Elbrus Day Three (18th August 2014)

Day two started very pleasantly/slightly surreally with breakfast in the ballroom (yes really) of the Intourist Hotel. It was a good breakfast and we met some of the Jagged Globe group who had been on the previous trip there too, as they were just returning home that day. Not many of them had summited, but they seemed to have enjoyed the experience. It was suggested to me that I ‘fill my boots’ at the breakfast table, as apart from a lot of soup on the mountain, there wasn’t a lot else that was particularly fulfilling. I took note and ate as many croissants as I could get down 🙂

The somewhat overelaborate breakfast setting at the Intourist Hotel

The somewhat overelaborate breakfast setting at the Intourist Hotel

We then set off for Base Camp on Elbrus at 8.45 in two of the oldest minibuses I have ever seen:

Our carriages await......

Our carriages await……

squeezing in the luggage - it fit, just.

squeezing in the luggage – it fit, just.

There were 8 of us in one plus 5 in the other (the 11 of us plus Adele and Viktor our guides) and plus the drivers too. The heat was stifling, as the temperature was 38 degrees and the only air cooling you could get was by tying to hold part of one of the windows half open. It didn’t do much, but it was something.

The journey was about 100km in total, of which the first three hours were on fairly normal roads. At this point we got our first views of the twin peaks of Elbrus through the windows of the minibus. It looked monstrous from even this far out. Every picture I have seen online of Elbrus just doesn’t do it justice, as when you see it in the flesh you realise how massive and also steep it’s upper slopes are. It made me nervous already, but very excited at the same time.

The mighty (and that's an understatement) Elbrus comes into view finally.

The mighty (and that’s an understatement) Elbrus comes into view finally.

Having turned off the main road the driver got out and pulled a lever on the front of the van which I think adjusted either the drive or the differential. Either way I still couldn’t believe the rutted track he started driving up. “Ridiculous” doesn’t do it justice, the van pitching from side to side like a small boat being tossed around on a stormy sea.

To make this part of the journey even more exciting the road was only just as wide as the van, and there was a precipitous drop off the left hand side, which would have meant that one slip of the wheels and we would never have been seen again, or not alive anyway. I only wish I could have taken a photo, but, I didn’t dare lose my grip from the side of the seat and the handle in front of me lest I find myself upside down.

When we eventually got across this pass, we could see base camp finally come into view. This was such a relief as it meant that we could get out of the van shortly, but the drama wasn’t over quite yet. As we approached about half a mile from base camp, with the tents in sight, it became obvious to our driver (who had got out of the van by this time and was looking a bit concerned) that the fast flowing river between us and camp was too deep for the van to get through. We would all therefore have to get out and walk.

Base camp comes into view at 2,500m on Elbrus - that river down there is also the road however....

Base camp comes into view at 2,500m on Elbrus – that river down there is also the road however….

There was a bridge about half a mile downstream where we could get over on foot (albeit somewhat precariously, as it was a rope bridge below which the torrential melt water from the glacier was gushing by). The vans then disappeared upstream somewhere where presumably they could cross more easily without the encumbrance of 8 or so people. The crossing was great fun in the end and we were able to get to the other side safely, and were met by the vans to continue our journey into base camp.

Andy didn't seem to be too phased by the bridge :)

Andy didn’t seem to be too phased by the bridge 🙂

We were in camp by about 1 O’ Clock, and shown to our hut. We had expected to be in two man tents, so the hut was a nice surprise, although it meant that there would be 8 people in our hut (one for the boys one for the girls) which would make it rather warm. This meant my nice new -29 C sleeping bag was not going to get much of a work out, but better too warm than too cold when you are in the mountains.

Elbrus Base Camp, north side - the boys' hut is on the left.

Elbrus Base Camp, north side – the boys’ hut is on the left, number 5.

After lunch (our first soup!) we went out on a walk for a couple of hours just to get the legs moving again. The walk was really nice, with views of an albeit very cloudy Elbrus, and we went down the valley and then up again. We came upon a load of tents a little way down towards the river, and when there, we were told by Viktor that the waters down here are alleged to have healing properties. There was a small outdoor ‘spa’ which was packed (and I mean packed) with hairy-arsed (not that I looked that closely :)) Russian men, and the only thing more surprising than this was the fact that Viktor went down and stripped off and jumped in himself.

Glacial meltwater pours through an opening in the rocks above us....

Glacial meltwater pours through an opening in the rocks above us….

The campsite down the valley which brought masses of people to the 'healing' springs....

The campsite down the valley which brought masses of people to the ‘healing’ springs….

....and the 'spa' to which they flocked. It was a little too 'cosy' in there for me to go anywhere near!

….and the ‘spa’ to which they flocked. It was a little too ‘cosy’ in there for me to go anywhere near!

Upon getting back to camp at about 5 or so it was time nearly for dinner, whereupon we would get our briefing from Adele for the next day. There would be a change to the proposed itinerary, and instead of spending three days here at Base Camp there would be just two. At 2,500m or so, Adele felt that we needed to move higher earlier in order to acclimatise for the later stages of the mountain.

The next camp was at 3,700m, and we would move there the day after tomorrow. In the meantime we would have to cache our mountaineering equipment tomorrow on an acclimatisation walk to about 3,500m. We were about to travel true ‘expedition-style’, which was a first for me – there are no porters or animals to help you on Elbrus – you take what you need, and carry it yourself, in as many goes as it requires to get you up the mountain.

So we had only just arrived here, and had already had an amazing adventure, seeing and experiencing so much. I couldn’t wait to get higher, and start to explore and see the upper reaches of the mountain – with good weather and good acclimatisation, we could potentially be on the summit inside the next five days………….


Elbrus Day One/Two (16th/17th August 2014)

The first day (and night) of the Elbrus trip was basically all taken up with travelling. Oh and packing, and of course faffing. I am a terrible last minute faffer when it comes to travelling generally, but worse still when it comes to trips to the mountains. I feel the need to pack and unpack several times, despite the fact that my kit has been laid out in order for several days and ticked off a list.

I also find that I have the need to buy things last minute. I will look at the “recommended things to take” some weeks in advance, and know that some things I must have, and others are at best superfluous. I then find myself in a last minute flap when I simply must have those items on the last day.

Take today for example. A matter of hours before I leave for the airport I am buying a silk sleeping bag liner and an insulated tube for my Camelbak. Oh and a half litre flask that I know I will probably never carry, let alone even use. And cords for my sunglasses that I don’t like, and don’t even fit.

Oh and I bought a new down jacket just in case it fitted better into my rucksack than my other one that I bought last year and have never worn. I put neither of them into my bag in the end – just a waste of time and my money. Memo to self – be less wasteful in future 😦

So anyway, on to the travelling. Day one was basically for the group to meet at Heathrow and get to Russia. The flight was Aeroflot to Moscow, and then from Moscow to Mineralne Vody (which translates to ‘Mineral Waters’). We would then meet our group leader, Britain’s only female multiple Everest climber Adele Pennington, in Mineralne Vody the next day. The first flight to Moscow went at 22.15, so it was destined to be a long day and night.

We met at 7pm or so at Heathrow, and we were 11 people in total. Andy and Cormac I had met before at the pre-Elbrus weekend in Snowdonia in June. It was really good to see them again. Then there was Dave, Steve, Dennis and Roxanne, Hui Ling, Jo, and Paul and Katherine. You sort of know when it is going to be a good group, and it was going to be a really good group.

After what seemed to be an interminably long check in, eventually all went smoothly from there, and after a swift glass of wine or two we were on our way. Moscow arrived at 5am in the morning after adding the three hour time difference, and after an almost four hour layover we were on our way to Mineralne Vody, a further two and a half hour flight due south towards the Caucasus mountains, our ultimate destination.

The only shop in Mineralne Vody airport, selling caviar - what else?!

The only shop in Mineralne Vody airport, selling caviar – what else?!

Upon meeting Adele, who was there at the airport to meet us, and Viktor, our local guide, we set off in one small minibus and a taxi. It was sweltering, at a somewhat unexpected 36 degrees C, and air conditioned vehicles are not something I think much seen in these parts of Russia. I had at least arrived in shorts, but it was quite frankly just too hot to be outside whatever you had on.

We checked into the Intourist Hotel in Pyatigorsk, about two hours later, and were just happy to be there, even as hot as it was. What with uncertainties over the Russian/Ukrainian crisis, and a day and night of travelling involving all manner of planes, trains and automobiles, it was great to have all the luggage intact too, particularly as I had spent about £1,000 on my last minute kit shenanigans, including a super warm sleeping bag that would be great for the arctic circle, but probably would boil me alive down here.

The Intourist Hotel, Pyatigorsk - not the prettiest sight in the world, and a case of 'function over form' for the most part.

The Intourist Hotel, Pyatigorsk – not the prettiest sight in the world, and a case of ‘function over form’ for the most part.

Mine and Paul's room at the Intourist Hotel, basic, but clean enough, just :)

Mine and Paul’s room at the Intourist Hotel, basic, but clean enough, just 🙂

Having got ourselves sorted into our rooms etc., everyone headed out into town to get lunch and buy water and a few snacks for the days ahead. A pizza lunch and (sadly) warm beer over, everyone then headed back to sort out kit etc. for the next day. We would leave anything that we didn’t need for the mountain in the hotel, and pack everything else ready for our departure south to the mountains the next morning.

A view over Pyatigorsk from the third floor of our hotel.

A view over Pyatigorsk from the third floor of our hotel.

Pyatigorsk seemed like quite a nice place, and certainly prettier than I had feared. This being my first trip to Russia, I had expected something more austere, but throughout the trip it was more affluent, more colourful, more friendly, and just generally ‘nicer’ than I expected it to be. On the flip side of that I saw more military checkpoints and machine guns than I had bargained for too, but more of that in a later post.

In the evening Viktor took us to a local restaurant, and we all got to have a few beers and a general unwind before the ‘real’ trip started the next day.

The group chill over beer and way too many herbs for dinner.

The group chill over beer and way too many herbs for dinner.

On our way back finally to the hotel something quite strange and almost magical happened. We were walking through a park approaching the hotel, when as we got near a large series of water fountains it became clear that there were literally hundreds of people gathered. Then, over loudspeakers unseen, the sound of classical music began, whereupon to coloured lighting in both the trees and the fountains themselves, the waters danced a coordinated song to the music of Strauss! It was mesmeric, and quite beautifully done.

Fountain music - a completely unexpected, and actually delightful, surprise.

Fountain music – a completely unexpected, and actually delightful, surprise.

I stood transfixed, and grinning from ear to ear, as a large crowd, young and old, late at night, enjoyed the majesty and simplicity of the spectacle in front of them. This was something that would not occur back home in the UK – it was almost too cultural if you like. I decided that I already loved Russia, and realised that experiences like this, whilst unplanned, were very much part of why I love travelling and going to new places in the first place.

Back finally at the hotel, and it still being about 30 degrees outside, sleep was not terribly easy to come by (air conditioning being as missing in the hotel as it was in the minibus earlier), but eventually it did, as we were all really tired from having not been to bed the night before. It would not by any means be the last loss of night’s sleep to come on this trip, and the adventures ahead of us would start to properly unfold the next day. We were ready – it was time – we were finally here.

It’s Elbrus Time!

I am close to being ready to go for my long awaited trip to Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, at 5,642m or 18,510 feet. Elbrus is a dormant volcano in the south of Russia, in the Caucasus mountain range, and close to the border with Georgia. Whilst some people argue that this part of Russia is actually in Asia, it is accepted in all mountaineering circles that Elbrus is in Europe.

So why climb it, and why now? Well it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I harbour a (perhaps foolish, and almost certainly overambitious) desire to complete the Seven Summits. Having done Kilimanjaro a few years ago, I have booked to do Aconcagua in each of the last two years, but had to cancel, and so it is booked again for this December, and I am hoping that it is third time lucky. In the meantime then, I am ‘squeezing in’ Elbrus and hoping that I am lucky enough to be able to summit.

Elbrus :)

Elbrus 🙂

Elbrus has two main routes up, the North and the South, and also two summits, the East and the West. The South route is easier and busier, being populated by a cable car and ski runs up to over 3,000m. I will be attempting the North route, and trekking the whole mountain from base to summit. I will also be aiming for the West summit, the slightly higher of the two, conditions permitting. The whole trip takes about 12 days, of which nine are on the climb itself.

The mountain is essentially non-technical, in that it requires only glacier travel experience, and no technical climbing. It will need crampons and ice-axe only, and for us to be roped up in teams of four. The climb is expedition style, which means carrying everything that I have with me on my back, and cacheing where possible as part of the acclimatisation. The sleeping arrangements are in tents, other than I think one night in a hut of sorts somewhere. I think the final night is spent at around 15,800 feet, which is higher than Mont Blanc!

I’ve had to buy a shedload of new stuff for my trip (well actually I could have hired most of it, but I just wanted some new kit), and including some 6,000m mountaineering boots, a -25 degree sleeping bag, a new thermarest, an ice axe, a new 75 litre rucksack, a new lightweight harness, and a new light down jacket. Packing it all into the rucksack is going to be fun, but I’ll obviously get there somehow.

The whole trip is going to be an amazing adventure, as amongst other things it is my first trip to Russia, my first trip to the Caucasus mountains, my first expedition style mountaineering (they have been portered previously), and the second highest (fingers crossed) that I will have ever been (depending upon how high people think Kala Pattar is, which if higher than this then it will be third highest). It is also a fundamental stepping stone to the Seven Summits, so fail badly here and then the rest I can forget about really, so the pressure is on too. I’m not thinking about failure though – albeit if the weather is bad (as I found out on Mont Blanc a few weeks ago) then there is nothing you can do about it.

The trip goes via Moscow, then internal flight to Mineralne Vody, then by road to Pyatigorsk. If all goes well I’ll be on the summit about a week after that following a long route up the mountain, and probably some interesting food along the way. I’m very open to whatever is thrown at me, and I hope fit enough too. We’ll find out soon enough…….my next post will let you know whether or not I made it………..until then!

Mont Blanc 2014 Day 4 – Saturday 19th July

It was quite a pleasant experience to wake up at 6.45am on Saturday morning after the 3.45am start the day before. Today we would just be returning down the valley to our minibus parked at about 1,800m at the top of the mountain road from our second night in the Chabon hut. We had returned to the hut having submitted Gran Paradiso (4,061m) the day before.

It was then almost surreal to have breakfast at 7am in a practically deserted hut. Everyone else who had stayed the night was well on their way up the glacier to the summit, and a glance out of the front door of the hut showed a snake of roped-up climbers up at about 3,500m, appearing ant-like in the distance against the whiteness of the snow.

Looking one last time up the glacier - various teams of roped-up climbers can be seen in the far distance.

Looking one last time up the glacier – various teams of roped-up climbers can be seen in the far distance in the middle of the picture.

Following a remarkably similar breakfast to the day before of dried bread and cereal, we were on our way out at about 7.45. The rucksacks this time were bursting again with the things that we had either used yesterday (crampons, harnesses, ice-axes, helmets etc), or had carried up to the hut in the first place and left there on the climb, like toiletries, any spare clothes etc.

The trek down from our base at 2,700m would take only about two hours, and would go via a different valley to the one we came up, so that Neil (our main guide) could take us on some bouldering practice. The bouldering would be useful practice for Mont Blanc, as we would have quite a technical section to overcome when we reached the Grand Couloir area there. Our abilities to do this would be assessed to make sure that we were competent enough for the main climb, just as we had been assessed the day before for our “bottle” at the top of Gran Paradiso.

I hadn’t realised at the time, but that final summit ridge of Gran Paradiso (see yesterday’s blog post) was actually a test. If not technically difficult, it was still technical, and also a vertigo-inducing test of mettle, requiring clipping in via-ferrata style to a wall below which a very thin (probably 10cm wide) ledge separated you from about 1,000m of nothing but a free fall to what would have been instant death. The ledge was probably only 3 or 4m in length, but the expression “heart in mouth” doesn’t do it justice. When I first got to the ledge, having almost crawled along a narrow rock band on crampons to get there in the first place, I had suggested initally to our guide Marco that this was “far enough for me”.

Upon saying this, (and not knowing that this was effectively being assessed), I then quickly realised that I was making a decision that would affect not only me, but all four of us (Marco the guide, plus Jonas and Katya), as we were roped up. The precariousness of our position, perched on the narrow rock ledge meant that unroping one member (i.e. me) would have been at best extremely unwise. Katya had then (very nobly) said “ok, we will all stay here as Chris won’t go”. I think this had made me realise that in my moment of fear, I was denying other people their summit, and so I decided there and then (for them) to go ahead and make the leap of faith. I was very glad afterwards that I had, for a whole host of reasons, but it just shows you that sometimes you have to think not just for yourself, but as to how your decisions can affect others too.

It would be only later today, back in Chamonix, when I was talking to the owner of Mont Blanc Guides, that he told me that the summit ridge was in fact a test for Mont Blanc itself. He said that it represented something ‘scarier’ than anything to be found on Mont Blanc, and so if clients could meet this challenge then they would be allowed to go ahead to face the (far greater in many other ways) tests of Western Europe’s highest mountain!

So back to the bouldering in the here and now, we were led by Neil through a short loop of scrambling over large boulders, both ascent and descent. It was not terribly difficult, but did have at times some moments when a fall would have meant a bit of an injury, which of course gets the old heart pumping a little more quickly than it otherwise would.

When out from the (short, but fun) bouldering test, and having successfully all come through it, we could begin our descent. The valley we would come down was simply staggeringly beautiful. From majestic views to the snow capped mountains in the distance, to stunning waterfalls, to ibex and chamois running past us close at hand, to majestic growths of wild rhododendron and then a sublime forest with overhanging views of rivers far below, it really had it all. I could have walked there forever. And all this in warm and glorious sunshine too. It was also very noticeable that as we were now descending, the air became noticeably more oxygen rich as we went, inducing a quite noticeable feeling of increased energy, and also appetite. Colin in fact burst into an inspired run mid descent, and a la Forrest Gump (but not really, sorry Colin :)) just kept on running all the way to the bottom, and we didn’t see him until the minibus 🙂

Leaving the Chabon hut for the last time, Sunday morning.

Leaving the Chabon hut for the last time, Sunday morning.

And about to head down the beautiful valley, bouldering complete.

And about to head down the beautiful valley, bouldering complete.

There are about 10 ibex in this picture somewhere. honest :)

There are about 10 ibex in this picture somewhere. honest 🙂

And the beauty of the valley kept on giving....

And the beauty of the valley kept on giving….

....and giving :)

….and giving 🙂

Having got back to the minibus mid-morning, we returned back to France, a journey of about two hours via Courmayeur and the very impressive Mont Blanc tunnel. I cannot also not mention a stop half way in the Italian village of Mongex, where we stopped briefly for a gelato and coffee. I can only begin to describe here how good both were. My black cherry and Amaretto cone, plus espresso, were both probably the most delicious things I believe I have ever put into my mouth. ‘Nuff said, as they say!

Back at base in Chamonix at lunchtime, Neil checked the weather forecast before dismissing us for a ‘free’ afternoon, where we could do as we please, shower (very badly needed after three days away I can tell you), and unwind before the forthcoming three day journey up to the main event beginning the next morning. He had actually checked the initial forecast the previous evening, and had warned us that the weather didn’t look good for Monday and Tuesday, and had said that if so, then we may not be able to summit.

Everyone understood this of course, but no-one I think was really ready for the definitive news which we now got: Mont Blanc wouldn’t be happening. A weather front was coming in, the wind would be changing direction, and there would be snow (65cm was forecast that night in fact) and high winds.

As Neil had taken time to explain to us the previous evening in the hut, Mont Blanc is not a mountain you take chances on. You should never go if you don’t think the conditions are just right, i.e. good visibility and low wind. Safety is and always should be the most important factor in the mountains, and especially on a 15,800 feet peak which has killed over 8,800 people, many of these in perfectly benign conditions. Everyone upon getting the news both accepted and fully respected the decision that Neil took. It didn’t stop any of us being disappointed however. It was what we had all come for after all.

It was the first time I have received a setback like this. I have read a hundred or more examples of people being turned back from Everest and the like due to weather conditions, and when it happens to someone else you think “that’s ok, they must surely realise that it is for the best” etc.  When it happens to you, you think a mixture of three things simultaneously:

One, you feel a bit sorry for yourself. You’ve just paid x thousand pounds and taken holiday from work to be told you cannot so what you came for. It’s hard, if only a bit. Secondly you do absolutely respect the decision, and realise that someone is making it rationally and so your safety in mind. Thirdly you realise your vulnerability and mortality. This is not a walk in the Lake District or Wales where you might get wet when the weather turns bad. This is a place where wrong decisions cost lives, and in this case the life being decided upon is your own.

Following the announcement Neil suggested that the next few days we would either be able to go ice climbing, or do some via ferrata, depending upon the local conditions in the Chamonix valley. Quite a bit of rain (40mm) was forecast lower down, so this would be weather dependent too. The forecast for Monday and Tuesday over the border into Italy was possibly a little better than that for Mont Blanc, and so it “might” be possible to attempt a summit of Monte Rosa, at 4,280m a mighty summit on the Italian/French border. The forecast was still gloomy though, so it would be all taken on a day by day basis. I made a decision there and then – I was coming home early.

It was a hard decision, and as I write this only the next day on the return flight home, I still don’t know if it is the right one. I do know that when I am sat at my desk at work tomorrow morning, having reclaimed three days of holiday that I would otherwise have (of course extremely happily) used, I will feel a tad miserable. I’d rather be sat in Chamonix in the rain any day of the week than being at work pondering the ifs and buts and might have beens. But at the end of the day, it all came down to either doing some things like ice-climbing that aren’t really ultimately “my bag”, and which I wasn’t really there for in the first place, or getting those three days holiday back which I could use at a later date to do more things of my own choosing. So having made it, as I do with all of my decisions, I stick by it and try to have no regrets, which in fact I don’t.

I’d like to thank Mont Blanc Guides for being an outstanding company. If I go back to do Mont Blanc again, which I surely will, they’ll be first choice.

So although I didn’t get to summit Mont Blanc, I look back now on my trip and am delighted that I was there. I got to summit the highest mountain in Italy, and my first 4,000m peak in Europe, and in doing so pushed the boundaries of my own fears at the summit ridge. I got to meet some really great people. Some I may see again in fact, and I hope I do. I had a fabulous adventure. I got to go up to the Aguille du Midi, and look from 3,840m up at a cloudless summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe. And it gave me the appetite to go back for more.

And, in the words of for me the most respected climber ever, one Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, I got to travel, to experience and learn. And I got to live.


Mont Blanc 2014 day 3 – Friday 18th July

I really don’t like getting up at 3.45am, and try to avoid it whenever possible. I do however make exceptions where staying in mountain huts is concerned, as that is what you are there for. The very early start in most mountain huts is dictated by one thing, which is how long it will take to summit and get back down allowing for ‘usual’ conditions on the glacier.

In the summer months the snow conditions on ‘wet’ (i.e snow covered) glaciers tend to be frozen until about mid-morning (depending upon what time the glacier gets the sun and what direction it is facing). What you need when walking up them, is for the snow not to be soft, as your crampons don’t get good purchase and you can sink into the snow, which at best just saps the energy. It’s hard enough as it is without that!

So anyway, this morning I find myself waking up in the Chabon hut near Gran Paradiso at exactly the above time. Breakfast, a hurried affair of dry (and that’s an understatement) bread and some cornflakes with luke warm milk, is just not very appetising, but it goes down, and within about 20 minutes or so everyone is outside getting into harnesses and getting crampons and helmets and the like sorted. There are 80 people in the hut altogether, and everyone is there for one thing – to summit what is effectively Italy’s highest mountain, Gran Paradiso.

It is about 4.45 in the end by the time we set off, due to a number of people faffing with their kit, including me. It’s made harder by the fact that it is still very dark, and headtorches are the order of the day. When we set off we follow a string of other headtorch-bedecked individuals who are already snaking their way towards the glacier.

The hut is at 2,700m (just shy of 9,000 feet , and our objective is at 4,061m, or 13,400 feet. The walk is steady at first, over rocky moraine mainly, but pitches up quite steeply in places, which very much gets the heart going.

First light over the mountains, and we are on the glacier already.....

First light over the mountains, and we are on the glacier already…..

....with crampons on and all well wrapped up - it was very cold!

….with crampons on and all well wrapped up – it was very cold!

By probably 6am or so, it is light, and there are magnificent views already over the French and Italian Alps. There is not a single cloud to be seen in the morning sky. We reach ‘crampon point’, a figurative spot where travel is much easier with them in place, and we get ready. We also rope up, with the team set in a group of 3 and 4 with a guide leading each group. I am roped up with Marco, our Italian guide, and grouped with Katya and Jonas. Neil, the main group guide, has Rich, Stuart, Mick and Colin.

It is cold, much colder than I had anticipated, and as we meander up the glacier, which is steep, the wind picks up, and before long I am grateful that I packed my rucksack well. I am now wearing two pairs of gloves, a buff, a woolly hat, and three layers, including a fleece and a light down jacket. I wonder for a while if I even have enough with me.

By the time we reach the top of the glacier, at probably around 8am, it is freezing cold. And I mean cold so you can’t hardly feel your fingers cold. I make a mental note to buy some better gloves for when I go to Russia in a month or so’s time. At this point we turn an abrupt left onto a much steeper incline towards the summit, which now becomes visible for the first time.

Thankfully at this point the sun came up and it warmed things up immeasurably. The last quarter mile or so to the summit is fairly hard work, as a.) you are now at 4,000m, and b.) it is probably the steepest part of the whole mountain. But like most mountains you ever get close to the top of, the adrenaline (or summit fever!) kicks in, and you just push on.

Getting up to the summit ridge itself proved fine until the very last 5 or 6 metres.

Approaching the summit ridge and the bottleneck at the top of Gran Paradiso

Approaching the summit ridge and the bottleneck at the top of Gran Paradiso

The problem was twofold – firstly the summit ridge is a narrow band of rock, which is basically one person wide at best, and the summit held about three people at best, so it was “one on one off” when you got there. Secondly it was, as our guide put it “very airy”, aka it had precipitous drops on two sides, so your heart was in your mouth to actually get the final few steps.

Looking back down (the trail in the distance) from the summit to where the previous photograph was taken from.

Looking back down (the trail in the distance) from the summit to where the previous photograph was taken from.

After a few moments when I doubted whether I wanted to go the last few steps at all (the bottleneck took about 20 minutes or so to wait for people to get off the summit), the last piece was somewhat nervously executed via ferrata style on a ledge no wider than one boot width, and a 1,000m drop below you. It is not for the vertigo suffers amongst us, that’s all I’m saying!

Thankfully the summit moment itself was glorious, and here I am clinging on to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top:

And made it :)

And made it 🙂

The views from the top were fabulous, and with such clear skies there was a view of mountains in every direction, spanning Switzerland, France and Italy too. Mont Blanc stood sublime in the distance, taunting us and tempting us at the same time. It would only be two days now until we would be at her base to begin the big climb!

The descent following another frustrating wait to get back over the via ferrata bit to safety (there was now about 30 people waiting to get onto the summit behind us) was a really warm one. Now in bright sunshine all the way (it was about 9.30am by the time we left the summit ridge) the snow was beginning to get soft, and so crampon placement was all important. Here are some pictures on the way down:

On our way down finally...

On our way down finally…

....still above the clouds in the distance.....

….still above the clouds in the distance…..

...and trails of roped up climbers ahead of us meander down the glacier.

…and trails of roped up climbers ahead of us meander down the glacier.


And Mont Blanc appears again in the distance. Memo to self - don't stand on the rope!

And Mont Blanc appears again in the distance. Memo to self – don’t stand on the rope!

And finally upon reaching the bottom of the glacier, our hut appears a long way in the distance, middle of picture.

And finally upon reaching the bottom of the glacier, our hut appears a long way in the distance, middle of picture.

After we got back to the Chabon hut, it was about 1pm, and everyone was exhausted but happy. There was time for a quick celebration photograph with our little group:

Happy at our return to the hut!

Happy at our return to the hut!

The return trip to the summit had taken just under 9 hours altogether, of which the moving time was about half of that:


Everyone was so beat that a well earned lie down ensued for all, and then time to pack everything up again for the trek down the mountain the next day, as we’d stay another night in the Chabon hut.

After we’d all had dinner, the news that we didn’t have to get up until 6.45 the next morning came as a huge relief. An extremely pleasant couple of glasses of wine then followed to round off a really memorable day.

The guides told us after dinner that the weather forecast for the weekend was looking a bit dodgy, but that they’d know more when we got back to France the next day. They quite rightly pointed out that Mont Blanc wasn’t a mountain to take chances on, but that no decisions would be taken until we got a better picture.

For now we looked forward to a bit of bouldering which would follow on the way down the mountain the next morning. We had conquered Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain – time to be very happy for now 🙂

Mont Blanc 2014 Day 2

Day 2 began in very relaxed style, with a lie in until a ridiculously pleasant 7.30, and breakfast at 8. We would be heading into Italy for a three day trip to attempt Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain entirely within Italy, at 4,061m, which would be great preparation and acclimatisation for our attempt at Mont Blanc later in the week.

The chalet we are staying in also doubles as skiing accommodation in the winter, and has a view of both sides of the Chamonix valley, so it was such a nice start to the trip.

View from the chalet of the western side of the Chamonix valley.......

View from the chalet of the western side of the Chamonix valley…….

....and the view to the Eastern side, the far end of Mont Blanc peering into view.

….and the view to the Eastern side, the far end of Mont Blanc peering into view.

Following breakfast our guides arrived to do a full kit inspection. We had to lie everything out on our beds so as to make sure that we had all that we needed for the trips ahead of us. I had previously made the decision to hire mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, helmet and harness from them, and so apart for those all I didn’t ‘pass’ on where my sunglasses. As we’d be doing a fair bit of glacier work the guide advised me to have Cat 4 glasses (mine are of unknown classification, but certainly aren’t Cat 4).

The guides then took us into town prior to getting our hire equipment, so we could buy what we needed, and also to pick up some food for the next two days whilst we were away in Italy. Once we’d shopped (I picked up a rather nice, if rather expensive, pair of folding carbon poles while I was shopping too :)) we headed back to leave for Italy on the minibus. I think pretty much everyone else had everything they needed too, other than Katya, who needed a bigger rucksack, and she picked up a really nice Millet one.

After a drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel and then a gorgeous winding run around hairpin bends across and over the Aosta valley (oh and a cheeky spot of pasta lunch too at a campsite restaurant) we began a very hot ascent up to our ultimate destination for the night, the Chabon hut in the Gran Paradiso national park.

We set off from quite high up, at about 1,800m, and it was already noticeable that the air was thinner than I am used to, and so it took a little while to adjust to it, but it was fine really, the main problem being the heat, even at this altitude.

Taking a breather early on the path up to the Chabon Hut

Taking a breather early on the path up to the Chabon Hut

Apart from the heat the main problem I had though was my boots. The guides wanted us to walk up in our mountaineering boots so as to make sure they didn’t give us blisters etc. Now me and borrowed boots don’t really get on very well it has to be said. Or moreover I have crap feet. When boots fit me I’m great and don’t have any problems, but if something isn’t quite right then it can be horrible, and here I just couldn’t get comfortable. Mountaineering boots are fairly unforgiving anyway being so stiff in the sole, but mine were just tight across the mid foot and I also had heel lift, a bad combination.

The walk was a two and a half hour trek to the hut at 2,700m. It was always really hot but really picturesque. I was so glad to arrive and my boots came off within seconds! I was horrified to find that I had failed to pack Compeed in my rucksack (it was down the valley in my bag in Chamonix), but thankfully I managed to borrow some from one of the others, and so was hopefully going to be good to go for the following morning.

The Chabon hut was my first in Italy (I’ve been in huts in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria before though, and they are all slightly different). It was a nice hut, with plenty of room in the dormitory, and a decent bathroom too. We were of course in Italy so that meant lashings of pasta for dinner which I couldn’t wait for 🙂 The hut sleeps about 80 people, and they are building an extension to increase capacity. Everyone else was there to climb Gran Paradiso too.

The Chabon hut, Gran Paradiso national park.

The Chabon hut, Gran Paradiso national park.

There was also a good view up from the hut of our objective the next morning, Gran Paradiso itself! Although we couldn’t quite see the summit, most of the mountain and the glacier were in view, and it looked a long way up – the ascent would be about 1,400m in fact.

Looking up the glacier from the Chabon hut - the summit is hidden at the back right of the picture.

Looking up the glacier from the Chabon hut – the summit is hidden at the back middle of the picture.

Once settled in, we had a practice session putting on crampons and ropes and the like ready for the morning, as our next time doing this would be in the dark on the glacier in the  morning. Following this we all tucked in to a massive dinner of spaghetti bolognaise, followed by a big plate of stew, then chocolate mousse. It would have been rude to say no! Then it was an early night with lights out at about 9, with a quick bit of rucksack preparation ready for a 3.30 alarm call…..

We would leave for the summit at 4am the next day………


Mont Blanc 2014 Day One

I am in Chamonix (it is Wednesday the 16th July) on the first day of my attempt to climb Mont Blanc for the first time. Mont Blanc is a tough mountain by anyone’s definition, and stands at 4,810m, the highest mountain in Western Europe. Permanently glaciated and snow covered, there are quite a few routes to the top, and all involve considerable care and effort. Our route will be via the Grand Couloir up to Dome du Gouter and via the Bosses Ridge, and will commence this coming Sunday.

The trip is run by a company called Mont Blanc Guides, an English run business based in Chamonix, and Mont Blanc is all they do. I was immediately impressed (I referred to this in an earlier blog post) at their responsiveness and attention to detail, and they got my vote right away. It’s not a cheap trip by any means (about £2,000 for six days excluding travel to and from Chamonix), and much of that is eaten up by the cost of guides. The French insist upon a 1:2 guide to climber ratio on the mountain, which you have to say makes sense – it is sadly the mountain which probably kills more than any other.

Day one was simply a day to travel and meet up with the guides and get settled into the accommodation in Chamonix. The main events happen on days 2 to 7, spilt into three days in Italy acclimatising and doing glacier travel, and then three days to do Mont Blanc itself.

I got into town early (about 11am) after a seamless flight from Luton to Geneva, and then a minibus to Chamonix. As I had until 6.30pm to do the meet ups, after dumping my bags I headed straight up the cablecar to the Aguille du Midi, which at 3,842m has to be about the highest cable car station in Europe. It is incredibly dramatic, and a great place to just visit on foot, which so many people do (I queued for around an hour in the middle of the day, along with heards of ubiquitous Japanese tourists. The return journey was over £50 too, so they are making a bunch of money in the summer months that is for sure.

The cable car ride was amazing and the skies cloudless and crystal clear. Mont Blanc eventually came into view like some brooding behemoth ready to squash the whole valley below it. It really is a staggering mountain, and such a complex one too.

Getting up to 3,842m made me feel a bit slow and light headed, which was a bit worrying. It is the first time at altitude for a couple of years though, and coming straight up from the valley floor is a big jump. It did concern me a bit for what was to come on the trip, but figured that there was not much I could do about it other than just get used to it, so that’s what I did. They asked people not to return to the bottom for two hours after getting to the top station (because of the sheer number of people up there) so I just hung around and took some snaps:

From the cable car on the way up...

From the cable car on the way up…

....and stepping out at the top at 3,842m. That's the town nearly 3 vertical kilometres below.

….and stepping out at the top at 3,842m. That’s the town nearly 3 vertical kilometres below.

The top of the famous Vallee Blanche glacier, looking towards Italy

The top of the famous Vallee Blanche glacier, looking towards Italy

Looking towards the summit of Mont Blanc, a further 1km above us, from the cable car station, the Dome du Gouter is on the right

Looking towards the summit of Mont Blanc, a further 1km above us, from the cable car station, the Dome du Gouter is on the right

After I got back down I had a bit of a wander around Chamonix, and realised what a really nice little town it is, and figured that spending more time here would be a good thing in days to come if there was time.

Looking from town towards the Grand Jurasses

Looking from town towards the Grand Jurasses

The Aguille du Midi and the Dome du Gouter loom large over the town

The Aguille du Midi and the Dome du Gouter loom large over the town

And the ridge leading towards the Grand Couloir looks menacingly towards town too.

And the ridge leading towards the Grand Couloir looks menacingly towards town too.

When back to “The Castle’ (the name of the in the evening, I got to meet the rest of the team that I’d be travelling with, and also our guides. We were Colin, Mick (who was also my roomie), Stuart, Rich, Katya, David, and Jonas, plus me, making 8 altogether. All were from the UK, except Katya from Moscow, and Jonas from Norway. Oh and Colin lives in Qatar, but is from Glasgow. Everyone got along really well it seemed, and I knew it would be a good group, as is in my experience always the case when like minded people come together on trips like this.

Just before dinner, our guides for the week Neil, and Marco, met us and told us that there would be a full kit inspection at 8am the following morning, after which we’d be heading out to Gran Paradiso in Italy (the highest mountain in Italy, in fact). We also met with John, the owner of Mont Blanc guides, which was nice. Dinner was accompanied by a few glasses of wine and a good friendly exchange, and everyone then retired fairly early to get ready for the days ahead. So far so good then…….the mountains await 🙂