.

There is a question as to whether it could have been done quicker. To my surprise I found we'd been at a standstill for over 7 hours of the 29 of the challenge. However those stops allowed continuous recovery and meant we were able to keep up a steady pace. To go faster may require much more extensive back up to allow someone else to take the mental strain. It is not clear if this is less safe as you might allow yourself to overstretch yourself given the false sense of security it might create.


The idea and Planning
The idea of doing a continuous un-motorised link from the bottom of the Gouffre Berger to the top of Mont Blanc started slowly. A friend had wanted to do the cave to the bottom for his 50th and then he added why not do Mont Blanc? However I had already done them. This got me thinking.

In the past I have done the odd long distance challenge. At the age of 24 I'd run 42 summits in the Lake District in the UK in under 24 hours, a challenge called the "Bob Graham". Then in 1988 aged 32 I climbed all the Swiss 4000m peaks linking them all by foot over 112 days. So it seemed logical to link the bottom of the Gouffre Berger to the top of Mont Blanc. A look at the map showed it broke into three neat sections. Each should take about 8 hours. Section 1 - from the bottom of the cave at -1122m to the entrance. Section 2 a 160 km cycle Then section 3 a walk up Mont Blanc.

Well that was the theory.
I contacted a friend, Jules Carter, who was coming out on the caving expedition to the Berger with the SWCC that summer. I mentioned my idea and, being a long distance runner as well, decided it was worth giving it a go. So I now had a partner in madness.

For my training I set out to actually do equivalents of each section. I began putting in a few serious cycle rides and found that I was unable to do anything after an outing except have a bath. Then I slowly came round to being able to walk afterward and finally felt no ill affects after an outing. The caving side was already well known to me and I was quite happy with the cave IF it was fairly dry. Finally I had to check out the mountain and began a series of acclimatisation walks including a 7 hour ascent of Mont Blanc from Bionnassy [3400m ascent].

It was all coming together and I began to believe it was possible. I still couldn't gauge how I would be on the mountain after 16 hours effort prior to starting. Earlier experience suggested I would have a low point at 20 hours. I had to plan my timing to ensure I arrived on the mountain to allow me to summit and get off before nightfall. I would already loose one nights sleep so I wouldn't get up too early to set off down the cave.

So I set up a timetable as follows:-
Estimated Actual
Get up [out of bed] 05:00 am 04:50
Enter the cave 07:00 07:10
Start up from cave bottom 12:00 [To]* 11:10 [To]
Exit the cave 20:00 [To + 8 hours] 16:29 [To + 5:19 hours]
Rest, eat and bike to Engins 18:26 [To + 7:16 hours]
Cycle to Bionnassay, arrive 04:00 [To + 16 hours] 03:35 [To + 16H 25Min]
Rest, eat and restart 06:30 [To + 19H 20Min]
Arrive Summit Mont Blanc 12:00 [To + 24 hours] 16:39 [To + 29H29min]

* [=Tzero=To] This would be the actual start

These were basic times without stops. We'd need to eat 3 good meals and probably sleep for an hour or two so the times would go to at least 30 hours overall. This would get us to the summit for 18:00 on day leaving 3 hours daylight to get back to the refuge de Goûter for the night. It looked like it might work.

Paul Mackrill Feb 2008