Sam Gamgee, “Straight stairs, winding stairs, what comes after that?”…

Gollum, “We shall see, oh yes, we shall see.” (from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien).

I remember the above scene from LOTR well, and I remember seeing the scene in the film when it first came out and thinking that the stairs that Gollum leads the two hobbits up to Mordor looked about as hellish a climb as it was possible to imagine. However, that’s just it, Middle Earth is fiction and born of imagination. The climb to the summit of Mont Blanc is very very real and it is as if fiction has become reality and we were climbing some evil twisted path to Mordor – I even saw a black spider scuttling around in the rocks!

Back to the start of the climb, Tuesday morning, breakfast in the chalet – a relatively quiet affair due to nerves. We then headed off to catch a cable car at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains to take us a few 100 metres up the mountain to a small train station. We caught the train and went up even further. The sun was blisteringly hot. Last night there had been the most almighty thunderstorm all around the mountains hence why we had delayed our MB climb by a day. Had things gone according to plan we would be crossing from the Gonella Hut on the Italian side, over to the Goûter hut on the French side from where we would summit tomorrow. The change in plan meant that we had a huge amount of climbing and descent to do in two days instead of three. Leaving the small tramway we started our ascent on foot from the station at Gare du Nid d’Aigle. It was roughly about 10am (ish). Cold and wet weather gear in our pack along with snacks a plenty for the next 24 hours, and roughly 1-2 litre of water, helmets, crampons and ice axes, all of which would be needed the higher we climbed. We started out simply in a thin base layer, trousers, boots and gaiters, and using our walking poles. The pace was steady and if it was walking up, say, Helvelyn in the Lake District, I would have said it was slow. But because we were well above 2000 metres it felt very much like we were running. After about an hours climb we had a brief pitstop – John, our head guide only goes in for brief stops, barely long enough to take ones pack off to access water and grab some mouthfuls of food of some description and the put your pack back on. From where we stopped we could look across (and up) to the Refuge Cosmiques and Aiguille du Midi where we practiced our technical climbing yesterday. It was very high and I slightly marvelled that I had even done it!

Respite over and we pressed on over a stoney/rocky and steadily climbing trail. I confess I was already beginning to feel tired, physically, and searching around in my head for something to occupy my thoughts I spent the next hour or so trying hard to remember all the words (phonetically at least) to the South African national anthem. Literally couldn’t tell you why that popped into my head. I reckon I did quite well on the lyrics. It was hot, and sweaty going. I made the mistake of looking up every so often and the view didn’t seem to change as the trail twisted and turned upwards through the rocks. Nothing up ahead ever seemed to get any closer. We eventually clambered up around a sort of prominent hilltop…where there was an old small hut, and across a flatter saddle was the Refuge Tete Rousse- we were roughly at 3167metres. We had a pause here (to my enormous relief) however, it was more of a stop in order to put on our helmets and crampons and rope up. We stuck with the same teams as yesterday so poor Luca and Jordan had me on the rope between them. Aiden was tied to Fernando and John so there was no chance of me cutting his rope (I had strict instructions to do this from my Fellowship Desert runners of tent 115!). And so began what I think was possibly one of the toughest 2-4 hours of my life!

We set off through slushy rocky snow (always upwards) but still for a bit a relatively straightforward scrambling type of terrain. After about 20 minutes we had to cross the infamous Grand Couloir. This channel/corridor is like a steep gully running steeply down between two rocky ridges. It is like the worst looking black ski run that you have ever laid eyes on that is out of bounds because it is too dangerous. The reason it is dangerous is because of frequent rock-falls from high above. It can be just one or two pebble sized rocks that gather pace as they bounce down this corridor. If you were to be hit even by a small one it would do some serious damage. We had to cross the Couloir team by team, the team ahead always keeping an eye for rockfall for the team crossing. Luca said to myself and Jordan, “we go straight, steady. If I say back you turn round to the right and go back, if I say run, you run fast. You listen to me and you concentrate and you don’t trip on your crampons.” He said it in a very relaxed manner, at least it sounded relaxed in his slow Italian accent. The path across the Couloir was narrow, very much single track, deep slushy snow, with scatterings of rocks. I know I can run, but bear in mind I was in climbing trousers, boots and crampons and had to potentially run a narrow path where it would be easier said than done not to catch one foot on the crampons of the other! Apparently the fear of being taken out by a gravity driven rock that is winging its way down the Couloir will give anyone enough adrenaline to run the Couloir. We made it – I could feel my heart in my mouth!

It was only about 100 metres but it had felt like running a mile…backwards…with someone pulling against you to deliberately slow you down. Heart rate slowing as we puffed to get our breath back, there was no rest…we had to head straight on, or in fact straight up. Crampons off and a quick drink and mouthful of food and we were off again.

I’m not sure how to explain the next section of the climb up to the Refuge Goûter (at 3817 metres). To say it was difficult and challenging doesn’t really do it justice, it was relentless, hefting ourselves up great boulders with tiny ledges or cracks for our cumbersome hiking boots to try and find a foothold. Trying as much as possible to push up with the legs and not pull with the arms…although not always possible. I tried to get into rock climbing about 10-12 years ago and intermittently at my gym back in London over the last few years, but I was never particularly proficient at it to say the least. But here I was dangling on a rope on what felt like the climbing twisting stair to Mordor (and I had no doubt Shelob would be lurking somewhere near the top). Jordan was awesomely patient, especially when I came across rock faces that felt so sheer, and were so high it was almost all I could do to contemplate finding a foothold. If Jordon hadn’t been there to help (relatively unceremoniously) shove me upwards on occasion I don’t really think I’d have made it.

The climb seemed interminable, I had a devil on my shoulder whispering that what goes up must come down and that this horrendous climb we were slowly conquering, well we had to climb down it all again tomorrow….after also climbing to the summit and back! I couldn’t see any of the other teams ahead, and I started stressing about being slow…it’s quite easy to get quite negative…Jordan said if I apologised for being slow one more time then I’d owe him a pound every time I said it – that shut me up. After what seemed like a lifetime, and as clouds were beginning to gather above us and the wind was picking up we eventually clambered over a wonky (?!?!) railing and up a rickety ladder onto a wire mesh platform outside the old disused Goûter hut. Crampons on, jackets on and a shortish walk across a snowy ridge to the new (5yrs old) Goûter Hut.

The approach to the Goûter hut is interesting to say the least. You feel relief that you are finally off the effing rocks, contemplating a cup of tea, something warm to eat, going to the loo, lying and resting on a bunk. The hut was built about 5 years ago and is a modern architectural achievement of sorts. I say of sorts, because never has a building looked so out of place. Some overpaid modern architect had designed a metal and glass Death Star to sit obtrusively on the side of the mountain. It hangs on the edge time an irritating crumb on the corner of someone’s lip that you longing for them to lick away, but as you approach the hut there is something far far worse that overwhelms you. The smell is something even as a nurse I have never encountered. The sewage pipe exudate from the human waste from all the mountaineers inside the hut pours out just below the hut by just a few metres. I cannot tell you how gagging this smell is as it wafts around the hut like someone has sprayed too much perfume. I have smelt some fairly awful human odours in my time as a nurse but literally nothing has made me gag like this smell. It wafted into the hut through the air con, and through the odd open (why?) window! How after all the money that was spent on this building they could get the sewage system so wrong is baffling and horrendous.

Anyways, there was nothing to be done except drink eat and relax. We were in a dorm of bunks again but the other adjacent dorms were in the same room just in different pens, so essentially there were about 30 people on our floor – and it was hot (the air con didn’t work very effectively) and in the loos, there were sinks and taps but clearly just ornamental as there was no running water. We had been spoilt on Gran Paradiso in the Italian hut. And a bottle of water cost a hefty 7euros!

After a somewhat school dinners style supper in the dining room at 7pm (where delightfully the unique Goûter stench managed to suppress the smell of the food thus certainly killing my appetite) we returned to the dorms to attempt to get as much rest and sleep as possible with our breakfast call being 2am. It was so hot and suffocating in the dorm couldn’t sleep at all and just lay watching the light fade and the clouds gather. At about 10pm the most almighty thunderstorm erupted around us. Watching a thunderstorm way up in the sky is one thing, being right up in the middle of one in the mountains is another…it was thrilling and terrifying at the same time…and very loud, but also not conducive to sleep.

2am came, we groggily gathered in the dining area and ate breakfast, which at 2am is difficult, but you try and force it down knowing that you’re going to need every bit of energy. We then made our way down to the boot room (very much aware that the thunderstorm was still rumbling and fizzing around us). Thankfully John stated we would wait half an hour. So all geared up in our harnesses, crampons etc. we sat in chilly damp fragrant boot room and waited. We then waited another 20 mins, storm and wind still prevalent. And another 20 mins.

John lost his patience and said to Aidan and Fernando to get ready. The lightning strikes were not over us so he wanted to head out and strike a path through the fresh snow and get going. To our surprise and that of the remaining guides they set off. A debate now ensued amongst the guides as to whether the rest of us should follow….they were very reluctant to head out with lightning still going on…that was fine by me.

After several more 20 minute delays we finally got ready to head out at 4am. The wind had dropped and the lightning seemed to have abated. There was a lot of fresh snowfall and it was cold. We set off. The slope climbed gently at first and there was nothing but the lovely crunching sound of footsteps through deep fresh snow (which made it very slow going), and the pool of light from our head torches just picking up the person in front of us.

This went in for a while, but it gradually started to get steeper and steeper. I have to confess I was beginning to feel absolutely cream crackered. I didn’t feel sick, or ill from the altitude, yes I was a bit breathless but no more so than anyone else, but I felt utterly exhausted. Our pace dropped behind and looking up ahead we couldn’t always see the lights of the headtorches of the other teams. And we kept plodding on and on and on. Our route was to take us to the lower peak of the Dome du Goûter, past the emergency Vallot Refuge and L’arrete des Bosses to the main summit. The guides occasionally chattered to each othe on their radios. John Aidan and Fernando it seemed after much toiling through the snow as they cut the path, had made it to the Dome, and were going to try and press on.

After what seemed like an interminable amount of time and steep climbing upwards in the slowly dawning sky we eventually made it to the peak of the Dome.

There was a decision to be made. The wind was stronger, and visibility was very mixed going on. Hamish said he wasn’t happy o go further so he and the two Irish guys, Colm and Phil turned back. Along the ridge the collected Fernando who had hurt his knee – John refused to take him further as due to the poor visibility any potential mountain rescue wouldn’t be able to happen as the helicopter would not be able or willing to land. Alessandro, Alfredo and Ebe decided to trudge on, as did Tatou, Emily and Paul. I was in a dilemma, I felt exhausted and my legs felt like one more upward step would cause them to crumble. You have to know your limits, and this wasn’t the desert where I could stop for half an hour and recharge before pushing on. I was also aware of the massive climb all the way back down that had to be done. I had reached my limit, and I didn’t want to be foolish and press on and potentially cause a problem if I ran (plodded) into trouble. Luca hailed Alessandro and we managed to catch his team up to attach Jordan onto their rope so he could continue (he then joined up with John and Aiden). And myself and Luca then turned and headed back to the Refuge de Goûter (and it’s refreshing odour). I felt mixed, relief, disappointment, cross, sad, tired, tired, tired. I felt as if I lay down where I was I could sleep for a week…I had made the right decision.

We stopped briefly as the sun made its very beautiful and heartwarming appearance around the side of the mountain. Luca gave me a hug, he said “Arianna, you don’t worry, you peaked the Dôme, and that is fine, many many don’t make it this far, it is tough today, but now the sun is coming out and we will have a hot drink in the hut, smile eh!” And so we made it back down to the hut…(if I hadn’t had altitude sickness, I now certainly felt like I did…the smell in the hut was almost overwhelming nauseating!) we didn’t stay long…but once we had a hot drink inside us we set off back to that horrendous “Mordor” climb but in descent.

I was now roped in with Luca and Fernando, and we made a steady and careful descent. The snowfall had covered the rocks all the way down and we kept our crampons on. It felt in places much harder than climbing up, if only because going down some of the long drops felt like some sort of death defying feat of impossibility! On more than one occasion myself and Fernando tested the strength of the ropes and knots…they were strong! We paused occasionally for a quick gulp of water and a snack but pressed on.

Eventually we found ourselves back at the Grand Couloir which from this side looked a hundred times more dangerous, it looked steeper, snowier, and the rocks falling and bouncing down seemed more frequent and lethal from where we were perched holding onto the rocks. We waited and watched as Hamish, Colm and Phil were poised to cross…”wait” Luca kept calling, “waaait”. A small stone hurtled down, followed by a rock the size of someone’s head. The danger was very apparent. Finally there seemed to be a window and they set off, with Luca calling out “go go, keep going”, and they were across. Our turn…we got into position with Fernando leading, followed by me and Luca at the back. We waited, a shower of rocks tumbled past, a big one hurtled down, followed by several more – maybe we were destined to stay stuck on the side of the mountain! We had the green light from Hamish, we set off, about 5 paces in “STOP….go back go back”. Stoping and turning in a single narrow snowy track with crampons on with your heart in your mouth is not remotely easy! I had a vision of a rock smashing into my head… We started again and about halfway across Luca shouted “Run!” It is amazing how despite the narrowness and slushy snow, and the fact that we were wearing crampons, how quickly Fernando and I then ran! That we didn’t fall over is testament to the amount of adrenaline coursing through our veins. A few high fives and whoops of relief and then we were back to slogging it through some deep snow, sinking occasionally as we descended to the Refuge des Tetes Rousse. No stopping except to take off our crampons and harness, pack away our ice axes and dig out our poles, shed a layer or two, and on we we descended.

The descent literally seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t believe that yesterday we had climbed so far. With the sun now blazing and the temperature rising we hit the gentler trail that would take us down to the mountain tramway station which would take us back down to Chamonix.

It’s been a phenomenal week, and has been a test of physical ability and endurance that I was unsure that I have. Lack of sleep and long working hours leading up to the trip certainly didn’t help and I feel perhaps that if I’d felt fresher I would have made the summit. However a few more long weekend runs might also have helped. John did debrief us and say that due to the weather the climb had been about 30% tougher than average…but it doesn’t matter. I’ve learnt to recognise my limits and know when to say stop, which is a surprisingly big deal.

But most of all I’ve attempted something because I can – because I am able and have the freedom and ability to try it, and that is s huge privilege and gift to be treasured every day….and to remember to always “BE MORE OLLY!

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My heart skipped a beat…or two!

Today has been terrifying, awesomely fantastic, emotional and simply bloody brilliant!

Last night all round the mountains there was a mammoth thunderstorm…brilliant flashes of lightning and long angry rumbling thunder, that growled around the whole valley, Mont Blanc completely shrouded in dark angry grey clouds. But this morning the sky was a clear hot bright blue. We set off for a day of “practice” for the big climb….

…and headed down to the cable car which would take us up to L’Aguille du Midi. We had been joined by two additional guides as we were now to be one guide for 2 climbers; Luca from Italy and Hamish from the UK.

The cable car swept us up along with a host of tourists to 3,800metres. It’s a big viewing point across to the summit of Mont Blanc so we could see where we would be aiming for tomorrow. However today, John wanted us to practice hiking along a ridge and climbing/scrambling over rocks. From where we sleep in the Goute hut tomorrow night, the climb to MB summit is mainly along a narrow ridge…so we donned our helmets, crampons and ice axes at the ready. I was teamed up with Jordan and our new guide Luca. The first dilemma was climbing over the gate to access the actual mountainside, it was quite high and Luca and Jordan had to rather unceremoniously heft me over! Well it isn’t easy fence climbing in crampons. We were immediately out at the top of a long steep ridge….

Deep breath and off we set, Jordan leading, me in the middle and Luca controlling/guiding us from behind. The snow was quite wet and slippery in places but we made steady progress and you soon forgot the steep drop that fell away immediately to the left, and the less steep one to the right. As we settled into our rhythm of ice axe thrusting into the snow and yomping down a couple of steps and repeating, a tune popped into my head “Luca” by Suzanne Vega…and the first verse went round and round in my head like a crazy loop – I didn’t embarrass myself and sing it to Luca! I did mention it to Jordan but the reference was lost on him (too young) – he was humming a Will Young song!!!! Luca took the lead, and Jordan brought up the rear. Luca is the dude! He was wearing jeans, he was so cool I almost expected him to pause, lean on his walking pole and casually smoke a cigarette – he didn’t! He just laughed when I commented on his jeans and said “ah, today is easygoing, I don’t wear them tomorrow “.

We carried on at a good steady pace, and my bonkers mind drifted off into what I can only describe as rather surreal. In my head I started singing a South African prison worker song from the apartheid era which the prisoners would sing in tune with their work along roadsides or the like…quite why this popped into my head I can’t tell you but the rhythm of it certainly helped as we crossed the long wide snow slope, especially as it began to climb. I was taught the song in travels through the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe in 1995/96 and by a lovely Shona man called Teddy, he’d be impressed I could remember it!

We reached the bottom of the ridge and hiked across a long snow slope just below the summit of MB. Uphill a bit, and then began to scramble through a mixture or rocks and snow. The snow petered out and we paused for a drink of water and to decrampon.

We had scrambled/clambered over a fair chunk of boulders in our crampons which had initially felt clumsy and awkward but as the snow had gone amongst the rocks it was deemed easier to take them off. But the idea of clambering, albeit tied on a rope to two other people, at about 3,800 metres high, with quite severe drops left and right, over great boulders in heavy walking boots didn’t seem any less awkward! Luca smiled…he called me Arrianna (apparently Italian for Harriet, Jordan was Jorge), and said you will be fine, just watch my feet and follow. Yep, easy as pie!

Jordan de-cramponing

Luca, readjusted the ropes, we packed away our crampons and axes, and readied to climb across this lump of rocks that sit so conveniently 3,800m high leading up to a view point, the Refuge des Cosmiques, across from the Mont Blanc summit. There was a vast drop to the left, right down into the valley of Chamonix! We had to twist through gaps, hoik ourselves up great huge boulders. Now I’m adventurous and game for most things, but this tested me…a huge boulder with what felt like to me a completely flat face, and I had to climb up the face of it in sodding hiking boots aware of a gaping drop to the left. To say my heart missed a beat is an understatement. My legs turned to jelly. Luca’s face appeared at the top looking back down at me and he cheerily called, “arianna get your leg up and use the crack for your fingers.” What effing crack I muttered, glancing back at Jordan, and I can’t get my leg that high, I’m simply not that flexible! Jordan was epically brilliant. He just nodded and said full of confidence, “you’ve got this”, and somehow I did!

Impressively I’m the one in the middle!

This scenario was repeated a few times and I am eternally grateful to Jordan for his patience and encouragement, as I’m sure I was just being a big Jessie! Looking ahead the hut seemed closer but with a lot of climbing and inching along narrow ledges…

I gave myself a stern talking to…”come on, you can do this” and my mantra became “be more Olly, be more Olly” (those of you who knew the wonderful Olly Vick sadly stolen from us in the Eithiopian plane crash in March, will know exactly what this mantra means). And it bloody well worked, I finally clambered over the railing onto the terrace of the Refuge with tears pouring down my face as Olly’s smile and laughter filled my mind. Adrenalin, grief and relief all combined at once, Luca seemed quite surprised but gave me a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. We then headed inside to join everyone else for a coffee before gearing up again to head back across the snow slope and up the ridge to the cable car. It was a surprisingly comfortable hike, and at a pace where Jordan and I could chatter away to each other.

Heading back down to Chamonix in the cable car there was a sense of elation at the climb we had done today…everyone is tired but doing well. Aiden smashed it in a team with Fernando led by John, and even had time to pose as a pro!

We’re all preying for good weather as the air around us is thick and heavy waiting for another thunderstorm to break.

The intention is to head to the Goute hut tomorrow morning and stay there tomorrow night, then set off at 2am for the summit (2am!!!!)

The weather forecast can’t make its mind up and we are at its mercy, and preying for more hot sunshine.

So, hopefully next time I write we’ll have summited the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc.

….and remember, BE MORE OLLY!

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Don’t look up….

So, after meeting up with Aiden in Geneva Airport, we picked up his hire car and made our way through the hot rush hour of Geneva and headed towards the fresh air of the Alps. There is something about driving into the mountains that is like taking a massive breath and then letting it out in a big sigh as all your worries and concerns start to dissipate and you leave them behind. We got our “Brexit” chat over and done with and moved onto our anticipated excitement for this trip amongst other things. We headed into Chamonix around about 6:45, and made it to the chalet for our organisation Mont Blanc Guides about 5 minutes before dinner. Still, we weren’t last of the group to arrive. A lovely Mexican couple pitched up in the early hours of the morning.

Despite being 7pm, it was suffocatingly hot in Chamonix, well over 30 degrees. We were welcomed by Elliot and Michelle who are the chalet “boy and girl” and they had prepared a delicious Moroccan feast for the first night, my only complaint being that the white wine needed to be cold!

We met our fellow aspiring mountaineers. There was Colm and Phil from Dublin, Paul from Berkshire, Emily who I am rooming with in the chalet from London, Jordan from London, Fernando from Mexico (but lives in Australia) myself and Aiden. It’s always quite amusing when a group of people are thrown together with the same slightly extreme goal but with different and very varying reasons for doing it. After the ice had broken we spent most of the evening swapping brief life histories and tales of adventures, who had climbed what, how high etc. Quite a lot of us had “done” Kilimanjaro, a phrase that annoys the pants off me – I hate going to a place like Tanzania to “do” Kilimanjaro like it’s something on a checklist. I was so fortunate when I climbed it, just me my guide Charles and my cook Lovemore. It being out of season I was the only person on the mountain and in the camps apart from two Aussies I met on the way…and I took a week to do it rather than whipping up it in a flash and back down…but that’s another story.

A couple of the guys had been to Everest Base camp, amongst various other achievements but it felt like in mountaineering terms we were all in a relatively level playing field. My worry at this point was fitness.

Because I have a reputation, deserved or not, for fitness due to my desert racing, fitness instructing in London, marathons etc. it is hard for people to believe you when you say you aren’t particularly fit. Also, folks do not realise how fit you have to be to climb Mont Blanc, which is a substantial 4,808 metres above sea level, and regarded as one of the toughest mountains in the world of mountaineering. Still, I was here now and running outside to do a panic set of press ups or 5km run wasn’t going to suddenly vastly improve things. We all headed for a hot humid night’s sleep, nervous anxiety palpable.

Breakfast on Friday was at 8am, (joined by the final couple in our group Alfredo & Ebe, a married couple from Mexico) and we met the course director John Taylor, who informed us that he would also be the main guide for our trip. Alessandro (Ale from Italy) and Tatou from Finland would also be our guides for the first part of the trip. For the first two days we were heading to the a Italian Alps to climb Gran Paradiso, the highest peak in Italy at 4,061 metres above sea level (so still pretty high). The plan was to hike up to the hut on Friday afternoon, then start early on Saturday up to the summit and back down to the hut to stay for a second night at altitude, all to help us acclimatise for MB. However, John also informed us that he, Ale and Tatou would be watching closely to se how strong we were, how fit we were to estimate our potential for then summiting MB. My nervous tension slid up a couple of notches.

After breakfast all of our kit was inspected, taking out inessential stuff, checking the essential stuff was good enough. I slipped my book quietly back in my bag – a good book is essential in my bag, and I can’t help it but I’m just no good with audiobooks and I also wanted to leave the access to the world (my mobile) in Chamonix. Also my book was crucial in my motivation and distraction when altitude and fitness were testing me – more about that later. We headed into town to buy kit we needed and hire the technical equipment required but felt unnecessary to purchase: crampons, B3 boots, ice axe, helmet, harness! I have my own harness from an attempt about 15 years to get into climbing that due to time and life never really took off – I hope I’d remember how to put it on and not look a right numpty.

Kit purchased we packed up and loaded into the minibus and car. I was in John’s car with Fernando and Emily. At this junction in the journey this didn’t feel entirely wise, he talked about the vitalness of our fitness standard being the most important ingredient to summiting MB. I closed my eyes and had a moment of blind panic that began to intensify as Fernando and Emily both listed in some detail what training they had been doing…the list was long. John then turned and it was my turn to attempt to impress…I decided to be completely honest! I live at sea level, and work in one of the busiest NHS departments possible doing four long days a week, leaving certainly no energy for training on those days, and quite frequently leaving me quite knackered and de-motivated on my 3 days off. I have managed most weekends to get out on the coastal path which is very up and down, and I was up in the Lake District in March. I run a couple of miles to and from my car to work each day…but I sighed and said I was worried as I didn’t think being on my feet for 12 hours a day at work was quite the training he was after. He nodded and said not to worry, they’ll see how I go up Gran Paradiso. The panic inched a notch higher!

We drove through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and through stunning alpine scenery until parking up in the Italian national park. We gathered our kit and set off up a path through a beautiful pine forest. We walked for about an hour zigzagging upwards through the much needed shade of the pine trees. The nervous tension easing off a little as finally we had started. Despite having drunk about 4 litres of water my mouth felt dry quite quickly as did the urgent need to pee the large amount of fluid I’d consumed. But I certainly didn’t want to be the first to need a pause, so relied on that quite useful nursing skill of bladder control. After about an hour of hiking we came out from the shade of the trees to a sort of farmers rundown cottage like something out of Jean de Florete, and gratefully received the news that this was a short pitstop. There was a big stone basin for cattle with a pipe of fresh alpine water continually flowing into it – it was deliciously fresh and refreshing. The emphasis for altitude is hydration, and we were certainly all taking it very seriously especially as we were only carrying one litre bottle of water in our packs. I did the longest pee, and drank about a litre and a half. Rejigged my boots as had a creased sock in one potentially causing a blister!!! And on we continued. The hike to the mountain hut was beautiful coming out from the forest into the mountains up a climbing trail path, nothing technical but you could feel the altitude gradually increasing as breathing became more laboured. There was gentle chat amongst us and a sense of being a team and all together was beginning to emerge as we started to get to know each other better. After about another hour and three quarters we rounded up a hill with a big rock looming over the edge to the noise of Italian, French and other voices babbling away drinking coffee, beers, cold drinks out in front of the mountain hut. We’d reached our destination for that day. However before we de bagged and chilled out John wanted to do a little crampon training – so we skuttled over to the side of the mountain hut where there was a small scree and patch of snow ( we were just below the snow line) and John watched us all scramble around like crabs for about 20 minutes! We were then freed to rest until supper which was served up in the hut restaurant – delicious Italian pastas and pudding. Our instructions were breakfast at 4:30, setting off at 5:30! Suffice to say, we put our order in for a packed sandwich there and then and headed to bed. All in one room in bunks – two sets of which were 3 bunks high, being the last into the room these were claimed by a very accepting Ebe and Alfredo – we all laughed that they could quietly snuggle together up at the top!

No one really slept a great deal, it was hot and we were at roughly 2,710 metres high, and I was impressed that there was a distinct lack of snoring.

Everyone looked a little shell shocked at breakfast but we were all there. Waking up hadn’t been hard, partly because most of us were awake, but not least because other parties of climbers setting off before us weren’t exactly quiet!

5:30am we were all ready in our kit, hydrated almost to the point of drowning my kidneys. The air was cool, but as the sunrise was fast approaching we were just wearing base layers, trousers, gaiters, and carrying walking piles. Our packs were reasonably light containing a few extra layers, ice axes, crampons, harnesses, food and a couple of litres of water. Off we set in a long line.

The trail was initially as it had been , a mountain trail, stones, scree in places, gradually climbing. Occasionally crossing ever increasing patches of hard snow. After a while we were definitely across the snow line and the going was about to get tougher. John was leading us at a slowish but steady pace, but it was quite relentless and no pausing for 5 mins to catch your breath – and I already felt like I could do with catching my breath, also about 25 mins after starting I really needed to pee!

Luckily being well across the snow line was the indication to stop, and John reminded us that whenever we did pause it was important to take the opportunity to drink and eat. At this pause our instructions were harnesses on (I luckily put mine on right straightaway which I tentatively think was pure fluke) and crampons on. It was then John said if we needed a pee break this was a good opportunity! Great…I had my harness on and my crampons – the hassle of taking both off was not contemplatable! I trudged off around a big rock and very quickly learnt that big rocks often equals big drifts of deep snow…hip deep in this case!

After that minor embarrassment I rejoined the group, donned my warmer layer, and gloves and was roped up with Ebe, Alfredo, and Paul, with John as our leader. Off we set. The going was slow, laboured and tough zigzagging up across the glacier. I was tied in behind Alfredo and felt that the rope between us constantly went tight which meant I was slow. Reassuringly I did feel it go tight behind me occasionally, with Paul bringing up our rear.

My breathing was laboured and if I looked up ahead the mountain loomed ever upwards. I tried to keep my eyes on the footprints of Alfredo, but the scenery was so stunning I wanted to take it all in. But I needed to concentrate. I tried to keep my breathing in a steady rhythm and ignore the little signs of a fuzzy head that began to start creeping into my senses. I had a very annoying song refrain going round in my head…it was ABBA’s Fernando! The only line that kept repeating itself was “can you hear the distant drums Fernando” and the reason it popped into my head was because I stupidly thought of it straightaway when I met my co-mountaineer Fernando! It was quite irritating. I nearly decided to sing it out loud but thankfully for everyone did not subject them to that form of torture! Debating with myself whether to or not did get me somehow to our next pause, albeit only about 2 minutes. Enough to bolt down a couple of liquorice sticks and gulps of water! John pointed out the ridge above…along way up…he then advised us not to look up, it always seems such along way to go…he wasn’t wrong. 2 minutes up, and we were off again. This next section to the ridge was steep yomping up through the snow, (crampons are brilliant!!) and John was pushing our group hard…we were quite ahead of the other two groups. My breathing sounded like I’d just done the hardest sprint session imaginable and yet we were moving at a pace akin to that of my darling mummy (sorry mum) which is really quite slow! I wished fervently that it was even a tad slower!!! I had to distract myself and so there came the usefulness of my current reading material. I was midway through reading Under the Wire by war photographer Paul Conroy, which tells the extraordinary and tragic story of Marie Colvin (inspiring war journalist) and her last days during the bombing of the town of Homs in Syria. I had recently read her biography and was finding reading about her compelling and essential. It was a good distraction. Thinking about some of the events she witnessed and the adventures she went through to report the stories, forced me to get a grip and push on. Reading her work and about her life makes me want to do more and to try to make more difference and certainly to push myself more, and right now I needed to push myself up the Gran Paradiso.

We got to the ridge where it wasn’t actually a ridge but a spectacular wide saddle before the push to the summit. Other groups of climbers were heading up and down – it was quite busy! We paused and all gathered, rope lengths between each climber were being shortened, and it was poles away and ice axes out. In the grand scheme there wasn’t a whole lot further to go but it was steep. John tied me in behind him, then Ebe, Alfredo, and Paul still bringing up our rear. At our various short pauses I had hailed Aiden, unsure how he was finding it, and hoped he was doing ok. And so then we were off up to the summit, chilly and warm at the same time, in the glorious alpine sunshine. I was behind John trying hard not to make it sound like I was an overweight Brit running for a bus after overindulging on pasties! We again zigzagged our way up the slope, every corner having to step over the rope and change the ice ace from hand to hand…simple, but I was beginning to have too many things to focus on and tripped nearly taking us all down the mountain – John reassured me, told me to relax, that’s what the ropes were for. I smiled back (hoping it wasn’t a grimace). Just before the summit of Gran Paradiso it becomes more of a clamber over rocks and then an edging along a narrow shelf around the big summit rock which you climb up onto to then kiss, prey to (or whatever) to a statue of the Virgin Mary (!!!!). We paused not because John was being uncharacteristically generous but because the queue of climbers up on the summit was rather big. We sat down on the snow to wait for them to summit and start coming down… along the shelf you could count about 30 climbers potentially edging along it, however they didn’t seem to be moving. I fixated on a guy with a bright green jacket who literally made no progress in half an hour of us watching and waiting (and eating our sandwiches and drinking more water, and getting cold). John lost his patience. Just a few metres above us was another rocky summit, possibly 20 metres lower than the actual summit. John decided we should summit this instead of waiting and watching in frustration at whatever debacle was unfolding on the actual summit. Naively the 3 of us tied in with John got up and meekly and unquestioningly followed his instructions – which involved scrambling up a loose rocky huge boulder, in crampons with the air falling away beneath us to eventually clamber onto the platform. John gave instructions as we climbed, but it was terrifying and heart in mouth sensations as I felt my life briefly flash before my eyes as rocks slithered beneath me. I glanced at Ebe and was relieved to see the same baffled fear in her eyes. We didn’t hang around at our improvised and impromptu summit as is had a sheer drop on one side and not a lot of space to stand. John asked/ordered Paul to lead is back down to the slope…(I found out later that he was terrified by this instruction) but duly headed off as we clumsily clambered back down behind him. It was breathtaking and exciting but I confess I was glad to be back on the snow. Paul continued to lead us back down to the saddle. It should be noted that Ale and Tatou did not make their teams summit either the real summit or our improvised one!

Back down at the saddle we drew breath. I felt elated – I’d made it! And I hoped I’d shown I was strong enough. Ice axes away and poles back out, ropes relengthened and John was keen to get going back to the hut. The need for speed was because the snow lower down was likely to be very slushy in all the sunshine. Although Tatou’s team (including Aiden) set off ahead of ours we were soon going ahead of them. John leading followed by myself, then Ebe, Alfredo and the faithful Paul bringing up the rearguard. John showed us the technique for going down hill and set off, a fast downhill sort of yomp, heel first to get a good grip in the ever more slushy snow, which was very deep in places. Everyone, occasionally went right down in the snow causing yanking on the ropes. I was literally trying to imitate John and keep in time with his pace but because we were going so fast, the others tied in behind me felt like they were just being pulled and frequently we were yanked to a brief halt as one or all of us sank in the snow or tripped flat on our faces. The slope at one point became quite steep, John stopped, instructed us to gather the rope between us in coils, sit down legs facing down the mountain toes facing skywards and to slide downhill on our bottoms. This sounded like a good idea, except that John barely waited for us to be ready then he was off. We skidded and slid along behind him instead of in an orderly line alongside him…I started laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop. Ebe crashed into me, Alfredo crashed into both of us and Paul was sliding all over the place…still we got down that section in record time – important to note that the other two teams did not follow suit! We carried on yomping after that at John’s relentless pace, still occasionally sinking in deep drifts until finally we came to a point where he stated, rest and crampons off! We untied and gathered ourselves as we waited for the others to join us. There was still quite a bit of snow covered ground to cross but it was too wet for crampons. So we were back as one team back to the hut. Eventually with some relief the snow petered out, everyone had had enough of sinking every few steps up to their waists. We were back on the trail and about 20 minutes later (just after 1pm) we were back at the mountain hut.

Elation was in the air. The mountain hut was full of other climbers coming and going, stopping for lunch and drinks throughout the afternoon. We had an afternoon of relaxation as John wanted us to sleep another night at altitude. And relax we did, either on our bunks of sitting out in the sunshine soaking up the glorious sunshine (reading) feeling tired and happy. Before dinner we gathered together to discuss the next few days. Sunday back down to Chamonix and Monday we are/were due to head to the Gonella hut on the Italian side of MB but there is a serious thunderstorm forecast and this has been ruled out sadly. The plan is still to summit MB but via the Goute hut route which will mean going to the hut on Tuesday getting up at something like 3am on Wednesday to summit and then come all the way back down!

At breakfast it was confirmed that the Gonella hut is cancelled. But never fear, John informed us we are all considered strong enough to climb MB and that is still in the plan for Tuesday weather permitting. On the way down the trail about 10mins after starting we stopped by a section to our right of large boulders. John wanted us to practice climbing up and down these boulders as if we running across the rocks on my local beach in Cornwall (Lundy Bay for those that know). If I’d been on the beach in bare feet this would have been easy, but we were wearing heavy walking boots, and John wanted us to go up without using hands, and then to try it all again wearing crampons!! There was obviously a reason for this insane exercise and that is because when we make it to the beast that is Mont Blanc we will encounter such terrain and John wants us to be confident enough to be able to overtake other slower climbers! And to add to it when we do it for real we’ll be roped up as well. It was fun no doubt, but as a practice – I’m not sure about the reality on Mont Blanc come Wednesday.

We carried on down the mountain heading back into the serene calm beauty of the pine forest, occasionally passing Sunday walkers heading up to the hut for Sunday lunch.

Back at Chamonix we’ve been reorganising our kit ready for more altitude acclimatisation tomorrow with a trip To L’Aiguille du Midi where there is a ridge we can practice going across and some other technical difficulties to practice!

This is an education of a trip, a test of nerve as much as determination (and obviously fitness which I’m still concerned about but slightly reassured by John saying he reckons I’m strong enough – and I’ve realised I need to take what he says seriously.

The first signs of the storm are approaching and the thunder is beginning, we can see through the chalet window the summit of Mont Blanc enshrouded in ominously angry clouds!

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Off to the Misty Mountains

The sun is shining, it is in the high 30s climbing towards 40, and I have finally left the trials and tribulations of a disastrous political crisis behind me…although worryingly with no hope for any positive improvement in days time when I return (the possibility of a PM who broke the NHS, to one with no scruples and morals who will sell to the highest bidder, and keep our country in crisis)…still it is refreshing to contemplate 10 days away from it all!

A little over 6 months ago, Aiden, (alias Boromir, from the Fellowship of the Sahara Desert 2017, Tent 115) lay down the challenge gauntlet to climb Mont Blanc. It would appear that I was the only one without a valid mitigating circumstance not to pin him! And 6 months down the line, not quite fit enough I fear, here I am, hiking/climbing gear in my rucksack, all in anticipation of freezing temperatures – as advised by climbing organisation! It seems a strange juxtaposition to be sitting in a t-shirt and loose cool trousers, sipping ice cold water and espresso in blazing sunshine in a internationally declared record breaking heatwave knowing that I’ve got thermal leggings, base layers, ski gloves, etc in my pack! I feel like I’m in some strange alternative existence and that I received the wrong memo – probably sent by Aiden as a joke, but no doubt he will come through customs in full gear wearing a woolly bobble hat 🤣

It’s been unnecessarily long and arduous to get to Geneva from Cornwall. The last flight out from Newquay was delayed by an hour…then slyly cancelled due to a cabin crew member sustaining an injury just as we were queuing to board! You simply couldn’t make it up….the exact same scenario happened on my way to Chile 2 years ago. The only difference being that being based in London, British Airways was able to summon a back up crew member. Flybe apparently don’t have that luxury, there are no back up cabin crew staff in the whole of Cornwall (although I suspect in the 24degree sunshine yesterday evening, they were sipping gin&tonics on a beach!). Another hour later and along with other London bound travellers I was in a Cornish taxi, speeding up the motorway. One of my fellow companions had great delight in texting his wife that he was sharing a taxi with a nurse and a model! He was a Waste Renewable Energy engineer!!! I definitely felt like I was in some sort of parallel universe!

2am….crash landed into my enormous double bed in the Premier Inn for a far too short sleep, and since then have appreciated Swiss efficiency and coffee!

Just waiting for Aiden to pitch up….in full hiking kit!

And the the mountains await us, shrouded in a glorious heat haze mist – so glad I packed my thermal underwear!

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One final push… to the finish


One final night on a lumpy desert floor, despite the sleeping mat. One final night and morning of wearing the same clothes for over a week. One final visit to the camp toilets, one final dried meal, one final painful, squeezing tired and now slightly swollen feet into trainers.

My tent mate Leah and I were slightly delirious this morning – laughing with the anticipation of this beautiful, crazy, extraordinary tough week being over… At 9 am, we all launched ourselves one last time over the start line to head the final 8 km into the centre of San Pedro.

8 km doesn’t sound like much. But after 242 km over salt flats, rocks across freezing rivers, hot sand dunes, Mars like terrain… it seemed like a marathon lay before us. And so we counted down and set off with whoops and whistles – this filthy looking bunch of runners (a dubious description at this point) headed along the dusty, bumpy, uneven roads!

As it was the last stage, everyone was going for it… sort of. You have to laugh at the sight of people who can normally run/stride fast and strong, reduced to a sort of hobbling jog as each pain pushes pressure on those blisters, sore ankles from strained tendons and torn ligaments.

Me… right, this was it… 8 km. I wanted it done and dusted and apart from two short walks of about 100 metres, I ran/shuffled all the way. I tagged onto the end of four Chinese runners who had a good plan of teamwork and were sticking at a steady pace in single file. For about 2 km, I sat in their slipstream. But, as we entered the dusty outskirts of the town, my adrenaline began to increase and I could smell the finish line.

The road was one I had run on a week ago. Its familiarity helped me as I came to the crossroads over the Main Street, high-fiving one of the volunteers stationed there making sure we were going the right way. The odd thing was the occasional tourists taking pictures of us!

I turned right into the street that led up to the town square. I could see the chip timer 200m ahead of me… and from somewhere my legs found their sprint. I ran into them as they logged my time and said all I had to do was cross the finish line 100m further on, no need to run. But in my book, you run over those finish lines! I ran up the hill to the sea of blue (all the course volunteers/medics/race director) and other already finished runners and crossed under the finish line banner. With my arms aloft, hopefully smiling, I jumped high in the air as the medal was hung over my neck by Mary, the course director and I embraced her.

It was done… emotion takes over amid all the cheering. With my sunglasses still on, eyes filling with tears I looked up to the sky and whispered to Dad. “Thank you, for being with me every step of the way… This was for you.”

And now the party starts…

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Rest Day in camp…

So, it is 3 pm here at camp. We look a bit like the walking wounded as folks hobble across the dusty ground to the loo, or to the camp fire to get hot water for hot food, or as they stumble out of the medical tent, feet taped, padded and strapped.

It is official, we are filthy and there is a pungent smell of sweat every so often. It’s a relaxed atmosphere as the memory of the pain from yesterday’s slog fades into pleasant memory.

Everyone is comparing notes on how they fared, or which bit was the worst. It was a hot day and blisters were in abundance. I admit that my feet, whilst not pretty, are not too bad… a few drilled toenails to release the fluid trapped underneath, but otherwise I have fared quite well.

The images of yesterday’s run are still extraordinary. It has been an extraordinary week – the landscape and terrain has been almost indescribable. Yesterday it felt like we crossed several planets, each with its own unique surface. If I come across more salt flats anytime soon though, it will be too soon!

The gods have been in my favour – 2 of the 4 “crisp packet” air mattresses in my tent have died a punctured death – nothing to do with me!

Sandy dust is everywhere – none of our clothes are clean. Boys of the MDS, I’m sure you miss that straw like hair, dry skin, chapped lips, the dry meals and electrolyte drinks.

Thank you for the emails. Although they take a long time to come through, they have been great to read and to know that you have been following my plod through this crazy place.

We have just 8 km tomorrow morning into the town centre of Atacama – and then rest and relaxation.

I will write a full race report with photos on my return to UK. Watch this space…

So, from stinky me, covered in sand, dust, dry blood, sweat and some tears – I send you lots of love.

Harry xxxxxx

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The Long March… Stage 5

They call it the Long March and it is certainly that… 72 km.

So, we started out at 8 am yesterday morning. Chilly and off again through salt flat broccoli terrain. 15 km to the first CP. I fell into step with Matthew the Aussie. Leah from our tent hung out with us for bit too. Matt and I slogged onto CP2 through sandy, foresty terrain.

It might be odd to say we had a dog at our heels, but we did. On Stage 4 from San Pedro, one of the many stray dogs attached itself to the runners and crossed the salt flats with us! It is not easy running in the heat with a very sweet, panting dog at your heels. But, it was determined to follow us… and even had the energy to chase some horses and donkeys that were being exercised. As we trotted into CP2 the poor dog collapsed in a heap. Matt headed straight off. I sorted out a shoe problem and then headed off too.

CP2 to CP3 was fantastic. A dusty truck road and then heading off across gravelly rising dunes. It was perfect for running and I ran all the way to CP3, pausing to say hello to Vladmi and his guide as I went past. CP3 to CP4 was more salt crusts and seemed to go on for ever… Then suddenly, a very steep tall dune to climb.

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The climb was pretty good.

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What awaited at the top was like a different planet… a terrain that I can’t describe. Like something out of Star Trek… and finally down a sandy stretch into a hot CP4 where we given a lukewarm can of coke!

I set off in Matthew’s dust along a dry river bed. Matt was always just going round a bend ahead of me and it felt like we were stuck in a time loop. But, it was beautiful with the late evening sun still burning hot and the colours on the rocks glowing golden. CP5 eventually twisted into view and I treated myself to a hot meal then set off as the sun was setting behind me and the wind began to rise.

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I fell into step again with Dennis and we made good time to CP6. We got there just as the need to turn on our head torches was fully necessary. Warm clothes on, joined by Serge and Yves, we all set off with the bright full moon rising and the stars coming out. It was tough going and I could feel my energy beginning to fade… But, we made CP7 by 10 pm and gathered ourselves for the final push up through the Valle de la Luna.

I’d like to say it was beautiful – and it was under the bright full moon, giving eerie shadows to the rocks and salt all around us. But, my energy was fading fast and if I hadn’t been with the Canadians who kept pushing me on I would have ground to a halt. I was cold and a bit tearful, but we kept plodding on for what seemed the longest 9.7 km ever.

We crossed the finish line at about 12.40 am and apart from my amazement that the dog was lying there being fed, I was exhausted and emotional, but so relieved.

More updates to come later….

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