Week 3 – bye bye Chamonix, it’s been a blast!

And so week 3 of marathon training came to an end with a mixture of unbridled joy and also some potential despair and trepidation. The joy came not from the running per se (there’s definitely another word other than joy to describe it at times!!) but from the time that Melanie and I had in our nine days in Chamonix, culminating in a paragliding adventure. The despair and trepidation came from a twisted ankle for Melanie, which happened on the penultimate day…..

Week 3 was all spent (on holiday 🙂 ) in Chamonix in the French Alps. To those who don’t know it, Chamonix is a small town/commune in the Haute-Savoie region of the Rhone-Alps. It has an incredible history in terms of mountaineering and skiing, and was the host of the very first Winter Olympics in 1924. Home to around 9,000 residents, it is a ‘proper’ French town (as opposed to a purpose built resort) and has a history of agriculture as well as tourism. It is situated in a glacial valley at 1,035m (3,400 feet), and is dominated by the incredibly majestic mountains which surround it, the highest in Western Europe, and they themselves topped by the highest of them all, the mighty Mont Blanc.

Very much visible from the town itself, Mont Blanc sits like a slumbering giant directly above it, and rises 4,808m (15,774 feet) above sea level. Straddling the border of France and Italy, it was first climbed in 1786 by local doctors and alpinists Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, following the offering of a prize by the local mayor, and this is acknowledged as the date of the beginning of modern mountaineering. A statue of the two gentlemen sits in the town square and is a very popular ‘Kodak moment’ spot, the finger of one of them pointing towards the mountain, it’s elusive summit often shrouded in clouds rolling in to top up the permanent snow and ice which sit on top.

One of the statues in Chamonix looking up to the dominant features of the Mont Blanc massif

I’ve visited Chamonix on five previous occasions, twice to attempt (unsuccessfully, due to weather each time) to climb Mont Blanc, and the others just to enjoy the surrounding mountains and countryside (the latter word does it such an injustice). It is the ideal, and in my view best, base for mountain adventure, with around 200 miles or so of mountain paths and walks, many used in the Tour du Mont Blanc and the notorious Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, widely regarded (perhaps ranking just behind the Marathon Des Sables) as the most prestigious ultra marathon on the planet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-Trail_du_Mont-Blanc. The race itself is over 171km of arduous mountain trails spanning three countries (Italy and Switzerland as well as France), and has over 10,000m (33,000 feet) of climbing involved!

On one of our walks up to the Albert 1er Refuge by the Glacier du Tour, Mont Blanc and Chamonix itself in the valley far below in the distance.
Enjoying ourselves up on the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m, views into Switzerland behind us.
Enjoying some of the local beer from a mountain restaurant at Brevent on the Balcony du Sud – it would be rude not to!
At the stunning Mer de Glace glacier, also known as Le Vallee Blanche, one of four main glaciers which flow into the Chamonix valley, this one 14 kilometres long……
…..which we got to go inside! Yes you can go into an ice grotto, tunnelled into a 14km long glacier – fabulous!
Melanie on the stunning Balcony du Sud, heading towards Lac Blanc above Argentiere, probably the prettiest walk I’ve ever done.
And part of Lac Blanc itself, a truly beautiful and amazing place of great tranquility and majestic views.
Life can’t get much better than moments like this – I cannot even describe to you how good this all tasted 🙂

Anyway – onto the week itself, it was all going so well! The mornings in Chamonix, even when the weather is a lovely 21/22C during the day, falls to around 7 or 8 degrees overnight. We thus did almost all of our runs early in the day, so that firstly they were bearable (especially after last week’s 37 degrees in the Uk we were looking for something much cooler, and it was wonderful), and also so that we had the rest of our days free to explore, or chill (although little chilling was actually done, as we didn’t want to waste a moment here).

We had four runs of 5 miles each before the final day, two at tempo pace (roughly 9m/mile for us) and two of intervals, one hills, one 90 second sprints. All were great, until the last tempo run on the Saturday, post paragliding. Early in the run, Melanie rolled over on her ankle trying to circumnavigate a lot of market stalls to get to our usual and beautiful route along the River Arve, which flows its glacial and glassy meltwater at sometimes alarming rates down the valley. She said it was ok at the time, and carried on the run just fine, but later that day she was limping and had to put ice on it to stop swelling and bruising. Not good with a half marathon scheduled for the next morning….

Flying high above Chamonix, having jumped from Plan Praz at 2,000m…..
And yes, those knuckles are quite white!!

And so to the Sunday morning, which as it was also the day we were due to fly home, and we wanted to have a nice indulgent lunch before we went, we’d aimed to get the run done at 7am. Upon getting up however (or actually as it turned out not getting up at all), Melanie was clearly not fit to run. She urged me to go, although I was in several minds as to whether I should or shouldn’t. In the end I did, and the run was cool, with stunning cloudless skies, and despite the fact that (due to Chamonix’s position in the valley that runs up and down) there was rather more uphill than I would ever have liked over such a distance (almost six miles continually uphill for example) it went great, and I felt good, even if I did spend almost the whole run worrying about whether her injury would have significant consequences for New York.

So with that 13 miles (I had to do the .1 too of course to make it a proper half marathon!) that made 34 miles for the week, another personal record for me. So far though (and Melanie within a day or so had recovered too which was the main worry for us both) all is good and on track, but it is only week 3 of 16, and it shows you how easily you can all of a sudden find yourself with an injury problem and out of action.

So this week I can only say has been an incredible adventure. A beautiful holiday, with fabulous weather, and full of fabulous memories in the most idyllic location. If I lived in Chamonix I’d be out running every morning just to experience the air, and the stupendous beauty of the finest playground that nature has to offer. Melanie loved it, her first time here, and it has also given her (and me) an appetite for trail running too. Maybe that’s for another time though………:)

Next week it is 39 miles, with a 15 mile run on the Sunday – and with no Chamonix to run in, that’s going to be hard. It is getting serious now…


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


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!


Mont Blanc 2014 day 3 – Friday 18th July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And made it :)

And made it 🙂

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

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

On our way down finally...

On our way down finally…

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Happy at our return to the hut!

Happy at our return to the hut!

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


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

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

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

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

Mont Blanc 2014 Day 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 🙂


More mountains are a coming :)

In my last post I mentioned that I was looking to try to get a few more trips booked into my calendar, and as I’ve done just that, I thought I should say so right here, so here I am :).

In May I have the Welsh Three Peaks already arranged. This consists of Pen Y Fan, Cadair Idris, and Snowdon – the former two being done on the Saturday, and Snowdon on the Sunday morning, bright and early, or 5.30am for those of you like me will not be very bright by that time of the morning. I haven’t actually been up Pen Y Fan or Cadair Idris before, so it will be nice to tick off two of Wales’ most iconic climbs, even if neither of them are exactly giant peaks. The whole challenge does however involve some 19,000 feet of ascent and descent, and about 20 miles of distance covered, so it should be a really good challenge.

But the news now, is that I have booked THREE more very exciting adventures, all firsts in their own right…..

First in June, I will be doing the Three Peaks (not to be confused with the Welsh Three Peaks). The Three Peaks involves the highest mountains in each of Scotland, England and Wales, done traditionally in that order, being Ben Nevis, Scafell Plike, and Snowdon. There is this time over 20,000 feet of ascent and descent, and 27 miles of distance to cover, and all within 24 hours. Add to this somewhat exhausting schedule the fact that there is about 600 miles of distance to drive between the mountains (about 13 hours on the road, these are not motorways in the main), and you have a brutal schedule ahead of you. Oh and just to add to all that, you need to do Scafell Pike in the dark :O. Should be a fantastic adventure, of which I will tell more as the time draws near….

Then comes even more excitement in July, with, wait for it, Mont Blanc! Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe, at 15,781 feet, and is a brute.


Here is just one of the ridges that I get to face:

The Bosses ridge on Mont Blanc.

The Bosses ridge on Mont Blanc.

I’ve never been up Mont Blanc, and never had the chance to even try it, so this is massive for me. It is not to be taken lightly at all, and has a high fatality rate. In fact around 100 people a year sadly lose their lives trying each year. Alan Arnette has a great FAQ on Mont Blanc which I will post below:


There is so much more to say here, but again I will leave that for another time, as it deserves a good few posts of its own. I’m more excited about this than I am Elbrus actually, as it is just one of the most talked about mountains in the world. One of the amazing things about Mont Blanc is that is has a massive prominence from the surrounding valleys – something like 4,000m in fact. To put that into perspective, Mount Everest has a prominence of 3,500m from Base Camp! I have also seen it many times, from many angles, but the main angle I wish to see it from is potentially there in July………:)

So whilst I had a busy week in booking up these two lovely trips, I thought to myself – why stop there? I therefore contacted International Mountain Guides and booked up for Aconcagua! Now as you may know I have had Aconcagua booked for each of the last two years, but had to cancel it on both occasions. So without tempting fate, I am hoping for third time lucky :). I was originally going to wait to see if I made it up Elbrus (booked for August) before attempting Aconcagua, but then I decided that if I can’t make it up Elbrus then I shouldn’t be doing this whole thing, plus I really need something to aim for at the end of the year.

This is my year of the mountains – the one to really test myself and see if I am up for maybe 6 of the Seven Summits…….if I do what I have just booked for then that’ll be three out of the way by the end of the year, or almost – Aconcagua will start in December and end in January. More, much more, on that to follow too. Nearly 7,000m more, in fact……..better get training, and hard.

Aconcagua - so far away still......but getting nearer.

Aconcagua – so far away still……but getting nearer.

Alpine Introductions Course, Arolla – Day Four – 28/06/11

Perched up at more than 9,000 feet in the Swiss Alps, I was awoken in the Aiguilles Rouge Hut by our climbing instructor, Andy, around 4.45am. I slept badly, tossing and turning for most of the night, and so breakfast was not really going to go down well at that time. I knew I had to eat however, as we were about to burn a whole host of calories ascending the glacier.

Following a hearty Swiss breakfast of muesli and cheese and the like, we set off at around 5.35am. We would walk for about an hour up a steep and rocky ridge to around 3,100m before getting to ‘crampon point’, where we would no longer be able to travel up the glacier without ropes, ice-axes and crampons. The Pointe de Vouasson, its summit just under 3,500m, lay in wait for us.

5.30am - we set off up the rocky pass, the sun just appearing above us.....

As we set off the sun was yet to hit us, blocked out by all manner of peaks that slowly came in to view. The views were nothing short of superb. Before long we had a stunning view of the Matterhorn, all 4,478 majestic metres of her. Then other peaks such was the Dent Blanche (4,356m) came into view, and many other 4,000m + beauties, that Andy would stop and point out to us, but whose names for now I cannot recall, but will do so and fill in here at later date.

'Crampon Point', at about 7am - The Matterhorn in the far distance over my left shoulder.

By the time the crampons and axes came out the sun was on us already, at about 7am. The snow on the glacier was really hard work though – the weather being so warm meant that the snow on top was wet and soft, and sometimes you would sink down to your knees and find it hard to get out.

I struggled quite frankly, and found it exhausting. I am conceding 20 odd years in age to each of my fellow course members, and so I was undoubtedly the slowest of the group. With ‘normal’ trekking you can stop and take a rest, but when you are roped up on a glacier, you either have to keep going, or ask everyone to stop with you. I did so probably six times on the way to the summit, and it made me feel bad and frustrated, and sorry for them that they had to stop for me.

Stopping for a breather climbing up the glacier.

We reached the summit eventually just before 9am. The summit is a very small rocky outcrop at about 3,500m. It was my first Alpine summit. Andy shook out hands and congratulated us, which was really nice. The summit gave me a bit of vertigo as the drops were precipitous on all sides. But what views!

My altimeter worked! This is the summit, Mont Blanc in the far distance.

Andy told us that Point de Vouasson has one of the best views of all Alpine peaks, as much as anything because it is unobscured by other tall peaks around it. With clear and cloudless skies we had views all the way over the Bernese Oberland to The Eiger, stunning views of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa to Italy, and then to our west, Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, stood defiant, her saddled top betraying both the majesty and the difficulty of her steeply sensational beauty.

One of the best things of all about this peak was that we weere literally the only people on the mountain that day – we did not see another soul going up or coming down, and that is priceless. We could also only see mountains, and snow-capped ones at that, in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

I made it! My very first Alpine summit 🙂

Panorama shot with Tim at the summit - glorious views all around

View from the summit showing our 'virgin' tracks up the glacier - we were literally the only people on the whole mountain that day

We stayed for around 20 minutes at the summit, dealt with a small injury of mine where I had stabbed my left leg near to the knee with my right crampon, courtesy of some very soft snow on the way up, and began our descent. I led this time, much more comfortable in this direction, though it was still hard going due to the soft snow.

About half way down, we reached a precipice with a small lake around 200 feet below. As we approached, Andy told me to just carry on straight over the edge. I turned round, assuming he was joking (Andy likes his jokes, believe me!) and said that I didn’t think so. He said “no, go for it”, and I realised that he wasn’t joking at all. This was to be our crevasse rescue training! I therefore carried on until the edge gave way, and I plummeted about 15 feet down the face of the wall. I screamed I have to say – it is the most unnatural thing in the world to do, and if the rope had not held me I would be dead, simple as that. Here is a photo of me hanging there, clinging on grimly:

My view looking up - I thought I was going to hang there forever.....

.....whilst the others secured the rope from above in the snow before hauling me to safety.

The drop below me is about 100 feet to a frozen lake. I was literally clinging with all I had.

The rescue took about 20 minutes or so, and I have never been so relieved in my life to be off the rope and standing up again. We then took turns at practicing with each of us falling over the edge and pulling the other ones up, apart from Kelly who refused to go over the edge. I don’t blame her. In fact I ‘had the chance’ to have another go, and I politely refused – once was enough for me.

Following this we returned all the way to 2,850 metres and the sanctity of the hut. It was so nice to get the mountain boots and crampons off (we carried approach shoes with us and waked down in those). We lunched at the hut (if you ever go, take a wheelbarrow of cash with you – the service and food is great, but 8 quid for a bottle of water is a lot of money, although I do appreciate that they have to bring everything up in a helicopter).

We set off back down the mountain at around 1.30 – it seemed already a long day from 4.45am. The descent from there back to Arolla was around 2 hours – by the time we got back it was really hot. We were all very glad to get clean (my shower felt fantastic) and just to chill for the evening.

We start to reach civilsation (well some cows anyway) towards the valley back down to Arolla

View towards Mont Collon as we get closer to Arolla

Back to Arolla itself, which is very pretty - it even has two shops!

Tomorrow we will be climbing and abseiling in some tough place down the valley. This will be the day that I dread. Vertical rock faces upwards or downwards are almost too scary for me to think about. I’d rather be thrown into a crevasse…..