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Life is a stage
Night & Narnia
3 + 4 little Birds.
High Hopes, We Did It!
I moved back to Chamonix in 2006, talked into returning to the valley by a good friend who wanted me to run his chalet. I had been doing winter seasons in Chamonix since 1998 and had also done a few seasons in Canada and Austria and Switzerland. After a year back in the U.K in the the supposedly 'normal world' i was ready to get back to the mountains.
That season I started talking to my now wife Debbie about doing something positive with snowboarding. Of course there are a few negatives linked with snowboarding; it can be expensive and dangerous but I have always felt that snowboarding has given me alot of positives; friends, adventures and travel, all things that I hold dear and have always felt grateful for all the opportunities the sport has given me, so this idea of linking snowboarding with doing something for people less fortunate had been in the back of my mind for a long time but I just couldn't find away of putting the two together.
The date is now 2010 and I wake up and realize what I want to do........
I want to climb Mont Blanc the highest mountain in western europe! I have always heard stories of people climbing the mountain but few climbing AND snowboarding this dangerous glacial mountain. After a quick discussion with Debbie I begin making enquires with Great Ormond Street Hospital to see if they would be interested in my idea of climbing Mont Blanc and snowboarding off its summit. I spoke to a really helpful lady called Cathy and within minutes she was taking my address down and saying that she could send me some Great Ormond Street t-shirts and telling me how to set up a just giving account in order to raise money.
Suddenly the whole event seemed like it could become a reality, only problem was I had no high altitude climbing gear and although I have always been at a reasonably high level snowboarding wise my climbing ability had only been tested on climbing walls. Fitness was also at a basic level and would also need to be vastly improved.
That afternoon I felt a sense of excitement mixed with the realization that it would be impossible to do this event on my own.
I would need a friend, someone who is fun, at a high level of snowboarding and somebody who is not scared of high altitude and of some hard training. It took me all of 2 seconds to make up my mind. I would approach Tom Wilson North.
Tom and I had 3 years earlier formed a snowboard team and competed in a famous snowboarding competition called the Grand Raid. I remember how I met Tom; i had walked into his snowboarding shop in Chamonix called Zero G to buy a new snowboarding jacket and came out signed up for a snowboarding comp racing against some of the best free riders in Europe. We did well in the comp and from that point on have become good friends who on days off love to ride Chamonix’s great off piste runs together.
Once again I walked into Tom's shop but this time it was me who said “how do you fancy climbing and snowboarding off Mount Blanc for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital”?!! Tom Smiled at me and said with a grin............”Why not?”. I could tell from the glint in his eye that he was super keen and 100% up for it. His enthusiasm was almost frightening as I was only just getting my head around the fact that i was planning to climb a big mountain!
It was now early April and it was time to make some plans..... Tom and I arranged a meeting at the Satsuki restaurant. I brought Debbie along and Tom brought his lovely girlfriend Laura. We quickly over lunch came up with tactical plans in order to make sure that if we were going succeed we would have to approach it the right way. Laura gave some helpful insights on diet and training, Tom talked about hikes we could do and Debbie came up with some ideas on setting ourselves goals like walking up the home run of Les Grands Montets and sleeping at altitude.
We also thought about equipment we would need to buy, crampons,ice axes,backpacks and of course a guide to take us up to the summit of Mont Blanc. I already mentioned the idea to a guide who was a skier/ snowboarder and had lived in the valley for 15 years called Lars, Lars is from Belgium and a good friend. The whole group agreed that Lars was perfect and soon we were trying to decide what to call the name of our charity event. We brain stormed a few names and then it came to me, the name was 'High Hopes'. We all agreed on the name and with note pads full of plans and ideas we left Satsuki knowing that the event was now in motion and that we had a solid plan of what we needed to buy and a timeline of how we would get fit in order to climb MB.
Over the next month I ran up many trails and hiked up all sorts of different ski runs in the valley including the laborious Pierre a Ric home run at Les Grands Montets using snow shoes and ski poles. Tom was super motivating and a inspiration because he would always manage to make me train just a little harder and go that extra mile. At times the daunting nature of altitude training used to drain me of confidence and at the top of the Les Grands Montets I would be heaving and puffing up the steps thinking how on earth am I gonna survive at 4,500 + meters.
One of the most useful of training days turned out to be the the col du passon which was a fantastic way of not only getting used to carrying a backpack full of equipment but also of getting used to walking in snow shoes and having the snowboard on your back. This route was a hard slog and having completed the first part of the tour in deep snow we came to a steep 45 degree couloir. This turned out to be a fantastic practice of using crampons and a ice axe. The snowboarding over the glacier La Tour was great and in the back of my mind I could almost imagine myself snowboarding down the north face of Mont Blanc.
During this time I heard lots of different stories about just how dangerous climbing Mont Blanc was and even sent a blow by blow account of a devastating avalanche that had swept through the Tacul and killed 3 people climbing its face. All of these facts made me feel uneasy and at times.
While all of this was going on money was starting to flow in the justgiving account and now a month into training we had raised somewhere close to 1000 pounds which was our target.
Training was now starting to feel easier and I began to feel confident. With the weather improving Tom and I started to train at the Aiguille du Midi. At an altitude of 3,842m the training was tough, a mere two footsteps and my breathe would dissolve and again did nothing for my confidence in my training or in myself. Soon our weather window had disappeared into nothing and Chamonix endured 3 weeks of hard rain and snow above 2000 meters. This meant that summiting Mont Blanc was out for now but would enable us to fit in more training, never a bad thing!. Mont Blanc is impossible if there is too much snow as you would never be able to wade through meters of snow not to mention the minor fact that the avalanche risk is far to great. Also being up at the midi i could see the route in which we would be taking and did not like the look of the seracs and steep terrain even in good weather!
Due to working commitments I had to leave Chamonix and head to Barcelona for a week, followed by the South of France and Wales. During this period I was now at sea level and felt that all my training in Chamonix was slipping away and concerned that i would be back to square one. I spoke to Tom most days and his fitness seemed to be growing as was his confidence. When i got to North Wales I spent sometime with my family and found time to hike up Snowdon, a mountain 5 times smaller than Mont Blanc.
The exciting thing at this time was that I felt I was doing something worthwhile, seeing the donations flooding in was amazing and with that the thought that I couldn't let anybody down and must train harder.
Soon I was back in Chamonix, and the weather began to improve......
Then came The Phone Call...... It was Lars, our guide saying that in 4 days time, Sunday 23rd of May, we would be setting off to climb and snowboard Mont Blanc. With this news Tom and I immediately headed up the Aiguille Du Midi and spent the night in the lift station along with other climbers. I felt ok at 3,842 meters although my heart was racing and my mind was beginning to play tricks on me. I kept on having dreams of crevasses and avalanches only able to doze for short periods. The temperature dropped while we were up there and Tom got very cold having opted to not take a sleeping bag. The views of the sun going down were amazing and blew me away. By this stage I was getting messages from friends saying good luck with the climb and at this point we had raised 2000 pounds for the hospital which was mind blowing. When we got down in the morning from the Aiguille Du midi I headed straight to bed although I had a very upset stomach and worried if this would be a problem at altitude for me.
The next day came around quickly and soon my bag was packed and I was standing in the car park with Lars and Tom waiting to get the cable car up to the Aiguille du midi and to stay the night at the Cosmiques hut. One thing that worried me was that lars was on skis and I thought he would be snowboarding with us. I asked him where his board was and he quickly told me that it would be safer for him as a guide if he was on skis. It was hard saying goodbye to Debbie and I worried that she was even more worried than I was. We had a quick photo of us wearing the Great Ormond Street t-shirts and soon we were hurtling up in the cable car. The weather was sunny and just being near Lars seemed to make me feel at ease. He quickly spotted some problems with my backpack and sorted them out quickly. Even though I had been training for 6 weeks with my north face backpack Lars seemed to tighten the snow shoes and the ice axe to the pack far more efficiently so that all the bits were not jangling around everywhere. The weather was cloudy and with only shafts of sunshine breaking through, I asked if it would be a problem for tomorrow but Lars again reassured me that the weather would be fine for the morning. It felt good to be with the lads and to finally be setting of on our adventure. Tom looked at me and suddenly looked worried, s**t he said I've forgotten my thermal layers, I wondered if this was a bad Omen of things to come, often when doing snowboarding tours its never just one thing, snapped bindings,injuries, you name it. He quickly rang Laura and arranged to meet her at the mid station. Myself and Lars headed to the top of Aiguille du Midi and waited for Tom, soon tom was up there with us and we put our grivel crampons and harnesses on and roped up. The arete of the midi did not have any rope on it so the whole thing was like one big icy cliff. I did not like the look of it and on one side was a 1 kilometer drop on the other a 500 meter death ledge. Using ice axes and crampons we made our way down slowly down the arete which was about 100 meters long.
Soon we were at the bottom of the arete and tom, lars and I were joking about songs to sing on the way up to Mont Blanc: Lady Ga Ga was the main song choice and Lars stated that he was surprised at how good her songs were. Bad romance seemed to be the favorite. We strapped our snowboards on and boarded below the Aiguille du Midi and across to the cosmiques hut. We had to do a quick hike to the refuge, where I noticed Lars was keeping a close eye on us, maybe just to see how we were coping. I was sweating a lot and wondered about just how much water I would get through. All in all I had 3 litres of water 2 of which were in my camel back the rest in bottles. Reason being I was concerned that the camel back would freeze and then if that happened I would have some reserve bottles of water if needed.
In the Cosmiques hut we got our slippers on and Lars showed us to our room. We would be in a 12 man bunk room. My bed had the number 11 on it which is my lucky number. I was delighted to see this number and started to hope that this would give us some much needed luck with the weather etc. So many things needed to right, too much snow, we would not get up to Mont Blanc, too cold we could get frost bite, the list was endless, what we needed was good temperatures and a good boot pack to the summit. Soon it was time for supper and all 3 of us tucked into a three course meal which was great. I found that my throat was dry and my thirst endless so I kept drinking and drinking. After supper Tom and I took photos of the Tacul and the stunning sunset, The sun dropped behind the mountains and as the cold set in I listened to abit of U2 on my iphone and listened to the words of 'Magnificent'. I looked up now at the cold looking Tacul and felt a mixture of fear and excitement, I guess what I really wanted was to just get going. The whole event had been on my mind for over 6 weeks and fear was one emotion I could not escape from. One of the reasons was that Mont Blanc is a dangerous place no guide would ever attempt it in bad weather, it is deadly and many people die on it every year. A few weeks before this evening I had read accounts from good friends who had urged me not to go the route we were going, I had seen pictures of avalanches that had ripped down the Tacul and killed people and without a doubt the Tacul looked terrifying because everywhere on it is hanging glacier which can just break off at anytime day or night. My mind was racing again! I kept on reminding myself of the charity and told myself to stop being a baby. It was all gonna be ok.
We heading to bed and crept into the bunk room, everyone was asleep and the room was dark. I climbed into bed and said good night to Tom who was in a bunk next to me, both of us were wide awake and we were both struggled to get to sleep. Everyone was farting and snoring and my stomach was doing some very strange things, I felt like I have a large helium ballon stuck in me. I did not get any sleep, a few times I got close but then i soon needed to go to toilet. I could not stop peeing because I was drinking so much. I had no idea at this point if we would make it up Mont Blanc at all as I was untested at hiking above 3,842 meters. I hoped we would. I was so glad Tom was with me for this event, his humor was endless even though underneath it I was sure he was as worried as I was.
It was now 2.30am I had not had any sleep and was grumpy, I got up and started get my back pack together. All night I had been lying on my back thinking of crevasses, cliffs and avalanches my imagination driving me mad. I just could not turn it off. I went down had some nutella and bread and soon myself, Lars and Tom were putting our head torches on and stepping out into the cold air. We strapped on our boards and in the dark with Lars leading, boarded towards the Tacul and the start of our climb.
The snow was dreadful; ice, slush and with the backpack on I felt hot, heavy and negative. I fell over and so did Tom. This was where another side of Lars revealed itself: He quickly stated that we would need to speed up and get organized and not f*** around. He said vital time would be lost between putting snow shoes on and putting boards on our backs so time was at a premium. Tom asked Lars a few questions at this point and Lars snapped at him ''you ask to many questions'' just do what I say ok!! gone was our friend Lars, in was an efficient army major/ drill sergeant who would take no crap and would listen to no nonsense. He was slightly scary, I was still on my back at this point feeling like a warble ball. With snow shoes on and boards on our backs we hiked up to the foot of the Tacul, above us were maybe 30 flickering head torches glowing in the blackness which looked kind of freaky, like something out of the Matrix or some other Sci -Fi movie.
Around the bottom of the Tacul there were huge ice boulders, glacial debris and old avalanche scars, I tried to ignore these things and crack on. It felt good to be at last climbing this face and to be finally be on our way. We were not talking much although I did say to Tom if I ever come up with any crazy ideas again can you tell me to shut up and ignore me!!! The vibe was head down and get the hell out of this danger zone. I felt so small and my burton arctic gloves were frustrating me, they were too bulky and I was struggling to grip my hiking poles. I stopped to adjust them and quickly Lars told me to speed up as were were in a dangerous area. The seracs we were under were HUGE, the biggest I had ever seen, I just tried to blank them but it wasn't easy. Behind me I could see the sun coming up over the alps, the view was like nothing I had ever seen. So dramatic, just black shadows and orange.
I looked down on the Cosmiques hut and was so pleased to be out of that smelly fart ridden room. The Tacul was scaring me for as we were criss crossing this skin track (thankfully in the dark) I was surprised by the exposure of some 1000 meters. We had to tip toe along lots of very narrow icy ridges with all of us roped together. I did not like this one bit and looking down on to the crevasses below I wondered why on earth I was doing this. However i was surprised by the heights but also my feeling of inner strength and matter of factness. Being that we were all roped together the bond between felt strong.
We were making good time and even though the Tacul was probably the most dangerous part of the climb I was still gasping at the views. On the way up some poor guy had lost his crampon which Lars found and left on the side of the skin track. I really didn't envy him one bit and at that point once again decided that I would never do anything like this again!
The crevasses were sparkling pink and I wished I had my big camera to document the amazing sights before me. Our pace was quick and we were easily keeping pace with the skiers who I did envy on their efficient skins.......Bastards! I thought, why did I have to take up snowboarding? We were soon on top of the Tacul after 2 hours of slog, I felt good and happy and not tired, more buzzy.........We were doing it!. My feet were cold but other than that I was feeling confident and sure. The sun was coming up over the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa and I felt alive. Bizarrely this song 'somewhere over the rainbow' was popping into my head which I kept on trying to flip into stereophonics 'Dakota'. We were now at 4,120 meters. Finally, we were off the Tacul.
We were now strapping boards on and gliding towards Mont Maudit, this face was BIG and I could see it would be hard climb. Once at its foot we put our crampons on and roped together. Due to my weight compared to Lars and Tom I was falling through the skin tracks, this was driving me mad and working me hard. I was feeling fatigued and frustrated at wasting valuable energy having to pick myself up time and time again. Tom helped me when I fell. I was so grateful when on falling on my face he tightened my board and saved me from having to take the backpack off which was a mission in its self. Lars also gave me some good tips on walking in the crampons which really helped. Our pace was good and we were now close to the top of Mont Maudit. At this point Lars spotted a huge crack which was a clue to a hidden abyss. He quickly got to work like some action hero assessing the danger and creating a safe path around this scary bit of terrain.
After 90 mins we were at a steep pitch of the col and there were around 20 german climbers waiting to climb it, they had created a ridiculous pulley system which was holding us up. Lars again intervened and set up a safe climbing rope for us to climb up. Lars went up first then Tom, one German commented that Tom was like James Bond! I had to admit he did look like a pro using his crampons and ice axe on this technical and dangerous section of mountain. The views were dizzying and Lars went out of sight at the top sorting out the ropes.
Soon we were at the top aswell and staring up at Mont Blanc, it looked close, we were now at 4345m and I could see that Tom was struggling with the altitude, he felt sick and told me he had a headache, I quickly handed out the aspirin. On seeing MB I felt confident we were going to make it. My only fear now was that Tom might have to go back if his headache got really bad. Lars seemed happy and sure we were going to make it.
We now in the area of the Col du Brenva and I was inspired by my surroundings. I felt very high and good and excited and most of all strong. I could see the face ahead and asked how tough it was to climb, Lars made light of it but I could see it was long and steep. The panorama was wide and startlingly white, there were more seracs and the snowboard route down was also coming into view. It looked like a giant version of the Valley Blanche only more impressive, steeper and much much longer!
Soon we were at the Mer Du Chute and my pack felt heavy and sweat was spilling out of my head and into my eyes. I had finished my camel pack (2litres) and now was onto my bottles. I could see Tom was in pain and admired his grit, he felt nauseous and I could tell his head was banging. We told jokes and Lars started a new pace for us, I kept on talking to myself one step, two step one step two step. This section was tough and without doubt I could tell that my body was feeling the burn. Lars was a good motivator though and kept our pace up.
Behind me the views were mind boggling and I felt like I was in some sort of movie/action adventure film, this feeling kept me going. I was using my mind to motivate me and not letting my fatigue get the better of me. I do remember huffing and groaning a lot though. This face seemed to take ages and I could feel the wind and the sun whirling around me. I kept on thinking of all the rubbish jobs I have done like standing in super markets in Bolton or Slough promoting various different products and thought how much better this was. I was alive. I also used some words that a few friends gave to me, my friend Jamie had said “remember no matter how bad it gets its nothing compared to what the kids at Great Ormond Street go though”. I also remembered my friend Chris saying “one step at a time”. I was also wearing my good friend Duncan's tartan beanie and felt like it might give me some of his scottish climbing power.
I was chomping on power bars which made me feel slightly sick but again my head was fine and I was just tired. Over the last week my sleep pattern had been bad due to nerves. We were now edging towards the summit, this is when I began to struggle mainly with my footing. It was quite difficult on the skins tracks and soon I had fallen off the skin track again and was in danger of sliding down the mountain, I fought hard to get up but couldn't. My feet were giving way in the snow and my backpack was weighing me down. I shouted F*****k very loudly and felt a sense of hopelessness. Then my Lars shouted “use ya ice axe”!!, I pulled it from my harness, dug it in the snow and used it to pull myself up. Thank god! I thought. Amazing how religious you become sometimes!
We were taking one pace every 2 seconds and I kept on asking Lars where the summit was. The landscape we were on all looked the same and it was impossible to tell where the summit actually was. I huffed, smiled, shouted a lot! ”my legs are killing me”! Etc ,etc! Lars in his dads army style belgium voice simply shouted, stop bloody talking you are wasting your breath!. People were summiting and skiing down in front of us, I hated them and wanted to be them, the bastards! I thought. The summit so close yet still so far away.
Then, suddenly, after 9 and a half hours of climbing we there at the summit of Mont Blanc. I thought of my wife, mum and dad and family and was so pleased that I had not let down the people who had sponsored me. One guy had taunted me a lot on facebook and I was so pleased that I had not failed like he said I would.......I shouted at him F**k you! I know it's weird but thats what happened.
The view was, and even as I write this I am struggling to find the words, immense and powerful and wonderful. At this height the Chamonix valley looks tiny, the Aiguille du Midi looks far far away and the impressive hotel face of Brevent looks like a small ant hill. The views went on and on and I just felt so happy to be up there. I thought of all the dull and work days spent in working in the valley and how glad I am to finally be able to say I have stood on the summit of this beautiful mountain. I had a little cry, took some photos, thanked Lars and hugged Tom and rang my wife to say we had made it, she sounded so happy and proud. I was just so pleased to achieve what I would have 2 months before deemed impossible. The temperature was perfect and the wind still, so warm in fact that I could take my gloves off to use the mobile. We put our Great Ormond Street t-shirts on and had some photos taken of us by a Norwegian lady.
The time flew by and soon we had our boards back on and it was time to snowboard the North Face. The snow was good although in parts quite sticky and deep. Lars took us through some amazing pockets of powder and we did not hang around. I watched Tom board ahead of me, with some mind bending, jaw dropping, glacier formations all around us. Giant serac's and just incredible back drops. I was enjoying myself and wanted to pinch myself, it was hard to believe what was happening. Tom and I were buzzing and shouting 'we did it! We did it!' The scenery was like something from another world. The seracs tower over you and make you feel like an ant on a elephants back. I was close behind Tom and because of the pack the snowboarding did not feel that carefree. I was also keeping an eye out for bottomless crevasses and avalanches. I boarded quickly through one section and decided to do a jump, I missed timed it and ended upside down, landing on my head and falling some 10 feet through the air. I quickly bounced to my feet and carried on snowboarding, Lars had told me not to fall, so falling was not a thing I wanted him to see. Although, of course, he saw it.... Lars does not miss a thing. I enjoyed the board down but preferred it for the views. Which is slightly weird but true. Finally I/we had boarded down the North Face.
Soon enough we were at the Bossons glacier, which we traversed, roped up and on snowshoes, then slogged back across to the mid station, this was the worst part of the adventure for me. The crevasses were everywhere and I just wanted to be down on terra ferma. I did shout a lot on the way across as I kept losing my footing and sliding down off the foot paths. It was boiling hot and I had hit my own personal wall. Lars informed us that we were running out of time so we had to press on. I was getting very disillusioned and frustrated by the seemingly endless hike back to the Plan de l'Aiguille. On the final traverse, I miss timed my snowboard across and lost height. This was very annoying, but to speed things along Lars offered to carry my snowboard.......What a legend. I was broken, mentally gone,dehydrated and sweating like a dancer in a club in ibiza. The cable car was insight and eventually we got there with 5 mins to spare.
On the way down in the cable car I rang Debbie who told me some friends were coming to meet us and arranged to go to the Chambre Neuf for drinks, I also called my mum and dad and told them I was down safe and sound, they sounded so happy and relived. Thirteen hours after leaving the Cosmiques hut we were down and delighted that we had climbed and snowboarded down Mont Blanc.
I was so pleased to see Debbie and all my friends and just felt on top of the world. We headed to the Chambre Neuf where some pals came down and Tom's mum had bought some bottles of champagne for us to celebrate with. It was a special feeling to be down and surrounded by my pals. All of them seemed so happy for us.
Looking back I am not sure if I would of changed anything other than maybe a little more high altitude training and that's it, although it was hard I felt like my training was correct for what we did. I also slightly wish I had taken a head cam but at the time I just felt like that would be just to much fiddling around.
Mont Blanc is a special place and the memories will live in my mind forever. It was also one of the hardest things I have ever done physically. Anyone who says its not difficult has not done it or is a freak. That kind of landscape must be respected.
The bonus out of all of this was the fact that we have managed to raise 2,400 pounds and counting for the fantastic Great Ormond Street Hospital. I would of climbed Mont Blanc anyway but thought It would be a great opportunity to raise some cash for people who need it.
Last but not least the kindness and support we have received from friends and family has been amazing and at this point I would just like to say thanks to everyone who backed us and supported us in this once in a lifetime adventure.
I would also like to thank Lars for doing such a great job of guiding us and also to Tom who without his support, enthusiasm and belief this might never have happened.
And also to my beautiful wife for believing and supporting me in this whole event.