The Ascent of Mont Blanc (4807m)

(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.

Sunset as seen from Goûter Hut

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.

Mont Blanc summit photo

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.

A photo taken during our ascent

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.

Climbing Cotopaxi (5897m)

(Article wrote in 2005).

Climbing Cotopaxi, Ecuador (5898 meters)

            Strolling around a fresh water lake, staring at the ground, I take a glance around at the 6ft volcanic boulders that this mighty mountain has spat out with complete recklessness for life. Standing on a small corner of Cotopaxi’s home, up or down, left or right, these views are dominated by this towering volcano. It’s literally neck breaking to attempt a view at its summit.

At a massive 5898 meters high Cotopaxi ranks second highest mountain in Ecuador and a few meter higher than the ‘fourth’ summit – Kilimanjaro. The mountain poses numerous dangers to climbers and to the people in surrounding towns. The volcano has been known to erupt around every 50 years and the next eruption is due any time now. Its greatest eruption left Quito in complete darkness for four days and killed well over 1000 people.

Me writing with Cotopaxi in the background

Cotopaxi is a beautiful symmetrical volcano and is the only mountain on the Equator that supports a glacier. It is of a stereotypical shape and even in summer is snow capped right down to its halfway point. There are numerous trails of ascent which are shifted with continuous snowfall. The mountain is deemed a grade II, which makes it suitable for climbers who are experienced with an ice axe, crampons, ropes and harnesses.

Cotopaxi attracts many tourists each year who are baffled by Ecuador’s guiding companies following slack guidelines. For instance on my accent of the mountain most of our fellow comrades turned back before reaching the summit. Two in my party were forced to submit to the harsh conditions and exhaustion – even with more than adequate training.

In my experience grades are not everything, they don’t take into account altitude, fitness and worst of all, it is impossible for them to vary with the weather! For our training we successfully summited Pasachoa – 4199 meters, Guagua Pichincha – 4784 meters and Illiniza Norte – 5126 meters. It saddens me to think how popular a sport mountaineering could be if altitude sickness was non existent. I suffered Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) badly on Illiniza Norte. I fainted on arrival at the Illiniza Refuge (4800 meters) but I soon recovered and had a good nights sleep. Altitude sickness such a complex condition that it is impossible to compromise; the only medication that may help is a drug called Diomox but even this works in a way scientists cannot yet explain and must be taken days prior to the ascent.

Cotopaxi lies in a national park and the drive is a good few hours from the centre of Quito. We were told that “there is a camp site with a good kitchen” – by our guide. The kitchen was an abandoned wooden building. Consequently we drove up to a small restaurant in the park, which was nothing but a glamorous tourist attraction. The restaurant doubled as a dormitory and had a second building too for this purpose. The building we were allocated to was an extremely pleasant one until we discovered little insects crawling around in our bed quilts. We were reallocated to the other building.

On waking we drove our 4×4 up to the ‘car park’ ready for a punishing one hour walk with a fair bit of weight on our backs. Luckily a lot of this weight would be lost at the refuge. Here was our brief itinerary:

 

Day 1: Drive to foot of mountain and spend the night there

Day 2: Drive up to the car park, leave the car there and continue an hour’s walk up to the refuge

Night 2: Set off for the summit at 12am

Day 3: Reach summit early morning and descend back to the car

 

We had hired two Ecuadorian guides in Quito who were originally our drivers and cooks, but they offered to guide us at an affordable price. The group was made up of myself and 3 much older and experienced mountaineers who initially were reluctant to take on a guide for the first time in their mountaineering career but in conclusion we decided that the sooner we reached the summit the better. There was also that extra sense of security.

Guides in Ecuador are much cheaper than those in Europe but had we been in Europe we would have turned such an offer down. As we were in a completely new mountain range we thought it may be wise, although our original plans were to go up alone, as many of my partners had done for the past decades.

As we drove up to the car park dark clouds descended and our assent looked doubtful as it began to drizzle. The walk to the refuge was unpleasant, a heavy pack on your back, ice axe in one hand and a smaller bag in the other, gasping heavily for breath – it was easy for altitude to be detrimental even at this height. The walk was a rather steep one on a horrible grey ash-like powder with volcanic rocks scattered all around. We arrived at the refuge (4800 meters) and claimed our beds. I for one began organising my equipment.

The refuge was a rather well looked after one, clean, running gas, water and fairly decent toilets. At $15 a night it was rather cheap too. The Alps are so much different to this part of the Andes, even at this refuge we were as high as Mt. Blanc (4807 meters). I had ascended Mt. Blanc earlier that year in very bad weather – a raging snow storm that forced Chamonix’s Authorities to close off Mt Blanc later that week, but what amazed me was that there was no snow what so ever up until around 4700 – 5000 meters. Even at that height you could spot the odd bright coloured plant growing. In the Alps however it is covered in snow from 4000 meters upwards! Any high altitude mountaineer no matter what their experience will be amazed by the differences between these two mountain ranges when witnessed for the first time.

After a quick lunch we headed across from the refuge to the glacier to warm up with our crampons and ice axe. That was when I noticed the agonizing aching in my shoulders from our earlier accent to the refuge. On the way back to the hut I began to doubt if an attempt at the summit was wise.

After dinner, which was mainly soup and pasta everyone retreated to their bunks and attempted to get as warm as they could. I managed around four hours sleep and woke at 12am ready for the accent. I managed to eat a foul tasting energy bar and drink to optimize my energy levels. I went down for supper which was composed mainly of bread and sugar. I saw something worth mentioning at this point – my Ecuadorian guide poured six table spoons of sugar into his average sized drink, this is an example of how important your energy is on a mountain, it is quickly devoured by the wind, cold, altitudes and ever increasing gradients. To add to the problem it becomes very difficult to eat above 5000 meters due to the altitude; at this height the enzymes that break down fats begin to function abnormally.

Cotopaxi as seen from Illiniza Norte

We left the refuge and headed outside in torch light and walked up easy terrain for about an hour. The time for crampons and ropes was marked out by a small red flag lodged in-between two rocks. We were on two ropes led by the guides. Myself and my father on one, and the remainder of the party was on the other.

Looking up I was surprised to see a clear night, with no pollution to spoil the night sky you could see why the Indians had named this mountain, Cotopaxi, which means ‘Smooth Neck of the Moon’.

The walk up to 5200 meters was a steady one, but I could see the steepness of the route in front. It reared up to a gradient of around 55 degrees at times which proved the inaccuracy of the guide book which claimed it to be 45 degrees.

While I was staying in Ecuador I met a student who was around 23 years old. He worked for a university in North America and was writing a guide book for a climbing company. When we got talking it appeared he did not even know what ‘traverse’ meant and furthermore he knew nothing significant about mountaineering. Something which made me consider our ‘guide’ books in depth.

For a brief moment in time our two guides stopped to exchange words in Spanish, I couldn’t tell what was going on but I had a suspicion which was confirmed when our guides begun to dig a hole. When they had finished they poked their ice axe around the top of the hole in an oval shape and waited for the snow to come away. A test for the risk of avalanche. Luckily the snow proved to be stable. Nevertheless it was a frightening thought, the whole of what you’re standing on slipping away beneath your feet but the risks could have been worse.

Our rope was in front and we stopped for a rest at 5200 meters. As I sat down I felt the altitude take its grip on my stomach and also my head! I had a mighty headache (this is due to the swelling of the brain pushing against the insides of the cranium). I managed to eat a finger of chocolate as we waited for the second rope.

We continued with our route at around 2am and that was the last we saw of our co-climbers on the second rope whilst ascending. A reminder of Cotopaxi’s failure rate, which is very high.

We continued up the fresh snow (which at the time Cotopaxi had had a lot of) digging our ice axes in where necessary. The route was not marked out very well and there was not a lot of ice on the mountain during our accent. The mountain, being symmetrical, was the same all the way up. The sun rose at around 6am which was a real moral booster. By this point I was extremely tired and my fellow mountaineer’s were force feeding me sweets high in sugar. The only other team on the mountain was a European team which was quite a distance away.

We reached the summit at 7:50am, 16th July 2004. The descent was extremely tiring and I could feel blisters forming on my feet. It’s normally at this point you can feel the effects of sleep deprivation kick in.

Summit photo on Cotopaxi

Out of around 9 parties on that mountain only one and a half made it to the top. The descent wasn’t much different to the accent. The route was now easily visible along with the refuge. Fortunately there were very few crevasses and the snow was rather firm while on track. The descent in total took around two hours, which is amazing when you consider it took eight hours to get to the top. Ice was minimal due to snowfall and bad weather. Altitude was never a problem except for the brief period at 5200 meters showing our acclimatization on smaller mountainsp had done the trick.

Our guide was well worth the money, I cannot say how much one would be for just Cotopaxi and every guide agency differs. It is advised you take a good look around first.

We arrived back at the refuge at around 10am and continued our decent down the neck of the moon.

 

Introduction to Ecuador

Ecuador is a small country in the west of South America, although so small, the country represents a wide variety of landscapes from ice capped volcanoes to the tropical rainforest. Flights to paradise don’t come cheaply though, from Manchester to Quito (capital of Ecuador) flights can cost from £600 to £800 per adult in July.

The population of Ecuador is 14 million, 2 million of which live in Quito. The city has much to see, including mountains, statues, bull fights, football competitions and the equator its-self. Sadly Quito is heavily polluted and has a major litter problem. It is worth mentioning ‘The Old Town of Quito’ sees less tourists due to mugging’s and pick pockets, I myself had a wallet stolen in broad daylight. The bull fights are not for the light hearted, a number of people die each year antagonising the bulls in the ring (mainly drunks), which is, by Ecuadorian standards, perfectly acceptable. While I was there a 14 year old boy was killed in the ring reminding you of where you really are. Despite the countries economic and political problems, the majority of Ecuadorians remain courteous and cheerful.

Ecuador is a Christian country which was colonised by the Spaniards. For this reason Spanish is the most commonly spoke language in Ecuador, although there are numerous tribes that break this trend. Unfortunately Ecuador boarders with Colombia meaning that it is not advisable to approach the boarder. Colombian terrorists are known to cross the boarder and in certain but rare cases kidnap tourists.

Just recently Ecuador’s currency market collapsed which forced the government to adopt the American dollar. The dollar is slowly helping Ecuador’s economy to recover. ATM’s are widespread in Ecuador but are unreliable. Many tourists make the mistake of relying on ATM’s as their main access to money. Traveller’s cheques are the best way to obtain money, although these also carry problems of their own. The banks in Ecuador only allow you to withdraw small amounts of money, around $50 to $200. Although if you persist you may find the rare bank which allows you to take a larger sum.

No visa is required if you wish to stay in Ecuador for less than 90 days, but you will need to have a yellow fever vaccination which costs around £40 in the UK. It is also advisable to make sure you are up to date with other necessary vaccinations such as Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Tetanus and Rabies. The tap water is not safe to drink in Ecuador but fortunately bottled water comes cheap at around 50p a litre.

Quito is just short of 3000 meters high and is chilly so it is a good idea not to pack for a holiday on the Caribbean – a common mistake. Rain is however not a frequent visitor to Quito and surrounding towns. There is no set periods of summer and winter in Ecuador; the altitude scrambles any possible patterns. As a rule of thumb the warmest and driest months are in June to September.

Maps are difficult to buy in Ecuador due to problems with security; the government is more reluctant to sell maps which contain detail about its coast line. You can, if you wish, purchase your maps in various retailers in the UK, although the best maps and widest range are best purchased in Quito. We bought our maps from Instituto Geografico Militar around a 15 minute drive from the centre of Quito.

Our main form of transport were taxi’s which plague the city harassing tourists at every possible opportunity. Needless to say it is best to haggle with the drivers as they always charge the ‘tourist price’ in preference to the ‘local’s price’. There is a rather reliable bus network in Ecuador which is normally over crowded but very cheap; however the taxis are well worth the extra money.

 

Summary

  • Flights around £600 – £800
  • Spanish speaking
  • Unstable boarder with Columbia
  • Currency is the dollar
  • ATM’s unreliable, traveller’s cheques the best
  • Yellow fever vaccination a legal requirement
  • Can’t drink tap water
  • Difficulty in purchasing maps
  • No British mobile networks currently operate in Ecuador

 

Further Reading

  • Ecuador Climbing Guide – Bob Yahah
  • Climbing Ecuador – Bradly Yerkes

Edward and the Matterhorn

Most in the climbing fraternity will be familiar with the sight of the Matterhorn. It has long captured the imagination of visitors to the Alps and the nearby village of Zermatt, less will be familiar with the tragedy that struck the first accent by an Englishman named Edward Whymper. Here is a short article on the events that unfolded that July evening in 1865.

“Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances -Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them…” – Edward Whymper.

          On the 14th of July, 1865 an event occurred that shook the mountaineering community.  An event so powerful that it pulled Alpinism from its mighty height and ceased mountaineering throughout Europe. The tragedy of the Matterhorn.

            As a young man, Edward Whymper had an element of stubbornness about him and was not a pleasant man to have as company. He was the son of a water colorist in London and this is what eventually led him to climb – he was assigned to sketch vast areas of the Alps. When he arrived there the spell was cast, the same spell that pulled him there at every chance he got. The spell with an unseen sense of evil.

Whymper had a number of achievements under his belt. First ascents of very respectful mountains; but these were nothing compared to the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn was where the rainbow ended. He had attempted the mountain numerous times before, and had become more frustrated and more obsessed each time. Whymper knew what he had to do; climb the last great problem of the Alps – the Alpine Everest. But how was this possible when even guides refused to attempt the mountain, dubbing its ascent ‘impossible’. In Whymper’s own frustration he attempted the mountain solo, getting further than ever recorded before; it was only a fall of 100ft that halted his attempt. His leg was badly injured and he had taken a hard knock to the head causing unstoppable bleeding, drifting in and out of consciousness he dragged himself down the mountain to safety. Yes, an utterly determined man.

Whymper was not the only man interested in the glory of the Matterhorn, his soon to be Italian rival Jean-Antoine Carrel had similar ideas to Whymper concerning the mountain. Carrel was a guide from the Italian side of the Alps and an established mountaineer. As fate turned out, these men were forced to team up, because there were no other climbers willing to attempt the mountain. In the summer of 1865 Whymper went in search of Carrel for his ninth attempt on the mountain. They agreed that if their first attempt on the Swiss side failed, they would attempt the mountain from the Italian side. That same night Whymper retired to the local inn where he learned that an Englishman had fallen ill in Zermatt (Swiss side of the Matterhorn). After his fall and difficulties in receiving aid, he vowed to himself that he would assist any Englishman who needed it. En route to his patient, Whymper saw Carrel who was carrying equipment for a mysterious ‘foreign gentlemen’ and now, Carrel was no longer available for the attempt due to ‘family commitments’.

Somehow politics worms its way into every subject and climbing is no exception, years earlier the Queen of England had attempted to ban climbing on grounds that it was too dangerous and now we come to learn that Carrels foreign gentlemen was no other than Felice Giordano – right hand man of the government minister Quintino Sella. Sella wished that the Matterhorn should be ascended from Beuil, the Italian side of the mountain, for the ‘glory and honour’ of Italy, and that their plan should be kept secret from Whymper.

When the ill Englishman had returned to good health, Whymper bumped into Carrel again; but nothing had changed, he was still bound to his family commitments. They went for a quick drink in Beuil, and Whymper retired to his room. Whymper had been betrayed. He awoke the next morning to discover Carrel’s plans – a pure Italian ascent from Beuil; he stormed around his room shouting at his own stupidity.

In his anger he stormed over the pass to Zermatt, where he engaged in conversation with Lord Douglas Frances. Another mountaineer with a respectable reputation. Together they decided that they should attempt the mountain from Zermatt, and invite Old Peter Taugwalder and his two sons to accompany them. Frances had known them for some time now and had much faith in their abilities as guides and porters.

Bad weather was beginning to suffocate the mountain, which Whymper hoped would diminish Carrels progress.

The team of five booked into the Monte Rosa Hotel where they found that another team would also be attempting the mountain; Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow and Michel Croz. There was no time for rivalry; they must ally quickly to defeat the Italians. Whymper was reluctant to take young and inexperienced Hadow on the mountain with them but Hudson insisted and Whymper was not in a position to argue.

The next day the party arrived at the mountain’s north-east ridge with ease. They set up camp and the Taugwalders went to see what lay ahead. They came back with the news that no difficulties were in sight. Whymper’s new route was proving a great success. News of Whymper’s latest attempt had reached Carrel who was adamant that the mountain could not be climbed from Zermatt. Whymper’s team pushed on, praying that an Italian flag would not rise before them.

Finally at 2pm on the 16th July 1865 the summit fell. The Matterhorn recorded its first ascent, under the names of Edward Whymper, Douglas Frances, Michel Croz, Douglas Hadow, Charles Hudson, Old Peter Taugwalder and Young Peter Taugwalder. For a short moment in time, the Matterhorn was beneath Whymper’s feet.

From the summit the Italians were sighted, the victorious team shouted, but the Italians showed no response. Whymper’s team threw handfuls of rocks and stones down the mountain at the Italians, who upon realizing they had been beaten, surrendered and began their retreat. Questions have been raised over the intentions of the team throwing rocks down the mountain, was it out of spite? Whymper maintains it was simply to inform the Italians of their defeat.

The summit team began to descend with Whymper remaining on the summit to leave their names in a bottle. When he caught up with the team he tied onto the rope and saw Taugwalder placing Hadow’s feet in nearly every hold. The mountain was proving too much of a challenge for the young Hadow.

Then tragedy struck.

Hadow made a sudden movement and fell. Croz screamed and Whymper watched as Hadow, Croz, Hudson and Douglas were pulled down the slope by the tight grip of gravity. Whymper and the Taugwalders braced themselves to hold the fall, and as the rope became tight, it snapped. The three men watched their glory slide of the mountain and over the edge, onto the glacier below.

Down in Zermatt a young man ran into the Monte Rosa Hotel shouting that he had witnessed an avalanche on the mountain, but like a boy crying wolf – he was ignored. The remaining members of the team stayed on the mountain another night and returned to Zermatt the next day. As the three men descended down the mountain, a scene of three crucifixes’s crossed the sky, embedded in the fog. Back in London; the maid of Lord Douglas Frances awoke during her sleep believing she had heard him scream her name several times in the night.

A search party led by Whymper was quickly dispatched from Zermatt, heading straight for the Matterhorn’s glacier. A hideous sight awaited them. The bodies of the fallen were scattered over a large area, Whymper found a jaw bone with a cross embedded in the cheek which was Michel Croz. Hudson’s watch was recovered – stopped at 3:45. The body of Lord Frances Douglas was never recovered.

Beuil believed that it was in fact Carrel’s party they had seen on the summit, but when Carrel revealed to Beuil that they had been defeated, Sella received a telegram with the correction; he was distraught. Three days later Carrel finally made the ascent from Beuil and Italy tried to claim some sort of victory. Meanwhile if Whymper’s experience hadn’t already been bad enough, the surviving team were accused of cutting the rope. They were forced to endure months of tribunals and accusations. The local judge concluded that the inexperience of Hadow was to blame for the accident although Whymper begged to differ; it was Hudson who had insisted that Hadow join the expedition.

Still today questions are raised surrounding the incident. Why had Old Peter Taugwalder chosen such a weak rope to tie himself onto the rest of the party when he had the option of much stronger ones? Was it because he predicted the accident? After all Hadow’s inexperience was highly visible. In his own defense, Whymper reported to the press that he too had questioned the use of such a weak rope, but kept his concerns to himself.

The Taugwalders were certainly suspicious characters, after the descent of the mountain they were able to laugh, drink and eat in such an abnormal manner for the circumstances. In 1939 letters written by Whymper discovered he was so suspicious of the men that for the remaining night on the mountain, he slept with his back to the wall, ice axe in hand ready to defend himself.

Most of the questions raised by the incident were never answered and controversy still surrounds the matter, the mountain that Whymper had come to love, he now described as ‘hateful’.

Carrel and Whymper became partners once more after the incident, making numerous first ascents in the Andes, mainly in Ecuador. Whymper went on to give lectures right across the globe and dedicated a lot of his time to science and the effects of altitude on the human body.

Whymper became more resentful after the accident and in 1911 died a lonely death in his room in Chamonix, screaming with pain, but leaving the door locked.    Carrel was caught out by bad weather guiding clients down the Matterhorn and it was not until he had brought them to safety that he collapsed and died, a plaque commemorates his courage on that exact spot.

Whymper’s book, ‘Scrambles Amongst the Alps’, published in 1871 has been translated into several languages and is still in print. It is often regarded as the best mountaineering book of all time. I will leave you with its ever famous ending, which is still quoted by mountaineers many times over today and reflects the risks and the dangers which lead to tragedy throughout the sport and the dedications at the beginning of nearly every mountaineering book. Ladies and gentlemen, the wise words of Edward Whymper:

 

“… and with this in mind I say, climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime…”

Running Technique

If you’re looking to get stated running you should be aware of your running technique. It is often overlooked by runners and I myself have fallen victim to this naivety. Most people just starting out don’t have a partner to run with who can give tips and advice on their technique. For those of you starting out on your own, read on and make sure you get off to a great start.

Whether you are running as a hobby or are a professional sprinter we all must understand the basic technique. Having a poor running technique can hamper your training, reduce your running times and also cause injuries.

Here are some of the most common issues when running:

  • Running on your toes
  • Landing to heavily on your feet
  • Running too slowly
  • Poor posture
  • Don’t use arms

If your running technique is poor your running will be biomechanically inefficient. This means when you go for a run you will be less likely to enjoy the experience and will be suffering from pains. Having correct technique is an absolute must.

Okay, so you’re probably wondering how you can improve your technique. Every part of our body is involved when we run and just like when you learn to ride a bike you need to teach your body how to coordinate itself correctly. This can be done by using memory. If you use the same correct running technique you will force you body into learning this technique without thinking. You need to repeat the motion and movement many times until the ingrained in your muscles and brain.

Correcting your technique isn’t easy as you naturally want to revert back to your previous style.

The best way to understand the correct technique is to watch the following video; this will clearly demonstrate the correct technique.

The Long Run

If you are a beginner, chances are you will hear about ‘the long run’ a lot in the near future. As a beginner, the long run is not important and it should only concern those who have progressed enough to begin racing or train for a marathon.

The main benefits of running long runs are physiological (but partly psychological). If you are about to start a marathon, knowing that the longest run you have completed is 12 miles, this won’t do much for your confidence. If you are a beginner training for a marathon, you should start on a 5k plan, and progress from there. See CoolRunning’s C25k: A Program for Beginners for more details on 5k programs. When you do start a marathon training plan, they will tell you how long your long run should be, but for everyone else, it should be around 30-50% of your MPW (once you have built a base of at least 10-20 MPW). This percentage will vary a lot and can be higher if you are doing less mileage per week. Marathoners will run up to 20 miles for their long run – venturing past 20 miles greatly increases the risk of injury for few benefits.

Most marathoners will do 5-6 long runs of 18-20 miles. The rest of us should go long once a week to be on ‘stand-by’ for a new training plan or upcoming race. Some people like to run long to add a good few miles to their base, or to help lose weight. As you can see, long runs don’t just have to be about performance.

Your long runs should be run at a pace around 2-3 minutes a mile slower than your fastest 5k race pace and every long run should be treated as a hard run, which means you rest or recover the day before and after.

The benefits of long runs are listed here:

  • Improves aerobic and muscular endurance, as well as psychological endurance.
  • Improves form.
  • Mimics the marathon its-self, which is good for experience and experiments (ie with fuel/hydration)
  • Muscles learn to hold more glycogen and use fat more efficiently, thus preventing/delaying ‘hitting the wall’ and fatigue.
  • Trains fast twitch muscle fibers to assist slow twitch muscle fibers. (Slow twitch fibers help us run long and slow, whereas fast twitch fibers help us run fast, but fatigue quickly).

Heart Rates: RHR, THR, MHR

If you are looking for a measure of fitness, then your heart rate is a great way to do this. Fitness can be measured in many ways, a good indicator (one I prefer to use) of how fit we are is our Resting Heart Rate (RHR).

To measure your RHR, find your pulse on either your wrist or neck with any finger and count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply this by 4. This sum will give you your RHR. The average male adult has a RHR of 60-80 at rest, females 70-90. Also make sure before you measure your heart rate, you do so first thing in the morning. The reason for this is to avoid stimulants like nicotine and caffeine affecting the result.

Understanding RHR can be very useful to runners. For instance, they can ensure you are running at the right pace or that you have fully recovered on a rest day. A RHR of 10 beats a minute (BPM) more than usual can indicate you are becoming ill, are dehydrated, or not fully recovered. Some people take heart rates during training with their fingers to ensure they aren’t working too easy or hard, but I advise against this method as it is generally inaccurate. If you are this serious about your training, get yourself a good heart rate monitor; they are a great tool to improve your training.

Your Training Heart Rate (THR) is between 60-80% of your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). To obtain your MHR, you need to run as fast as you can for at least a minute and then take your pulse, do this a few times and average the results out. Or, if you don’t fancy the hard work, you can subtract your age from 220, although many runners will testify to how inaccurate this method can be.

You should run at this pace to promote ‘the training effect’ and to not over stress the body. Whatever training pace you come to run at, you should be able to talk without becoming short of breath. I personally train at 1 to 2 minutes below my 5k race pace. Putting on the Heart Rate Monitor before each run can become a hassle, not to mention expensive.

However, different levels of effort have different places within a runners plan. To tune up for a race, it may be recommended to push your runs up to 90% of your MHR.

Altitude

As a mountaineer, I know how the effects of altitude can hamper performance. But is it true that using altitude to your advantage can enhance performance? The landmark height for an effect on performance is 3000 feet. At this altitude, you will tire quicker because the oxygen is thinner. For every 1000 feet you go above 3000 feet, your aerobic capacity (your maximum oxygen uptake or VO2 max) decreases by 3-4%. However, your body also begins to acclimatize; the main observation is that you produce more red blood cells (these transport oxygen to muscles). Eventually, if you remain at the same height for long enough, the negative effects of altitude will be minimized. Despite this, you will never perform as well at altitude as you would at sea level.

Some believe training at altitude and then racing at sea level will boost performance due to acclimatization. Many studies show otherwise. Altitude doesn’t make a difference; in fact, it will decrease performance at sea level because you cannot train as fast when at altitude. Remember what you learned in the speed section? To run fast, you must practice running fast.

If you have to train at new altitudes, it is recommended that you cut back on your mileage and pace, and slowly increase them each week this is very important for beginners. It is also more important to stay hydrated at altitudes due to the dry, cool air.

Other observations at altitude are:

  • A decrease in air temperature.
  • A decreased MHR.
  • An increase in lactic acid levels.
  • Increased exposure to the sun (and UV rays).

Running in the Cold

The cold. I don’t see many beginner runners on the roads in winter, but I think it’s the best time to train. If you are a competitive runner, the winter months help you gain mileage on your opponents. If you’re a beginner, fun runner or any runner for that matter, I would always recommend training through the winter, to keep the weight off and stay fit year round. The hardest thing about running in the winter is getting out of the door, once you begin running and your body temperature rises you won’t even notice the cold, promise.

As for performance, the cold is a gift. Less blood is sent to the skin to cool you down, and you lose less water and more heat, both of which allow for a faster run or race. However, should the weather become too cold, performance can become impaired. The cold best improves performance at around 0-10 degrees c. If you live in a cold climate, you may benefit from a treadmill, but if you choose to run outside, ensure all of your skin is covered to avoid frostbite.

Some people may tell you stories of ‘freezing lungs’. This is rubbish. Even in very cold temperatures, the air we breathe is warmed by the time it reaches the lungs. If the cold irritates any breathing problems you have, try wearing a facemask. A problem with cold weather is the risks of hypothermia. This condition sets in when the body loses heat quicker than it is generating it. The important rule is: do not get wet! The wind and wet can be lethal in cold weather and so it is important to dress correctly: in layers that breath. Use a thermometer before you run and learn how to dress, but remember that thermometers do not account for wind-chill. A 10 MPH wind equals a temperature drop of around 9 degrees c.

A general rule is to dress as if it is 10 degrees warmer outside than it actually is. This should compensate for your rise in body temperature. Avoid making the mistake of not drinking enough; often runners forget to stay hydrated in the winter. As with altitude and the heat, your body can acclimatize to the cold, this should take around 14 days. After this time period, your body should be retaining heat more efficiently. A good idea is too warm up indoors before heading out to minimize the shock of the cold.

The cold can put beginners off running, but if you dress correctly and stick to a routine it does become much easier. At least give it a try!

 

Running in the Heat

The heat is a pain. No doubt about it, but if you time your runs just right, you can have some pleasant runs in the summer. It is recommended that you run at sunrise or sunset, and avoid running when the sun is high in the sky. If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where you need protection from UV rays, don’t forget your sun cream. You can buy special bum bags for running with bottles (be it water or sun cream). It is recommended that you take water on runs over 30 minutes in the summer.

Heat is not good for performance. In the heat our blood has to serve our muscles and cool us down. This means that less oxygen can be transported to our muscles and as a result, we will slow down to cope with the demands. This normally occurs at temperatures above 15 degrees c. As a general rule (in Fahrenheit), you will slow down by 1 second per mile for every 1-degree increase above 60 degrees (15 degrees c). If you want to help prevent a bad performance, hydration is key. You can lose 2 to 3 pounds an hour whilst running in the summer due to fluid loss. For each 1% of bodyweight lost in fluid, your pace will slow by 2%. If you choose to drink on your run, you should note it would take 20 minutes for the benefits to occur.

Humidity should also be considered when running as this prevents sweat from evaporating. In turn, this makes it harder to lose heat. It is advised that you check your heat index in summer, and do not run when the combined temperature is above 35 degrees C. The best conditions for running are between 30-60% relative humidity.

If you suffer from cramps when running, make sure you stay hydrated, and eat salty foods. The main symptoms to look out for whilst running in the heat are: dizziness, nausea, a rapid but weak pulse, weakness in the legs, profuse sweating and dilated pupils. These symptoms could be a sign of heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Use your discretion. Quite often sufferers are confused, if you are racing in hot weather and notice someone with symptoms act quickly. There have been instances where runners who have heatstroke are so confused they have had to be dragged off route. If you encounter heatstroke, do everything possible to lower your/the sufferer’s body temperature.

If you are running in the heat, common sense is the best weapon, however, your body can acclimatize to some degree (for instance, you begin to sweat more efficiently). You yourself can run in the shade, run at sunrise or sunset, run indoors on a treadmill, slow your pace (by 1:00 minute a mile), cut back on distance, run into the wind, wet your hair before going out or freeze your running shirt prior to a run! But above all stay hydrated, a lot of beginners underestimate the importance of fluids. See Hydration for more information.

 

Not an Injury, Not an Illness!

Blisters: These occur when some form of heat separates layers of skin. For runners, this heat usually comes from friction in the trainer. Do not wear damp socks, make sure your socks are pulled tight before you set off running, and perhaps invest in some nylon socks. Try to avoid cotton – this is not a good material for running socks. Your trainers should feel snug and provide plenty of ventilation. Blisters are common for beginners because the skin around the feet has yet to harden.

Cramps: This is a muscle contraction gone wrong. Stretching will relieve the spasm, and stretching may also help in the long term. Hot weather can contribute to cramps, along with too much too soon. To avoid cramps, eat more salt and stay hydrated. Vitamin and mineral supplements may also help.

Runner’s Nipple (Chafing): This is my most annoying problem when running. It is caused by friction from your shirt on the nipple. Sometimes this can be so bad that the nipples begin to bleed. The condition is aggravated by warm weather and
long distance running. My advice is to wear loose clothes, or no top at all if you can get away with it! If this doesn’t help, the best way to combat runner’s nipple is to apply second skin over the nipple. This second skin is the same stuff used to cover burns and blisters. You could also use a plaster or anything else suitable. A lot of runners I know use
Body Glide or Vaseline, however, this can be rather messy and expensive.

The Stitch: This is one not to worry about too much. Experts believe that the stitch is a result of a spasm of the diaphragm, but some also believe it could be the result of ligaments and tendons being tugged on with the up and down motion of running. One thing is for certain however, and that is that leaving plenty of time between eating/drinking and then running will help. Experiment with trial and error and see what works best for you. Some people also say that specific foods contribute towards their stitch, so you may want to take a look at your diet, for instance you may be intolerant to certain foods. If you do get a stitch whilst running, slow down and take deep breaths, or just run through it.