Category Archives: Mountaineering

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.

Getting high in the Peruvian Andes

Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peruvian Andes
Date: July 2008
Duration: 21 days

A selection of photos from a 21 day mountaineering trip to the Cordillera Blanca range of the Peruvian Andes.

It was a great adventure – the mountains were superb alpine challenges and the valley culture provided a fascinating backdrop to our climbs (20 photos total):

1. Nevado Huascaran, 6746m Our objective for the trip was to climb Huascaran, seen here dominating the skyline beyond the town of Huaraz.
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2. Sunrise on Ranrapalca We watched the sun rise and slowly illuminate the face of Ranrapalca on the opposite side of the valley. We were trying to climb Nevado Urus, a 5,000m peak, as a warm up before an attempt on Huascaran.
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3. My brother, Peter Descending Nevado Urus. Having suffered from the altitude and been hampered by the deep snow we never made the summit.
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4. Yours truly
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5. Cairn on Huascaran Low down on the rocky approach to the glaciers of Huascaran, our way marked by cairns.
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6. Scrambling up the rocks Steven (L) and Peter (R) climbing up the exposed slabs to advanced base camp. The rucsacs were incredibly heavy with all the mountaineering gear and nearly a week’s worth of food. Spirits high though!
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7. Advanced Base Camp The snow was bad news as it would mean avalanches were more likely higher on the mountain. Consequently we felt our chances of summiting slipping away as the snow fell and fell.
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8. Onto the glacier Peter (L) and Steven (R) climbing onto the glacier, moving from Advanced base camp to Camp 1 at 5,250m.
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9. Cup of snow Camp 1, 5,300m high, and it was baking hot when we arrived; there was only one thing for it, a cup of snow!
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10. Stormy sunset A portent of things to come. It was an amazing sunset to witness but full of ominous signs for the mountaineer. Sure enough, during the night, it snowed heavily.
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11. Camp 1 in the snow We had to dig ourselves out of our half-buried tent the following morning. Any summit attempt was out of the question. Down we went then. ‘Twas a great adventure though.
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12. On the descent Descending the glacier in thick fog.
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13. Final roll of the dice We had just enough time left for one final climb – a 2 day attempt on Vallunaraju, 5686m. Here we are low on the glacier, still experiencing deep snow.
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14. Amongst the crevasses HIgher up the conditions improved and we romped along amongst the enormous and awe-inspiring crevasses.
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15. Victory Finally we summit something! Standing on the top of Vallunaraju with its superb 360 panorama remains one of my top mountain experiences.
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16. Climbers on the summit ridge Two Norwegian climbers were about an hour behind us on climb. I took this shot of them nearing the summit as we descended.
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17. Self-portrait
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18. Down climbing Down climbing one of the steep ice pitches between crevasses on the glacier.
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19. The final rocky step This was the last technical section of the climb – it was actually fairly straightforward and very short.
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20. Dinner Well, we had to try the local delicacy! Tasted pretty good but there isn’t that much meat on those guinea pigs…
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Mont Blanc Ascent – 2005

“Mont Blanc and the Valley of Chamonix, and the Mer de Glace, and all the wonders of that most wonderful place are above and beyond one’s wildest expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime. If I were to write about it now, I should quite rave – such prodigious impressions are rampant within me.” — Charles Dickens

Rising 4,808 metres above sea level, the majestic bulk of Mont Blanc has inspired climbers for over 150 years. This beautiful and famous mountain, the highest in Western Europe, is a true high-altitude mountaineering objective that had been a dream of mine for three years. Finally, in 2005, that dream became reality…

Route: The Pope Route (Italian Normal Route)
Alpine Grade: PD+
Ascent: Day 1: 1,300m; Day 2: 1,800m
Location: Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy
Route summary: A long and beautiful glacier climb on the quiet Italian side of Mont Blanc

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1st attempt: Myself, Pete Collins, Will Flegg and James Karn

Day 1: 19.08.05

All adventures must begin somewhere — this one began with us auspiciously landing the final parking space at the very top of the Val Veny road. Personally, I took this to be a good sign and, if nothing else, it had at least saved us from a mile of road walking. Setting off, laden with supplies and equipment, we were buoyant and excited about the adventure ahead. The walk up the massive and imposing Miage glacier was awe-inspiring, tiring and rich in alpine scenery.

Looking down the Miage glacier

Looking down the Miage glacier

James climbing up the cables to the refuge

James climbing up the cables to the refuge

We spent a lot of time taking photographs. A navigational error on the glacier landed us amongst vast gaping crevasses, and required some backtracking and bold leaps to get us back to the safe side of the glacier. An interesting but steep and exposed scramble through an unwelcome hailstorm led us to the sensationally placed Gonella hut just in time for dinner. Aside from one Italian gentleman and the staff, we were the only guests that night.

The spectacularly located Refuge Gonella

The spectacularly located Refuge Gonella

Rifugio Gonella

Rifugio Gonella

Day 2: 20.08.05

The purpose of the day was to acclimatise and reconnoitre our route up Glacier du Dome. The weather was excellent — we hoped for weather like this the following day — in fact, the weather was too good really, as the intense heat from the sun began to render the snow-bridges unsafe. Still, we managed a useful two hours of work, scoping out the route. We rested and ate for the remainder of the day — splendid!

The route of our ascent

The route of our ascent

Day 3: 21.08.05

The plan was to wake at midnight, wolf down a quick breakfast and stride out for the summit. Alas, the reality was quite different. During the night, the worst of mountaineers enemies came to thwart us: several inches of fresh snow fall. Despite feeling strong, acclimatised and ready, the weather had rendered the glacier unsafe and the avalanche risk too great. We were gutted — I felt deeply frustrated and despondent, as this was my second attempt in as many years — but there was nothing we could do. Our course of action now lay down, and returning safely back to the car became our priority. The route over the steeper sections was “interesting” now that it was covered in snow. We made it and then drowned our sorrows with a few beers back in Geneva. We resolved to come back, to conquer in style.

2nd attempt: Myself and Will Flegg

Day 1: 28.08.05

After a few days interlude climbing via feratta routes in the Italian Dolomites, Will and I returned to the Italian side of Mont Blanc for another crack at the summit. It had rained all through the night and morale was fairly low at this point – we were expecting another washout on the route and too much snow up high, but we had one last roll of the dice. The walk up the Miage glacier to the Gonella hut was straightforward this second time and we arrived at the hut mid-afternoon, in time for some shut-eye before dinner. After a wholesome dinner and an attempt at sleeping (not easy when you are so hyped), we would be ready.

Would the route be ready for us this time?

Day 2: 29.08.05

Yes, yes, yes! No fresh snow, cold temperatures and a completely clear sky were as close to perfect as we could have wished for. We began walking at 12.45am and soon reached the glacier where we roped up. The next few hours were superb — cramponing up the Dome glacier, navigating our way through the marvellous architecture of nature’s grandest creation. The ridge was a climber’s dream: narrow and exposed, calling for a cool head and exact crampon technique.

Sunrise

Sunrise

The final haul up to the summit was brutally tough and bitterly cold. We had to draw deep on our reserves of stamina altough we knew we would make it. My legs were heavy, and only getting heavier as I neared the summit, but I could feel my heart getting lighter with every step. Having wanted to make this climb for the past three years, having been turned back twice already, the summit view was well overdue.

We stood on the summit at 8.15am. Stunning views in every direction, with a multitude of snowy peaks and cloud-filled valleys as far as the eye could see. This was a defining moment for me, strengthening my kinship with the mountains. I rarely feel so elated and fulfilled as when on top of a hard-won summit. I knew at once that this was just the start of grand designs for many more ascents…..

Me and Will on the summit of Mont Blanc

Me and Will on the summit of Mont Blanc

The descent was tiring, but rapid. Once we arrived back at the car that evening, we were truly worn out, having climbed for sixteen-and-a-half hours. A supreme adventure and one of my proudest outdoor achievements.

Me on the steep descent, photograph Will Flegg

Me on the steep descent, photograph Will Flegg