It had been 13 years since I was last in the Alps – I had spent the summer of 1996 soloing in the Ecrins National Park, bagging a bunch of big hills and culminating in a dawn ascent of the Barre des Ecrins. I was young, fit and (in retrospect) somewhat foolish, but it had been a magical time, free of responsibility, full of a sense of self-sufficiency and competence and with a job at Unilever waiting for me when I got back.
This time was to be rather different. Not only did I have to say goodbye to my wife and children beforehand (not easy, especially when Jude ran across the playground to give me an extra hug as I was leaving), I had the responsibility of Karl’s welfare, with his wife and children dependent on my ability to keep him safe. It was an exercise in self-belief – going over the preparation we had done, the route choice, the timings, the equipment, the weather, the escape options, the danger signs, everything that could go wrong, and still deciding that we were ready and now was the time to try. Mentally I gave us a 50% chance of success.
The flight from East Midlands was uneventful and arrival in Geneva saw us meet up with the Cham Van Man and get whisked away into the hills. The scenery was dramatic – big and steep, with masses of rock everywhere - but these were just foothills, with the real deal being just around the corner. As the van swung through Les Houches, we started to get our first look at where we would be going the next day. Anywhere in Britain, the ridges we were looking at sweeping up into the clouds would be serious hills – but they were just the access slopes that led to the head of the glaciers that led eventually to the mountain proper. If you haven’t stood in these valleys and gazed up, it is hard to appreciate the scale of it. If it is your first time and you know you are going up there it can be pretty intimidating! Whatever the outcome, you know you are about to ask a great deal of your body, putting it under immense strain and invoking an uncertain amount of pain.
If you try to take it all in - the distance, the height, the pain, the effort - you get overwhelmed, so you must break it down into stages and not think too far ahead. First, we’ll get to Les Houches, then we’ll get up to the col, then we’ll follow the railway track up – aligning intermediate goals with eventual success means that, as you knock each one off, you are that much closer to success. The only danger with this is if you focus too much on achieving the individual goals, forsaking everything else, you find it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances and get trapped into thinking there is only one of doing something. Hence you have to play a constant mental game of balance – thinking about the big picture, but not so much so that you get overwhelmed, assessing all the inputs and then reassessing the intermediate goals you have set. This is the path to success.
Our somewhat ropey hotel had a good view of where the Aiguille du Midi should have been but was not, as neither it, nor any of the peaks that lay above and beyond it were visible on Thursday when we arrived. With the cloud down to around 2500m, the only thing we could really see was the Col du Mont Lachat, halfway up the mountain railway that led to the climb up to the hut. About 6 kilometres away and a good kilometre higher, it was a dot on the horizon – and our first objective. It wasn’t too hot but it did look windy up there – odds of success still around 50% I reckoned.
Packing on Friday morning to leave and go up the hill was a sombre affair – we were both very quiet as we sorted our bags and decided what we were leaving behind. ‘Butterflies’ was how Karl described it and I had to agree. Although unsaid, the thought does cross your mind – in the worse case scenario, we never return to this room. As quickly as it enters, this thought must be banished from your mind, as that way lies paralysis, fear, poor judgement and a guarantee of failure. We must at least give it a fair crack of the whip.
The free shuttle bus ran us down to the telepherique station in Les Houches, that we found to be helpfully shut – opening day of the season was the next day. We were faced with a 1000m climb over 2-3km, up through the forest in 25-degree heat, with full alpine kit in our bags. We could delay a day, but the Saturday was forecast to be the best day weatherwise and to wait would mean missing this window. On foot it was then - unexpected and quite exciting, but it did put a great deal of strain on our bodies that we had not banked on. Within 30 minutes we were both blistering on our heels and rather uncomfortable. Likelihood of success took a knock – down to 40% I reckoned.
Two and a bit hours later we reached the col and walked into the middle of what looked like a serious problem – we had seen at least 4 bodies being carried down from a train stopped on the tracks about 200m up the line, and more were on the way. Thankfully, it was mass casualty exercise for the local gendarmerie. As we took 10 minutes to rest, a British party who had clearly just come down from the hut arrived with one of their number covered in blood – he had taken a tumble at some point on the descent and was limping quite badly, with a series of cuts to his arm and a bump on the noggin. He wisely took the offer to be looked at by the doctor taking part in the exercise and we both made a mental note to be careful on the way down!
A slow trog up the railway line saw us arrive at the Nid D’Aigle and meet a couple of French guys who were lugging their paragliders up. Karl swapped war stories briefly and we carried on, now above the vegetation line but below the snow line in a thing called the Desert de Pierre Roudon. It was hot and we were getting a little tired, having been climbing in the heat for 4 hours with blistered feet and gaining nearly 2 vertical kilometres. We reached a hunter’s refuge at 2700m where we met a guy from Nottingham (spooky) and a million dollar view back down the valley toward Chamonix. What we could also see was those impressively large and steep hills we had driven past the day before – we were now level with their tops and we weren’t even at the hut.
Fortified with cake and a text back home (to which I got a reply to the effect that Kirsty was having a glass of wine – it was lunchtime after all), we set off up the ridge that narrowed, steepened and got snowier as it approached the Tete Rousse hut. After an hour the hut appeared, quite close and looking like the haven it turned out to be. We also got a good look at the approach to the first objective of the following morning – the 600m scramble up to the Gouter hut, just visible wrapped in wispy clouds above us. The Grand Couloir didn’t look too bad but the weather wasn’t great – still a 40% chance of success?
Five and a quarter hours and 2200m of climbing to the hut and we felt it in our heels. Karl had 2 blisters the size of fifty pence pieces that had both burst and ripped, leaving very raw patches. My blisters were big, in exactly the same place as his (only on my feet obviously) but had luckily not burst. The saving grace, apart from getting the boots off and bandaging our feet up, was the view from the dining area of the hut. What a place to eat – views for 50 miles across hill after hill almost as far as Lake Geneva. Because the train and telepherique were not running, the hut was very quiet – only about 10 or 12 other people were there and this added to the immense sense of privilege I felt to be there. We had all worked our nuts off to get here and it was an honour to share it with them. We rehydrated, rested and later, as the afternoon turned to evening, had a fabulous dinner with the 2 French paragliders we had passed earlier, an Argentinean (don’t mention the war), a Norwegian and a German (or that one). It was great and we booked breakfast for 4am the next day, following strategic advice from the hut guardian.
The comfort and warmth of the dining area was more than compensated for by the cold (4 degrees according to my altimeter), dark and general dankness of the dormitory area. Trying to ignore this, we readied our kit for the next morning and settled down to try and get some sleep at around 8:30pm. Try was the word. Between constantly needing a wee, listening to everyone else come and go, sweating under the 2 duvets (a mistake), trying to calm my racing heart (a symptom of your body adjusting to the altitude) and getting old Queen songs getting stuck in my head, it was a bloody awful night’s sleep. I was actually glad when the alarm went off at 3:45am and I could get up. Breakfast was hot chocolate, breaded items and juice, but Karl didn’t seem to be hungry – loss of appetite another symptom of altitude. Crucially, breakfast was also several Nurofen, and we weren’t the only ones – the pop of blister packs could be heard repeatedly, as people prepared themselves for the pain to come – which duly arrived when we put boots back on. Odds down to 35% thought I.
Leaving the hut at 4:45, we quietly made our way up the slopes toward the base of the Grand Couloir, by the light of our head torches. There were at least 3 groups ahead of us and, judging by the lights, the lead one of which was almost at the Gouter hut. This was good news, as it meant we could see the hut clearly and with the wind of yesterday having dropped significantly, optimism surged – back up to 50% maybe?
Crossing the Couloir was a huge anticlimax – there was absolutely nothing moving on it so we crossed and started the scramble up the loose ridge toward the Gouter. The route is marked with red paint in places and has occasional fixed cables in others, so didn’t feel too bad. However, I knew this was going to be a bit of an issue in descent – down climbing is always harder then climbing up, especially when you are tired. This thought was to hang over me for the rest of the day – a real sting in the tail awaited our return, successful or not.
Dawn broke about halfway up the ridge, something that to me is always a mystical moment – the demons of the night are banished and hope springs eternal. Watching the shadow of Mont Blanc on the valley we had climbed out of the previous day gave us a sense of the colossus that was somewhere above us, lying out of sight. We were ants, picking our tiny way across and up the flank of this sleeping giant, hoping we wouldn’t be noticed and flicked off like an irritant.
We reached the Gouter at 7am (guide book says 2-3 hours, which we were comfortably within) and went inside to rest and prepare for the next stage. From the outside it looks a little like one of those chrome 1950’s American diners or old caravans, while inside is dark and musty. A couple of British guys were being cajouled by their guide to get a move on. We ate chocolate, got the rope out and put another layer on – when we left we would be getting up on to the ridge and so I expected it to be windy. It would also be extremely bright, as the morning sun would be on us – sun-cream and shades were the order of the day. We left at 7:40am and with a surge of optimism, I upgraded our chances of success to 55% - still cautious of the wind but with each section completed, our goal was that much closer.
Breaking up on to the ridge gave us a billion dollar view – across to the Aigulle du Midi (at roughly our height and 4-5 km away) and back down to Chamonix, now 2800m below us. We turned right and started up the rounded shoulder of Dome du Gouter. I could see at least 4 parties ahead of us, one of which was coming down – presumably they had left the Gouter very early and had summitted pre-dawn. Good work. Either that or they had got a certain distance and had bottled it. The pull up the Dome du Gouter is long and ultimately rather forgettable – the track zigzags across its face, avoiding the worst of the seracs until you eventually breach onto Point Bayeux. The only real event of note was the passing of 4000m – we were now pretty high and I was conscious of keeping an eye on Karl’s (and my own) behaviour, speech and energy levels. If he was going to get affected by the altitude it would be showing itself now. It was a relief to see that we were both coping very well and indeed, were actually catching groups ahead of us – we weren’t going fast but we weren’t resting as much – an effective ‘Alpine pace’ is slow but relentless and it was working for us.
At this point, the summit was at last visible. Considering we had left the hotel 24 hours ago and had been climbing for a total of 10 hours since then, it was hugely exciting to see our objective at last. I had seen countless photos of it, flown over it, seen it from a long way off, but at last here it was, lying directly in front of me, a leviathan hunchback with an arching fin of a ridge curving down toward us, granting us access if we had the skills and motivation to take it on. We pulled up to the Vallot refuge at 4,300m and took stock. It was 10am, we had food, water and time, there were around 3 or 4 groups we could see on the ridge at various distances apart and things were looking good.
On the inside though, I was having a crisis of confidence. It felt like I had nothing left in the tank. I was taking on water, chocolate and malt loaf, knowing it would be 10-15 minutes before I felt their benefit, but in front of me was at least 2 hours of climbing, the first 500m or so of which looked very steep. I could see the path zig-zagging across it and as a very smart set of guides, plus (oddly enough) a cameraman came slowly past us, I tried to keep it all in perspective. All I could think was this was going to hurt. A lot. And even if we made it up, we had a huge descent to do, including the Gouter ridge down to the hut – descending is when most accidents happened and if we went further up, we were only increasing the chances of something going wrong on the way down. I didn’t voice my concerns to Karl as I knew that if he echoed them, I would have no hesitation in turning around. I didn’t want to ruin our chances so kept this turmoil to myself – thinking rationally, the effort it had taken to get there was immense and everything was in our favour. We would not get a better chance than this. ‘Give your legs 10 minutes of climbing’ I said to myself – after that the sugars will be in your blood and you’ll feel much better.
So we set off up the Grande Bosse (literally, the ‘big bump’), taking it nice and slowly, lots of small steps, steady breathing, catching and passing other groups as we went. The legs, which had felt like lead, and the feet, which had been burning, started to respond and lo, the second wind was upon me. The section across the Petite Bosse and beyond saw the ridge narrow significantly, the wind gust powerfully, blasting us with spindrift, and progress become generally more precarious, but I felt totally in control. Optimism surged again - up to 80% surely? Once or twice we had to step off the ridge to let descending groups pass or to get passed a resting group and it was a little hairy, but it did not stop us. We were moving slowly, but we were moving, not suffering from the altitude too much and the metres were racking up. The guide-books warn of a narrow section near the Rochers de la Tournette, which I had been preparing for in my mind, but I never even noticed it. The angle of the ridge seemed to be lessening, the path rounding off toward something – was this the summit? Was there another rise to go? I couldn’t quite tell…
And then it became clear. We had about 20 metres to go. The path was flattening out, there were no further rises and we were approaching not only the top of Europe, but the top of our challenge, the pinnacle of our efforts, and we were going to do it at the first time of asking. The thoughts whirled around my head – my wife, my children, my dead son, all the times I had been away from them, climbing, training, preparing, and then even further back, across the 25 years I had been climbing, from indoors at Truro School, to the sea cliffs of Cornwall with Pete Jones, to all the people I had met and learnt from, my dad taking me up Pen y Fan when I was 8, all the camping, discomfort, knowledge and skills I had developed, they had all given me the opportunity to bring my friend Karl up the highest mountain in Europe. There was no way I was doing this without him so I stopped and let him catch up from the 3 or 4 metres he had been behind me, choking back the emotion and struggling to stay in control of the tears. This was no place to lose it – that could wait till we got down.
And there we were. Midday. Stood on the summit, on our own, with not a cloud in the sky and the world at our feet. We embraced mightily, and I gripped his arm while we took in our surrounding and the magnitude of the effort we had just made. From the Aiguille du Midi and Chamonix, round toward the Matterhorn, then into Italy and Courmayer, down to Mont Viso, away in the distance to the Ecrins national park and the peaks I had climbed 13 years ago, across the Gouter to Geneva and the north, we could see it all. It was -7.5oC but with a wind chill of around -20oC so we didn’t hang around. Out came the cameras and charity T-shirts, photos taken and huge cheesy grins applied. Then as we were getting ready to leave, another group arrived, the guys with the film camera we had passed on the ridge, so we were able to get a shot of the pair of us on the summit. And oh boy, it felt good to be going down at last.
What had seemed such an effort was now a walk in the park. We could increase our stride length a bit and lose height quickly, dropping back down to the Vallot in less than an hour. We rested again, looked back up to a chopper circling the summit and felt like the conquering heroes we were. Yes our feet hurt, especially the heels, but we were descending and we were happy. It was a long trog back to the Gouter, including some inexplicable up-hill sections that seemed perverse to me, and a slightly suspect slope on the north face of the Dome du Gouter – in the morning we had seen guys bomb straight down it but it had since been exposed to strong sunlight all day and was softening. It felt like we should stick to the consolidated track and not chance triggering an avalanche. It took us longer and necessitated the odd sit down, when our legs would go on strike, but eventually we got back to the Gouter hut a little after 3pm.
What a change to the morning, when it had been virtually deserted. It was absolutely heaving with people. Today was the first day the telepherique and railway were running and it had drawn the masses. There were probably upward of 50 people at the hut and as we looked back down the ridge toward the Tete Rousse hut we could see endless groups picking their way up in the baking sun. It was very hot as the wind had died down and the sun was fully on the balcony where we had found a spot to sit and take it in, so we stripped off shell jackets and fleeces, stowed the rope and ice axes and decided to rest for an hour or so. I went inside to get out of the sun while Karl tried to get a phone signal – my phone battery had died long ago. Eventually he found one and we managed a quick call to our respective wives to say we had summitted and were back down – not strictly true, but why complicate matters?
As I sat inside in the relative cool looking around me, the quiet smugness set in. We had grabbed the opportunity and cracked it – most of these people had not. The weather looked doubtful for the next day too, so many of them wouldn’t make it. I felt we had done it in great style – the hard way, walking from the valley floor all the way to the top in just over 24 hours, with no acclimatisation period and no real ill effects. Apart from the heels which hurt like hell. Not many people can claim that and I felt hugely proud of the pair of us. Now all that remained was 600m of down-climbing on loose rock in the hot afternoon sun. Lovely.
We waited until 4pm and set off. The first 150m or so had permanent fixed cables on, so with a sling and a couple of karabiners each, we could clip on and protect ourselves in the case of any slips, allowing us to clamber down fairly boldly. At the end of the cabling however, we had to slow right down, carefully picking our way across slushy snow and loose rock, trying not to send debris cascading down onto people below us, or indeed send ourselves tumbling down. Once or twice there were occasions when we grabbed a piece of rock to steady ourselves, only to find it moving too, causing a couple of missed breaths. Karl was moving much more slowly now, evidently in some pain from his feet and not at all comfortable on this terrain. There was only one way down though and he stuck to the task manfully, arriving at last at the traverse of the Grand Couloir once more.
I had been watching it for about 10 minutes and had not seen anything come down it, so across we bombed and now our thoughts could realistically turn to the hut, only 100m or so below us and 300m away. We hit the snow-field and Karl got a burst of energy – probably driven by the relief of being off the rocks – and surged for the line. I bided my time and as we passed a make-shift tent city that had sprung up on the plateau above the hut, he faded and I struck, lengthening my stride and putting daylight between us – the race back to the hut was won and lost there and then! We had left the hut 13 and a quarter hours earlier and had made a successful summit bid – glorious.
Being back in the hut at last meant genuine safety, comfort, and a mix of triumph and tranquillity. With boots off we could relax, drink, eat and reflect on our success. Like the Gouter, it was much busier, with all sorts of people sorting gear, swapping tips, glancing out of the window at the weather or the mountain, asking about conditions, and generally feeling the air of anticipation, nervousness and excitement we had felt the previous day.
But we were immune to all that now. We didn’t need to worry about whether we had enough food, the right clothes, spare batteries, sufficient fitness or any of that. Conversations with others went along the lines of “Us? Yeah, we came up yesterday, made the summit today, had it to ourselves. Walked up from Les Houches in fact, no problem. What? No, we didn’t do any altitude training, just lots of running in the UK”. People were genuinely impressed that a couple of Brits could do that, given that, to the French, there are no mountains in the UK. We had dinner with four French guys who were up there for a few days solely to acclimatise, intending on going for the summit in a couple of week’s time, and they couldn’t believe it. They shared their wine with us and toasted our efforts, which made me feel immensely proud. Karl passed around his hip flask of single malt that had been to the summit and back and introduced them to the notion of Irish coffee.
The British guys we had seen in the Vallot that morning reappeared and we swapped notes. Again, they were surprised and impressed by our efforst, especially when they found out Karl had never climbed before and we did not use a guide. They also told us that the film crew we had seen was for Zinedine Zidane, who was climbing Mont Blanc for a French charity – video here (I am sure that is us on the ridge in the background of one of the shots). Kudos all round before bed.
Another terrible night’s sleep followed, lots of too-ing and fro-ing by our bunkmates, midnight toilet trips, less sweaty than the night before as only 1 duvet, but a racing heart and Lily Allen songs stuck in my head all night kept restful slumber to a minimum. A leisurely breakfast with the few who were not going up the hill that day and we were out of the hut for just after 9am. There was a train from Nid d’Aigle at 10:25 which I was confident of getting, as it had taken us just over 2 hours to walk up from there to the hut. As we left, a mountain rescue helicopter practised dropping off and picking up right in front of us, but sadly did not offer to give us a lift, so off we set.
The first section was reminiscent of the Gouter ridge, only a bit easier and after 20 minutes or so it eased back onto a mix of well trodden path and snow fields. The former allowed us to almost jog down, while the latter gave us a great opportunity for glissading, a sort of skiing but with no skis, sliding semi-controllably down compacted snow and losing height with great speed and style. We got back to the station in about an hour from the hut, enough time to get a ticket, relax and gaze back up. The train arrived and 20 or 30 day trippers spewed out, all Rohan shorts and floppy hats, knapsacks and binoculars, sensible shoes and sun-cream. It was hard not feel immensely superior and hard-core!
When it was time to leave we flopped into the bucket seats and enjoyed the vibrations up our backs and views out the window. Past the Col du Mt Lachat where we had watched the mountain rescue exercise and on further to Bellevue station, where a short (and painful) walk led us to the telepherique back down to Les Houches. A 5 minute wait and we were swaying gently down the hill, over the forest we had sweated our way up 2 days earlier and down to the bus stop. One final challenge lay ahead – getting back to Chamonix. There wasn’t a bus for an hour and a half, so we decided to try and hitch – 13 years ago I had hitch-hiked from Nice airport to the Ecrins National Park and back, so reckoned we had a good chance of getting picked up. Sure enough after about 5 minutes a young couple stopped and in we jumped, thanking them and hoping we didn’t smell too bad.
We made it back to the hotel at around 12pm – almost exactly 24 hours after we had been on the summit. A shower and change of clothes later and we were hobbling the 1km into town to find a suitably friendly beer-and-steak selling restaurant. Having done so, we drank to our health, our families, the charities we have helped and the boys we had done it for. This took quite a lot of drinking and it was with full belly and spinning head we went to bed at a raucous 8pm in the evening.
Our return to the airport was a quiet one – another poor night’s sleep (this time due to the heat) and an aching set of feet put us in reflective mood. A massive burger at Geneva airport sorted that out and we parted soon after in great spirits – our separate flights leaving from different gates. Landing at East Midlands on the front edge of a massive thunderstorm saw me waiting pensively for the bus back to Bridgford – I did not want to finish the trip by getting soaked in a torrential downpour. Eventually it picked me up and I got off around a half a mile from home. Anticipation had been building and I wanted to be there now so I lugged both bags onto my shoulders and ran, through the rain and my painful feet to arrive a sweaty dishevelled mess, but a happy one, at about 7:30pm.
There followed a period of wildness as my boys jumped all over me and we fell on the ground, all rolling and screaming, Maddy joining in on top of it all and I was home. They had made me a huge congratulations poster, Maddy had made cakes and Kirsty had made a lasagne – heaven. It was great to be back.
Just over two weeks later and my heels are pretty much healed. My left one is still a bit tender to the touch but I can cycle no problem – the effort and altitude seems to have made me fitter and stronger. The photos are fabulous and we have made a bundle of money for NSE and CLIC. I know I am in danger of boring everyone with climbing tales of daring-do, but as the memories will eventually fade, this column captures it all for posterity.
Thank you to all who donated – for CLIC Sargent, Billy’s House has opened in Nottingham, a place where people facing childhood cancer can stay close to where treatment happens, and your money will help fund places like it and the staff who run it – I know from first hand experience it will make a difference to someone. Our total of over £5,000 is 10% of the annual running costs of a place like this, so thank you again.
Thank you to my family for putting up with it all, the disruption, the cost, the uncertainty, the effort of making up for me being away and the selflessness of letting it happen.
Finally, thank you to Karl for having the idea and for giving me the chance to do something I would not have done otherwise. It was a privilege to be there with you.