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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ignited and extinguished... London 2012- How do I find the words?

I'd avidly followed the London 2012 Olympic Torch relay for it's 8000 mile journey. The past few months have felt like a blur, a timeline of events, emotion and experiences, mangled up like an amused cat playing with a ball of wool. I was gutted to have missed the majority of the penultimate week of the relay, as the flame arrived in the capital for the final few days of it's epic journey, but instead I was climbing Mont Blanc and doing something else I'd never have dreamed I'd be doing 18 months ago.
Never shall I forget when my heart pounded as I opened the email entitled 'Your London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer Nomination', nor the absolute explosion of utter elation when I read the beautiful words 'Congratulations Alex, we think you've got what it takes to be a London 2012 Olympic Torchbearer' and subsequently leapt that high off my chair I nearly brought down clumps of insulation from the ceiling along with the overwhelming realisation of what I was about to do. The initial anxieties myself and many others faced for 2 enduring months about our official confirmation are now laughable, but this meant a lot to us. I remember the goosebumps when I first saw the London 2012 Torch Relay preview advert shown on TV, shortly followed by watching the flame arrive in Lands End on the 19th of May, first carried by Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie. The torch was to travel in almost every form of transport possible known in the UK and to capture the imagination of the whole country, and beyond. Initially I was awestruck. Watching the flame on it's first juvenile day in the deep south of the country, the reception was already warming, in more ways than just the Cornish weather.

Crowds of people lined the streets, as I watched in amazement on the BBC Torch Cam. Soon it would be my turn. The atmosphere amongst us torchbearers changed, and one by one the page began to be filled with everyone's photo's and memories of their big day, we were promised and reassured that we were in for a treat. They weren't wrong. The press went wild for the relay, and I made several appearances in local newspapers and radio.


Earlier in the year, I'd been featured on massive Coca-Cola billboards across every major city in the UK alongside celebrity rapper Dizzee Rascal (who also went 'Bonkers' at the Opening Ceremony). Such a surreal experience, and thankfully friends kept the 'Sharpie' markers and obscene graffiti well away. I'd also had the experience of talking live on the BBC School Report at the BBC Studios in Manchester on the BBC North West tonight sofa, being interviewed about being a torchbearer by Roger Johnson. The chap who usually accompanied us for tea whilst we watched the news, was now sitting inches away from me. The same day I met Robbie Savage and the weather lady who usually told me whether I'd be running in the rain or shine every day, was now clipping a microphone onto my t-shirt. Somebody needed to get a whopping big Salmon and hit me to bring me back to Earth a little. A cracking day.


When I got an email a week later asking me to speak live on BBC Radio Merseyside I jumped at the chance. And once again I nailed the interview, with my nerves easing off further. From then on, I was invited for more radio interviews, booked up for primary school assemblies, and then had an interview for BBC North West Tonight. It really couldn't get much better, and I didn't care about my speech, although it took a few times to get it right. Considering my abysmal low self confidence just a couple of years later, this was such an amazing thing to happen to me. I was 'the torchbearer' in my local village, and it was fantastic. Shortly after the relay kicked off, I recieved my uniform. As I was on Day 11, I saw some of the earlier runners posting photo's of themselves in their Olympic Chav tracksuits, as I called them, but now I got the chance to proudly wear mine for the first time. Safe to say it was dirty even before the 29th of May. And as I counted the days until my 'moment to shine', increasingly excited by the news coverage and the signs everywhere: I really couldn't wait. 


I woke up on Tuesday the 29th of May like a not-so little kid at Christmas. I was in my uniform hours earlier eagerly waiting for the big moment. And as for the whole day, what an overwhelming, epic and truly awesome blur, a massive honour, a surreal and incomparable experience. I want to do it again- but I can't. Thousands of people clapping you and cheering your name... there really is no greater reward for the things I've overcome to get here. My job was done, I'd carried the Olympic flame safely and done myself proud. I could say more, but I simply don't need to. Words won't do the honour justice and I think my fellow Future Flames will agree. It's like a legal high. But for days after, as I tried to work out what the hell happened, there was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. My aunty passed away from a brain tumour 4 days before my big day. I was a complete cocktail of emotion, almost numb, and I know how devastated my family were that she hadn't made it to see me run. The best day of my life was in the same week as her funeral. It was incredibly unfortunate timing and I just wish she'd been there to see it. My grandad battled the same thing 19 years ago, sadly he too was beaten, but they were both with me that day- the sun was shining and everything went like clockwork. Gran said that Grandad would have been so proud and would have had a photo put up in the town hall! But the whole experience was a distraction to the family, which brought some relief. 


However, the aftermath was equally as magical. Never would we have guessed that we'd be almost famous. I have signed a dozen autographs, one as far away as the Philippines! I've posed for hundreds of photo's, featured in newspapers, been on radio again and TV, and my torch must have been held by at least 1500 people- in schools, care homes, fairs and in public. It's had a Barn Owl on top of it, been used in a pretend sword fight with the Roman guards who stood on the Old Dee Bridge as I brought the flame into Chester, it's started races and has raised hundreds for charity. It's been to London, Milton Keynes, Leeds and Sheffield and held by Marco Pierre White and Ben Heason. 


As well as spreading the joy and telling my story, I've built my confidence even more. I've told my story to over 1500 people at countless events, schools and care homes. I've filled with goosebumps whilst showing children videos of me carrying the torch, and then every hand in the room shooting up when you ask who wants to hold it first. And I'm so lucky to be able to spread the joy, even when the 'Are you selling it?' questions got tedious. But the relay had a journey to complete. And the chuffed feeling of pride when everyday you saw on the news that the flame had done something else extraordinary or been held by a celebrity, never ceased. There were heart-rendering moments throughout, like seeing extremely injured soldier Ben Parkinson carry the flame for 26 inspirational minutes, and the other brave people who carried the flame regardless of whether they could walk, see, hear or understand, really touched me. People who hadn't walked for many painful years, had their courage ignited by the flame, and they got up and walked the biggest 300m of their life. The journey never failed to amaze me or exceed anybody's expectations, it touched the hearts of millions. 


I was able to support friends throughout as they had supported me, sadly normally online but I do remember when in person I watched a friend Gloria run in Winslow, and the look of surprise on her face when me and Kim waited for her at her drop-off point holding a huge banner and waving our torches. We'd had our moments to shine, so now we were here to support her. As I ran alongside her taking pictures, lines of schoolkids waving flags and their home-made torches tapped my legs. I was excited to see the flame again that day, and it's no wonder the torch arriving in people's hometown has got everyone out whether rain, shine or monsoon, it really does build a cracking atmosphere. To see it from the crowds perspective was fantastic, as I knew exactly how it felt. I had a brief and slightly emotional reunion with Jack from the Coca-Cola team, the pleasant chap who'd calmed my nerves whilst my knees trembled at the side of the road just a month earlier. He recognised me and he gave me a free Coke, then had to shoot off. For some silly reason I decided to bring my torch with me- as the torch convoy had left, leaving lots of hyper children and smiling faces, all it took was one person to ask 'Is that a real torch?' and my torch came out of the bag, and would stay out for the next hour as I was swarmed for photo's. Mad. 


Our Future Flames facebook page increasingly filled up with photos and stories of everyone's big days, as the flame neared London. Whilst showing kids the BBC Torch Cam in an assembly, my friend Dom was running right at that point; which was really special. I was busy with my fundraising but I religiously watched the BBC Torch Cam as much as I could, when I wasn't cycling to places with my torch. I remember taking my torch to Chester and standing at the spot where last time I'd been there, thousands of people had surrounded me. An elderly couple were there taking photo's of each other, so I asked whether they wanted me to take a photo of them. I then handed them my torch to hold in the photo. They were gobsmacked; it truly made their day. I took the torch, or torchy as I began to call it, to a friends grandmothers birthday party. Apparantely she'd been hooked watching the relay on TV every day, and as her birthday cake was lit, I followed behind the cake with 'torchy' and the look on her face I will never forget. Priceless.
One of the most humbling moments was taking it to a charity called Vision Support, where most of the people there couldn't see what they were holding yet it didn't stop beaming smiles all around. I could tell you how brilliant every place and school I visited was, but I'd be here all day. From signing autographs in Delamere Forest to being chased by kids around a field on their primary school sports day, it never seemed to end. I wanted to do more, but looking back, I've exhausted myself. The relay never exhausted itself however, as it reached the south of Britain for the final time. 

Starting sometimes at the break of dawn, for 70 days, you'd think that the team of Metropolitan Police who accompanied it, tackling numpties of all ages who decided to try and grab their fame in the irresponsible way, would get fed up. Not the case at all. What a sound bunch, always smiling, helping and engaging with the torchbearers, and they never seemed to tire of lighting peoples torches with their allan key and the torch kiss. They gained real support from the public, often seen waving and hi-fiving the crowd, and being handed food. They didn't hesitate to give the muppets who cruelly thought they could spoil someone's well deserved moment to shine; a taste of tarmac. It was always well publicised but sadly some people didn't get the message that they'd be on their arse in seconds, which happened in Cornwall and Guildford to name just two incidents. We mustn't forget the streaker in Henley either. But these men and women did a sterling job of keeping us safe. 


One of the best things, is that the people selected for the honour of carrying the torch, are one big family. We look out for each other, help each other out, encourage, banter, (occasionally) fall out, an in one extraordinary case- romance has blossomed! And proof of that friendship, is that I am now en-route to see some of the Paralympics thanks to getting tickets from a fellow torchbearer. And last time I was in London, my fellow torchbearers put me up for two nights accommodation and got me tickets to two events. The 800cm of diecast aluminium with 8000 perforated holes, symbolises our bond and unity. I hope it stays the same way. For someone who is socially awkward with a lack of communication skills or confidence, it's given me a huge boost to finally find people on the same wavelength as me. 


How humble, yet proud, it made me feel to hear of it being held by such legends like Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Roger Bannister, Chris Bonnington and Lord Coe, to name but a few. To be on the same level as these people, is quite a warming feeling. At times I had felt like a celebrity myself.


But on it's penultimate day, I envisaged mixed emotions- particularly in those who'd played their part in the torch relay from Greece to London and were sad to see the relay take it's final hands; yet excited for the ignition of the cauldron, and the discovery of whom would light it. 7 years on, the moment the world had waited for, was here. The UK had to deliver, to show itself to the world, in the biggest show ever staged by Great Britain. Years of hard work were to be concluded on Friday the 27th of July. Many people were anxious- the world's eyes were on us. We were saddened that our flame was about to leave the streets forever, and I admit watching BBC Torch Cam live for the last time ever was mood-dampening, it was a damn good job we had the Games to look forward to. All good things must come to an end. 


I'd joked that Mr Bean would light the cauldron... and was chuffed to bits to see him appear, in a not so nostalgic, but equally hilarious role. The video showing the highlights of the torch relay, in which I recognised a few of my new friends, was heartwarming and my eyes were glued to the screen. I was a tad worried when David Becks approached the stadium with the flame, hoping that he wouldn't be lighting it, but I was made up when the mystery figure who received the flame came in the form of Sir Steve Redgrave. As he ran off towards the stadium, I couldn't help but smile. And even more fitting, was Steve running past the construction workers who had built the stadium, before surprising the world and handing his torch onto 5 teenagers in their black torchbearer tracksuits. From this moment on, over a billion eyes were transfixed to their TV screens, if they weren't lucky enough to be there for real, as the final torchbearers ran every precious step around the stadium and taking turns with the torch as they did so. I won't deny how jealous I felt at this moment, that these young people had the highly-coveted and unforgettable task of lighting the cauldron. 


What was even more fitting, and intelligently invented, was the 5 sporting legends handing their torches to the young athletes. Nobody expected it, which made it even more magical. As they all set off for one more run, no doubt the most incredible run of their lives, the world watched eagerly to await the moment when the flame would erupt into a cauldron and ignite London 2012. The backing music was an atmospheric complement and the stadium fell strangely silent. Then the moment we'd all waited for, the finale of the torch relay, the end of an era and the beginning of the next- the 5 torchbearers surrounded the hidden structure which was now revealed, the cauldron with it's 204 copper petals spherically resembling a sunflower. Their torches lifted triumphantly for one last time, then gently lowered the flame simultaneously onto the petals- the nursed flame bursting onto each petal. One by one they burst into an orange glow, and like a carousel, began to levitate and form a pyramid beneath the mesmerised teenagers standing below it who'd just initiated a masterpiece of modern ingenuity. As the world gasped, and goosebumps rushed through the arms of the torchbearers who were overwhelmed to be part of such a spectacle, but in reality everyone was gripped. The flame that had travelled 8000 miles and kindled millions of smiles and 'where were you when' memories, kindled the floating petals as they lifted into a flaming tower, towering the awe-struck teenagers.

But I was also extremely proud of what I'd done. The stammer I have always suffered with and still do to this day, seemed to disappear as if by magic, although my legs were trembling. I had been sick with nerves that morning, and the 5am start hadn't helped. Regardless I said 'yes' when a year ago I'd have refused to speak in front of 30 people in the classroom. I left on a high, and little did I know my life had just changed for the better, forever.

Due to this I have had the pleasure of meeting Olympic Bronze Medallist Gymnast Beth Tweddle amongst others. I've had letters from schoolkids and random gifts dropped off. But best of all, I've been able to make many people's day by passing them my torch, the same one which quivered in my hands just 3 months ago, although it feels like a lifetime. Any speculation of selling it was short-lived, as it is simply the most precious item I have ever owned; and to me it will always be priceless.

Just a day after climbing Mont Blanc, I watched eagerly as the Opening Ceremony unfolded, exceeding everyone's expectations and showcasing the British culture at it's very best. The athletes paraded out, country by country, dazzled by the twinkling towers of the Olympic stadium minisculing them, raring to go after years of dedication and commitment. The performers getting an experience of a lifetime and the anticipation for who would end our torch relay and be the last person to carry the London 2012 torch. This is what it had all become.

As the petals met and merged into one platform, the flames roared and the Olympic stadium erupted into a dazzling, erratic shower of fireworks, explosion of noise and it echoed with cheers from the 80,000 people lucky enough to be inside. The Games had officially began, and in bloody good style. I didn't stop smiling all night.

And then, for 2 weeks, the world enjoyed what was soon dubbed as the best Olympic Games in history. Whoever came up with 'Our Greatest Team' for Team GB, must have had a crystal ball. They did us very very proud. I loved how much the Games had grasped the imagination of the country. Many of the people who'd winged about the cost of the Games, were hesitantly loving watching our athletes compete against the world to a home crowd- something which must have made it extra special and I bet it gave them a boost too when they were in complete pain doing their utmost to achieve their dreams. I tried in vain to get tickets, but thanks to two fellow torchbearers, managed to see the football final, taekwondo, the race walk and the marathon. I was gutted to have missed the chance to get into the Olympic stadium though. But even at these events, the atmosphere was electric, pleasant and exciting. Supporting the Team GB athletes was great fun, and even athletes from countries we'd never heard of, were getting a welcoming of a lifetime from the British sport fans. It was no wonder tickets were selling out like the clappers. Being there in person was incomparable to watching it on the TV, and I imagine inside the Olympic stadium would have been even more spectacular, albeit a little deafening.

The games dominated the nation, with Team GB's medal's flowing in left right and center. Fantastic. Those 2 weeks flew by. I wish I'd taken the time to watch more of it- but I'm glad to have been able to at least see some events and get the Olympic atmosphere, which I really did absorb in London. Trying to think of a favourite moment, is difficult. Jessica Ennis smashing the heptathlon was extraordinary, as were the rowing golds, Gemma Gibbons' emotional tribute to her mum at the end of her match, Wiggo and his trademark sideburns blitzing the time trial to win gold with ease, and the Brownlee brothers had me gripped to the TV for their whole stunning triathlon victory, cheering like mad as they crossed the line to win Gold and Bronze medals. The swimming too was great but the velodrome seemed to be where it was all happening. I barely saw much, but I do remember Sir Chris Hoy's gold-winning performance, smashing the field once again in the Keirin and Team Sprint, to the humongous support and delight of the watching crowd. And I will never forget the tears of utter pride running down the cheek of the 6ft 1" and 200lb burly Scotsman, as he won his final Olympic gold in style, retiring in front of a home crowd and overwhelmed at his achievements, I imagine there weren't an awful lot of dry eyes in the velodrome that fine evening. The same goes for Victoria Pendleton, retiring gracefully with another gold medal and lots of tears. But there's plenty of other athletes who made their debut, who I look forward to seeing again for sure. The most exciting moments for me though, were in the Olympic stadium. As a runner, I loved the athletics. The key moments for me were Mo Farah and his gold duo, first the 10k, when Jess won gold along with Greg Rutherford, then the 5k. I was at a party and we were going wild when he legged it, literally, from the pack and won the gold with ease. Usain Bolt and his 100m final had anticipation over who would win amongst the Jamaicans... but the living legend had the crowd roaring for an intense 10 seconds, the stadium falling still as they waited for the starting gun. If you blinked, you'd miss it. Sporting memories, moments of history written, and never forgotten. Mo Farah's ecstatic expression of utter disbelief that he had just won his second gold medal was absolutely priceless. 


On the final night of the competition in the stadium before the Games had to come to a close, it couldn't have ended better. I could commentate on the remarkable moments and experiences of London 2012, but I don't need to. It couldn't have been a bigger success. Seb Coe was very true when he said that we had delivered. Rio have got a big job to do if they want to try and beat London. And I hope Team GB are stronger than ever in 4 years time. Since the torch relay began, I have found many reasons to be proud to be British. I have no doubt that there are thousands of children, as well as adults, who have been inspired to try that little bit harder and aim a bit higher, or start new sports. I know I have.

The moment the world weren't so excited about, besides a few of the miserable pundits out there, was the closing ceremony of the Games. On the 12th August, I returned from cheering the marathon runners on the streets of London, to watch the ceremony. It had completely the opposite atmosphere to the Opening ceremony. yet was equally stunning, magnificent and impressive. Eric Idle portrayed the perfect message to cheer us all up from our post-Olympic blues with 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'. Us torchbearers though were waiting for the dreaded moment when our flame died. I was in my torchbearer uniform, holding my torch, saluting with a glass of Coca-Cola, watching as the stadium unfolded to the anti-climax of the best 2 weeks in modern British history. I think it's safe to say there weren't many dry eyes, in the stadium or from the torchbearers, as Take That began to sing 'Rule the World' as the cauldron petals separated and began to lower towards the ground. I couldn't think of a more fitting song or lyrics to extinguish the flame like- 'The stars are coming out tonight'. It was an emotional few minutes as the cauldron returned to it's dome shape, the 204 flames still burning, as Take That literally did rule the world, just like London had for 2 weeks of historic sporting achievement. I thought the flame being extinguished at this point would have been perfect, but some ballet dancers followed next and then after a few other bits, the stadium fell still and to the horror of the torchbearers who'd carried it there, and shouts of 'Leave our flame alone!' (well, in my household anyway), one by one, the petals faded and fell into darkness, the flames leaving nothing but a puff of smoke. In a pattern, the flames extinguished right until the bottom layer when there was a delay. And within a second, they too had faded into memories. Fireworks serenaded the departure of the flame, but this time, there wasn't the excitement or anticipation like in the Opening Ceremony. My heart sank. I know I wasn't alone. Our flame, the one we'd been fortunate enough to carry there, had died. The Games, had ended, like that. There were a lot of emotional people that night, that's for sure. I couldn't believe our beautiful flame was no longer consuming oxygen, the beacon of the Games no longer trickling from the miserably dark copper petals and the sunken metal poles had crashed down to Earth, just like me. I raised my torch in salute, and took a moment to reminisce what I had been part of.

But one thing for sure, is that in every way the flame embodied the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship.

It shall be missed. Faster, Higher, Stronger- London 2012 certainly was. From the early days, to the end, London 2012 was an epic journey of a lifetime, and the British population embraced it in every aspect. And when I think back, it's hard to recall every moment, emotion and experience from the past 9 months as it had such a positive impact on my life. I can't help but feel deflated that the torch relay and the Olympics have ended and left a vacant space in the new life I have developed. But I also can't help but think how different my life would have been, had I not recieved the e-mail back in December last year to say I'd been chosen for this. Back then, I could never have dreamed that I would carry the Olympic torch. In all honesty, I'd never heard of the Olympic torch relay. And even when I was nominated, my perception of the next few months didn't even come close to what really happened, it was nowhere near. At times I almost felt a sense of isolation from my own body, as if all this wasn't really happening to an average 17 year old like myself. But it was blissfully true, like magic. I genuinely do feel blessed to be where I am now, and extremely grateful. Being a huge part of the Games 2012 is such an honour and the biggest reward I could ask for. 2012 is going to be a hard year to beat which I will never forget, and now I do feel a little lost trying to occupy myself.

The flame may have died, but the friendships and memories made, breath-taking moments of sport, medals galore, tears of joy and pride- will always remain in it's wake. The legacy will live on. A journey is measured best by the friends made, rather than the miles travelled. And I know it will always be in my heart, and come flooding back to me every time I gaze at my torch on the mantelpiece, for the rest of my life. And finally, all I can say is that it was the result of success that got me here. I endeavoured, prepared, struggled then succeeded in my goal to help others. Without that, I wouldn't be writing this today. The journey of a 1000 miles, begins with a single step...

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

London 2012- Inspire a generation...

Friday, 17 August 2012


I didn't finish off my little adventure did I? Well from the summit, I knew I had a long day ahead. The first 6 hours of the day hadn't dragged as much as I'd anticipated, although my crampons dragged in the snow as my jellified legs grew weaker. We had just ascended over 1700m in 6 hours, 2 of which on really gnarly terrain, but now we had over 2800m of downhill to look forward to. I.e. walking down Ben Nevis twice. But in this terrain, familiarise it to walking down Ben Nevis on a unicycle. Not that it mattered. We passed Roger and Greg, who were well behind the group but were still going, and that's the main thing. It was great to see a determined smile on Roger's face. We didn't have time for a cup of tea though. I barely had chance to look around at the panorama, I was being marched down the slope by Phil at a brisk pace. Alpine guides know the effects of altitude well. The slower you go, the more you get altitude sickness, which makes you even slower. So getting us back to a lower altitude before the symptoms can grasp us is an understandable priority. 


Not a great deal happened for the next couple of hours as we headed down the peak. The rhythmic plodding of crampons on ice got a little tedious. It didn't take long at all for the sun to arrive and smother the valley with sunlight, the ice glistening, pure blue skies and such little wind you could hear a whisper. The ground levelled off after we'd tackled the now not-so-steep Grand Bosses and eased onto a col where we stopped outside the Vallee refuge for a drink and some sun cream. We couldn't have had better weather. I can't completely remember but from now it was a long descent to the Gouter hut. The terrain was soft but rutted with such large numbers of traffic, and the glaring sun hadn't quite softened them in the chilly air. It must have been about 7.30am. We stopped for some photo's by some impressive seracs (ice cliffs) and it was the continuous plod once again. What a fine morning. 


I felt lethargic and I was looking forward to getting back. Sadly that seemed very far away. Despite this, I had a huge smile on my face for the whole walk down. Occasionally I felt tears of joy on my cheeks, nevertheless I was beaming and so chuffed to have made the summit. I'd achieved my goal, got the Orangutan photo and nothing less. It had been a tough few months. Obviously I'd had the wonderful honour of carrying the Olympic flame but that was one of the many things which had me rushed off my feet at times, mad busy with deadlines to meet and a fair bit of stress too. I had many times doubted myself. People around me had too, indirectly, asking whether I would be fit enough. That was my main self doubt. Having lost most of my fitness due to my cursed legs, would I cope with the pressures of altitude? I'd done nothing like this before. With research and opinions I soon put my mind at ease, but it did niggle my mind a little. My main worry, though, was the weather- the only thing I had no control over. For months I had worried that I would arrive in Chamonix after months of anticipation and thousands of pounds from my own pocket, to be told that the weather would not be good enough for us to attempt Mt Blanc and we'd have to go elsewhere. There are no refunds. But looking around me, I could see how lucky I had been and how I'd worried about nothing. Looking behind me, my fitness worries had also been irrational. Although, with my old fitness the climb would have been far easier. I would be interested to climb it again when back in action and compare the difficulty. It proves the power of the mind. You have to tell yourself that pain is temporary, quitting is forever. You can turn round, and feel crap later, or feel crap now and feel amazing later. But the smile on my face showed the last busy months had been absolutely worth it. 


The Gouter hut came into view but it still seemed a lifetime away. Not much longer, I convinced myself. Phil was telling me to walk faster but I couldn't, I was just shattered. Soon enough we had the little specks of the tents above the Gouter hut appearing on the horizon. I looked behind for a moment at the vast drops to my right but more so at the towering and massive ridge I'd just tackled. It was breathtaking. It was daunting. I tried to work out which bits were which, the sections of terrain that I remembered. Wasn't sure if the altitude had killed some brain cells but i couldn't recall much of our ascent in the pitch black. It looked magnificent. Had I seen the sheer expanse of the peak before, it would have intimidated me. Instead I headed into the unknown, unable to see what lay ahead in the form of sometimes 40 degree slopes. It looked massive now. It wasn't too long till I'd staggered down into the Gouter hut. This time it didn't resemble a cattle market quite so much. We were ahead of everyone and there was barely anyone else in. I had another energy gel sachet to discover I had put the other empty sachet in and and my duvet jacket pockets were now filled with a lovely and sticky gel residue, along with my phone. Lovely. It was a quick drink but once again we were summoned to continue. I called Dad and shouted 'Summit!!!' down the phone and he was made up, as was I. 


It was now a case of negotiating the sheer paths down to the Tete Rousse. Thankfully this time I didn't care too much, I was on a high. About 1.5 hours later I'd neared the bottom with a sigh of relief. Me and Phil arrived back at camp about 11am. It was great to sit down for a moment. We packed up camp and it was now that I broke the news to the world that I'd summited. That was a very proud moment. I'd looked forward to it for a long time. I knew I had such amazing support behind me so I knew people would be anxiously awaiting an update. It felt great. But now, there was no time for waiting around. Our backs were loaded once again with gear then we limped off down the mountain. It was a glorious day once again, and my altitude sickness had eased now I'd descended about 1800m. I'd hoped for lunch at the Tete Rousse but that wish was shortlived. We waited for Harry and Gavin to catch up but the rest of the group was very far behind. Three enduring hours later or so, the Chamonix mountain railway came into view like an oasis. The repetitive pounding on the legs got tedious so it came as some relief when shortly after, we zigzagged down the valley paths until I staggered onto the scorched grass outside the railway station and fell on to all 4's. Thank god for that! Much to mine and Phil's disgust, the cafe didn't sell ice creams. 

When everyone else had staggered off the mountain, I got a brilliant photo of the group... after 14 hours of almost non-stop action...



We limped onto the Chamonix Mountain Railway again and this time I found myself struggling to stand, dipping my head repeatedly. Absolutely shattered. Next thing I knew, we were waiting in the Les Houches ski-lift. The heat was a bit unbearable and we all felt crap. But the ice-cold nectar of the Gods, in the form of a can of Coke, from the cafe at the bottom, was amazing. The hot shower back at Adventure Base was equally as refreshing to say the very least. Surprisingly, I didn't feel too bad. My 3 Peaks Challenge one year earlier had made me feel far worse, I'd slept in till 1pm for three days after. I couldn't be bothered unpacking, we dumped the stuff and went out in Chamonix to celebrate. 

The next day we were up early once again. Thankfully it wasn't quite the usual 5am start. It was an absolutely scorching day. Me, Phil, Rich and Graham went off down the Valley, through Les Bossons, for about 30 mins or so, to the Via Ferrata Curalla in Passy. A steep walk through the hillside and we were at the base of the huge cliff. The via ferrata was rated AD+, so technically easy, yet a bit exposed. Not for the faint hearted. The rest of the group weren't so keen and relaxed back at the lodge. Having a spare day with Phil, I decided not to let my money go to waste. I wasn't sure how my aching quads would manage. Regardless, we embarked upwards and across the traverse, up the ladders and along the cables. It's my first via ferrata so it was new to me. Really enjoyed it though. The scenery behind across the valley and the water was superb. The rock was hot to touch but being suspended 200ft above the ground was pretty cool. We grew more exposed pretty quickly, stopping for lunch whilst propped up precariously above a sheer drop into a forest. Some good Olympics-themed banter, tackling 'monkey bridges' and wobbly planks, and 2 hours later we found ourselves climbing the final handles to the top of the cliff. A good 200ft or so of ascent in what felt like a short time. A good afternoon out. 


That night was supposed to be a celebration meal out. Sadly I lost touch with everyone and ended up unable to find them. So I spent my last night watching the Opening Ceremony alone. But I'll come on to that in a bit. 

For now, my Mont Blanc era was coming to an end. The challenge I had set myself almost immediately after running through the gates at the bottom of Snowdon after completing the 3 Peaks, had been accomplished. I'd done it. Nothing less, but many things more than I'd expected. We'd been blessed. The worries I'd had, the doubts I'd possessed, had proved to be nothing. Mont Blanc was yet another success story of mine, and I came home with my head held high. This was now my biggest achievement to date. And the scenery and emotion that rushed over me when I took the final steps to the summit completely justified what I'd put myself through for months in the build-up. I'd delivered. Not only by smashing my fundraising target by £900, but by doing it in style, and I'd also managed to get the Orangutan costume photo. The pressure had been high and had I failed to summit, I would be feeling very low right now. But I couldn't feel happier. I would have done nothing differently. I wish I had my old fitness back but despite this I'd forced myself to the summit, deep down I knew I always would. Weather-wise, we'd beaten the odds and got the most incredibly perfect weather I've ever seen. What more can I say? I'd been very very lucky.

I need to thank Dream Guides and Adventure Base for a brilliant trip. I was in brilliant hands and although it was my first Alpine trip, I felt that they did their best to make it as good as possible. And it really was. I'd spent countless hours at work, in a stressful messy kitchen, whilst trying to juggle school, training and fundraising, to fund it, but came away thinking it had been well spent for memories of a lifetime. I was sad to be home after a quality week which flew by. Tiredness had grasped me as the adrenalin which rushed over me on the summit and descent really had worn off, but never to be forgotten. What a chuffing great experience. Seeing mum in the airport and pumping my fist into the air to celebrate my victory was amazing, a proud moment, and a hugely relieved mother to say the least. So with the long-anticipated build-up, life would now ease back to normal as I dealt with the aftermath of my climb, distributing Oranguman's adventures to the mountaineering world. I've managed to combine my adventures as a torchbearer with the upcoming climb and therefore maximised the publicity for both. What a year. 

I also need to thank my sponsors the Mountain Boot Company and Powertraveller, my mum and stepdad for their financial support with my fundraising, REACT for their continued support and encouragement, the publications and radio channels who have featured me throughout, Tim Emmett and Squash Falconer for helping me with sponsorship, Chris Pownell for setting up my website and all of the people who have helped me with my fundraising via events or donations, there are far too many people to list but they know who they are. Special thanks to Diane Mitchell and Harry Gilberton, Barbara Wilkie, Annie Downing, Chris Spray and Rob Tudor. Sorry if I forget anyone. You've all helped this to happen, my dream, ticked off the list. So there's not much more for me to say. I lived the dream and I'm chuffed to have made it when the odds were against me. So for now I need to get myself uninjured and relaxed a little, then it's onto the next one. This time I'm not so sure on what's next. Mera Peak or Aconcagua. Something bigger. And I'm looking forward to spreading the word of REACT too. Either way I'll be pushing the limits, raising more for charity and living the dream. There's a world out there. If I can inspire more people to take up the outdoors and more people to overcome adversity, then even better. The way I see it, the more effort you put in, the greater the rewards. Ultimately I'm on a long journey to Everest, so this is just the end of one awesome chapter and the start of a new one. I'll get there.

Thanks for following and supporting me. That's all for now, folks. Live the dream...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

SUMMIT!!!

Bonjour from the roof of Europe!!!
At approximately 6am on Thursday the 26th of July, I took the final steps up the snow ridge to the highest point in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, 4810m/15720ft. I've done it!! 9 months in the making, and I'm here. Fantastic.

We got a rude awakening from the tent at about 11.45, with Phil shoving us till we woke up. I immediately felt drained and there was a sub-conscious 'Oh shit, here we go!'. We clambered out of the tent into the most amazing star-studded sky I've ever seen, it was incredibly crisp yet calm and dry, with no light but our headtorch beams scattering around on the rocks. I looked up and saw shooting stars, and Phil reckoned that one particular bright speck on the horizon was Venus. There wasn't much standing around though as we grumbled and threw on our duvet jackets, boots, helmets, gaiters, gloves... everything to protect us from the upcoming rock face. Phil was enthusiastic as ever, having woken up 30 minutes ago to do some star gazing.  Half asleep, we left the tents as they were, heaved the rucksacks on once again and ventured off into the still darkness- alone. We hurried through the Grand Couloir, an accident hotspot, then the next 2 hours would prove to be incredibly tough. It was really really steep, the 'path' illuminated by our headtorches, had a constant uphill gradient and the Kendal mint cake I slipped out of my pocket was sickly and didn't really have the desired effect. It was a continuous upwards plod, with lots of cables fastened onto the rock to grab onto, to prevent slipping backwards and ending up in quite a pickle.

It dragged on and on, until we climbed up over another pile of rocks and in the silent darkness, we had light! But it shone through the windows of the Gouter hut, which must have only been 5 minutes above us now. Slight relief to my tired legs, which if they could speak, were currently shouting at me to stop and sleep. As we clambered in our boots up the steps to the hut, it was hardly peaceful. Intrepid mountaineers trying to get gear sorted outside on the narrow platform, it was quite hustle-bustle and the nerves really hit me now, despite the relief that I only had 3.5 hours of walking till the summit... only. We met the rest of Team DG on a bench in the cattle-market of the Gouter hut. It really was as retro as I'd been warned. We were cramped round and everyone was quiet, probably from tiredness and anticipation, then the hut guardian brought us breakfast in the form of really stale bread in a basket with jams and Nutella plus the worst tea/coffee I've ever tasted. A perhaps sarcastic 'Enjoy your breakfast followed', and it just made your stomach even more unsteady. Safe to say we were eager to keep moving. The rest of the team who'd slept here had a pretty awful night's sleep, if any, so perhaps I was lucky to have camped with Phil, which was a cracking experience in it's own right.

At about 2.15am, without further ado, we got ourselves kitted up in a hurry, and I sensed the guides wanted us to get ahead of the pack. Here goes. Headtorches abeaming, we didn't stop for any good luck wishes, we ventured off into the intimidating yet magical horizon, following a sparkling trail of headtorches on the snow. I could see probably 50 or 60 of these lights ahead of us, some of them much further ahead on the horizon. It was slow and steady for the first 15 minutes, on the gentle ridge away from the Gouter hut, shortly after we'd nearly trodded on a load of tents en-route. It was a short descent then an uphill rise and another descent, with the orange glows of Chamonix twinkling below in the distance. I envied them for a short moment, in comfortable warm beds. My breathing grew heavier as we climbed a consistently steep snow slope, which curved left and right for an hour or so. Phil was on a mission, and he was bloody strong, we powered past dozens of climbers by overcutting the path. He gave me regular altitude updates, hitting 4000m at the top of this seemingly never-ending path. Suddenly the trail of headtorches ahead got smaller and when the path levelled off for a short while and I caught my breath, there was probably only half a dozen ahead of us. Glancing behind, we saw the different ridges, peaks, valleys and cwm's that we'd just passed through, the sheer drops, and like a magical spectre were hundreds of white lights following us, the lights of Chamonix and even Geneva seemed so distant and dwarfed by the Mont Blanc massif. The dawn glow was breathtaking and the atmosphere was quite incredible, so still and peaceful, inspiring, and awesome. I can't describe it. We just had to ignore the vomit stains in the snow where altitude sickness had hit a few climbers quite personally...
Phil informed me it was 4.30am, we were moving for 2 hours or so, and it had flown by faster than I'd expected. Deep down I was excited, but more so looking forward to resting my aching and oxygen deprived legs. I asked if I could get my duvet jacket on, as the temperature had continued to drop as we'd climbed- I was told yes, but quick quick quick. I guess this attitude worked, as looking behind I couldn't see a single headtorch through my tired eyes. I just had to keep going. The repetitive rhythmic crunch of my crampons in the ice seemed to echo around aimlessly.
On this plateau we could work out the outline of a large peak ahead of us against the night sky, with some of the eerie lights twinkling up it. 'Shit' I thought, that's steep. My legs begged at me for no more but we ploughed onwards, stopping only for a minute to breathe. '2 hours to the top now' Phil said. Not sure if it came as a relief. I was just in discomfort. My head wasn't thinking about the summit ahead, I'm not sure exactly what I was thinking, except pain. The view ahead was interesting though, it looked so calm, but I knew my legs were soon to find differently. We set off up the slope, and looks weren't decieving. Did what it said on the tin. 'It's gonna be a tough 2 hours' Phil said. Jolly good. 'Is that a welsh man?' Phil laughed. The climbers ahead were Henrietta and Mark, the welsh guide. 'Come on Alex!' he tugged. We passed them and carried on. We left the Dome du Gouter and further up the slope we approached the Vallee Refuge, an emergency shelter for bad weather. 'You're going to have the most spectacular sunrise of your life soon', said Phil. The sky was brightening slightly, and I could start to work out the white of the snow and the twisting ridges ahead. To the east, a gentle but distinct orange hue crept into the sky as we ascended. My breathing became raspy and the elusive headache returned in full force. '4300m' Phil said. The altitude sickness bit me in my frozen teeth. I got some of my Isotonic power gel out of my down jacket, but it didn't help much. My Powerbar had frozen again, and luckily it didn't knock any teeth out. I'd had my camera with me the whole way, keeping it under my down jacket in an obvious bulge and pulling out to get pictures and videos when I could, I couldn't resist. We passed some more climbers and now the chilly, weak blue sky illuminated the path ahead. Soon, the Grand Bosses ridge loomed ahead and it was time to tackle it. It was a real killer. By now we were at 4513m, far higher than I'd ever climbed.
My throat was dry and my head throbbed. One thing that did cross my mind, was 'If only I'd been fitter, stupid shin splints'. When that ordeal was over, it was the Petite Bosses ridge, it wasn't exactly Petite either. 4547m. I was worried that we wouldn't have any sunrise as we were climbing so quickly and nearing the top. After these hurdles, my legs were extremely tired, and weak with the lack of oxygen. It was now a steep climb of a ridge onto a plateau, after which point the path levelled slightly. The dawn began to break. I begged for a break but Phil was keen to keep going. I was whimpering in pain, I was exhausted, my legs were weak and I kept stumbling to my knees, tugged ever so tightly upwards by Phil, forcing me onto my legs. 'Keep going' I told myself. 'Almost there, keep going'. But I was so oxygen deprived. I lost awareness of what I was doing. 'Can I stop for a breather please?' I asked Phil. 'No, you can walk 100 paces then deep breaths for 10 seconds'. The air was so thin, 57% of the oxygen at sea level, that it didn't make any difference. Onwards and upwards.
We were now on the final ridge to the summit, or so I thought. It was an ongoing, tiring struggle. Harder than I'd imagined. But we kept going, Phil urging me and encouraging me throughout. '4600m', 30 minutes to go... I was having issues with every step. The ridge narrowed and the hard-pack snow became crunchier with every step. I kept stumbling until about 15 mins later, '4700m' almost there. I had only 110m to go, that distance took Usain Bolt 9.69 seconds. Yet it still seemed like a mile.
The moment I'd dreamt about for months, was soon to be mine. At times it'd felt like a mountain to get there, with setbacks and a lot of stress to get to where I was now. But I'd done it, I'd succeeded, and here I was, about to make it all worthwhile. Now I just had to force myself to keep going, it would soon be over (it wouldn't). I just filled my mind with the image of the summit. I slowed down rapidly but Phil charged on as ever. 'Those people up there, that's the summit'. The outlines of the people ahead sure as hell showed the summit. A smile came to my face, a big one.
I turned my camera on and recorded the next 10 minutes. I was almost there. Empowered.
I then took my final steps onto the highest point of Western Europe with a huge sigh of relief.
'WOOHOO!!!' I yelled, thrusting my ice axe into the air. I was absolutely elated. Really chuffed. The exhaustion disappeared and we spent the next 15 minutes standing aloft the highest peak in the Alps. I said to Phil: 'Well you can say it', 'Congratulations Alex, welcome to the summit of Mont Blanc, shake my hand'. I certainly did, and I owed him one, I owed Dream Guides for getting me here. It was 6am and there wasn't much chance to sit around, as I pulled off my boots and threw the Orangutan costume on. It was surprisingly easy and hassle free. With a smile on his face, Phil took the photo of me holding the banner. I got a few funny looks off the French. We stuffed the costume, literally, into my rucksack and I got rekitted. I took my gloves off for one moment and the freezing air hit me straight away, it must have been well below -5 degrees. I did take a moment to stop and look around. There was no breeze whatsoever, it was beautifully still.

At that moment, the sun popped up in the distance, the most stunning sunrise I have ever seen. The burning orange illuminated the hundreds of peaks scattered below, and there wasn't a peak around to challenge where I was now.Truly the king of the castle and I felt on cloud 9. The French group left and I got the classic summit photo with my ice axe proudly lifted in the air, in triumph. Bursting with pride to finally be in such a stunningly awesome place. The hazy horizon glowed orange, shadowing the snowy tipped peaks around us, and throwing everything out of perspective. The darkness faded away into the glistening ice slopes either side of us and it was completely breathtaking and awe inspiring. I have never seen scenery like it. I recorded a quick summit video, and I looked decievingly happy compared to how I'd felt just 30 mins ago. 'This is the 2nd best weather I've ever seen on Mont Blanc' said Phil. I really felt the presence of my aunty Julie and Grandad, they were definitely with me, because we were blessed with the most amazing panorama, perfect. I wasn't sure if I was dreaming. The summit plateau was reasonably sized, and as I tried to look around and take it all, Phil was eager to leave. We'd been there 15 minutes and the temperature had hit us fast. I didn't want to leave. I phoned mum- it was 5.14am back home, but she was quick to answer. 'Guess where I am?' I said. She was absolutely delighted. I had 4 bars of signal! It seemed a shame to spoil the silence.
I was emotional speaking to her, I really was, and had tears running down my eyes. I was so overwhelmed to be here after such a struggle and testing few months. It was a quick call, but one that neither of us will forget. It was one last glimpse of surreal, unbelievable scenery, then we set off for the home run.
To our left, we could see Mont Blanc's shadow on the horizon, known as the Brocken spectre. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was picture perfect, and as you can see, the pictures are precious. But they don't do justice to the real thing. Henrietta and Mark appeared, coming up the ridge, Henrietta pale-faced and struggling. I imagine I looked the same. This time, the headache didn't bother me. I had just succeeded and achieved a dream, I knew there would be a lot of people proud of me, and worrying about how I was getting on at this moment in time. I had a big smile on my face, and tears repeatedly returned down my cheek, I was absolutely made up. This one's for you Grandad, and Aunty Julie. I had doubted even myself, and when the odds looked bleak and the worries mounted, I just proved myself wrong. I felt on cloud 9. I forgot about my tired legs, we just carried on, I was speechless. We congratulated every member of the team who was on their way up, and I told them they were in for a treat. They were. They congratulated us two, amazed at our speedy progress up the hill. Our descent was slow and Phil was eager to speed me up, but I was knackered. We didn't speak much on the descent, I was just beaming, reminiscing on what I'd just done. I was speechless.
The descent...

We were delighted to pass Roger and Greg, Roger being 65 had struggled a bit but he was suitably determined and had a big smile on his face when we passed him further down the ridge. I was made up that he too was going to achieve his dream. The sun continued to rise and the sky was now a magnificent early morning blue, the orange hues disippating, the sun warming the hairs on our necks. It was a long way down, much easier than going up, but I didn't care. I'd just summited Mont Blanc and couldn't have been happier. Live the dream...

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Day 4: Nervous apprehension... this is it!

Day 4: Nervous apprehension and excitement is in the air...in less than 12 hours I'll be setting off tired into the cold Alpine darkness. It's going to be phenomenal, and an adrenalin-filled experience. After another brilliant breakfast, we set off from Adventure Base and were driven to Les Houches.
Ready to go...

From here we got a steep uplift and heaving my overloaded rucksack around, we got onto the Chamonix mountain railway, which was pretty crammed full. It saved plenty of walking for sure, and my legs have recovered nicely from yesterday which is promising. We set off walking along the valley and then I realised that my back probably wasn't too prepared to heave this up the mountain, but onwards and upwards. It was yet another beautiful walk up a rocky hillside looking over Chamonix and following the railway tracks. The railway would have saved us an extra 1000ft of ascent but there's an underground lake inside the glacier which could burst and send millions of litres of water crashing down the mountain apparantely and the railway is understandably partially closed for safety reasons. The walk was steep to say the least, and there were even ladders at one point, as well as lots of metal steps and railings to hold on to. It was helmet territory too as there's lots of loose rock, not the most pleasant part of the trip to say the least. The sun was roaring and I felt weak and dehydrated, I was having more than 2 litres a day yet it didn't seem to be sufficient.
Greg, Fabio, Mark, Phil & Mika
Phil had come round the previous night whilst we were relaxing at the lodge to discuss some concerns. Roger and Henrietta were a bit slower than the rest of the team, and although technically able and fit enough, he was concerned about them being slower on the descent. He didn't want the group to be split up too much, but didn't want them both roped up to one guide, as with just 4 guides it would mean that I would be on the same rope with one of them. He said that I was 'young and fit' and just 'got on with it', so wanted me roped up alone. The options were Roger and Henrietta climbing a smaller peak like Mont Blanc du Tacul, or paying for an extra guide- fairly enough Roger said this would be his last chance to summit, so he hired an extra guide. The whole team would be going for the summit, which was great! And if you're wondering what I mean by being 'roped up', when travelling on glaciers, there are crevasses everywhere, and the most dangerous ones are the crevasses you can't see- where there is a weakness in the ice and you can fall through, perhaps a metre- or over 100ft into a pretty bleak situation. The ropes prevent the group falling into these, as fresh snowfall can hide them and leave hidden dangers lurking. Due to the extra guide, Mark, there wasn't space at the Gouter hut for Phil and he didn't fancy camping out on his own, plus we'd already paid for the Gouter hut so couldn't stay in the Tete Rousse, so he volunteered us! Of course it was a choice for us, but both me and Harry were keen on it, a real adventure, the best campsite I've ever been for sure! Turns out the other guide who'd joined us, Mark, has a brother who's in the Metropolitan Police Torch Relay security team! He didn't run with me though, but that would have been cool. It's a small world.
I was looking forward to getting to the Tete Rousse for a drink though. It levelled off all of a sudden and we were met by some Ibex, particularly well-camouflaged deer-like creatures running around. Phil pointed out the hut, which was still about an hour away. Jolly good. It was a quick break and some mint cake before we continued over the ever-rocky terrain. We passed some sort of memorial to a guide who'd died there years ago- a harrowing reminder of the environment we were treading into.
We neared a rather mushy snow patch, full of ice holes and running water, with wires, buoys and colourful equipment everywhere to measure this 'hidden' lake below, well we definitely felt like we were walking on it! My Scarpa Omega boots are lovely and waterproof, you could almost swim in them! The whole group were kept together except Roger who went at his own pace slightly behind us, the guides are great at knowing everyone's paces so nobody feels rushed or pushed beyond their limits.
One by one we arrived at the Tete Rousse hut, 3167m, knackered but relieved. This one was great. Absolutely fantastic, of course there's no bubbling hot tubs and saunas with waiters and canapes, but I liked it. We had lunch in the hut and I decided to top up with some tart again (for $5 you can't beat it!). The view was great, but I was tired, and not particularly confident about what we'd be doing in just 9 hours. As always, my phone let me down, and the battery was low, and for some reason I decided not to bring a phone charger, hence why this blog is online 8 days after it should have been. The rest of the group left the hut, got geared up and set off on the scramble up to the Gouter hut where they were staying the night. I wasn't envious of them to be honest, I was tired enough. The change in plans meant that we were now going to be camping at the Tete Rousse, setting off at midnight, then meeting the group at 2am at the Gouter hut.

From our camp, we saw our warm-up walk which would be negotiating at the start of our climb in the morning...
The oasis of the Gouter hut
So we stayed behind, enjoyed an omelette and some chocolate brownies with creme anglaise (not bad for a hut), whilst enjoying the view out across the glacier and seracs. The hut looked pretty modern, smothered in solar panels, almost like a 21st century London apartment. Inside was of course less glamorous, but wasn't busy like the Albert or Trient, although it was a week day. Cosy and well-trodden. It was quite a boring few hours and I probably unintentionally annoyed Phil with my talking again, poor bloke! But it soon hit 4pm, we left for 'camp'. There was quite a few tents in the area already set up. 'Where's the two man tent?' I asked. 'There', Phil said, pointing at tent I was looking at. I didn't hesitate, we got our bags sorted, Phil removed about half a tonne of crap from my bag that I didn't need, then me and Harry literally squeezed into the tent, still in warm gear, like sardines in a yellow nylon tin. It wasn't most comfortable, it got really hot and humid, plus we still had broad daylight outside. A surreal atmosphere. I peeked outside for a minute, to see ex-Royal Marine and RGM-holder Phil lying in his sleeping bag on the rocks, reading a book. The great outdoors! I realised how lucky I was to be in a tent! I couldn't sleep, yet Harry could, so it was a rough few hours. The rain came down and rockfall echoed round the valley, in 6 hours I would be awake and departing for the summit. It was going to be ultimately the hardest day of my life so far... no backing out now...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Day 3: Downward struggle...

Day 3: A really rough start. As cosy as it was, the Trient hut was a horrible nights sleep. I got some shots of the sunset then dived to bed,  it was freezing cold. I seem to be the last one to bed every night, but my enthusiastic early rise yesterday with the 'I feel great' soon bit me in the teeth this morning. The wind really picked up and was howling against the wooden cabin all night. I nodded off but woke up at 4am feeling drained. It was dark, cold and I just felt sick. I fell back to sleep for an hour then reluctantly at 5am clambered off the bunk bed, which was an abseil in it's own right, and got myself kitted up in the corridor. My head was throbbing. Some hot cereal and tea helped, then we were outside again getting gear on. The glacier this time was an intimidating and gloomy grey, coated in thick cloud and not at all like the glistening panorama we'd had the previous night. We posed for a team photo and set off down from the hut over the glacier, roped as always, to a col near the Aig du Tour.

 En route our guide Greg saw 'Orny' written on a rock alongside an arrow, giving directions to the Orny hut further down the valley. He giggled and said it was missing a 'H', then said he missed his wife... It was slow and freezing cold to begin with, as we left the hut the sun was rising to the left leaving layers of yellow shadows on the hills below, absolutely stunning but still no sunlight. The snow was slippy and soft due to the heavy winds and fresh snowfall. After a short stop at the col I tried to relieve my headache with a litre of marsh tea from my water bottle but it was acidic and didn't help a great deal.

Then it was a short scramble over some rocks whilst still in crampons and as we topped it we got some sunlight and a great view down to the Aig du Chardonnet. As we hit the snow again it was steep and very loose, so with me leading I kept slipping and falling backwards, until I realised I needed to kick my heels into the snow which worked well. I slipped again but arrested the fall quite promptly with my axe. We passed lots of groups of climbers on the descent and the weather improved, with a down jacket soon becoming too hot and like a rug. Curving round we reached the glacier again, this time we changed the lead so I was at the back, but kept falling over on the slope and eating snow, it was slow and tough. We found ourselves passing crevasses again and we were soon removing the crampons for the scramble up and down to the Albert 1er hut, 2712m. The rest of the group were waiting and after a short rest and drink we were descending on hard terrain again down the route we'd walked up on Sunday.






 
 Greg got bored and found a slope of snow, so with his walking poles as makeshift ski's, he put his skills to the test and found a quicker way down the hill than the repetitive cartilage-burning walking we were enduring.
We had the glaciers to our left. The weather was much better this time down the sweeping, steep and beautiful Alpine valleys, with wildflowers, streams and wildlife. Beautiful.

Mont Blanc was in the distance, like a shadow, but unmistakeable. Absolutely stunning, and slightly intimidating. It gave me goosebumps but I took a moment to contemplate what I was about to do. A rush of excitement but a slight nervous apprehension. I was seeing it for my very own eyes, it was smaller than I'd expected but deceivingly peaceful. I kept looking back with a smile on my face until we reached the chairlift and gave our feet a nice rest from the rocky paths. My shins were sore, unsurprisingly, with my shin splints making a vicious return. I've had enough grief off them for 3 months so they could sod off now.

The chair lift was fun then me and Graham took the cable car for the rest of the journey to Le Tour. Feeling tired and achy, we waited around in the car park until Nikki and Dave from Adventure Base, the lodge we were staying in, came to pick us up. We'd had a great two days but it was nice to return to civilisation, besides the Marmot's scattering around the hillside looking at us in disgust. Best of all they said Adventure Base wanted to sponsor me for my climb, which is fantastic. So I'll be getting a donation off them in return for photos of the climb. Although it'll sound like I'm just saying it, the lodges really are great, so homely, modern, well kept and the food supply is better than my house. Definitely a choice for staying in Chamonix.

Moods were lifted and a well deserved hot shower felt like amber nectar but the opportunists meant that I was last in queue! When we could be bothered we packed out bags, which seemed like an expedition in it's own right. I needed to ensure that I wasn't bringing anything I didn't need, but it's difficult for a Brit. You need to err on the side of caution, nothing worse than getting in a pickle up the mountain and not having something to help. I also had to get the Orangutan costume in. I'm really eager to get the picture and the guides are fine, albeit a little surprised, by it. It's not heavy but it's bulky. After a while the bag was packed and organised properly, but full to the brim and heavier than our first couple of days out. I had to bring more of the kit as the weather would be more demanding on summit day, but I only brought what I felt was important. The bag weighed a ton which isn't ideal. Thankfully on summit day I'll have most of the gear on, which should prevent losing too much cartilage in my back... I gave the rest of the team a surprise by walking upstairs in it. It's caused some good mischief up to now and it's due to make Mt Blanc or even global mountaineering history on Thursday too...

Got back and reloaded the calories before going to buy some more batteries for the headtorch I'd left on in the bag, and some blister plasters, because I've got 2. After a surprisingly unexpected and hard downpour in Cham the team went out for a meal in town, with a good chat and reminisce about our experience so far. The food was great, carbo-loading for tomorrow. I'm with a great bunch of people and we get on well,  with the oldest being 65 and the youngest being me at 17. I'm by no means the strongest or fastest in the group, although I've acclimatised well. After the pasta and some dessert (I'm on holiday so enjoying myself but need to sort my diet out when I get home), it was back to the lodge then an early night, our last chance for proper rest before the push to the roof of Europe.... www.mountainboot.co.uk