By way of introduction...Eighteen months ago I stumbled on R.J.Secor’s Aconcagua guide in a book shop. I picked it up since I owned a copy of his guide to Mexico’s volcanoes, one of which – Popocatepetl – I had climbed in 1989, back in the days when I still did a lot of climbing. I didn’t buy Secor’s newest guide on that first encounter, but an idea started to form, which within six months had me back at the same book shop – and I did buy it. I hadn’t climbed higher than 4810m since the 1980’s but I wanted to climb Aconcagua. Tentatively I asked my wife Leila if she wanted to come with me.
“You must be joking!” she said “It is the biggest scree slope in the world – and you know I hate scree.”
I had taken Leila up Mont Blanc in 2002. At the time this constituted the ‘ridiculous’ as opposed to the sublime part of our honeymoon. Until she met me, Leila had never been climbing and had never spent so much as a night in a tent. She wanted to see what it was like. I thought Mont Blanc would be a suitably romantic initiation. So after four nights of luxury in a top London hotel Leila spent her first night ever in a tent, at 3200m on the Tète Rouse Glacier – in a thunderstorm. Her next night was at 3800m having climbed up the Aiguille de Gouter with big boots and a heavy rucksack. This was where she developed her lifelong loathing of scree, especially coming down.
But Leila did quite like climbing snow, in crampons – and duly reached the highest point in Western Europe.
Nevertheless any romance in the occasion was to die back on the rocky slopes of the Aiguille de Gouter, which she had come to refer to as ‘that black brute’. We had our first marital disagreement on those slopes. I happen rather to like them, but felt we should get a move on as another thunderstorm was coming. Leila loathed them, but couldn’t go any faster as she felt totally unsafe moving on rocks which also moved.
I have digressed. The long and the short of it is that on Aconcagua (which is mostly rocks that move and other unpleasantness’s) I am on my own. I could find someone to attempt it with me, but I’m attracted to making my attempt solo.
To my surprise my employers as well as Leila agreed to me taking the necessary four weeks off, so I have now made the commitment for February 2011.
I have now also made the further commitment to use the event to fundraise for The Hepatitis C Trust, a charity closely linked to my work with those unfortunates who are dependent on drugs & alcohol.
Not having climbed at very high altitude since the 1980’s I recognised that I needed to put in a bit more training than just nipping down the gym a few times. So this was my excuse to take off to the Alps for 2 weeks on my own last September. This would be my last opportunity to check myself out with altitude, albeit modest alpine altitude. It was also to be a chance to practice a bit of solo climbing and getting into the swing of living in tents again, neither of which I had practiced for a good few years.
This is what I got up to…
Mitaghorn, Allalinhorn and Weissmies, 6th – 11th September.I started out by earning myself a telling off from an official who caught me putting away my bivvy gear up by the reservoir in the Saas Fee valley, Switzerland. Fresh out from England I saw an opportunity to start the acclimatisation process off immediately, with a night out at 2200m. So, in the darkness, I had driven my little hire car up there and laid out my new gortex bivvy bag. But it was verboten, I should have been in the camp site 600m below, at Saas Grund – and I was caught at seven in the morning by an exceptionally keen representative of local Swiss officialdom. It made me feel like a young man again. Struggling to produce a contrite expression, I evaded a fine – but inside I was singing - for the weather was perfect!
A few hours later I had scrambled up a nice little via ferrata – or klettersteig - up to the summit of the Mitaghorn, at 3150m. Slightly short of puff at the top, my little pulse oximeter confirmed my lack of acclimatisation with a reading of 88%. I descended as fast as my long suffering knees would allow, picked up a pre-packed rucksack and hastened for the telecabin station, only to find it had closed 10 minutes before. But a new official – bless him – let me on…
By 6pm, I was enjoying a mug of soup at a (legal) bivvy, up at over 3000m. This time I was up by a glacier, close to the lower slopes of the Allalinhorn - reputedly the easiest four thousander in the Alps. The following morning I was apparently first on to its snowy slopes, glistening in the golden light of dawn. But – under iPod power - I caught up with a pair of Scottish lads, who had evidently bivvied somewhere too – and then, at the 4027m summit, a German couple, who had appeared up a moderately technical route. My saturation was 90% - better than on the summit of the Mitaghorn, 900m lower, the day before – confirming the beginnings of acclimatisation. And the view was near perfect – matching a dramatic classical climax from the iPod. Now if only I’d had one of those back in the 80’s…
I was half way back down the Allalinhorn before I encountered the first of droves of people, direct up from the valley bottom via the Glacier Express. By the time most would be summiting, I was back down in the valley, courtesy of the same.
So as not to annoy any more Swiss officials, I went legal and stayed in a camp site down at Saas Grund. Besides, a shower was nice – and the Schnitzel and Gruner Salat even better. I slept like a log.
To the Almergeller Hut
The new day dawned frosty and clear. I wasted no time in packing up and heading for the Weissmies, via the Almergeller hut. I had decided I would permit myself a night in this hut, so travelled light – again under iPod power. Above the tree line I reached a particularly appealing little stream surrounded by wild flowers, just as I got to the theme tune of Robinson Crusoe… all was well in the world.
I discovered that Swiss mountain huts have come on in the world since the 1980’s. There was no battered enamel jug of Tee-Wasser thrust through a hatch by a gnarled looking hut warden. Instead there was a somewhat elegant three course meal, served with military precision by a little army of attractive looking frauliens. I sat with a party of genial elderly French – well, even more elderly than me anyway. They too were bound for the Weissmies.
The Weissmies 4023m
Next morning I was away at the head of the pack, walking by star and head torch light, having left the hut at 4.45am. Easy slopes of moraine, with lots of cairns or those splashes of red and white paint, showed the way up to the pass. From there I stuck to the crest of the southeast ridge of the Weissmies. I thought route finding would be easier there than on the bouldery slopes to the right – but I discovered the ensuing scrambling was relatively slow. Bit by bit, pin pricks of head torch light, ascending those slopes, were catching me up.
Another golden dawn exploded silently – this time over a sea of cloud, pierced by the odd summit, over to the southeast – and Italy. The ridge steepened and with regret I removed my iPod ear pieces, the better to concentrate – and to be able to hear in the event of any early stone fall. I put on my helmet.
A couple of roped pairs caught up with me on the upper part of the ridge, up alongside an icefield which was the obvious alternative – but ominously pitted by falling stones. Above the ice field, the ridge steepened into a sort of buttress, which provided more exposed, but still easy climbing, up to a near horizontal snow ridge at about 3900m.
I clipped on crampons, crossed a small snowy dome and scrambled over a subsidiary top. Then there was a beautiful little snow ridge, which after a mere couple of hundred meters ended in the summit of Weissmies, at 4023m.
Summit views were stunning in all directions – especially the direction I had come from, where the elegant little snow ridge appeared suspended above the sea of cloud. But the other way was quite something too – no sea of cloud – but dramatic views of Monte Rosa and other old friends: the Alphubel, Taschhorn and Dom. And not forgetting my new friend, the Allinahorn, looking a little lost amongst her larger siblings.
There was quite a little crowd up on the summit, mainly of people who had climbed up the glacier route, from the Weissmies hut. Occasional roped groups were now arriving from ‘my’ side, from the Almergeller hut. I photographed some on the little snow ridge, against the back drop of clouds…
I encountered the party of elderly French, still ascending, about 100m below the summit. They and all other parties I had encountered intended to go down the glacier route. So from then onwards I had the mountain to myself – all the way back down to the hut. There, I treated myself to a slab of apple cake before heading back down to Saas Grund – and my vintage Quasar tent.
Mont Blanc – first visit 12th & 13th September.Three days and a break in the weather later, I was plodding up the lower slopes of Mont Blanc above the Nid D’Aigle tramway terminus. It was my intention to make my 5th ascent of Mont Blanc – and perhaps bivvy on the top. This would be the highest I could go to test myself at altitude before Aconcagua, 18 months in the future. The summit of Mont Blanc at 4810m is just a little lower than Camp One on big A – and I wanted to check a few readings of my oxygen saturation at that height. I also quite fancied the thought of a night out on the highest point in Western Europe.
But it was not to be. The weather was still ‘iffy’ as I prepared a bivvy up on the Tète Rouse glacier, at 3200m (where 7 years earlier I had camped with my wife). I had to shake an inch of new snow off my little gortex coffin, when I surfaced at 1am, to have a few brews before starting my climb. And all the rocks of the Aiguille de Gouter were dusted with snow as I climbed to the top by head torch light.
I finally ground to a halt just after dawn, up at 4300m, beyond the top of the Dôme. Strong winds were blasting clouds of spindrift around – filling in tracks. With more and more cloud blowing across there was the threat of white out – and ending up having to blunder around on a compass bearing. A brief parting in the clouds revealed the upper slopes of Mont Blanc to be wild looking. Two or three parties were visible – but even at a distance I could see most people were unable to stand – and all appeared to be descending. So I decided on discretion – and turned back.
Back down in Chamonix the weather forecast was uncertain, but probably bad for the next week. So in terms of climbing it looked as if my holiday was over. I would have to be content with the three peaks I had climbed in the first four days. It was hard to shake off a sense of disappointment. So I mooched around climbing shops, thinking about bits and pieces I would need for Aconcagua - but Chamonix prices were off putting. I drove back into Switzerland and visited an old paragliding friend in Lauterbrunnen. But he was very busy with a new business and hadn’t much free time. I discovered that my 25 year old Quasar let in the rain…
Another weather window for Mont Blanc, 17th & 18th September.With just three days of holiday left I returned to Chamonix. My old paragliding friend is something of a weather expert and he had said it might be slightly better down in that part of the Alps again. He was correct in that it wasn’t raining. But heavy clouds were still obscuring the tops down to quite low level – and rapid movement suggested still persisting high winds. I re-visited the bureau de guides: the outlook was more of the same following day – and then a ’50:50’ possibility of a short lived improvement on Friday – my last possible day to climb.
I decided to have a last crack at Mont Blanc. Forgotten were my plans for a summit bivouac. I would be content just to stand on the top again. But even if I didn’t stand on the top it would be better to try than spending my last 3 days in further valley bottom mooching.
I drove down to La Fayet, outside of the main Chamonix valley and at 500m above sea level, at the very lowest point of the base of Mont Blanc, some 4300m below the summit. A part of me was intrigued at the thought of experiencing the mountain in full so to speak - all my previous ascents having started from Chamonix, over 500m higher.
I caught the very first tram at 7.45am. At a speed of a little more than jogging pace, the tram traversed rain slicked streets – and then slowly cruised up through a veritable feast of different climatic zones, whose flora were dictated by the increasing harshness of conditions with altitude. Mixed forest gave way to pine, trees getting smaller and smaller until there was only low scrub and bush. Presently there was lush grassland – becoming increasingly sparse, with more and more moss predominating. By the time we had arrived at Nid D’Aigle, at 2300m, there was just bare scree and litchens. And I was aware that all being well, this journey which had started on warm but damp streets would end in a frigid world of ice and snow, just a scant few miles away.
The weather was still iffy. It had rained during the night, but at least it was dry now. Complex layered cloud still swirled around the tops – but the occasional tantalising beam of hot sunlight shone through. I shouldered my laden back pack and set about continuing my journey. Around me others did the same but, clearly headed for the mountain huts, their loads were much less than mine.
Almost at random I picked the ‘Pop’ playlist on my iPod. Soon David Bowie and his 1980’s ‘Putting out the fire…’ were echoing round my ears. This music went through my head in an endless loop when I first climbed Mont Blanc via the Brenva Face back in 1985. It is therefore for me forever linked to Mont Blanc – and was thus a fortuitous choice. I set off at a brisk place and made short work of the 800m climb back up to the Tète Rouse glacier – where I had bivvied five days earlier and received a dusting of snow.
But this time, I wouldn’t be bivvying here. Instead I intended to continue straight on up the Gouter, which was now looking distinctly white under a light canopy of fresh snow. For the second time in less than a week I set about climbing and scrambling up the 600m rocky spur to the top – but this time in day light. The light cover of new snow ensured there was minimal stonefall danger and all was silent as I crossed the infamous ‘Grand Couloir’, which normally acts as a funnel for anything dropping off the upper part of the mountain. I also noted that, under the couple of inches of soft new snow, that the couloir was now a scree-shoot, with none of the permanent névé I recalled from earlier years. It took me just under 3 hours to climb from the edge of the Tète Rouse, up to the Gouter summit.
I unrolled my gortex coffin in one of a few excavations in the snow just beside the snow crest that is the Gouter summit – and about 200m away from the hut. Clouds still swirled around, revealing occasional tantalising glimpses of the upper slopes, or a snap shot of the valley far below. But then at around 7pm it cleared. The clouds receded to form a sea stretching off to the west, but far below. A golden sunset in the same direction looked stunning as well as raising my hopes for the morrow.
Illuminated by the same golden light, I spied a tiny figure up near the top of Dôme. As I watched the figure began to speed downwards, carving an elegant serpentine track on the shining slope. The figure disappeared from sight near the bottom, hidden behind the crest of the snow ridge adjacent to my little camp. But mere minutes later, crunching along this crest, appeared a wild looking young man, hair and beard all over the place – and carrying a snow board. He stopped to pass the time of day and we both stood up on the crest, glowing warmly in the sunset. Eyes dancing and tongue lolling like an excited puppy, the young man told me how he had summited Mont Blanc earlier in the afternoon – then rounded off his experience with the exciting descent of the Dôme I had just witnessed. Presently he marched off in the direction of the Gouter Hut.
Bivvying at 3800m in my little coffin proved a cumbersome affair. I needed to bring boots, water bottle, camera and iPod into my sleeping bag in order to prevent them from freezing. Especially the boots made for somewhat lumpy bed fellows and I felt as if I was jammed into a Christmas stocking. But somehow I managed to snatch four hours sleep, until I awoke at half past midnight. Then a brief tussle with frozen draw-cord and zips exposed my balaclava’d head to the elements – and the most stunning panoply of stars directly above. I paused to admire briefly – and then with further contortion I produced arms – and a pulse oximeter reading: my pulse was 85 and oxygen saturation 92%, both quite acceptable for that altitude. The air temperature was a bracing minus 12 centigrade.
By 2am I had had several pints of warm coffee and chocolate, plus a few handfuls of trail mix. So long before dawn it was a little early to be leaving, but I cramponed up, plugged in the iPod and left anyway. By headtorch light I crunched along the remaining few hundred meters of horizontal snow ridge, leading to the broad snowy slopes of the Dôme de Gouter. For the second time in less than a week I cramponed my wearisome way some 500m up to the top – once again thankful for my iPod, whose crystal notes relieved the monotony.
By the time I was cresting the top of the Dôme, the snow ridge far below was illuminated by a chain of little sparks of light, as the first parties out from the Gouter Hut got underway. I watched as the lead sparks began to probe the lower section of the long weary slopes I had just ascended – and then they were lost to sight, as I crossed a moderate sized crevasse and scrambled onto the wide plateau near the summit of the Dôme.
As I walked the few hundred metres down the other side to a col, I became aware that it was approaching the coldest part of the night – that frigid time just before and even just after, the dawn. I guessed that in the icy darkness the temperature would be around minus 15 centigrade. On Aconcagua I will have to expect as low as minus 30 – and wind chill on top. My body core was warm as toast with a layer of down and gortex between me and the elements. But to my annoyance, my ski gloves were not up to the conditions and I started to be troubled with cold fingers – all the worse for gripping my walking poles.
The final 600m summit pyramid was now directly ahead. In the dark I couldn’t see it, but I could make out its outline as a great wedge of blackness, encroaching on an otherwise star studded sky. All was silent and with all other parties on the far side of the Dôme behind me, I had the feeling of being totally alone in the freezing blackness. I recognised that I had now reached the point where a few days earlier, I had turned back.
The pool of bright light from my head torch easily revealed the trail of crampon pointed boot prints, stamped through a crust of about 3 inches of new snow – which now began to ascend and zigzag up increasingly steep slopes, ascending about 100m up to a couple of level areas – where resided the tiny Vallot Hut and Observatory. Puffing in the thin air, I slowly gained height, until I became level with the Hut.
My hands were now burning with a vengeance and there was still a long time to go before the arrival of the sun and a degree of warmth. Besides which, I was so early that if I continued, I’d likely be ascending the most beautiful part of the route in the darkness. I decided to wait an hour in the relative warmth of the Vallot before setting foot on the famous Bosses ridge, leading up to the summit.
Inside the hut, it was just as squalid as on previous visits. The construction is just a small tin box, the interior being the size of a small living room. The bare floor was covered in rubbish – and the inside air temperature a sultry minus eight. By torch light I found a thick but dirty blanket amongst the detritus on the floor – and I wrapped it round myself as I settled in a corner, sitting on a low bench. Slowly and painfully my fingers thawed out – until they were warm, but still tingling slightly and a bit tender. With blood flow through finger ends again I re-checked my oxygen sats – reading between 88 and 91%.
At 4300m, I was aware my height was now merely the height of Aconcagua base camp. I had been slightly short of breath on top of the Gouter, 500m lower, but otherwise had no discomfort from the altitude. Here, at the Vallot, I was aware of a lassitude and sleepiness – and when I dozed off I slept in fits and starts – disturbed by my irregular breathing, as I remembered being at altitude in the Himalayas over 20 years before. Whilst the altitude was easily tolerable and I had no doubt I could easily climb higher, I was aware that I would not yet be acclimatised enough to sleep comfortably at this height.
I dozed for an hour and then at around 5am became aware of a distant murmuring of voices – and then the sharp clatter of someone with crampons trying to clamber up the short aluminium ladder leading into the hut. A brilliant beam of torch light dazzled me momentarily – and then three hooded apparitions scrambled into the dingy interior. I greeted them with a cheery ‘bonjour’ – but received an unenthusiastic grunt in return. The three settled themselves amongst the squalor to my left. I presumed their unfriendliness was a sign they were suffering from the altitude, cold – or both.
Not at all hungry I nonetheless made myself chew my way through an energy bar and some more trail mix – and I took a few swigs from my water bottle, now partially frozen, despite bringing it into my sleeping bag overnight. Then at about 5.15am I clattered my way out of the hut, back out into the freezing darkness outside.
In contrast to an hour earlier, now there were scattered two’s and three’s of slowly moving pools of torch light advancing upwards into the blackness. The indentation of Mont Blanc into the myriad star canopy was now huge – and the first of these little light clusters were now around half way up the right hand edge. The only sounds were the occasional distant clink of an ice axe and rhythmic crunch and squeak of crampons on a frozen surface of snow.
For my iPod was dead and silent. I had tried to turn it back on just before clambering out of the Vallot, anticipating a suitable accompaniment of classical music for the dawn high up on the Bosses Ridge. But there was nothing… I assumed the battery had run out sooner than expected. I have since heard tales of iPods not working well at high altitude, so maybe this was why. But I hope my new iPod Touch does a little better on Aconcagua…
I gripped my poles and started plodding upwards, towards the huge humped outline of Le Grand Bosse, the greater of the two prominences on the famous ridge above. Within a few meters I had re-joined the trail of crampon booted footprints, which now cut a low groove about four inches deep into the surface of soft new snow. The gradient of the trail soon began to steepen, as I reached the lower slopes of the Bosse. Increasingly I had to flex my ankles to keep as many crampon points as possible in contact with the frozen surface. As the gradient increased still further, I had to resort to kicking in front points as well as working harder with my poles to gain traction – to keep moving upwards… ever upwards, into the star studded void of the sky.
The combination of the exertion and altitude accelerated my breathing into a regular cycle of great gasps of the freezing air - in and out, in and out – in synchrony with the crunching of crampon placements. It was tiring and I remembered that it is a 200m climb from the level of the Vallot, up to the top of the Grande Bosse at over 4500m. I gripped my poles tighter and steeled myself to keep going – slowly – not giving in to growing lethargy and the desire just to stand still, close my eyes and…
Gripping my poles my fingers, still tender from the earlier freezing, began to burn – and I recognised they were freezing again. And again I cursed my choice of hand ware. I tried not gripping the poles so much, relying on wrist loops to maintain traction. I tried alternately gripping and relaxing – to try to force blood flow to my throbbing finger ends. Neither made much difference.
I followed the trail onto the very crest of the ridge – the Bosses Ridge proper now. Any satisfaction at once again, being high on Mont Blanc and on this famous ridge, continued to be marred by the continued burning in my fingers. I accelerated my pace, imagining that if my heart pumped harder still, that warm blood from my core would be driven more into extremities like my fingers. I overtook a group of two French couples, roped together in pairs; I had sat opposite them on the tram several years ago yesterday morning. I had mentally labelled them the ‘designer’ couples – as they were impeccably neat in their state of the art Arc’teryx gear and appeared a little haughty. Wordlessly, they stood to the side to let me pass – perhaps grateful for the opportunity to stand still for a moment, panting in the thinning air.
Bit by bit, the endless night crawled on – and I felt as if I had known no other existence other than the weary plod up into the star canopy, puffing clouds of frozen steam into the beam of light from my headtorch – and the constant tingling and burning in my finger ends.
At some point the narrow crest broadened and flattened temporarily – and I knew that I had reached the top of the Grande Bosse at 4513m. I paused for a few breaths and then advanced to tackle another steepening, which would culminate in the top of the Petit Bosse, just forty or so metres higher.
The pain in my fingers started to ease. The relief was welcome and tempting to give in to. But the easing did not signify warmth – rather the opposite. I realised my fingers were now completely numb, something I should not ignore. I couldn’t allow myself to get frostbite on Mont Blanc! Not for the first time I reminded myself I should have brought mittens, not ski gloves – and I made another mental note to pay serious attention to hand ware for Aconcagua.
I stopped on top of the Petit Bosse, planted both poles in a snow drift and slipped off my back pack. Then I crouched down beside the crest of the ridge and pulled my hands up under my duvet jacket and into the warm inner layers of my clothing. There was now, at last, a line of gold on the distant horizon, testament to the approaching dawn. But this would also be testament to the coldest part of the night. If it had been minus 12 five hours ago and 700m lower, then what must it be now? I didn’t reach for the thermometer in my back pack to find out.
I hunched lower, burying my hands in warmth, but feeling the chill of my gloves on the skin of my tummy. There was some relief in not moving, but I was still far from comfortable in my adopted awkward position. Bit by tiny bit, the line of gold on the horizon slowly thickened – and some mountain and cloud tops way below, began to become illuminated, dimly at first.
The designer couples caught me up again. One of the two women startled me out of my reverie, abruptly speaking in a commanding voice ‘You av’ to keep moveeng!’ in heavily French accented English. The only words I had spoken to them had been ‘bonjour’ a couple of times as we had played leap frog on the long journey up from below. Clearly this had been enough for the woman to have clocked me as English, to have addressed me that way. And clearly also she had clocked my hunched posture, round my frozen hands – to have delivered her somewhat haughty advice.
Still slightly startled at the commanding tone, I found myself mumbling as if a school boy again, offering a pathetic excuse to an overbearing teacher ‘But I have tried that – and it wasn’t working!’.
The woman gave a haughty toss of her hooded head – and she plus silent companions continued on their journey, leaving me alone – and slightly relieved – to continue my uncomfortable vigil in peace.
My fingers began to tingle a bit. Then the burning started – and for long minutes I rocked myself and gritted my teeth against waves of ‘the hot aches’ as my fingers returned to life. I tried to focus on the extraordinary view of the dawn from nearly 4600m. Beams of golden sunlight were now cutting through the gloom and setting on fire ridges and cloud banks far below. The south face of Mont Blanc itself was now glowing, to the right of the ridge crest.
A quarter hour or so later, the burning had once more subsided and my fingers were merely tender again. It was now nearly full day light and the most attractive and golden part of the dawn was over. The first party to have summited, a rope of three, passed me on the ridge as they negotiated the long journey back down. The temperatures I knew would be as low as ever, but I decided to risk a few quick photos’…
I started moving again. The ridge narrowed and steepened – and either side of the crest it began to drop off quite impressively. I became aware that a keen breeze lower down had become a moderately strong wind blowing from right to left across my path. With drop offs of several thousand feet either side, a slip could now have serious consequences for an un-roped climber. So I braced myself against the wind and concentrated on not tripping over my crampons.
After another 20 minutes or so of progress I reached a small rocky outcrop, to the right of the ridge. This I knew was the rock of La Tournette, another land mark on the Bosses ridge, at an altitude of 4677m – approaching 15,350 feet. From previous visits to this spot I remembered that from here the last little bit of crest to the summit went quickly, with no false summits (unlike the crest on the opposite side). It also was the start of the most beautiful stretch – where the final summit bastion rose up in an elegant and almost perfect triangle, neatly bisected by the ridge. As I looked up now a little spray of fine spin drift was blowing from the top like gossamer streamers – and I could see the designer couples taking their final steps onto the roof of Western Europe.
Another quarter of an hour and I too, was taking my final steps on the ridge. Abruptly the gradient eased, the ridge broadened into a level snowy platform. And there, about another 30 meters ahead someone had placed a small flag – fluttering madly in the keen wind. I approached the flag and presently the surface started gently falling away in front of me, exposing a familiar vista of icy summits, all way below and stretching into the far, far distance. It was 6.45am and I was on the very top of Mont Blanc, 4810m – 15,780 feet.
Edward Whymper, of Matterhorn fame, was said to have described the view as ‘disappointing’ when he reached this spot in the late 18th century. I have always found it the opposite – and on this occasion couldn’t resist letting out a falsetto ‘Yahoo!’ of sheer joy.
Then I noticed the designer couples, just a short distance away below the crest, out of the wind. They all turned and regarded me wordlessly for a moment, before turning back to their own contemplation of Chamonix, some 12,000 feet below.
I decided to keep further expressions of my state of mind to myself. But still feeling a warm glow of pleasure I stood next to the still madly fluttering flag, examining all four quadrants of the skyline. I spent long moments staring at the cluster of the biggest peaks on the horizon: there was Whymper’s Matterhorn, which I myself climbed in 1981. And close by several other old friends – Weisshorn, Zinal Rothorn, Taschhorn and Dom, Dent Blanche – and mighty Monte Rosa, the only other Alpine peak of over 15,000 feet, apart from Mont Blanc. Beyond those it was just possible to make out my recent new acquaintances, the Allalinhorn and Weissmies. All in all I could see ten summits over there, which I had stood on, some several times.
Looking over into Italy there was a sea of cloud far below and then on the further horizon a dark wall of higher cloud – signifying the end of the little window of good weather.
Gripping my camera, my fingers were starting to freeze again. I moved away from the highest point and like the designer couples, walked away from the top, boots sinking into soft powder snow, until I dropped below and out of the wind. They had finished their silent contemplation of Chamonix and now turned to go – and soon I had the highest point in the Alps all to myself.
From a pocket buried under layers of clothing, I pulled out my mobile phone to find there was good reception at the top of Mont Blanc. At just after seven in the morning I phoned my wife – and caught her just after she had returned from walking our Golden Retriever, Jake. I experienced a mad sense of incongruity as I heard Leila’s voice, speaking clearly to me from a familiar but utterly different and distant place – almost as if we were somehow communicating from different dimensions. She talked about the walk in the woods and I described to her my world of ice and snow – which I had shown her seven years earlier, when I had brought her up to this place.
Presently I reached into my pack and pulled out the thermometer: minus 15 centigrade. On Aconcagua it could reach minus 30. Having re-warmed my fingers I attached the little pulse oximeter again. It was a little difficult to obtain a reading, but eventually figures on the tiny screen settled: pulse 114 and oxygen saturation fluctuating between 84-87%. Given ‘normal’ at 5000m is around 83%, I decided the reading was acceptable for 4810m. On Aconcagua at nearly 7000m I could expect 72%. Strange to think that years ago, working as an anaesthetist, I used to feel alarm if a patient’s saturation fell below 95%...
At around 9am I tore myself away from the top. Another roped pair had arrived, but the upper Bosses ridge was empty as I set foot on it again, to start the long journey back down. It was strange to look into the far distance, knowing that this journey had started way down there just over 24 hours ago, on warm rain-slicked streets – and that all being well it would also end down there, much later that day.
Concentrating intensely and mindful that tripping over a crampon would be a bad thing, I nonetheless set off down at a brisk pace. Half way down the ridge I started to pass occasional clusters of people, plodding laboriously up, as I had been doing a couple of hours before. I didn’t encounter any other soloists, although the route is ideally suited for lone rangers.
In little more than half an hour I was back down on the broad expanse of near flat glacier below the Vallot hut and before the gentle rise back up to the Dôme. Almost abruptly I found myself out of the wind and exposed to direct and reflected sunlight coming at me from all sides. As I started to plod slowly uphill again, all of a sudden I felt hot, thirsty and with eyelids so heavy I could barely hold them up to see. Waves of irresistible weariness assailed me. My thirst was almost intolerable – but I had discovered on the summit that both my water bottles had frozen long before. There was no point in even checking them now. So I simply sat down and without so much as slipping the wrist loops of my poles off, lay back on my pack and shut my eyes.
I slept deeply until awoken by a couple of concerned passers-by, who presumably thought I had died there in my tracks. They seemed surprised when I thanked them for their concern, got up and started plodding again, towards the drop off on the other side of the Dôme. Apart from my still raging thirst I felt the better for my nap.
I descended a short steep snow slope, circumnavigated a couple of crevasses and then set off down the long broad slopes of the Dôme de Gouter. In front of me and some 500m below was the horizontal snow ridge leading to the top of the Aiguille de Gouter. At the end of the ridge I could see the silvery box shape of the hut – and a little short of this I could see a black dot in the snow, which I knew to be my bivvy.
Moving quickly again, half way down the slope, I caught up with and overtook the designer couples in a continuation of the unspoken game of leap frog they and I had been playing since early the previous day. Then a few hundred meters beyond them I encountered the extraordinary site of an irritated man, acting as guide, trying to drag an exhausted and overweight middle aged man up the slope. This unfortunate could only take a couple of steps, three at the most sinking to his knees with utter exhaustion. I looked at them. I looked up at the top of the slope, now 300m higher – and with Mont Blanc summit a good 600m higher still. And I found myself asking why?
Every so often I turned round to look at the ill assorted pair, labouring up the vast white slope. To my relief they eventually turned back, having not even reached half way up. It was just as well, since by then clouds were boiling round the tops – the outriders of the distant wall of cloud I had observed from the summit of Mont Blanc.
Back down at my bivvy I immediately melted snow on my little gas stove and slaked my raging thirst. My water bottles by then had started to thaw so I tipped some remaining warm water into them to complete the process. I shook off returning lethargy and forced myself to pack up my tiny camp. By then it was midday and I had a vague plan to try and get all the way down to Nid D’Aigle 1500m below, in time to catch the 3.35pm tram. The heights were now totally obscured by dark wet looking clouds – which suggested another reason to get a move on.
I was not greatly surprised that I missed the tram by 10 minutes. I had made a fast descent of the steep rocky slopes of the Gouter and jogged across the Grand Couloir, where a few fusillades of stones were now falling. Carefully allowing gravity to do most of the work, it had taken me forty five minutes to descend from Gouter crest to the Tète Rouse Glacier. But then an old knee injury was acting up a bit and I was forced to slow my pace on the zigzag path below the glacier.
Nevertheless it was no hardship to wait for the next tram. I still had half a bottle of now thawed water. Although dark clouds still roiled around menacingly, no rain fell. Then the tram arrived earlier than expected and I settled myself gratefully inside, next to a cheery elderly lady who beamed at me and tested my school boy French for a little while. The designer couples entered the carriage and sat just across from me as they had done on the way up 36 hours before – and in a last manoeuvre of the unspoken leap frog game. Despite the familiarity of the shared experience over the preceding day and a half, there was no greeting. They all still looked impeccably neat, despite the rigours of the long arduous journey.
I woke up sometime later to find my head on the elderly ladies shoulder. I recoiled embarrassed and apologetic. But she was unabashed, beamed at me again and spoke rapidly, something which included the word fatigué – presumably passing sympathetic comment on my tiredness.
For an hour and a half the tram rattled its way down the track and I observed in reverse all the climatic zones I had traversed the day before. The streets down at the very bottom were warm again, but no longer rain slicked – although this would shortly change.
I located my hire car, dumped my pack, poles and boots in the back and located somewhere to spend the night. A hot shower and a meal composed of other than trail mix were both welcome. Then it was strange to lie in a bed with crisp white sheets, knowing that only that morning I had lain in a sleeping bag in freezing pre-dawn darkness, looking straight up at the panoply of stars. After a quick phone call home, I slept like a log for ten hours.
Thus ended my Aconcagua dress rehearsal – already nearly a year ago now. Since then life has been taken up with work as a drug doctor and trainer of other drug doctors. I returned to the mountains with Leila last month, but not to climb. We had two weeks driving around Europe, during which we did some very enjoyable walking. But I couldn’t resist another visit to Mont Blanc – and one of the walks was an exploration of the Val Veni, on the Italian side – which I have clocked for my future 6th ascent, whenever that will be... perhaps 2014, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my 1st ascent?
So for further training for Aconcagua it is back to the gym and early morning runs. Apart from a week in early December when I am taking another week off work, to head up the Scotland – and the filthiest weather I can find – to field test my new tent and camping gear.
Aconcagua solo and Hepatitis C.I am leaving the UK on 29th January 2011 – and I hope to reach Plaza Argentina on the ‘Vacas’ side of Aconcagua about a week later. I then have nearly 3 weeks to attempt the summit from one of the Polish routes – preferably the glacier direct, but alternatively via the traverse, in the likely event that the glacier is not in the right condition. I am using the services of INKA expeditions to assist me plus kit as far as Base Camp, but from there I will be solo and unsupported.
Apart from doing my own infinitesimally tiny bit towards recovery of the global recession, paying for airline tickets, and mules etc, the climb is of no benefit to anybody save myself. It wouldn’t really even be of benefit to the mule, who I guess would prefer to stay at home rather than lugging 60kg of my kit 25 miles and 7000 feet up to Base Camp.
So I have decided to use my trip to fundraise for The Hepatitis C Trust, a charity doing vital national and international work towards raising the profile of the global time bomb that is Hepatitis C. If you are interested in donating or simply just knowing more, then please visit my JustGiving site, by clicking on the link below.
Aconcagua HCT link
(Note: all donations go to the charity and not towards the cost of the trip, which is self financed)
Ciao y’all – and happy climbing!