Zermatt Day 2

So waking on day two (of two) in Zermatt itself, at about 1,750m, in a hotel, and not in a mountain hut some 1,000m higher up has its advantages. One, you get a nice shower; two, you get a nice comfy bed; three, you don’t get woken up about twenty times in the night by other climbers in your dormitory shuffling and snoring; and four, you get, if you are really really lucky, a view like this from your own balcony:

How stunning is that for a sight to wake up to? I didn't want to leave the hotel!

How stunning is that for a sight to wake up to? I didn’t want to leave the hotel!

So today we had planned a much easier trek than the one the day before, which had seen us do about 22km in total, including a climb to about 3,260m on the north-east ridge of the Matterhorn. Today we’d take in a couple of the tourist paths on the other side of Zermatt, the Marmot Trail and the ‘5-Seenweg’, literally the ‘5 lakes trail’.

From the top end of the town (the south, geographically) we walked through town, grabbing breakfast on the way, to the north eastern side, and the rothorn funicular railway. This takes you up entirely inside the mountain in about three minutes to the Sunegga area at about 2,300m. This can be seen in the left middle of the map link below: http://www.matterhornparadise.ch/pdf/panoramakarten/panoramakarte_sommer.pdf

Blessed again by absolutely cloudless skies like the day before, and even warmer conditions, we set off firstly up the Marmot Trail, (we didn’t see any today unfortunately, but we had the day before) which is numbered 8 on the map.

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The Marmot Trail – a different and lovely side of Zermatt.

Then from the Blauherd cable car station at 2,571m we began on the 5-seenweg trail. The first lake, the Stellisee, is absolutely stunning, as you can see from the picture below: We stayed there for a while just to take it all in, as did many other people, it seems to be a bit of a tourist trap, and quite frankly why shoudn’t it be? It’s a natural lake, and just beautiful.

The Stellisee, at 2,537m. I can see why it is so incredibly popular!

The Stellisee, at 2,537m. I can see why it is so incredibly popular!

Upon leaving the Stellisee towards the next lake, the Grindjisee, the path takes a pretty sharp descent. At this point Verena decided that her knee, which had been giving her problems on the latter half of yesterday’s walk, was too painful to continue with the rest of the walk. She therefore suggested that I carry on with the rest of the lakes, and she made her way back to the Sunnega cable car, only about 20 minutes away. After checking she was ok and could make it on her own, I took her up on her offer, and carried on.

The Grindjisee is at about 2,350m, and is a small and very tranquil place. You’d probably never come across it if you weren’t looking for it in fact. It was in a really pretty area though, and of course you could see a reflection of the Matterhorn in the surface of the lake, what more do you need!

The Grinjisee, tranquil and stunningly beautiful in equal measures.

The Grindjisee, tranquil and stunningly beautiful in equal measures.

From the Grindjisee the walk is mostly flat for about three miles until you get to the Grünsee, which doesn’t have reflections of the Matterhorn, but you can still see it :).

 

The Grünsee - three down, tow to go!

The Grünsee – three down, two to go!

There was then a pretty steep and narrow trail through the woods towards the Moosjisee, a seemingly man made affair, but stunningly green in colour:

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The Moosjisee – and there’s that mountain again!

The Moosjisee is the lowest of the five lakes, and from there after another brief descent with stunning views back towards Zermatt itself, there is a bit of a climb back up to the Leisee, which I unfortunately didn’t photograph.

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The walk towards the Leisee, with some very pretty hillside hamlets en route.

Having got back to the Sunegga cablecar station, Verena was thankfully there waiting for me and her knee was fine. There would be no more walking for her though, and so we decided to have lunch at the very lovely mountain restaurant by the Sunegga, it would have been rude not to really! So a beer, a rösti, and some very pleasant views were the order of the day:

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Now that’s the way to end a walk!

The 5-Seenweg walk is about two and a half to three hours overall, and well worth it if you are visiting in summer.

After lunch we took the funicular railway back down to Zermatt before a bit of shopping before heading back to Bern, where I would be lucky enough to get to watch Stage 16 of the Tour de France the next day. We’d had a great weekend, and literally didn’t see a cloud in 48 hours.

I’ll leave off with a view more photographs of Zermatt itself. A great little car free town, with lovely shops, and just an idyllic place to be summer or winter. It’s my fifth time here all in all, and it won’t be the last.

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Zermatt!

So it’s obviously been way way too long since I last put up a blog post. That’s because about 11 months ago I took the decision to stop my apparently futile attempts at high altitude success. I had three or four goes at getting above 6,000m, and they all seemed to end in one thing – me heading downwards feeling like shit. So in the meantime I’ve done some nice sensible things, like change job, move house, and do some cycling.

Lots of cycling in fact, culminating in a fabulous 160-odd mile ride doing the coast to coast in a day. Details of that here of that ride, less the last 6 or so miles as my Garmin battery decided it didn’t want to go for over 12 hours! See Strava section here: https://www.strava.com/activities/623638383

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The Coast to Coast was at the end of June, and it was great, but (as is the way with me :)) I finished it and needed a new thing to aim for. And so after a bit of an impromptu flight purchasing, I was off to Switzerland at the end of July for a bit of ‘hill practice’ as they say!

I originally intended to head to Grindelwald, and trek around the North Face of the Eiger, something that has been ‘on the list’ for a little while. But after contacting my friend Verena, who lives in nearby Bern, she suggested that the Eiger and surrounds would be stupidly busy that weekend. She suggested Zermatt instead, as she hadn’t been there before, and would come along too!

And so off to Zermatt it was, for what proved to be an amazingly beautiful weekend in what is such a fabulous part of the world. For those who don’t know me, I have a bit (ok a lot!) of a fixation with The Matterhorn – I just find it a staggeringly beautiful and transfixing mountain. Spellbinding in fact. I also put my only ever Youtube video online with the mountain in it – I could still watch it every day! Skiing down towards Zermatt in 2013:

After a flight to Zurich and a train ride to Bern to meet Verena, we departed at the crack of dawn on the Saturday morning for the drive to Zermatt, about two and a half hours away. After a great drive which went under part of the Alps near to the Eiger in a car train, we arrived in the car free resort of Zermatt and headed up the mountain via cablecar to the Trockener Steg area of the resort. Cable cars aren’t cheap in Zermatt (nothing is cheap in Zermatt in fact!) at about £40 per single ride, but at least it got us up to 2,900m very quickly.

The great thing about the Zermatt area is that from practically anywhere you are, you can see The Matterhorn! It just dominates the place like the outrageous behemoth that it is, towering to 4,478m (14,700 feet), looking all Toblerone-shaped (the Toblerone logo is modelled on it for those who don’t know) and pointy, and just incredible.

The Matterhorn rearing up above Zermatt

The Matterhorn rearing up above Zermatt

We had chosen a trail which took us from Trockener Steg down to the Schwarzsee, and then around the west face of the Matterhorn and up to a mountain hut called the Schonbielhutte. I managed to persuade Verena though that en route we should try a tricky path up to the Hornlihutte, which is perched somewhat precariously on the North east ridge of the mountain at 3,260m. Thankfully she didn’t take too much convincing, and after trekking down to about 2,400m initially on what was a fairly uneventful route, we began the very eventful path up.

Approaching the Matterhorn - the Hornlihutte is on the tip of snow at about 3pm on the picture.

Approaching the Matterhorn – the Hornlihutte is on the tip of snow middle right of the picture.

It was slow going, as a.) we were up at 3,000m and unacclimatised, and also b.) the path has several places where in simple terms a missed footing could be your last ever step on earth. To add to the perils of point b.) the path was still snowy and icy in places, and without crampons (which I have to say weren’t required at this time of year, but a month earlier and you wouldn’t venture up any of this without them) it added to the general feeling of precariousness. Thankfully at the most tricky parts there was a metal rope in place to cling onto, which I gladly took advantage of.

The path starts easily with a footpath and metal railing

The path starts easily with a footpath and metal railing

The path starts to wend its way up quite steeply....

The path starts to wend its way up quite steeply….

...and there are parts where you have something to hold on to....

…and there are parts where you have something to hold on to….

...and finally the hut comes into view just in the snowline.

…and finally the hut comes into view just in the snowline.

It was a really great climb, requiring the use of hands as well in places to add to the mind’s focus. We reached the hut at about 1.45pm, and sat at the terrace for lunch (it would have been rude not to really) and it became apparent as soon as we stopped moving that the temperature when stopped was considerably colder than it had felt whilst climbing up, so jackets and hoods were quickly donned. The views were majestic – including the view directly upwards of the top of the mountain, which whilst still over 1,100 vertical metres above us, seemed much closer. I vowed looking upwards at the near vertical face to never, ever feel brave or stupid enough to try to climb it :).

This is the closest to the top I am ever going to get, promise!

This is the closest to the top I am ever going to get, promise!

Just to prove I made it there!

Just to prove I made it there!

The area around Zermatt is also home to around 25 4,000m+ mountains, including the Dufourspitze and the Dom, at 4,630m and 4,550m respectively the second and third highest mountains in the Alps, and the highest points in Switzerland.

Starting the descent, Zermatt a long way down the valley in the distance and lots of 4,000m peaks up above.

Starting the descent, Zermatt a long way down the valley in the distance and lots of 4,000m peaks up above.

From the Hornlihutte we took trail 27 and then a black-marked steep track down the mountain (see attached map) to Stafel, where we intended to begin the trek back up to Schonbielhutte.  http://www.matterhornparadise.ch/pdf/panoramakarten/panoramakarte_sommer.pdf

However on getting down near to Stafel at about 4.30pm, Verena was struggling with a twisted and sore knee, and so the climb up to the hut at about 2,700m and about three miles distant all of a sudden looked a bit of a long way. This was more relevant given the fact that the hut needed us there by 6.30pm latest (the cut off point for evening meals) and also there was no alternative should we not make it as the hut is at the end of a long and isolated valley.

Near Stafel - the Schonbielhutte in the far distance.

Near Stafel – the Schonbielhutte in the far distance.

We thus phoned the hut and said we would not be able to make it, and then tried to find alternatives continuing steadily down the mountain towards Furi. Cutting a very long story short (about which I could write not just another blog post, but actually a fairly lengthy novel) we ended up all the way back in Zermatt itself at about 8pm. This at least left us best-placed for the next day, when we intended to head up to the other side of the resort, the Rothorn area.

The Matterhorn looking quite different from Stafel, this it's western face.

The Matterhorn looking quite different from Stafel, this it’s western face.

One of the very pretty hamlets we passed on our way back down towards Zermatt. This is Zmutt, I think.

One of the very pretty hamlets we passed on our way back down towards Zermatt. This is Zmutt, I think.

Our route is in the attached Strava link – it was a fabulous walk of around 22km, showcasing some fabulous views of much of the Matterhorn area, and a lot of ascent and descent  https://www.strava.com/activities/643124049

After a very long day, sleep would come very easily, and at the thought of seeing the ‘5 Lakes Trail’ the next morning, where each lake held a different reflection of the Matterhorn, I was very very much looking forward to day 2!

 

Bolivian Climber Day Ten

Note this is a repeat of a post that I put on Facebook, but it is from my blog entries from my tenth day of my Bolivian trip, and so is repeated here for that reason…….:)

I am now back in La Paz, having come down from the Cordillera Réal range to recuperate, whilst the rest of the group that I was with carry on with their attempts on various mountains therein. I got to 5,340 metres at the top of Pico Austria two days ago, and all felt fine, but since then I haven’t been feeling the full ticket.

So today I took a decision to end my high altitude endeavours. I’ve been above 5,000m five times now, and each time I got varying forms of altitude sickness. My last three trips ended with just one summit, which was itself eclipsed by my getting high altitude cerebral edema (which could have been fatal), and the last two I have had to descend without summitting. My attempts this time to get to 6,500m (21,500 feet) have been futile, and maybe I should have known that before I came out here, but I wanted to give it one last go. I tried, but I haven’t failed. 

Over the last five or so years since I got to the top of Kilimanjaro, I’ve had a brilliant time. I started this episode of my life at age 45, and I don’t regret one single minute, in fact the total opposite. I’ve met some absolutely fabulous people, some of which I hope will be lifelong friends; I’ve seen countries, people and cultures that I would never have been close to had it not been for my pursuit of this; I’m healthier and fitter than I have ever been in my life; I’ve accomplished things and learned a lot more about life, and me, than I ever would have done otherwise.

The roof of Africa.......

The roof of Africa…….

Stood in the shadow of the highest place on planet earth..

Stood in the shadow of the highest place on planet earth..

...to the highest point in all of Europe....

…to the highest point in all of Europe….

..to nearly the roof of South America....

..to nearly the roof of South America….

...and my latest adventure in the Bolivian Andes....

…and my latest adventure in the Bolivian Andes….

...and some very special places inbetween. What a journey!

…and some very special places inbetween. What a journey!

I fly back in a couple of days time, and will think about things in the meantime, but I’m not going to stop going to the top of (much smaller) mountains, or walking in the hills and fells, or travelling, or doing things outdoors that I love. I’m just not doing any more high altitude trips, ever. I’m done, and I’m good with that. The good thing too is that I have a million things to look forward to, and my life is richer because of what I’ve done. I’m very proud and happy about that.

Meantime, to those great people I’ve met along the way, and probably more importantly to those who have worried about me while I’ve been away, I’ll just say thank you, for everything, and for being part of this adventure. If you look forward on life now with as much enthusiasm as I do, then your life will be a fabulous and fulfilling one. Embrace life, we all only get one of them after all.

 

The Fan Dance!

So a very quick update from me here. This coming Saturday I will be taking part in what is variously described as “the toughest endurance challenge yet”:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/10944512/Is-the-Fan-Dance-the-toughest-endurance-challenge-yet.html

or alternatively is just known as the SAS training course which ‘beasts’ the nation’s fittest special forces soldiers:

http://outsidetimes.com/adventures/the-fan-dance-a-run-through-a-slice-of-british-military-history-2387/#sriuMHYS4Av88Twq.97

Basically the Fan Dance has been used since WW2 as the physical and mental determinant of whether special forces troops (SAS and the like) and parachute regiment troops are up to task. Fail this and you’re out, in short. It is about 24km in length, has about 5 or 6 thousand feet of ascent, and covers the highest mountain in south Wales, Pen Y Fan, twice.

The Fan Dance has received notoriety in recent years as a few members of the armed forces died on this particular course for being ‘yomped’ a bit too hard. It has now been opened up to the public as an event for people who think that Tough Mudder is a bit easy. I’m not one of those, I have to say, and having done Tough Mudder last weekend, I presently think I am a bit mad, but hey ho, as they say!

Pen Y Fan from Cribyn

Pen Y Fan from Cribyn

The challenge is further ‘complicated’ by the fact that you need to carry between 35lbs and 45lbs of weight on your back, PLUS your food and water. There is also a cut off time of four hours. I have calculated that the two and a half litres of water than I plan to carry (two litres is mandatory, and they weigh everything before you start), plus food, will weigh about another 7 pounds, so I am looking at potentially 50 lbs on my back.

Like I said, maybe I am a bit mad 🙂

I’ll update this on Sunday all being well, and let you know how I get on. I’m not aiming for the cutoff time, just to get through it. I’m thinking 7 hours will be good, but maybe that is ambitious too, especially as the weather is supposed to be hot, at 20 degrees much too hot for this sort of thing for me.

Wish me the best of British…………..:)

Elbrus Day 8 – Summit (Attempt) Day! (23rd August)

Day 8, Sunday 23rd August, saw us all wake up at High Camp at 3,730m for the fourth day, and it could (with a lot of luck) be the last day we would wake up here.

This evening would see our summit attempt on Elbrus, at 5,642m the highest point in all of Europe, leaving at around midnight. Before then it was a case of resting up as much as possible, getting kit ready, and trying to pass the time. The day was generally calm, although a bit cooler and windier than it had been, which left people wondering how conditions would be up on top. Yesterday’s acclimatisation walk had been in perfect conditions, but everyone knew that there would be no way we could expect things to be that benign all the way, even if the only forecast we had was a pretty good one.

In fact the weather forecast dominated pretty much everyone’s thoughts for most of the day. It was frustrating (and probably my only real criticism of Jagged Globe the whole trip) that even our expedition leader Adele Pennington didn’t have access to any sort of weather forecast. In fact the only way she could get access to anything substantive was to ring her partner via Sat Phone back home in Fort William, Scotland, to look things up on the internet for us. Sadly he was out, and so couldn’t oblige. The reason we needed it was to try to predict wind speeds at the top of the mountain, and they didn’t look good.

Our in country guide, Viktor, who had summited the mountain over 100 times, spent a fair bit of the time looking at the top of the mountain over the afternoon. He said “it doesn’t look good, wind may be too high”.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

For the rest of us, we had no phone signal, no internet, no access to anything whatsoever, and it is at times like this that you realize just how much you miss those things. We did eventually manage to get one text message (thanks Hui Ling) away between us, which gave a response of 25 kph winds, clear, and -10 degrees. So on the basis of this, it looked like we were going for it. Whilst nervous, that was just what everyone wanted to hear.

By mid afternoon therefore, most people were basically ready with their equipment, and most (me included) chose to spend time resting or sleeping. We would after all not be going to sleep at all tonight, and would have (if successful) a 17 or so hour slog taking us through from midnight until late Sunday afternoon. The ascent would take a predicted 12 hours (we had over 2 vertical kilometers to climb), and then about 5 coming down all being well.

Viktor by teatime was again looking at the mountain somewhat nervously (or that’s how it looked). He however just pondered and said that we would decide at 11 O Clock when we all woke up. Everyone therefore went back to bed after dinner at about 8pm and tried to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink, nervously waiting for the opportunity to hopefully get going.

When we got up again at 11pm, all was fairly calm, and a breakfast was duly prepared for us. We got porridge (proper version this time, not the buckwheat variety) and somewhat bizarrely, caviar. I didn’t really feel like eating anything at all, let alone caviar, but took some chocolate off the table for sustenance (there was always plenty of chocolate sweets around, and biscuits, which were considerably better than the bread, and softer too).

At midnight it was into our our harnesses, and this was it – it was happening! It was happening for all of us bar Dave that is – he decided after a day of deliberations (and a bit of a dicky tummy too) that he wasn’t going to make it, so decided to stay in camp.

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

So in calm but cold conditions, we set off into the night to conquer this big monster of a mountain, all 2km of further height to go. We were prepared, or so we thought.

Within an hour, and moving well on three ropes (two fours and a two), we were confronted by what was initially just a squally headwind, which although it began to burn spindrift into our faces, was entirely manageable. Within an hour and a half however, and with probably only four hundred metres or so gained, it was battering us with every step.

Within two hours it was actually hard to stand up, with the spindrift sheeting into our faces.  There were other head torches around us on the mountain, but it was very difficult to tell at times which way was up and which was down. All you could really do was look at the boots in front of you, and hope they were heading in the right direction. The wind was deafening to the point that you couldn’t have heard yourself scream, and without goggles there wouldn’t have been any way of seeing through what was now basically a whiteout. It couldn’t last, and something simply had to give, either the weather or us.

By about 3am or so we had reached Lenz rocks, and I am not sure even how, but it was good at least to have some definition and know where we were on the mountain. This was about 4,650m. I have no camera shots of this, as I didn’t dare even try to get it out of my bag. There was another group in front of ours, and they were sheltering at the rocks. They seemed to do so for all of about 5 seconds, before about turning and heading straight back down the mountain. Their decision to go down I suppose made it easier for us to reconcile, and with no thought at all from any of us we very happily and unspeakingly followed Adele and Viktor’s lead and got the hell out of there.

There was no dissention in the ranks at all. It would have been at best dangerous to go on, and each step as it was was getting harder and harder.

We headed down the mountain in one straight shot without a break, and got down to High Camp a little after 5am, totally spent. It had been so much effort just making forward momentum at times that no-one probably could have gone on for much longer anyway, even if the weather had miraculously abated. No-one from anywhere summited the mountain that night – and when I look back now at the forecast wind speed of 25kph well I think you could have trebled that and been nearer the mark. What conditions would have been like further up I dread to think.

Safely down, it was straight into bed for a sleep and a rest. No-one cared at this point what the next day would bring, we just needed to get into sleeping bags and crash. I cannot remember ever sleeping so easily or well, and that is coming from someone who sleeps like a log every night of his life.

So maybe the next day we could try again, as we had a spare day and a half built into the itinerary for such contingencies. That was if we still had the legs. But tomorrow, even though we were already into it, just seemed for now like an awfully long way off.

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:

http://www.strava.com/activities/167844429

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 🙂