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

Monday, 23 July 2012

Day 2: My first alpine peak!

Day 2 of Alpine climbing. Nobody except me really got much sleep in the pretty unhomely environment. I was woken at 3.30am when some climbers got up for the first breakfast serving and woke us all up. I struggled to get back to sleep again until 5am when my alarms went off, and in the barely light cabin without a sunrise we shuffled around to get ready. I was first up and out, full of energy surprisingly, and I felt pretty strong and cheerful. Only Greg our guide was up, in the dark dining area. You could only just see the shadows of the peaks outside, it was eerie and gloomy. I had the worst coffee I'd ever tasted and some cereal, then everyone else limped in with shadowed eyes, looking pretty shattered, turns out they'd hardly slept at all. There wasn't much conversation!
We left into the eerie dawn, putting our crampons on whilst on the glacier, making progress up the slope then after 30 minutes or so we separated, with me, Roger and Henrietta roped up to Phil. The rest went off with Greg to climb the Aig du Tour, which included more rocky scrambling. I wondered why I'd not gone on the more difficult climb too but with Gavin and Harry being father-son and Graham and Richard being friends it's understandable as IFMGA guides are only supposed to be roped to a maximum of 4 climbers. We headed right, with me behind Phil, up a consistent but firm ice slope opposite Aig du Chardonnet. It dipped 3 times so it took a while and I began to get out of breath again, and the other two really struggled too. We passed the Aig du Tour, which was accessed by a steep but smooth climb up a snow slope next to a rather fierce but bold rock face, like a huge tower. Phil pointed out the Petite Fourche, which we would be doing instead. It cowered in the skyline and I knew it would be a while. We'd left the hut at 5.45 so by now it was only just breaking dawn, it was spectacular and tranquil all around and as we continued towards the Fourche at a steady pace, the ridge we aimed for began to glow in the sunlight and the Aig du Tour a magnificent hue of orange-brown.

The freezing temperatures lifted and after a quick stop for a (frozen and rather chewy) Powerbar we lost some layers, and preceded upwards with Phil's promise of a proper rest when we reached the sun. It was easy going as we continued up the glacier and up ahead were a few mysterious dark holes and as I slowed to step over one on the path I looked down and saw the deep silver-blue walls of the crevasse below, which must have been 100ft deep. An accident waiting to happen. I jumped over with ease and warned the others. Shortly after to my left were two more, also huge with the massive cracks of ice disappearing into the darkness below. Caution needed, but we were in safe hands.
 After a short break at a col, we walked to the foot of the Petite Fourche, 3520m, which is the same height of the Aig du Tour so we still got the same acclimatisation. We were told it was a snow climb, and he wasn't wrong, as we approached the foot of it and he shortened our ropes. It was now a thigh-burning steep walk up the Petite Fourche, for about 20 minutes or so. It was slow, to say the least. At the top of this we left our crampons and ice axes with our packs and scrambled over rock for 10 minutes or so, still roped up, then soon enough we were scrambling onto the 'top' of the mess of rocks. My first Alpine peak. And the views made the effort worth it, with peaks surrounding and towering over, and the Matterhorn and the Eiger in the distance. I won't forget it. Stunning sunshine but a huge drop in temperature compared to yesterday. We got some good photo's and chilled before scrambling down, it was quite easy going. Some more dextrose tablets, plenty of water and a suncream top up, and we headed back down the slope to the col. Apart from managing to put my crampons on the wrong way round, I was getting used to the kit well.
We had a choice of a long walk round or an abseil from a pretty precarious looking ice cliff, which we saw from the summit was smothered with cornices. Alongside a group of rather noisy Italians, Phil chose a safe location and set up a belay, lowering us down the cliff, it was a bit daunting but it was quite fun, dodging a crevasse full of icicles on the way down, I went down about 120ft then the rope ran out near the base of the cliff. I secured myself to the cliff with my axe and feet then unclipped and guided the other two down. It was then a steep walk down the rest and at the bottom I got some great pics of the daunting cliff behind. It looked awesome and was good fun.
It was then a 45 minute trek across the undulating glacier to the Trient hut which was just visible in the distance. Sadly we got hit by a strong and freezing headwind quickly. The Scarpa Omega boots are lovely and warm though.

 It was glaciated again with crevasses everywhere, Henrietta slipped whilst crossing one and fell in a hole, which was only half a metre deep. Safe to say she got stuck, as did the Swiss guide behind her who helped her out. Was a good laugh though, for all, I think. I'd had all my supplies so it was great to get to the Trient hut for 2pm ish. Thankfully this one isn't as much of a slum as the Albert hut and it's not as crowded, in fact it's actually pretty pleasant.
We're relaxing here for the rest of the day after a non-stop 7 hours. The weather is awesome again but the strong wind soon forced us to pack our bags inside! After a traditional Swiss Rosti, to replace the calories, and a good chat/storytelling, everyone went off to bed, at 3pm! Instead I'm sat in the lovely and cosy Swiss 'Trient' mountain hut, resting and looking out across today's route in the towering skyline and glistening vast glaciers, the blue sky and amazing views, whilst enjoying a Swiss apple tarte and a cup of tea. I'm looking forward to sunset again tonight then tomorrow we return to Chamonix for the big rest. Bon appetit!