Lads On Tour – Day 2 & 3
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast it was time to prepare our kit for the coming training days up on the hill. But before all that it was down to the spa here at the Hotel L’Héliopic, which is by far the best hotel (in my opinion) in Chamonix. If you’re ever down this way you must spend some time here. It’s very well run and with the added bonus of a pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and ice room (to name a few), it really is very relaxing, perfect for we are up to.
Seb Coulthard at Shackelton Legacy Ltd has loaned us all the climbing equipment that we need. This includes climbing harnesses, helmets, crampons and avalanche safety kit. We spent a bit of time fitting everything and ensuring that we were happy before making any attempt to go up a mountain with it. The weather was very bad with low cloud and heavy rain so we were in no hurry to get outside at this point. Once we were happy with everything it was time to get ready for the first foray onto the mountains above Chamonix.
For those that haven’t been here, it is incredible. Chamonix sits in a valley and is surrounded on all sides by massive granite features that stand out in jagged peaks, many of which are covered in snow. Above them all stands Mt Blanc, the White Mountain and it is massive. It is very sobering indeed to comprehend that in a few short days we will be attempting to stand on its summit and the enormity of that has hit home to us all. This is no small task and will require a huge effort from us all, but a challenge that we are all straining at the lead to get on with. The first training days are to get us working in a team for the first time and to get some miles and altitude in our legs.
We set off at about 1530 in the pouring rain with our rucksacs packed for a night in the Refuge Du Plan De L’Aiguille, a small hut that sits at 2207m directly above Chamonix. We can see it from the hotel. The route was a simple one up through the trees and was a good leg stretcher. There’s not much to see as we made our way through the trees but the rain soon stopped although my sweaty body had me pretty wet anyway. It took us three and a half hours in total to get to the hut and by the time we got there the temperature was starting to fall, although the weather had cleared and the views down into town were amazing.
This climb was higher than the one we did up Ben Nevis and my leg certainly let me know this fact. My walking poles are absolutely essential now for me to maintain my balance (doesn’t always work) and help me keep going ever up. Once settled into the Refuge we were supplied with a fantastic meal, beer and coffee and we spent a good couple of hours telling war stories and generally enjoying the experience. I must say that to share all this with my son Luke and my little brother Simon is something that I’m enjoying hugely and is something that will always be special.
After a fitful night’s sleep it was up early to a filling breakfast and a walk to the Mer de Glace, a huge glacier that was about 4 miles from the hut. We set off through more low cloud and snow and met up with our guide Rick at the train station that brings tourists up to this wonder of nature. Rick is an Englishman who has lived and guided in Chamonix for the last 25 years and is not only an incredibly knowledgeable man, he is also a great guy.
The purpose of our day on the glacier was to get us in crampons and used to movement with them on. Crampons are a spiked platform that is attached to the bottom of your boot and allows you to walk on ice and steep snow covered surfaces without falling over or off!! They do require some thought though as you need to pick your feet up slightly more than normal and walk with a slightly wider gait to avoid catching them on your legs. Rick set up a stance that tested our movement and ability to climb a steep slope just using the spikes at the front of the crampons in combination with an ice axe. This also gave us the confidence in the kit as well as giving Rick confidence in our abilities.
After a great day on the ice it was time to head back to the train station to catch a delightful little train back into town. This where things got very interesting. There are two main ways off the glacier. The first is to take the stairs and short cable car ride to the top, or get amongst the ‘via ferrata’ up the rock face. One will get you panting a bit but is quite serene, the other gets the heart beating out of your chest and is verging on the terrifying……..for me, so obviously we did the latter!!
Now I should caveat this by saying that I have done a lot of pretty scary stuff in my career including climbing things and jumping from them. I have been in combat, jumped out of planes, abseiled from all manner of fixed and moving objects and faced many of my personal fears but I have never done any of these things with a leg and a hand that simply don’t, at best, do what I want them to do and at worst, work at all. This combined with the added worry of having your son doing it as well (although he loved it), turned out to be a pretty scary hour.
Via Ferrata is a series of fixed ladders (very rickety) and rails (often loose) up and along a rock face that climbers can use to quickly to scale what are basically sheer rock faces and I take my hat off to those that secure them. I really struggled with this, not physically, but in terms of having limbs that I don’t trust to take my weight or to not catch and cause me to trip, as well as the balance problems that I experience. I not once looked up, down or sideways, but kept my gaze firmly fixed between the rungs of the ladder in front of me. Mac felt the same way and we were both very glad to reach the top.
The day was finished off with a nice Indian meal and a couple of beers, oh and some quality time in the spa!
So far everything is going well and we are making the most of our time here. Everything is a learning experience, both about how my body works in the mountains and about the kit and techniques that we need to successfully scale Mt Blanc.
Because of the time it takes and the little time that I have to do it, I have decided to keep a video diary instead of rambling on in these posts. I will do these during the climb and on our return. Thank you very much for taking the time to read these musings and thank you all so very much for your donations both large and small. Every single penny is very much appreciated and will go a long way towards our two very worthy charities. The total now stands at £40,000!!!