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!