Olivia Wood spent much of her childhood in the Alps. It fostered a love of the mountains that has called her back again and again. Here she describes her perspective-changing return to the region.
I had returned to Chamonix for my second Alpine season. I find I’m always drawn back to these mountains, Why? Because it’s the most beautiful, dramatic place on the planet in my eyes. Every one of my adventures in the French Alps has given me incredible stories to tell.
My eyes are drawn to those vertical, featureless walls wrapped in white snow. They make me want to go and try to climb them. I gravitate to these experiences because they illuminate aspects of being human that I didn’t know humans were capable of. This has always been my kind of adventure.
This time around I had aimed to conquer Mont Blanc with my partner and two good friends. We planned to do the Trois Mont’s route, one of the longer and more technical routes, during which you summit three 4000m peaks in two days.
Upon arriving in Chamonix we focused on acclimatising to the altitude. We spent three days between 2000m/3500m in one of the mountain huts, trialling a couple of alpine routes on the Italian side. We soon realised that the dreaded mountain storms were rolling in before our eyes. On top of this a 40-degree heat wave had hit the alps a few days before our arrival, causing the snow to melt, avalanches to fall and paragliders to land on the summit of Mont Blanc in flip flops. Simply put, conditions were far from perfect.
I don’t make decisions lightly, and this was a tough one. There was something strangely appealing about the thought of risking my life in the mountains, but sensibility ruled. I came to the decision that Mont Blanc wasn't going to be accomplished this year. The bad weather was bad luck, but I wasn't going to put myself and my team at risk.
With that decided, we had to rethink. Surrounded by these incredible mountains, I turned my attention to those I had never even considered conquering. After studying the maps and the weather forecasts we decided to drive over to Italy, which promised to be clearer for the rest of the week.
At 4,061m, Gran Paradiso isn’t as high as Mont Blanc or as technically challenging, but it offers alternative charms. There is no access to lifts, so the mountain demands the ultimate challenge of ascending from valley floor to summit.
We hiked though a beautiful pine forests on switch-back tracks until we reached the top of the tree line. From there the views become more dramatic: harsher, more barren and mountainous.
We arrived at the refuge, ate dinner, and got our heads down for a few hours before an early start the next morning. Staying in these refuge huts are always an incredible experience. At the very least you meet a lot of interesting characters.
Four AM saw us up and out on the trails. From this point we focused on the pure challenge of getting to the summit safely. I always thoroughly research before any expedition and decide on the kit that will make it as easy and as comfortable as possible. I was thoroughly equipped for this challenge, but I can honestly say that having the right pair of boots on my feet was essential.
The beginning of the climb was straightforward, long, gentle snow slopes on a clearly marked trail. I knew, however, that I would need more traction as the trail steepened. I fixed my crampons onto my Mammut boots, put on my helmet and harness and whipped out my ice axe to tackle a 30-degree slope.
As we crested that slope we saw the sunrise hit the Alps. It's a sight that always makes my heart beat faster. I discovered again that these are the moments I live for. I was still taking it all in when I realised we were approaching the summit. Soon it was Mission Completed and only the descent remained. I had completed another journey to touch and connect with the mountains.
So, a happy ending after all. Sure, I'd spent a year planning to climb the highest mountain in Europe, only for it all to be taken away by mother nature. As I always say, though, the mountains aren’t going anywhere. I will keep trying until I’m finally standing on the summit taking that epic selfie.