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At Pauwels Consulting, we attach great importance to ‘healthy minds in healthy bodies’. Lots of our colleagues are very active when it comes to sport, taking part in activities such as fun running events, cycling events and other physical sports activities, both individually and as part of a team.
Recently, our colleagues Koen De Borle, recruitment consultant at Pauwels Consulting, and Tijs Billemon, IT director and business coach, climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc (4,810 metres high to be precise). An incredible achievement!
We chatted with Tijs and Koen about the preparations for this extreme sporting challenge and their experiences during this exciting climb.
Hi Koen, hi Tijs, where did the idea of climbing Mont Blanc come from?
Koen: Mountains have been in our blood for a long time. When we were little, we both went to the Alps with our parents during the summer holidays. We love mountains because of the nature, tranquillity, landscape, hospitality and range of sports opportunities available.
Tijs: That’s very true. When we’re on holiday, we like a bit of action and adventure. Mont Blanc is a popular mountain among alpinists, of course. Justifiably, because it’s such a beautiful environment for mountaineering enthusiasts.
Koen: We came up with the idea of climbing Mont Blanc last summer. We were looking for a new challenge and literally wanted to go higher than we had ever gone before.
We did some research and came across the Dutch Mountain Network and experienced mountain guide Jelle Staleman. They offer guided and organised excursions, both in Europe and beyond. We didn’t take long to take the plunge and decided to register for the Mont Blanc Summit climb.
Nice! Did you already have some climbing experience?
Koen: A few years ago, Tijs and I took part in an Alpine Tour in the Austrian Ötztal. During that five-day trip, we climbed one summit each day, culminating in the Wildspitze, which is the highest summit in Tyrol at 3,774 metres.
That is where we acquired extensive experience with mountain life, glacier walking, rock climbing and the most common rope techniques.
Who did you climb Mont Blanc with? Just the two of you or a larger group?
Tijs: We did the expedition as a group of four friends. We’ve known each other for a long time and we also participated in the previous Alpine Tour together, so knew that we could trust each other. Two more Dutch people joined our group via Mountain Network, so there were six of us all together.
“If everything goes well, anyone who wants to could climb that mountain in principle. However, if anything goes wrong, experience and insight are crucial.”
How was the guidance during your adventure?
Koen: Well, we explicitly decided to do this climb with expert guidance and later we discovered that we’d made the right decision. The programme consisted of a preparation process, during which we practised ice and rock climbing and glacier walking on the spot.
For the first few days, we were accompanied by two local guides and for the ascent to the summit, we had one on two guidance. In addition to physical and technical preparations, the guides also prepared us psychologically. The thing is, lots of climbers want to reach the summit at all costs, but experienced guides can point out the dangers, special circumstances or dramatic experiences that sometimes make it impossible to reach the top.
For this alone, it’s essential to seek guidance when you take on such a challenge. If everything goes well, anyone who wants to could climb that mountain in principle. However, if anything goes wrong, experience and insight are crucial. If they then decide it’s better not to continue, you should trust them. Or lose your life.
What preparations did you make?
Tijs: Obviously, we left nothing to chance for this expedition. We regularly went on longer bike rides or walking exercises in order to improve our basic condition and endurance. A climb of this nature also requires special material, such as specific clothing and shoes for Alpine areas.
The organisation also provided most of the technical equipment: climbing harnesses, helmets, snap hooks, ropes, ice picks and crampons. When selecting material, it’s important to only take what is strictly necessary to climb the mountain. Before you know it, the backpack weighs 8 to 12 kg. The more material and clothing you take with you, the more difficult the climb becomes…
Koen: We also participated in the introductory day in the climbing hall in Nieuwegein (the Netherlands), which was organised by Mountain Network. In addition to practical information and an introduction to other participants, we got to grips with wall and rock climbing. Balance and stability are essential, so one of the things they did was to get us to climb the wall blindfolded. That way you really learn to put your feet carefully and are constantly trying to get in the best position.
How did your trip go in the end?
Koen: We decided to travel to the Alps a bit earlier, so we could walk around the area and get used to the environment. We prepared ourselves for two days in the mountain village of Praz de Lys, about an hour’s drive from Chamonix, with a number of selected mountain hikes.
The programme itself consisted of two parts. For the first days, we focussed on acclimatisation and preparation, both technical and psychological. This included climbing Aiguille du Tour (3,540 metres) and overnight stays at altitude. Then, we reserved two full days for the attempt to reach the summit, in case bad weather for example prevented us from reaching it on the first day.
In total, the guided programme took seven days. After that intense week, we stayed in Chamonix for a day and night to relax and celebrate extensively… (Smiles.)
“During such a climb, you have to surpass your own limits. You can’t stop for a moment. The end goal is always in sight and that keeps you going.”
Were you nervous before the actual ascent? What was the night before like?
Koen: On the night before the summit attempt, the tension is always going to rise. We slept in a mountain cabin at an altitude of 3,165 metres. Some of us also suffered from headaches, which could be a sign of altitude sickness. Fortunately, no other symptoms arose and we were able to set off together.
Besides this, we mainly concentrated on preparations obviously: making sure that we had everything, but then again not too much, taking into account the weather conditions, a final briefing with the guides, taking sufficient drinks and provisions with us, etc.
These matters are extremely important and meant it took quite a while to fall asleep. In addition, we went to bed early because the alarm went off at 3:30 the next morning.
And then the day arrived… How did the climb to the summit go?
Koen: We did the climb itself in three groups of two, each with one guide. This is necessary in order to get through the difficult passages in a safe and controlled manner. We left at around 4:00 in the morning, with our headlights on.
After leaving the hut, we immediately went past the Grand Couloir, a dangerous passage with major risks of rockfalls and snow avalanches. A steep rock wall of about 600 metres was our next obstacle.
Once we had climbed this, we were at a height of 3,800 metres and only had to face snow and ice. After a short break, we continued our journey towards Dôme du Goûter. This summit is similar to Mont Blanc and at a height of 4,306 metres it gives a direct view of the rest of the route towards the top.
We climbed the ‘Big Bump’ and the ‘Small Bump’, two difficult ice slopes, before reaching the last steep ridge and finally the summit of Mont Blanc. Tijs and I reached the summit after about six hours of climbing from the Tête Rousse Hut at 3,165 metres. That’s pretty good going, but some great athletes manage to reach the summit in just four hours!
What were the most difficult moments for you?
Koen: Technically, Mont Blanc is not that difficult. Of course, you have to be careful that every step isn’t your last and there are certain passages where you have to ignore your fears and doubts, but the biggest challenge is overcoming the height.
On the summit day, we ascended a total of almost 2,700 metres in height and that takes its toll. One of us was having a hard time when we reached the Dôme du Goûter and even thought about giving up. Fortunately, we were able to motivate each other and everyone reached the goal.
During such a climb, you have to surpass your own limits. You can’t stop for a moment. The end goal is always in sight and that keeps you going.
And what were your favourite moments?
Koen: Reaching the summit was naturally the biggest kick. It gives you a panorama without equal anywhere and literally puts you on the roof of Western Europe. It takes a while to realise that.
Equally amazing was seeing the sunrise in the mighty massif, watching the shadows created by Mont Blanc on the other mountains, reaching the snow line or seeing the summit getting nearer with every footstep.
To be honest, the greatest satisfaction was when we all got back safely and could look back proudly on our achievement.
“Reaching the summit was naturally the biggest kick. It gives you a panorama without equal anywhere.”
Can you repeat such a trip? What’s your next goal?
Tijs: Definitely. That was our third trip together to the Alps and we are already dreaming of the next. (Laughter.)
Climbing the Matterhorn in Switzerland is high on our wish list. We had a beautiful view of its peak from Mont Blanc. The Matterhorn is slightly lower, but a lot more technical with lots of rock-climbing passages.
Koen: This was, without doubt, a fantastic and unique experience. We thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, we’re itching to climb the next summit. There are 82 peaks above 4,000 metres in the Alps, so we’ll be busy for a while yet.
“And why not the Everest?”, lots of people ask us. Well, going higher than what is humanly possible, by which I mean climbing with the help of oxygen, doesn’t interest us at the moment. What we really want is to be at one with nature and we believe that this is only possible as long as you can fully enjoy it. Even so, never say never of course. (Smiles.)
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