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 🙂

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 🙂

 

It’s Mont Blanc time!

I haven’t updated my blog for some time now. I’ve had a really busy time at work, have moved house, and have all sorts of other excuses that I won’t bore you with. I also owe my blog two updates still – one my training weekend for Elbrus in North Wales, and the other the National Three Peaks Challenge. I’m happy to say I survived both unscathed, and will get round to posting the details as soon as I have time.

I am ready for this trip away like almost no other. For one, I haven’t had a week off work since May of last year. It’s way too long, and I am feeling it. Secondly I have always revered Mont Blanc. It is for me almost as iconic as Everest, if only because most people regard it (wrongly of course) as the highest mountain in Europe (that accolade belongs to Elbrus, where I will be next month), and of course Europe is where I live and belong. Just as importantly, this is a barometer for me, as I have walked and walked this year, and I think I am just ready 🙂

I am not taking MB lightly. For one, I know that over 1,500 people have died trying to climb it. Secondly it is at 4,810m (15,782 feet) and so altitude and fatigue are going to be an issue. Thirdly I don’t believe the weather forecast is good. There has been a lot of low and late season snow, which can cover crevasses and make things treacherous. What will be will be I suppose, and I believe in fate. I also know that the company that I am going with, Mont Blanc Guides, have an impeccable safety record, and won’t even attempt a summit if the weather isn’t appropriate. And that suits me just fine – I’d rather sit and watch a storm in a nice little café (or bar, better) from the town of Chamonix than be in the middle of it risking life and limb. This is after all one quarter of my whole year’s holiday allowance here!

My time there will consist of three days doing glacier training and acclimatisation, including an ascent of Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain solely in Italy (4,061m, or 13,323feet). If that all goes well we will be let loose on the big one. I cannot wait, and am just hoping for tears of joy and a summit. I’ll take just the summit in fact, and if so the other will I am sure happen!

Mont Blanc - beautiful.

Mont Blanc – beautiful.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures. The above shows just how dramatic and majestic a mountain this really is. The next below shows the route that I believe that I will be taking form the Gouter hut to the summit:

The final route to the top - the Grand Couloir may well be tricky...

The final route to the top – the Grand Couloir may well be tricky…

And finally this is a picture of the Bosses ridge which happens somewhere along the way. I just hope I’m brave enough to be able able to hold onto my camera if/when I get on it 🙂

The Bosses Ridge - I'm ready for you, I think!

The Bosses Ridge – I’m ready for you, I think!

So I set off on Wednesday morning – wish me luck, as I’m going to need it in abundance.

 

24 Peaks – Day One

On the weekend of the 7th/8th June, I took part in the ’24 Peaks Challenge’, an organised/guided trek over 24 Lakeland peaks all over 2,400 feet, inside 24 hours. The challenge is spread over two days, with approximately 12 hours of trekking each day, and 10 mountains the first day, followed by 14 the next. The event was run by Global Adventure Challenges, an organisation I hadn’t come across before, but who were great, and I’d certainly use again.

The weekend was supposed to start by being picked in Penrith railway station at 5.30 on the Friday afternoon, but unfortunately a lorry fire on the M6 and a massive 15 mile tailback put paid to that for me and for most of the other attendees. In the end I was instructed to drive straight to our base for the weekend, the Youth Hostel in Ambleside. I got there after about a seven hour drive, which should have taken four.

We were eight people altogether, and all met over an initial drink. Sener (who was to have made a wise choice by electing to not stay in the Youth Hostel but in the 4 star hotel next door – more of that later), David, Peter, Ian, Jane, Lucilia, Margaret, and yours truly. No-one had met anyone else before with the exception of Peter and Margaret, who were there to celebrate their 40th Wedding Anniversary! After everyone had assembled, and all moaned about the same traffic jam that I was stuck in, we got fed and settled in before our briefing for the next day.

View over the north side of Windermere towards the Langdales upon arrival at the YHA.

View over the north side of Windermere towards the Langdales upon arrival at the YHA.

Our guides from Global Adventures were Kate and Matt, and our driver Jim. The very comprehensive briefing told us, amongst other things, we needed to be ready with our boots on at 4.45 the next morning, so that meant a very early night for us all. The forecast for the next day didn’t look good, with the prospect of “rain, with monsoon-like outbursts”. I was glad I had all of my waterpoofs with me, and a spare pair of boots too just in case for day 2.

Whilst Ambleside Youth Hostel is in a beautiful location on the shores of Windermere, and with great facilities, unfortunately, youth hostels aren’t really known for being the most quiet of environments, and this one was no exception. In the dormitory above our room were an unknown number of children, who couldn’t have made more noise had they been an unknown number of elephants. I feared at one point in time that the ceiling would come in, or the whole building would collapse, under the barrage of crashing around that was going on. Two of our dorm went to try to ‘have a quiet word’, but it didn’t seem to do an awful lot of good. I normally sleep like a corpse, but this was just impossible. Kids will be kids, I suppose!

The next morning came around way too quickly, but we were all soon tucking into breakfast rolls and cereal, and making packed lunches, ready for the day ahead. Stepping initially out of the Youth Hostel at about 5.30am, the weather was glorious, and the lake serene and calm. The calm before the storm perhaps? We would find out……

 

Ambleside Youth Hostel - a really great location overall - I stayed there only once before, when I was 16!

Ambleside Youth Hostel – a really great location overall – I stayed there only once before, when I was 16!

After a half hour drive to the Langdale Valley, we emerged in warm and sultry conditions (T shirts in fact, weird for the Lake District at all, never mind before 6am), and began our first climb of the day, up ‘The Band’, which would lead us to the first of the 24 peaks, Bowfell. Approximately two hours later, everyone stood proudly just below 3,000 feet, and were happy that a.) it was one down, and ‘just 23’ to go, and b.) that the rapidly approaching clouds from the South had not as yet unleashed anything in our direction.

Ready to go! About 5.55am looking towards the Band, and Bowfell, unseen in picture.

Ready to go! About 5.55am looking towards the Band, and Bowfell, unseen in picture.

And looking back down from the top of the Band towards the Langdale valley.

And looking back down from the top of the Band towards the Langdale valley.

Over the course of the next two peaks, Esk Pike and Great End, the weather began dominating evertyone’s conversation, with some people saying “we might just be lucky you know”, and others including me (I’m a pessimist when it comes to these things) expecting a bit of a bath. I’ve been up in Cumbria enough times to know that it isn’t called the Lake District for nothing. I also knew that we were in very close proximity to Seathwaite (which would be the finishing point of day one) and this is the wettest place in England, with an annual rainfall of about 125 inches. It was going to rain!

And towards the top of Bowfell, looking towards Scafell Pike in the distance.

And towards the top of Bowfell, looking towards Scafell Pike in the distance.

By the time we got to Allen Crags, peak 4, one of the guides, Matt, suggested we all get our waterproofs on, “now”. At first even I thought twice, if only as I hate having waterpoofs on on warm days unless I really have to. Within less than five minutes however (I guess he’s not a guide for nothing :)) it had started. And it started with hail, and with massive cold gusts of wind. Within five minutes more, despite having on now four layers of clothes, woolly hat, two pairs of gloves, and waterproof overtrousers, I was actually cold.

This is actually one of the last pictures I took all day, somewhere around Broad C

This is actually one of the last pictures I took all day, somewhere around Broad Crag, I think.

We all trudged on in the general direction (compasses out now for Kate and Matt) of Scafell Pike, England’s highest point, if now lost in the squall of relentless lashing rain and cloud that we were enveloped in. I began to think that our day would end at four peaks, and that the only thing to do from here would be to descend (and if I’d been on my own at this point I probably would have done), but we ploughed through it, thinking it may be just a shower or two. The next two peaks, Broad Crag, and Ill Crag, were memorable for the fact that I didn’t see either of them at any point, other than as piles of stones beneath my feet. The wind and rain were relentless and almost overpowering. I was beginning to already think that I didn’t have enough clothing with me.

Amazingly when we reached the gully just before the approach to the summit of Scafell Pike, the clouds suddenly lifted. Kate told us it was all due to ‘orographic lifting’ or something like that. Whatever it was, it was very strange, but very welcome, and we got to summit peak number 7 of the day without precipitation, and a part view to Wasdale Head way below. The view for me was significant, as in two weeks’ time I’d be approaching by that route in the middle of the night during the Three Peaks Challenge. I was already wishing that I only had three peaks to face this weekend, instead of another 16 being as wet as I already was.

Great Gable (right) and Green Gable from just below Scafell Pike

Great Gable (right) and Green Gable from just below Scafell Pike

 

Summit of Scafell Pike (excuse the slightly over the top celebration!), Peter, Margaret and Sener in foreground.

Summit of Scafell Pike (excuse the slightly over the top celebration!), Peter, Margaret and Sener in foreground.

Our guides, Kate and Matt, Scafell Pike - they were happy too!

Our guides, Kate and Matt, Scafell Pike – they were happy too! As you can see, we were all dressed appropriately for this nice June weather.

Thankfully the rain kept off as we descended by the corridor route towards Styhead Tarn and towards peak 8, Lingmell, where we stopped for a well-earned devouring of our packed lunches. As Styhead Tran approached however, this was the last view of anything we would have all day, and the rains came back in persistent and powerful anger.

The corridor route down from Scafell Pike towards Great Gable - definitely the last time my camera came out o

The corridor route down from Scafell Pike towards Great Gable – definitely the last time my camera came out of my bag!

The walk up Great Gable (one of my favourite mountains anywhere on this planet) was I can only describe as absolutely miserable. The rain hammered down, the wind was howling from the side (meaning rain just forced its way through your hood and down your neck and back), and the visibility was at best about five yards. Even cairns in front of you couldn’t be seen, and by the time we eventually made the top I was already mentally descended and anywhere else but there. Shame.

To get off of Great Gable and towards Windy Gap for the ascent of Green Gable was an exercise in brilliant mountain guiding from Matt and Kate. Armed with dual compasses, they got us down a steep scramble, through torrents of water, in a situation that would have otherwise have been perilous to say the least. I wouldn’t have been able to complete that part of the event with without them, it is as simple as that.

The final trudge up Green Gable was only slightly more pleasant than that of Great Gable, but only because it was shorter, and the wind was now behind us. Visibility was almost zero at times. I remember at one point seeing a poor dog walk past us. It looked like it had been practically drowned, and I only hope it got to find its owner and get a.) reunited and b.) spoilt rotten when they eventually got down. This weather was now for ducks only, and then brave and hardy ones at that.

Coming down the steep and slippy path back down to the far side of Styhead Tarn was an exercise in survival for most of the way, and I couldn’t wait to get down. The cloud level was practically below the tarn itself, although once we had passed this the cloud thankfully finally lifted, and by the time we had completed the further one and a half hour walk back to Seathwaite from here, the sun was practically out.

Everyone was back at the minibus by around 6pm, a long day since our early start, but happy that we had all got though it successfully, with ten peaks down, and ‘just fourteen to go’ the next day. The minibus took about an hour to get back to Ambleside, and sat in wet gear this wasn’t pleasant. Everyone was clearly exhausted too, and from what had been a lively day with lots of banter earlier on, I don’t think I heard anyone say a single word on the return journey. I sat and shivered, and was still shivering when back in the hostel by about 7.30pm.

Thankfully the showers in Ambleside Youth Hostel are magnificent, and I could have stood there under that hot steamy water for an hour or more. I can say that with the exception of the most memorable shower I ever had in my life (that which followed a week of grime up Kilimanjaro), this was probably the second most welcome. It just shows you that a day in June which started so warm can end up so different, and teaches you that you must always be prepared for bad weather in the mountains. I made a mental note after this day to always have one more layer with me than I think I might need, and have some more (or better) waterproof gloves too.

We were all glad when finally back to find that the Youth Hostel had a drying room, although unfortunately everyone else there had filled it full already, and it couldn’t cope with the amount of kit. I hung my stuff out anyway, hoping that by some miracle that by the time 4am the next day came around, it would have magically dried. I was to be disappointed….

Here are the stats from day one…..14.2 miles of ground covered, and 5,700 feet of ascent:

http://www.strava.com/activities/151189307

 

The Welsh Three Peaks – done

On the weekend of 17th and 18th May, an outstanding weekend was had. Accompanied by 11 work colleagues, a trip to do the “Welsh Three Peaks” was undertaken, and a massive success all round it was too.

The Welsh Three Peaks are Pen Y Fan, Cadair Idris, and Snowdon. The name is due to the fact that they are the highest peaks in South Wales, Mid Wales, and North Wales respectively, at 2,907ft, 2,930ft and 3,560 ft respectively. It was part of event know as the Snowdon 500 Welsh Three Peaks Challenge, and was a charity event in aid of Prostate Cancer. About 650 people took part, 150 on the whole three peaks, and 500 for just Snowdon on the Sunday.

Leaving work at around 3pm on the Friday afternoon, we hired a minibus for our adventures, and arrived in South Wales that evening at around 7pm.

It was to be a very long weekend, and with the assembly point for Pen Y Fan being 4.30am on the Saturday, we left our hotel in Merthyr Tydfil at 4am, having had not enough sleep from the previous night (despite a remarkably sensible amount of alcohol being consumed), but everyone made it just fine.

The crew assembling - 4.20am :O

The crew assembling – 4.20am :O

By literally 4.30 or so, everyone was walking the ‘motorway route’ up from the Storey Arms car park up past Corn Ddu to the summit of Pen Y Fan at 2,907 feet. It is an easy path, and blessed by ridiculously fine weather for Wales in May, everyone strolled up to the summit very easily. Here we all are, assembled just after sunrise at about 5.45am:

On the summit of Pen Y Fan at sunrise

On the summit of Pen Y Fan at sunrise

So from left to right we have: (back row) Lyndsay, Carmen, Liz, Simon, Eifion, Sophie, Kuldeep and James, and (front row) yours truly, Neil, Khilna and Mark.

This shot was taken just after sunrise looking east towards Brecon:

Looking down from the summit of Pen Y Fan just after sunrise

Looking down from the summit of Pen Y Fan just after sunrise – I’ll never make a photographer will I?

There are not many more beautiful things on this planet than seeing the sun rise from the top of a mountain, no matter which mountain. It makes the effort of getting there in the first place so worthwhile, and blessed with weather like we had, I counted myself very lucky to be there.

With everyone back down and in the minibus by about 7am, we began the 2 and half hour journey up through Wales towards Cadair Idris, at the southern end of Snowdonia, and near the west coastline of Wales. Despite a lack of sleep, and no sausage sandwiches (a promised “burger van” never materialised), we had a good journey up and arrived just before 10am.

Suncream at the ready, and sandwiches packed, it is time to leave the van behind again...

Suncream at the ready, and sandwiches packed, it is time to leave the van behind again…

We took the “Minffordd Path” horseshoe route, the first time I had done this, and great route it is too. It is a ridge walk in the main, at about 7 or 8 miles, and tough going in places too, especially as hot as it was.

Beginning the climb up the Minffordd path at Cadair Idris

Beginning the climb up the Minffordd path at Cadair Idris

And the summit eventually comes into view....

And the summit eventually comes into view….just look at that sky – this is Wales!

The path up got fairly steep in places...

The path up got fairly steep in places…

...with some precipitous drops down from the ridge to the lake far below.

…with some precipitous drops down from the ridge to the lake far below.

Everyone made the summit at around 1.30pm or so, despite some false dawns (from me!) about how far, and around which corner, the summit actually was, and we earned a well deserved break for lunch.

At the summit of Cadair Idris, and a great spot it was too.

At the summit of Cadair Idris, and a great spot it was too.

Walking down from the summit, three of us (Neil, James and I) took a separate path to the summit of a subsidiary peak, Mynydd Moel, at 2,831 feet (well it would have been rude not to, as it was there in front of us), which was an easy walk, but afforded great views back to the summit of Cadair Idirs and the Barmouth Coast and the Irish Sea beyond.

Looking up to Cadair Idris from Mynydd Moel, the Irish Sea in the distance.

Looking up to Cadair Idris from Mynydd Moel, the Irish Sea in the distance.

The next shot puts in good perspective the ridge walk around the lake (Lyn Cau) and Cadair Idris itself:

Taken from just below the summit of Mynydd Moel, the horseshoe walk that we have just undertaken comes into view.

Taken from just below the summit of Mynydd Moel, the horseshoe walk that we have just undertaken comes into view.

And then the path down from here back towards the car park is pretty steep in places:

The steep path down to join the earlier path we came up on - hard going on the knees!

The steep path down to join the earlier path we came up on – hard going on the knees!

Having assembled all together again at about 5pm, we set out off up to our resting point for the evening in Caernafon, a further hour and a half drive, and about a 15 minute drive from Llanberis, from where we would start our ascent of Snowdon the next morning. After being well fed (for a Premier Inn anyway!) and after a couple of well deserved drinks, everyone hit the hay for a lie in until about 5.45am for the final leg of our journey.

Leaving Caernafon shortly before 7am in the end, we parked up in Llanberis for a bus to take us along with a number of other walkers on the Snowdon 500 to Pen Y Pass for our ascent of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain at 3,560 feet. After some facing around for registration and the like, and a briefing on the bus, a somewhat colder and cloudier start to the day saw us start up the Pyg track at close to 8am.

Setting off up the Pyg Track, Crib Goch in the background.

Setting off up the Pyg Track, Crib Goch in the background.

Looking south over the Snowdonia National Park.

Looking south over the Snowdonia National Park.

As we got higher up the walk, the summit was unfortunately never to be seen, being shrouded in cloud the whole time.

Kuldeep tries to imagine how big or how far the summit is away....

Kuldeep tries to imagine how big or how far the summit is away….

The cloud just kept coming in....

But the cloud just kept coming in….

...until finally we made it to the top!

…until finally we made it to the top!

By the time we reached the top, the cloud was thick, and it was windy and cold. In fact for those of you who have stood on top of Snowdon before, the cloud was so dense that you couldn’t even see the cafe (a good thing, I hear most of you say :)).

After a refreshing cup of tea (well the cafe is there, so we might as well use it) and a regrouping, we set off back down the Llanberis path this time towards out minibus and the end of the journey. The Llanberis path is a 4 mile windy path that follows the train (yes, really) line, and so is neither steep or very spectacular.

The Lake at Llanberis, and our finishing point, come finally into view.

The Lake at Llanberis, and our finishing point, come finally into view.

Upon reaching our final destination, the Royal Victoria Hotel, we were presented with a certificate and managed a very refreshing drink before boarding the minibus for the five or so hour drive back to Milton Keynes.

At the finishing point, with our finishers T shirts.

At the finishing point, with our finishers T shirts.

All in all it was a fabulous weekend. I did manage to mar mine very slightly by walking into a sign in the car park shortly before we left, and cutting my head, but I have always been a bit of a klutz!

Altogether we climbed around 7,500 feet, and walked around 21 miles or so – the details are attached below from my Garmin.

http://www.strava.com/activities/142011475

http://www.strava.com/activities/142235311

http://www.strava.com/activities/142586565

And finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, we managed to raise in doing this over £3,000 for Prostate Cancer Research. The sponsorship page is still open at the time of writing, so if you can, please give us a little more if you can? Thank you 🙂

http://www.justgiving.com/Pinnacle3PeakChallenge

My next adventure is the “24 Peaks” in the Lake District in two weeks time – which I fear at 36 miles and 15,000 feet is going to hurt! Until then……