Thursday, 22 July 2010

Day 7 - Leaving

Final day at chalet Mcnab and in Chamonix.

We said our goodbyes and the taxi took us back to Geneva. Myself and Anitia reflected on our holiday and how when we drove into Chamonix we were very nervous about climbing Mont Blanc and had looked forward to the moment when we were safely in the taxi heading back to Geneva.

Now we were at the end of our trip we felt completely different and whilst I would not have replaced the nerves (as I think being a bit scared can help your adrenaline and resigns in any cockiness you may have on the mountain plus shows a certain respect for those who have gone before), looking forward to finishing your Holiday is a weird way to start a Holiday..!

Our next trip is to Killimanjero in November and after a few weeks concentrating on moving house our fitness begins again as we continue to raise funds for the Friends of Malawi orphange

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Day 6 - The Summit

1.15am - We were up before anyone else and ready to go as the plan was to make an early start to avoid the rush. Breakfast (coffee in a bowl and bread) commenced at 2am once the other mountaineers had removed themselves from the tables in the dining area. It would appear that if there are no more beds in the dorms (the hut sleeps 120) then they can lie on the tables!

Out into the cold and windy morning we roped up headtorches on (all reminiscent of two days early on the Trient but it felt alot more serious). We began our 1,000 metre ascent at a very slow and steady speed, my knee hurt, I now had a headache and was feeling the altitude a little but we were determined to get there.

The climb took us across some steep ridges, in the dark you couldn't see them but only feel that you were more exposed to the wind. Our only guide for distance were the lights from the other climbers ahead in the distance moving like fire flies upwards - it was quite spectacular and I wish i had managed to get a photo but our Guide didn't want us to stop as we needed to be on the top by 6.00am in order to make it down at a reasonable time.

'Are we nearly there yet?' was something I kept asking myself, I had my Suunto and it helped to keep me motivated as it counted up my height in increments of 5 metres, but each ridge hid another climb behind it and so on and just when you thought you could see the top you would drop down then back up again. It was pretty exhausting, at one of the final ridges both the height, altitude and general lack of sleep took its toll and I began to wobble a bit - not ideal on a 1 metre wide ridge with drops back into Chamonix.

As the sun began to rise we reached the summit ridge around 6.15am, it was truly awesome the sky couldnt have been any clearer and you felt very insignificant standing on the top. The wind was cold and the temperature was around -10 Degrees so we didn't stay long, only long enough to get a few shots (by this time our camera had run out of battery so we had to rely on Paul).

Then it was backdown. This trip was very different from the climb up and it takes all your strength to get down the mountain. Its been said that most accidents happen on the way down and I can understand why. The legs, already tired from the climb up, are in desperate need of rest and my knee injury meant that I was unable to place too much pressure on my right leg so I used the walking poles to bear my weight which helped.

I can't quite remember the time but I think it may have taken us only an hour less to get down to the Gouter hut than to get up. Once at the hut we rested for 30 mins then continued down to GC. The adrenaline was still going and the memories of the rock slide the night before were still very much at the forefront of our minds as got to the crossing point and roped up.

We succeeded in crossing without further injury and it was only once on the other side that we were able to feel a bit more relaxed and could reflect on our achievement. From there we enjoyed the views and the feeling of accomplishment down to the train and then back to chalet for what was possibly the best meal I have ever had.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Day 5 - upto 3,817m Gouter hut.

We woke up without having any concept of what lies ahead, this was good as you have a kind of nervous excitement but with a real desire to just get on with it.
In my mind I had broken down the next 24 hours into 7 parts:
Part 1 - Train station (2,300m) to Grand Couloir (3,300m)
Part 2 - GC
Part 3 - GC - Gouter Hut
Part 4 - Gouter Hut (3,817m) - Mont Blanc summit (4,808m)
Part 5 - Descend Mont Blanc summit - GC
Part 6 - GC
Part 7 - GC - train station
The above gives you an idea to the level of importance that I had placed on crossing the Grand couloir!

The train ascends to 2,372m from Saint Gervais to Nid d'Aigle and takes you through some spectacular scenery। Our guide told us how the French had originally put in place plans to take the train right up to the summit but changed their plans perhaps realising how difficult it would be.

We were joined by an additional guide for this part of the trip - a Frenchman called Jean Luc who was clearly an experienced guide. The journey from the train station to the GC was step and hot (still 20+ degrees) we passed mountain goats that can bite your leg off with their teeth apparently and marmots and within 2 hours reached snow level at the tete rousse hut (3,167m)

The foreboding GC was visible and unnerving from here। As we approached the gully Andy told us that if he said 'RUN' then we were to run, his tone was serious which unnerved us. Andy changed the rope so we were linked together on a smaller 'leash' and we walked to the edge of the couloir.

The couloir is about 20 metres wide and its fair to say that we were nervous to the point of deciding whether we needed to actually go on, was it worth the risk? were we being irresponsible? The problem with the couloir is its steepness and when combined with the recent sunny weather from the last week the result was a deadly area very unstable। The aim was to hit it before the sun had warmed up the rocks and caused them to expand as then they would dislodge.

Andy told us to get ready he looked up (to check for falling rocks) then across then up again then he shouted 'RUN' My mind went blank and all I remember thinking was that he wasn't supposed to say that - were we trying to dodge the rocks had he seen some falling?

We got halfway across and then I tripped and hit the floor, my right knee taking the full impact of the fall, I nearly brought Anitia down with me। I scrambled to get back up conscious that any delay would put us in greater danger, my knee was throbbing but the adrenaline carried me to the other side.

We made it! We made it in one but we have to cross that again to get back down....was my first thought!

We seemed to have managed to stop in what may have been the toilet! There was a distinct smell where clearly people who were as nervous as us had taken the opportunity to pause and reflect on the last 2 minutes of their life!

From the 'toilet' we could see a step scramble to the Gouter hut probably about an hour (more likely 2 hours with a problematic knee!)। The climb was tough going and reaching the hut mean't that the first half of our journey was completed successfully by 3pm. We celebrated with a sandwich and..... coffee in a bowl!

The rest of the evening panned out as follows:
3.30pm - 6pm - sleep with ice on my knee to prevent swelling
6pm - eat plus plenty of water
7pm - try to sleep
7.30pm - toilet
8pm - toilet again (altitude makes you feel like you need the toilet all the time especially just as you get comfortable in your bed).
This time on the way to the toilet we saw a helicopter flying overhead and landing at the bottom of the Grande Couloir We also heard shouts from the bottom of the GC and then saw the biggest rock slide (see video)

Rocks the size of fridges came bouncing down and sometimes over the top of the gully, it lasted about 10 minutes This was scary to think we had been there only 7 hours prior, the full force and speed of these rocks meant anyone who had commited to crossing the couloir stood very little chance We hoped that the shouts were from people who had seen the slide early enough.......

8.30pm - try to sleep
9.30pm - toilet
10pm - 1.15am - try to sleep very ineffectively.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Day 4 - An end to our summit aspirations?

The day started at 4am stumbling around in the dark whispering (so as not to wake up the other residents of the 10 bed dorm)। Breakfast was the compulsory coffee in a bowl and some dried bread then it was a quick check of our bags (crampons at the top for easy and immediate access), headtorches on and outside into the blackness.

This was all good practice as on Mont Blanc summit day we would have to be organised and prepared to do all this efficiently in the dark with even less sleep!

Finding your boots was a challenge in the dim light, but, clever us, we had mixed up the boots and tied them together so that in the dark no one would reach out and mistakenly find and walk off with your boots (this had apparently happened the week before and the person was required to descend in flip flops from the Albert premier hut).

Once booted up we made the trek down the step 50 metre track from the Trient hut to the snow where we then attached our crampons and roped together in readiness for the walk across the trient Glacier over to Aig du Tour (3542m).

Walking across the trient Glacier plain surrounded by darkness is an unforgettable and magical experience. The air is cold and fresh, your thoughts are clear as you listen to the crunch of snow under your feet, the view is restricted to only that illuminated by your headlamp. There is a real feeling of solitude even though you are sharing this experience with others. We trekked for 2 hours pausing around 6am to watch the sky illuminate with the rising sun and turn the peaks orange.

We reached the foot of Aig du Tour and scrambled up the Grade Facile (easy) peak to be greeted by some spectacular views across to Lake Geneva. Another peak done, we retraced our steps back to the Albert Premier and then onwards to the chairlift and into the gondola at around midday.

On the way down we met an American group who were on their way up. Andy & the American guide knew each other and they exchanged stories and weather reports briefly. One story that we overheard was that the American group had been due to make an ascent of Mont Blanc that day but had changed their plans deeming it too dangerous due to the instability of the Grande couloir (GC) - a steep gully that has to be crossed and is arguably the most treacherous part of the ascent due to its rock falls. The Guide reported that four deaths had occured the previous day in the GC.

It appears that the mountains are rife with stories that can sometimes bear little or no resemblance to the facts and Andy said that before we jumped to any conclusions he would get the facts and we would then be in a better position to assess the situation for ourselves.

This was a bit of a shock to us as it now seemed that our ambitions to climb Mont Blanc would not be realised. At the same time we knew it would be foolish to climb if the risks were so great. We had confidence in our guide and knew that whatever our desires, hopes and aspirations his decision would be final.

We turned our thoughts to a shower, some lovely food (thanks Martin :-)) and an afternoon spent in the jacuzzi........ oh and coffee in a cup!

10.45pm - Mont Blanc is on for of our group will not be joining us. So it is just myself, Anitia & Paul who will be attempting to reach the summit...gulp!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Day 3 - warning faffing could make you snow blind!

The alarm didn't need to go off at 5am as none of us really slept, a combination of altitude, excitement and people getting up at random times to start their day meant there was little chance of drifting off for more than an hour at a time.

Breakfast consisted of cornflakes, sweet cake and curiously (as was to become the norm in every hut) coffee drunk from your breakfast bowl!
Our bags hadn't been unpacked so once breakfast was complete it was time to move onwards and upwards and enjoy another blue sky day!

It may have been the lack of sleep, or the altitude, or plain and simple down to my skill as a competent 'faffer' (definition: someone who mucks about, wasting time doing something not necessary) but whatever the reason I managed to leave the albert premier hut at 6am without my sunglasses. This wouldn't become apparent until we were at least an hour up the mountain (therefore a potential 2 hour round trip to retrieve them from said hut).

Upon realising my loss there was a real danger that on the glacier I would get snow blindness. Now the guide told me that it is generally understood that you can go 1 hour exposing your eyes to the sun on a glacier without incurring any real long term damage so the best thing would be to rotate glasses with others in the group. For me this wasn't an option as I wasn't going to risk others going blind for my error.

Luckily we passed a group being guided by an Austrian who our guide (Andy) knew well and from his pocket he produced a pair of sunglasses straight out of the 1970s. He was named 'the saint' and of course I was just grateful for the glasses and didn't care which era they had come from.

A near disaster averted we continued a 2 hour walk in crampons across the Glacier our goal was to summit Petite Fourche (3520m). To get there we needed to employ the skills learnt on Day 1 undertaking some ice climbing and scrambling (which in crampons means your are left with large holes in your trousers!). We reached the peak at around 10am and enjoyed views across to the Matterhorn & Eiger.

We then had another 2 hour walk ahead to get to the Trient hut where we were to spend the night. With the exception of a power bar or two we had not eaten since 6am so the Rosti that we enjoyed when we arrived, tasted amazing!

The Trient Hut (3170m) in Switzerland, enjoys spectacular views across the Plateau du Trient, is less crowded and a lot cleaner than the Albert Premier.

After our 3 course evening meal consisting of soup, pasta and cake we played cards then headed to bed preparing for our 4am start (and hopefully without leaving anything behind this time!)

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Day 2 - upto the albert Premier hut

Today was the start of our 3 day acclimitisation. The aim was to spend a few days at an altitude of 3,000 + metres and allow our bodies to acclimatise, we were also being assessed (secretly) by our guide to see how our ability and fitness levels measured up.

During the next few days we would take in the spectacular scenery that forms part of the Haute route (a famous route for walkers and ski tourers that takes you from Chamonix to Zermatt in Switzerland).

We had a leisurely start to the day and after a bit of delay whilst we
checked we had everything we bid our chalet in Argentiere farewell at about 9.30am with nervous intrepidation.

We headed up to the La Tour gondola lift and then onto Charamillon chairlift from there we had an easy if a little bit warm (in the 25 degree heat) 2 hour hike along a scenic snaking path up to the Albert premier hut at 2702m.

The hike takes you alongside the Glacier du Tour and its pretty impressive. By now the boots were starting to rub so a bit of precautionary blister treatment was all that was needed.

Once we arrived at the hut and found our dorm we had lunch then hiked and scrambled up 200 metres to a patch of snow to undertake some avalanche rescue training. We would slide down the snow on our bums then roll over and use the ice axe to prevent us sliding further jabbing the axe into the snow then pulling the axe in towards our chests - sounds easy enough.

However it got made gradually more difficult as we had to perform the procedure with and without ice axe and with and without crampons. The procedure differs slightly with crampons on as you must use your knees instead of your feet (if you forget and use your feet then it is likely your crampons will cause you to topple over backwards!)

Back at the Hut we found our sleeping space generally sandwiched between two other people (in a room that sleeps 30). Here are my tips for making your stay in a mountain hut (more precisely the albert Premier) more comfortable
  • take some hand sanitizing gel with you as there is no running water
  • be prepared for the smells! A feud erupted in our hut between those who wanted the window open and those who wanted the window closed - team 'window open' did win out in the end!
  • Take an ipod & a good book (in case you can't sleep)
  • Take a silk liner (with pillow insert) - the sheets are filth!
  • Take a headtorch
  • Take your own footwear to use (they do provide some but they are pretty nasty) although beware when walking to the toilet (hole in the ground or drop box is more appropriate name) you literally stand in peoples pee so you may want to use their shoes for this!
  • take some Playing cards!
So we tried to get some sleep between the snores and smells that the hut offered it wasn't easy........

Friday, 16 July 2010

1st Day - Mer De Glace

We had anticipated the first day as being challenging and it didn't disappoint, but it was lots more fun than we had imagined.

Our group of four woke early and then headed into Chamonix to take the Montenvers Railway up the mountain to the Mer De Glace to do some training. The temperature was already 25 degrees plus so it was going to be a hot day!

After descending the steep ladders we were rewarded with some amazing views up the Glacier. It was then time to put on our crampons, practice walking in them and get to grips with some basic techniques. Then it was on to the fun stuff where we practiced ice climbing and abseiling.

After about four hours we ascended the steep ladders, the via ferrata type cables and headed back down to the valley. Homemade cake awaited our return and we took the time to relax (jacuzzi) before we then started thinking about our next adventure...a 3 day expedition staying in the huts on the mountain....

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Arrival in Chamonix

An early start, one flight and a 1 hour drive later and we have arrived at the foot of Mont Blanc. From where we are sitting, in a cafe cooking in the 32 degree heat, Mont Blanc looks extremely intimidating and very tiring work - not a great mindset to kick start the holiday!

However, the views from Chalet Mcnab (see the pics) along the Chamonix valley are amazing. When we have visited in the Winter you don't grasp the full scale of the mountains, but now, with little snow to hide their height it is awe inspiring with the glaciers flowing down into the valley.

Tomorrow the work starts.......but for now its dinner with our fellow climbers!

Monday, 12 July 2010

A trip to the Altitude centre

As part of our training we visited the Altitude Centre in Covent Garden where Richard Pullen gave us the benefit of his expert knowledge. He gave us some tips on dealing with Altitude some are basic but nontheless very effective eg sucking a sweet to prevent dehydrating faster and drinking a glass of water when you wake up each morning.

He checked our lung function, resting heart rate, got us to hold our breath for as long as possible (45secs) after breathing out and carried out a Hypoxic test to to see how quickly the oxygen in the blood (SpO2) de- saturated to 85% at an inspired simulated altitude of 5090m/16710ft.

He then provided us with a programme to help us prepare for what lies ahead. This session gave us the confidence that at least our body was capable of coping with altitude now all we need is the right equipment and the fitness....

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Worrying News

We have just learnt that two Britons have been killed on Mont Blanc and this is tragic news serving as a reminder for how dangerous what we are doing can be. Its not put us off just made us more wary of the potential risks involved

Friday, 2 July 2010

Overcoming the blisters

For as long as I can remember I have suffered with blisters during the breaking in process of new footwear.

Why? My feet are just wrong - mishaped, flat, big and badly constructed, I blame them for my lack of athletic ability when I was young and now they want to stand between me and climbing Mont Blanc.

During my first outing to break in my new La Sportiva Trango S EVO GTX boots they managed to break me in! That was 3 weeks ago and since then I have invested in some new smartwool socks, footbeds surgical spirit (good for hardening the skin so I am told) compeed, blister skin and the secret weapon (I hope) Anhydrol Forte a foot roll on that blocks the sweat glands in the feet (or hands or armpits) and will prevent sweating. I wouldn't recommend using it excessively but it may just help over the next few weeks