Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Monday, 10 August 2009
The first week was a thoroughly enjoyable week in the south of France with Rich and his family where we had a great place to stay in the middle of the beautiful French countryside with it’s fields of golden sunflowers in bloom, all thanks to Rich’s aunt. We spent a full week by the pool and generally doing very little, venturing as far as the nearest supermarket to stock-up a few times. The biggest thing I fretted about was which pair of speedos to were in the pool (photos censored).
The following week Clair and the boys spent in Scotland at her parents, where I joined them at the end of the week from London where I had been on a course and we travelled over to Northern Ireland with my parents.
Rich did point out that I’d managed to make it a few days into our holiday in France before mentioning Mont Blanc. Perhaps I will end up becoming a bit of a bore about it, but why not. It was a fantastic, unique experience, one which required dedication of time and energy for training, support from our wives, thorough preparation on Rich’s part to ensure our safety, and a huge effort on both our parts to get up there. But we did it, we were the highest people in Western Europe, and in doing so we raised over £26,000 for two fantastic charities.
Two great kids inspired us to do this; Archie was never given a chance to climb his mountain, and Ross has many, many mountains ahead of him. I doubt if I’ll ever be back at the summit of Mont Blanc, but every time I go skiing in the Alps and catch a glimpse of it the distance, or board a plane and fly over it, or even just see it marked on a map, I’ll remember what we achieved, and why we did it.
Over and out.
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
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.
Friday, 26 June 2009
Saturday, 20 June 2009
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
After an early night and an early morning (combination of kid-induced body clock and butterflies in the stomach...) we got our gear packed and took the bus down the valley to Les Houches, from where we were planning on taking the Bellevue cable-car up from the valley floor at 1000m to begin our climb at about 1800m. In typical French fashion, the cable-car was closed, and my request if there was any other way to get up was answered with a typically Gallic shrug and a murmered "you could walk"... We had known that the little train which could have taken us right up to 2372m was off, so we were prepared for that walk, but I must admit having to walk from the valley floor, only days after having to change our route completely due to the new snow creating a high avalanche risk on Mont Blanc de Tacul (route from the Cosmique Refuge we had been planning) was not something I had planned for or was looking forward to.
Our luck did seem to be in on the weather front with the snow, clouds and winds of the previous week seeming to be clearing for the weekend. Even with a clear forecast, we'd not be sure that the wind would be calm enough to make the summit until we got up there. In fact when we set-off, the weather was very hot which made for some sweaty walking as we made our way up the paths out of the valley floor. Despite the tree coverage, it was still so hot that I soon started feeling the sweat in my boots, and the heat in my heels. It was beoming very obvious that I was blistering. I couldn't believe it as during the long hikes and many miles jogging during training I'd never had any blisters and here i was not one hour into what would be 2 days walking with blisters on each heel. Nothing for it but to keep going.
Having left the road about 10am, we were well above the tree-line and at the train line where we stopped for a breather, watching what appeared to be several bodies being carried down the hill by the gendarme (an exercise as it turned out...). Pushing on we made good time up the hill into more desolate territory and into the snowline. A final scramble up brought us to the Téte Rousse hut at at 3167m at about 3pm where we had booked to spend the night. Time to have a look at my heels which had been causing me some gip. The hut guardian sorted me out with some guaze and tape and after getting sorted we had a dinner with a great view. Time to get our gear sorted for our planned early departure before an early night. It could have been the 4 degree temperature in the dorm, or the altitude, or a bit of nervousness about what we were in for the following day, but neither Rich nor I got much sleep. Warning - the photo below is not a pretty sight...
Up for breakfast at 4am, we were one of 5 or 6 groups heading up the hill that morning. The first challange on Saturday getting my crampons on... The next was to cross "le grand coulior", the big corridor, a gully running steeply down the mountain infamous for causing many deaths as people get hit by falling rocks or ice. Fortunately it was all quiet, as expected at that time of the day with everything still frozen, so we managed to have an uneventful crossing, hoping it be just as quiet on our retuen crossing later in the day. The route up to the Gouter Hut at about 3800m was good fun, proper scrambling for over 2 hours. At Gouter Hut about 7am we had a brief break for some energy gels (lots of energy, not a lot of taste) and carbohydrate bars (looks like chocolate, tastes like plywood).
The ridges over the Bosses were pretty hairy. Moving together Rich and I made made slow but steady progress upwards, stopping briefly to get our breaths back when we needed to. Our pace had been pretty good all morning and we passed another set of climbers on these ridges, this time a group who had a camerman and photographer with them. We were so focussed on what we were doing that we dismissed it as a promo video for the guiding company, but we later learnt that it was Zinedine Zidane (who may or may not have been dropped at the Vallot Hut, and picked up on the summit by helicopter...).
Nearing the summit, Rich and I were both pretty emotional. This had been such a long time coming, and had required a big investment in training time and energy, and support by our wives and families. Richard's first son Archie would have been 11 this year. Ross was already 1, a year which has flown past and throughout which we still have no idea of what his future holds. Our thoughts filled with these and others of our families as we climbed the final ridge to the summit.
Midday, Saturday 13th June, 4810 metres above sea level. The view was amazing. The summit was empty and in all directions mountains stretched into the distance. The most striking view was looking out over l'Aguille de Midi down into Chamonix valley, a view which is more commonly seen in reverse, from Chamonix looking up into the mountains. We took some photos and didn't hang about long. The -7 degree temperature plus the pretty strong winds meant it was bitterly cold and standing still wasn't sensible. After getting one of the group who followed us to the summit to take a photo of both of us, we headed downhill.
Heading down was hard work. Down the ridges, concentrating on every step, it seemed endless. Stopping at the Vallot Hut again briefly we trudged on back the way we had come towards the Gouter Hut. By the time we got there at about 3.30pm I was absolutely bushed, and not looking forward to the downclimb to the Téte Rousse hut where we were to stay again that night. We managed to get a mobile phone signal and speak to our wives before the cold sucked the rest of our phone batteries - great for them to hear that we'd done it, but pretty emotional for us, stopping and accepting that we'd been successful. We headed back down climb below the Gouter Hut, something which we thought would take us about an hour, but which took over 2. Arriving at le Grand Couloir again we were pleased to see that it was quiet so we didn't hand about and walked steadily across before heading on down to the hut at about 6pm - 13 and a half hours after leaving that morning.
I was wrecked and hardly had energy to get my stuff off (even almost falling on the steps up to the door...) but we'd done it! That said, the altitude meant that even though we had a pretty early night and didn't have to get up early in the morning, neither Rich nor I got much sleep. The altitude again, plus our lovely dorm-mates who seemed to be sorting their kit for most of the fist half of the night, and getting up at staggered intervals during the second half of the night. Sunday morning after brunch we left about 9am and made great time down the hill, especially sliding down some of the snowy parts losing a lot of height quickly and were at the end of the train line by 10am, 20 minutes before the train was due.
Having walked up from the valley floor we felt we were entitled to take the train and cable-car back down. To be honest I'd have struggled if we hadn't... When we got back to Les Houches, rather than hanging around for an hour and a half for the bus, we decided to hitch-hike from the bottom of the lift back to our hotel, and we were both very grateful to the young French couple who decided to stop for us. Not sure why they put the windows up with us in the back of the car; I hope we didn't smell as bad as we thought we did. Following a warm shower, where I discovered that shampoo and open blisters should never be mixed, we got some clean clothes on and headed into Chamonix for some celebratory steak, chips and cold beer. As we were pretty hungry, this was followed a matter of hours later by a large plate of tartiflette - just what the doctor ordered.
Rich and I separated at Geneva airport for our flights home and when Fin saw me coming through arrivals at the airport he ran and gave me the biggest hug. Also got amazing giggles from Ross, kisses from Clair (although not on my blistered lips) and Fin telling me that when he's a big boy like me he's going to climb mountains too...
I'll make sure he reads this web brochure called "Climbing Mont Blanc is best left to Experienced Mountaineers" (http://www.ohm-chamonix.com/pdf/MBAscEn.pdf) before he decides to do so...
It's now 2 days since we got back, my lips and nose are less weather-beaten than they were, and my legs a lot less heavy than the were (very French condition that 'heavy legs'...), but my heels are still a mess. A 50p sized open wound on each heel will probably take a while to heal completely and will likely mean I can't do any more jogging for a few weeks - shame that...
Thanks to Rich's mountain skills, our training, a bit of digging deep and a lot of inspiration we'd made it. The summit of Mont Blanc was achieved, and (including Gift Aid) over £20,000 raised for the National Society for Epilepsy plus over £5,000 for CLIC Sargent. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us, and thanks to Rich for getting me up there and back safely.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
I'm also packed and ready to go (almost). Having delayed our ascent by a full year following Ross's birth last year it feels like a very long time since Rich and I agreed to head to Mont Blanc. The training has been long and hard, especially during the winter months. The response on archiesmountain.com has been amazing. We head to Mont Blanc knowing that, including Gift Aid, we've already raised over £5000 for CLIC Sargent and over £19000 for the National Society for Epilepsy (maybe with more to come...)
Thanks to everyone who has donated, and to those who have sent messages of support for the climb. We'll get an update and hopefully some photos on the Blog as soon as we can when we come down to let you all know how we got on.
PS Ross seems to be fully over the chickenpox and his spots are now healing well. Both boys have been in pretty good form the last few days so it's nice to be sent off with lots of smiles and a great home-made good luck card.
Saturday, 6 June 2009
Monday, 1 June 2009
We also saw the paediatrician on last week - she seemed pleased with how Ross was physically, despite the chickenpox, and especially on how much more subtle his limbs were compared to a few months ago. This is all down to Clair who does most of the daily massage sessions with Ross, and the excellent therapists he sees every week now. She also had the results of the EEG scan of his brain activity which was done a few weeks ago. It still shows pretty erratic activity, bgut she seemed to think it was focussed on one side. We'll be taking Ross for an MRI scan some time soon to see if there is something physical which could be the source of the problems. The other news from that appointment is that we have started to reduce the amount of steroids which Ross gets, and the plan is to reduce by a little more each week until hopefully he's off them completely. It's only by a small amount at a time and at this rate it could be into next year before he's off them completely, but we're happy to go very slowly as the risk is that the seizures return, and this risk is higher if you make major changes to the medication. It's all wait and see now - needless to say we're hoping he stays seizure-free...
Went for a longer run on Saturday (in the sunshine) and felt really good at the end - impressing Clair with my sprint down the homeward stretch. Starting to think about the list of kit I need to take to the Alps. We've got our transport booked and are staying in a cheap (and hopefully cheerful) hotel in Chamonix. Also got 2 nights booked in the Cosmique Refuge hut up on Mont Blanc so I think we're getting there...
Thanks to some late big money donations, we're now only £270 short of our target for the NSE. If you think any of your friends or family would like to donate, please pass-on the website details to them to help us close the gap!
Friday, 22 May 2009
I also attended a lecture by Prof Helen Cross, the paediatric neurologist from Great Ormond Street who say Ross when we came back from France. I mentioned that Fin has had chickenpox (the worst case I've ever seen with spots in his mouth, eyelids and everywhere - 53 behind one knee was as far as we got on counting them...) and she was very concerned to know if Ross had been immunised against them or not. He hadn't as the GP just wanted to see him when the first spots appear - turns out it can be very serious for people whose immune system is suppressed (like Ross's is as a result of the steroids). After several ours in A&E and a blood test, we took Ross last night to get his jab, so hopefully he shouldn't get the pox at all... Lesson we've learnt is that Ross's case is so rare it's beyond the experience of most GPs and we should go to the paeditrician for all problems in future.
We're having a final push in the last few weeks before our Mont Blanc ascent to try to hit our target of £15, 780 for NSE - thanks to the generosity of everyone so far, we only need a further £660. Rich and I fly to Geneva on 11th June to try on that Friday/Saturday. Hoping for good weather!
Planning a long run this evening, but hopefully not as long as last weekend's when I managed to get lost in the woods and Clair was for sending out a search party...
Monday, 11 May 2009
Friday, 1 May 2009
Please click on the links below to access the full articles. Otherwise, at least just read the extract below from the editorial.
"Though the most overt examples of discrimination and demonization have faded with time, epilepsy still receives too little attention, either from the medical community or the public at large. Why? One reason is that advances in drug treatments have created the popular impression that epilepsy is now an essentially manageable condition. (Which, for two thirds of patients, it is. But that still leaves a third for whom it is not.) It is thought to be rarely fatal, controllable by medication. There is a terrible irony here: because most people with epilepsy are not in a constant state of seizure—they are, rather, in perpetual but quiet danger—their condition can appear less serious than it truly is. It is all too human, but all too true, that a problem, including the problem of a serious medical affliction, stays out of mind when it is out of sight.
Because so many of those who must endure it do so valiantly, and with grace and grit, it is more difficult for those not directly affected by it to grasp that epilepsy can kill. Put harshly, we need more of a cancerlike sensibility around epilepsy. We cannot usually see our friends' cancer, but we do not hesitate to invest the search for a cure for different cancers with the utmost cultural and political importance. We must now do the same with epilepsy. "We want complete freedom from seizures," says Susan Axelrod. "We want future families to be spared what so many other families, for so many years, have endured. Lives should not be defined by diseases." No, they should not—which is why all of us must focus on understanding epilepsy. And then we must defeat it."
Thursday, 30 April 2009
Rory and Kerry managed to raise over £7.5k between them including the proceeds from the car-wash and coffee-morning at the church, and a fundraising pub-crawl (as Kerry said, it was her 'yang' to counter the 'ying' of Rory's car-wash, just not sure it was great final preparation a few week's before the marathon...), with the balance being made up by Dave's total, including the money raised at his business network dinner.
So from the efforts of these 3 individuals who have been touched by Ross's story enough to dedicate their own time and energy to raise money to help people with epilepsy, the NSE are £10k better off. I can't thank Rory, Kerry and Dave enough for this, and I think they already know how much it means to me.
If you have been inspired by their efforts, and feel like you might just be interested in giving the London Marathon a go in 2010, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org as I'm feeling a bit inspired myself (even more so than I do every year having just watched the marathon...).
To run, or not to run???
Monday, 27 April 2009
Ross enjoyed every minute of it!
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Been a busy couple of weeks with our trip, hospital appointments and moving house. We had an EEG (scan of Ross's electrical brain activity) last Wednesday. He had lots of these in France but this was the first one in UK. To me the tracings on the screen looked very similar to the ones in France, still pretty chaotic, but the technician doing the scan seemed to think it wasn't as bad as I thought. We'll have to wait for our next paediatric appointment to get find out what it all meant.
We've also moved house so are finally into our own place again. Boxes and stuff everywhere, but it's great to be able to get settled once and for all. We're in Bookham in Surrey, not far from where we were before but we've really noticed the reduced space having been in 5 bedroom houses for the past 2 years - we've restocked the local charity shop and the garage is still pretty full. Bookham is very nice and we're close to the common with lots of woodland paths - no excuse now for not doing some longer runs in the run-up to Mont Blanc.
On Saturday there were 2 separate events to raise money for the NSE, organised by our intrepid NSE marathon runners;
- Rory McMillan, Kerry Crawford, my family and friends and everyone at Ballygrainey Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland held a charity car-wash, coffee morning, and cake and vegetable sale and raised an amazing £2500
- David Gallagher's business network in Bedford raised £1000 at their annual awards dinner on Saturday night
A massive thank-you to Rory/Kerry/David and everyone else involved. The money's all adding up...
A specialist optician came out to see Ross this morning and was very positive about his sight. Ross was following lights and objects much more so than we'd seen him do in the past and we're very encouraged to hear some positive news. I guess we need to work on stimulating him a bit more so he'll be able to sit-up with me and watch the Lions beat the Springboks this summer...
Finally, my brother William and his kite-surfing pal's website is live. They're supporting 4 great charities, one of which is NSE and with over a dozen kite-surfers planning to cross from Northern Ireland to Scotland at the end of the summer I'm sure they'll raise lots of money. Please visit www.kitechallenge.com to see what they're doing and to donate if you wish.
Monday, 6 April 2009
Their twin boys are the same age as Fin, and their older son and daughter kept Fin entertained in the garden for the whole weekend. Ross got lots of attention from Richard's wife and did his usual 'I'll pretend I'm no bother' behaviour when we have people to stay. He was full of smiles and only cried when he got his medecine. He even slept pretty well! I reckon he does it so everyone thinks we're nuts when he say he cries loads or doesn't sleep...
Did a 5 mile run with Rich on Saturday to compare our fitness levels - it's strange how even though we're the same height his legs seem so much longer and therefore faster than mine. We then proceeded to undo any fitness gained by having a very long lunch in the sunshine in the garden all afternoon.
We also collected the keys to our new house at the weekend and went there for a picnic in the garden on Sunday. We're planning on moving during the week after Easter; it'll be good to get into our own place at last.
Ross has had visits from the speech and language therapist and has been seeing other therapists each Wednesday morning. Last week he giggled when presented with a little vibrating toy, and we've noticed he's started moving his head in order to follow lights with his eyes. All little positive signs which mean so much.
We're off to Scotland for Easter in a few days - hope you al have a great Easter break.
I'll leave you with this image taken on the final ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc - we're hoping for weather like that...
Tuesday, 31 March 2009
I have been hacking-up bits of lung for the past 5 days so training has been put on hold - even climbing the stairs has been knackering me. Hope I can shake it before this weekend as Rich and his wife and 4 kids are coming to stay this weekend and I'll need all my energy... Also it's only 10 weeks till we head to Mont Blanc so I need to ramp-up my training quite a bit (have I said that before???)
We've exchanged contracts on our new house and hope to move in just after Easter so once we get settled there we'll think about when to start weaning Ross off the steroids as the doctors think he's already been on them too long - can't really face it though given the risk of the seizures returning. We've also got appointments for an EEG, and with some eye and ear specialists in the coming weeks so I'll let you know how they go.
My brother Ian received a cheque for £500 from Donaghadee Young Farmers Club at the weekend, money they had raised at a BBQ last year for the NSE for Ross. I had no idea they were even raising money but it's very touching that people who have never even met Ross are inspired to raise money to help. Thank you very much to everyone who was involved in that.
It's April Fool's Day today, but for some reason I don't feel like partaking like I did in previous years...
Friday, 27 March 2009
Fin enjoyed ski school and had no problems getting pulled uphill on the rope or skiing down the slope - it's a good job we were only there for a week or he'd have ended up better (although not faster...) than me. Ross enjoyed the attention and it was great spending a full week with him again, despite the nights on the sofa.
Mont Blanc was ever present on the horizon - it does look big...
Ross does bring us lots of joy too. Like most blokes, as long as he's had a decent feed and a good sleep, he's content. And he loves his baths, especially with Fin.
Friday, 13 March 2009
Last weekend was great, if tiring, but Fin and Ross seemed to enjoy the additional attention, and they got to meet their newest cousin Thomas.
This Sunday we head to Les Getz for a week's skiing with some friends. I'm not sure how much skiing we'll get done but it will be great to spend a week with family and friends. Taking my hiking boots so may get Ross in the backpack and do some altitude training.
Rich and I have got our flights to Geneva booked for our attempt of Mont Blanc. We'll be there the middle weekend in June and are just hoping for good weather, but at least it's early enough in the summer to allow us to try again later on if we don't make it that weekend. Need to step-up the fitness training though as that will come round very quickly.
Just been watching some of Comic Relief (it's 2.30am and Ross and I have nothing else to do...) and 23 things stood ot for me;
- so far they've raised over £57million, an amazing total which will help countless people at home and abroad
- great to see those pampered celebs getting themselves up Mount Kilimanjaro, although they seemed to have had a rather large support crew. I hope Rich and I can support each other enough on Mont Blanc. At least we won't have to listen to Gary Barlow the whole way up.
- watching any clips with sick kids in them was so much harder this year this before...
Monday, 2 March 2009
The tragic death of David Cameron's son Ivan who suffered from Otahara Syndrome, something not a million miles from what Ross has, really knocked me for six. He died following 6 very difficult years, seizures cruelly wracking his body and mind on a frequent basis. The similarities with Ross's condition are there, but one big difference is that Ross's seizures are under control, and have been for 8 months now. We didn't really appreciate before why the excellent doctors in Paris were so obsessed with getting his seizures under control, but there it is.
Ross will have to come off the steroids he's on at some point asthe side effects aren't great. They have made the difference in controlling his seizures whilst the anti-epilepsy drugs only reduced them, but did not eliminate them. We're hoping and praying that when he is weaned off them (we'll maybe find out when the doctors here want to do that when we see his new paediatrician on Wednesday), the seizures don't return...
Whilst my thought's last week were dominated by that, we also had opportunity to take immense pleasure from experiencing Ross giggling (something else we were led to believe may never happen). It's more a kind of 'gooo' but combined with his infectious smile, it's definitely a giggle. As long as he's had a decent sleep, some food and isn't struggling to fill his nappy...he's now pretty much smiling on demand. He's responding to tickles (back, front, sides, chin, pretty normal places really), voices and more than ever Fin's doting attention.
Tonight Ross and Fin's daily 'swim-for-kisses' session in the bath resulted in giggles. Great for Clair, me and also for Fin.
Fin started pre-school today and didn't shed a single tear - a major step forward for the wee man who's endured a massive amount of change in past months. To be honest, if he turns it on for the teacher like he does for us, he'll have them all educated in no time.
I have to mention David, Rory and Kerry, who are all well progressed in their marathon training, some perhaps more than others... They are all running the London Marathon this April in order to raise money for NSE - have a look at their websites and please support them if you can - http://www.justgiving.com/runforross - http://www.justgiving.com/kerrycrawford - http://www.justgiving.com/rorymcmillan
Thursday, 19 February 2009
Ross has finally managed to get over the cough which has been bugging him since Christmas. He's been in much better form the past few weeks and enjoyed a visit from his Gran & Grandad a few weekends ago.