(Article wrote in 2005).
“What do you think about Daniel going up in reality?”, and that was it, that’s all a young man needed to fuel him-self up. Those were the words of Frank over dinner in Chamonix; he didn’t know I had overheard him and my dad talking. Frank was the third and last member of our team for the summit of Mt Blanc.
He had every right to be concerned that I may put the ascent of Mt Blanc in jeopardy after my pathetic performance on our acclimatisation stroll around Aiguille de Midi. I had been caught out by altitude whilst practicing my climbing techniques on an oversized block of ice. At 3800 meters the summit of Mt. Blanc would be nearly 1000 meters higher. I knew it would be a massive mental and physical push on my part for the summit.
We headed down back to Chamonix soon after, getting back to the cable car seemed to take for ever. When we got there, I slugged myself over a bench and took a few minutes to reflect on what had happened. Perhaps grabbing the summit of Mt Blanc wasn’t going to be as easy as I had previously anticipated. Queen’s Heaven for Everyone was on the radio which helped me wind down, although this did not satisfy my longing for thicker oxygen. Altitude had surely squeezed every last drop of energy I had out of my body.
It was a glorious sunny day, although a bit too warm and bright for mountaineering. The sun was hurting my eyes out on the glacier and the temperature was overwhelming. Unfortunately it was Chamonix’s hottest summer for over 200 years.
When we arrived back at Chamonix I continued to pay the price of my naivety with a dull but torturous head ache. From that day on, I swore down AMS was the worst sickness anyone could ever suffer. That was the 27th July 2003.
I, my mum and my dad had travelled out on the 25th to meet our friends, Frank and Sara. It was meant to be a family holiday which gave us all the hassle of getting all our heavy equipment onto the plane. We were out their for only ten days, Frank and Sara were leaving three days before us which gave us a total of seven days to become acclimatized and conquer the Alps highest mountain.
My dad and Frank resumed their acclimatization campaign the next day but I was pretty ill and so stayed in bed. Any how, I needed time to think about what my next moves would be. From then on I promptly took my Diamox (an anti-altitude sickness drug) never missing a dosage. I never liked the idea of been assisted by drugs – especially ones that work in ways scientist’s do not yet know, but I was pretty desperate. I had been experiencing the common side effects of Diamox such as pins and needles and pissing all the time, but luckily nothing major.
When my dad arrived back down he reported to me of an accident that had occurred just off of Aiguille de Midi. Two men had foolishly taken two small girls onto the glacier and one member of the party had slipped on steeper ground. One by one the other three had lost their balance and were sliding down the glacier. One of the girls fell into a crevasse, luckily only a few feet deep, but if that crevasse had been deeper, they would have all fallen to their probable deaths. The mountains are a serious place, and some people forget that in their naivety. One of the men had failed to lift his crampons upon falling and consequently they were caught in the snow causing him to injure his knee. The rescue helicopter arrived soon after. I now had the job of persuading my dad to let me accompany Frank and him on the ascent.
There I was sat having dinner all fuelled up and ready for war. “What do you think about Daniel going up in reality?”. The words kept replaying in my mind, adding extra determination each time. That night we packed our bags ready for the next day. I was fully aware of what might happen and the possible consequences. I could let my dad and Frank down. If I fell to altitude I knew I would have to just keep going. One step in front of the other. Mind over matter.
“Where do we draw the line between bravery and stupidity?”. That was what I had kept asking myself, I knew, and anyone that knew me then would know that if I reached the summit my stupidity would be more to thank than my bravery. Most mountaineers are just stupid, maybe slightly crazy and more often than not, selfish. I am no exception.
Our original plans to ascend the mountain by the Grand Mulet’s route were thwarted when news arrived earlier that day that one of the main snow bridge’s had collapsed. It was possible to overcome the difficulty although it was not advised by Chamonix’s guiding office. We decided our best option would to be to ascend via the Gouter Hut, or as I call it, “The Tourist’s Route”.
On the morning of the 29th we set off in the car, stopping at a cafe for some lunch along the way. The atmosphere between us all could have been cut with a knife, conversation was kept at a minimum and our nerves had slowly come to dominate our bodies. Frank asked me how I was feeling and I just replied “nervous”, he admitted he felt the same way. There was some sense of security from his answer. At least I wasn’t alone.
The sun was blistering hot as we set off. I kept my breathing purposely deep in an attempt to fend off AMS. After all, I had only had one acclimatization route.
“What’s that on the young boy’s hand?” asked a stranger.
“If you’re going through hell… keep going” Frank replied.
“Excellent” the stranger exclaimed.
I felt a great sense of courage overwhelm me at that moment; they didn’t know I had heard. My attitude towards climbing this mountain had obviously been the right one. We made sure we were drinking plenty of fluid and stopping for frequent rests. It was around 2:30pm when we had set off from the train station. The walking/climbing up to the hut was quite pleasurable and I did enjoy it. It was mainly rock all the way with patches of snow. I will never forget the infamous Grand Couloir on the ascent. What a pain in the ass! It’s a small traverse on a narrow ledge with a constant barrage of rock fall coming from above. The “fixed” chain was meters in the air showing how much had corroded since it was placed there. When we approached the hut we were holding onto fixed ropes. At this point I was rather nervous and not looking forward to this part of the descent.
We reached the hut rather late. People cheered as we scrambled to the refuge and we received a warm welcome. The Gouter Hut, as expected, was over crowed. When we sat down for a late meal at around 9pm we received a plate of very salty mash and lumpy sausage. I was so hungry I ate it anyway, unlike Frank who insisted starving was the better alternative! During our meal some Germans approached us and asked us where we were sleeping, when we requested why they wanted to know, they explained it was because they were sleeping under the table we were eating at.
We went outside and watched a beautiful sunset. It was simply a carpet of clouds with the sun in the distance. Truly amazing. Dad took a photo as I added another four layers of clothing to the two I already has on. The Gouter Hut lies on the snow line, below is rock and above is snow. We walked onto the glacier above the hut to be astounded by a vast camp site. As we had had problems getting luggage over to France, we had not brought a tent, but instead a survival shelter. My dad rushed the shelter out of its bag and before we could protest he had nominated himself for the middle (and warmest) position. This position was of strategical importance as we were exposed to temperatures as low as -10 ○C. We planned to set of at 2am but due to the arrival of the first stages of probable hyperthermia we set off at 1am, I (partly) blame this on the fact that we only had a carry mat to separate us from the surface of the glacier. Those few hours were very uncomfortable, the shelter was not big enough and my neck was bent towards my dad. We pulled the thin layer of material from over our heads to be shocked by a clear night’s sky. A truly awesome view.
I took my phone from my bag and read a message from my mum. My fingers were too numb to reply. We slowly assembled our equipment and began the second part of the ascent. At times like these you don’t have time to think, all you can do is get on with the task at hand and de-attach yourself from any conflicting emotions, such as fear and apprehension, especially when your in the fight or flight situations. One foot in front of the other was the key to success.
The mountains have a tendency to make me realise what I take for granted; anything from a flavoured drink to civilisation. For some reason all I could think about was drinking a grenadine and lemonade when we arrived back in Chamonix after the ascent.
As we got higher the clouds got thicker and the temperature colder. If we were unsure of our whereabouts in the fog, we were reassured by the trail of vomit left behind by un-acclimatized climbers ahead (probably been dragged like a dog by their guides). The darkness has distorted my memory of our ascent in the dark, and the sunrise was not noticeable because it took so long. The clouds seemed to absorb most of the suns light.
Frank was at the front of the rope, me in the middle and my dad at the end. Towards the end of the ascent, Frank’s performance degraded rapidly. He was struggling to keep a continuous rhythm going and it made me appreciate the fact that I felt ok. Looking around I felt rather disserted. There was no where near the amount of climbers on the mountain as there had been in the hut. It raised concern in my mind but I was too tired to challenge anyone about it, either way I doubt we would have turned back. It just felt easier to keep going.
We reached the summit at around 7am on the 30th July 2003. The wind was raging and the visibility was disappointing. The summit photo represents just how we felt at that moment. Absolutely shite. We all looked terrible, and despite this fact, I still feel a great sense of achievement looking at it. Since then, I have climbed higher mountains, but none of them have made me feel as proud as I did when I ascended Mount Blanc.
When we descended via Bosses Ridge I was a little unnerved by the drops either side. Suddenly all my dad’s stories of tragedy flooded back, such as the time a number of climber’s slipped and fell to their deaths on Bosses Ridge after rain fall on the summit created patches of ice. I had to get use to getting off of the path as two way traffic created problems.
The wind continues to rage during our descent and my dad begun to complain of his right eye freezing up in the wind. The temperature was -15○C. I begun to get very tired and my dad force fed me some power gel which we had bought back in Chamonix. I continually fell over. On one occasion I began to hallucinate that there were three babies on the snow slope pointing and laughing at my dad. I shook my head and realized it was time to continue on down the mountain. When I look back on that moment I find it hard to believe that I could have suffered visual hallucinations, I was hardly in Joe Simpson’s situation when he begun to hear Boney M continuously play over and over again in his head. (See Joe Simpson’s: Touching the Void). But when I reviewed why this might have occurred I realized that at that point in time, it would have been time to expect problems. I had not slept in over 30 hours, I had not drunk in hours whilst at very high altitude, I had been walking and climbing for 15 hours in extremes of weather, not to mention the smaller factors such as a heavy backpack.
When we arrived back at the refuge, I sat down and drunk a hot chocolate and ate a Mars Bar which I did not savour like I normally would. I felt very nauseous and realized I had not evaded the effects of altitude sickness completely. I went to the bunks, took of my boots and fell asleep.
I was awoken by my dad who informed me it was time to leave or we would miss the train further down the mountain. The scramble back down was fairly enjoyable. We had passed the snow boarder and the red hot sun was blazing. We were joined by two Germans who asked if they could follow us down the mountain (it seemed they did not know the route) of course we said yes. I thought to myself that perhaps it was people like this that make up the 50% success rate on Mt Blanc.
When we arrived at the train station we bought our tickets and were welcomed with a two hour wait. To add to my frustration there was no where to buy proper food or drink. We lounged around dozing off into a sleep every now and then. When we arrived back in Chamonix we were met by my mum and Sara whose growing concern had turned to tears. It was around 5pm and we were hours late. My mum was not by the slightest disturbed by our late arrival and explained to Sara it was natural that my Dad would be late.
Due to the adverse weather, Mt. Blanc was closed a week after this ascent.