Wednesday, 1 August 2012


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...

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