Down but not out

Down but not out

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It’s about time I posted an update on this website. Ideally I would have blogged about my trip to the Alps in September, climbing this and that. I would have also blogged about the 100 mile ultra marathon I was participating in, and the lessons I learned for the upcoming 45 mile ultra in the Brecon Beacons. I really wanted to write about them. But I couldn’t.

The best laid plans often go astray…

The annual Alps trip is usually the focus of the year’s adventures, the high point, metaphorically and literally. Working a busy job and living in London leads to a lifestyle where trips to the mountains are few and far between. The pressure is on to cram enough adventures into a one, two or three-week long trip. The weather must co-operate and travel plans must run smoothly to avoid the heinous situation of losing precious mountain days.

I only had a week available for a climbing trip to the Alps this year. And, with all the palaver of moving flats and too many busy summer weekends, the earliest date for departure was mid-September. I climb regularly with an old university friend, Steven, and we chose Chamonix as the destination. We had unfinished business with the Dent du Geant (‘The Giant’s Tooth’, a great spike of rock that just tops 4,000m which we failed on in 2007) and we wanted to try a traverse of Mont Blanc.

The best laid plans often go astray though…

We arrived in Chamonix with the minimum of hassle. We bought five days of food and the next day caught the earliest cable car up the Aiguille du Midi, 3842m high. The plan was to traverse the Vallee Blanche (a huge glacial plateau in the heart of the Mont Blanc range) and stay in the Torino hut. From there we would make our forays into the high mountains.

The weather was fantastically miserable however. Gale force winds hurled snow across the white expanse of the glacier and into our faces. The visibility fell away to almost nothing. We were walking through a giant cloud system. The crevasses that were all about us focused the mind on the micro environment around. We were complacent during the morning, blithely following our noses and not paying due attention to the map and compass. By the time the weather really closed in, mid-afternoon, we realised, too late I add, that we couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we were.

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Should we continue up this glacier? Are we meant to be following this band of rocky outcrops? Forcing a route up through tortured, twisted slopes of crevasses became less and less appealing in the growing storm. The change in mood between us two climbers was tangible. That morning had been all about the “yee-ha’s”; we were relishing being out and seeing nature’s fury. Now, the encroaching darkness and creeping cold had turned the day into a somewhat sinister fight against the elements.

A decision needed to be made, and quickly. Abandoning plans to reach the higher hut, knowing that we couldn’t risk heading higher into the storm without knowing exactly where we were, we turned downhill and headed down the Glacier du Geant, bent on finding the nearest low-altitude hut. At least if we were benighted it would be warmer.

We found the Requin hut just as night fell. In the gathering darkness we picked our way across the moraine at the side of the glacier to reach the hut. Unoccupied but left open, it was a welcome haven from the storm. Inside we sat and talked. We worked out where we had been and how all of the little errors of the day had compounded against us.

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The following day (September 16th) the storm still raged. Now that we were under the cloud base we could see the icefall and moraine that we had traversed last night. There was no way we were going back up there into the teeth of the storm again. That left the option of sitting pretty for a day or two to wait out the storm or retreating to Chamonix town to lick our wounds. We chose the latter option, deciding that with only five days to play with it was better to be doing something rather than just waiting.

The retreat back to Chamonix, all the way down the long Mer de Glace, wasn’t nearly as arduous as the day before but still took its toll on us. Being a purist and a sucker for unnecessary additional punishment, I convinced Steven that we could salvage something from the two day trip by returning all the way to Chamonix on foot, rather than accepting the easy way out of a train ride down from the glacier edge at Montenvers. So despite not climbing anything, we could at least savour the pleasure that comes with completing a traverse from point A to point B. We had walked and down-climbed all the way from the Aiguille du Midi to the centre of Chamonix.

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The third day (of six) was another day of mixed weather. Still exhausted from the day before, an air of lethargy settled over us. Morose feelings squashed and bullied any enthusiasm out of us. It wasn’t until early afternoon that we hatched a plan and acted on it.

With less than two weeks until my ultra marathon race I was keen to get plenty of time on my feet. With the weather forecast still looking rather iffy for any climbing I suggested we go trekking. Steven took a lot of convincing – he’s not into trekking for trekking’s sake as much as I am. He’d come here to climb whereas I just love being out in the mountains. I could sense he felt we should be trying to go climbing. We agreed to try trekking for two days, packing light and going as fast and as far as we could around the Mont Blanc circuit. After that we would take stock of the weather and re-consider getting up into the high mountains for the final two days of the trip.

Again, the best laid plans often go astray…

One hour into the fast trek I was flying along, the whole Mont Blanc range stretching out on my right side (we were traversing the Aiguilles Rouges, a range on the opposite side of the Chamonix valley). I felt stupendously fit after a summer of running and relished the thought of the trek ahead.

How easily one moment can change everything though. My world came crashing down in an instant. I had taken my eye off the trail to admire the view, letting my guard down and not concentrating on my footfall. Time slowed. The moment is quite clearly etched in my mind still now. I landed on a protruding rock, bang in the middle of the trail. My right foot landed half-on, half-off the rock and my forward momentum sent me crashing down over my twisting ankle. The pain was intense. I lay heaped in a pile on the trail, shouting obscenities and screaming with each searing wave of pain. It took me several minutes to regain my composure and get control of the pain. I knew I was totally screwed though. There would be no more climbing this trip. In that instant I knew the chance of me running in any of the coming ultra marathons was hugely unlikely. I was seriously pissed off.

What a badly sprained ankle looks like!

What a badly sprained ankle looks like!

That evening I had to hobble on to a mountain hut (at Lac Blanc) to stay as there was no way of getting back to Chamonix before nightfall. It was painfully slow but manageable because my ankle hadn’t stiffened up yet. However he next day was a different story; it took 7 hours of agonising hobbling to return the four miles back to Chamonix.

We spent the final few days drowning our sorrows in the bars. The misery of knowing that we didn’t have any more climbing days until next year was particularly hard to take.

The ankle was badly sprained. The A&&E nurse told me it would take at least six weeks to heal properly. The 100 mile run was a no go which was a real shame as I’d trained hard all summer, managed a training run of 47 miles and was mentally psyched up to do it. I had to cancel the 45 mile race in December as well. I’m still not running now and there’s just no way I could be fit in time.

Next year though, now that’s another story altogether. There’s a burning desire for adventures aplenty to atone for the disaster that was this year’s alps trip.

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I may be down but I’m not out.

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