CLIMBING WITH SIR CHRIS
After entertaining us for more than a year with his climbing stories and adventures Cubby has decided to take a break from his column on Scottish Outdoors. However he is leaving on a high note with a two part special on climbing with one of the world's greatest Sir Chris Bonnington in Scotland and in France.
Read part one here
The next morning we had a fairly leisurely start and left the hut at about 8am and started up the dry glacier of the Tete Rousse. Jessica was moving very slowly. Normally rock fall in the Grand Couloir was confined to its own seemingly bottomless pit. But conditions were such on that morning, that the wind would pick up loose flakes of shale from the precarious rock bands beneath the Aguille de Gouter itself, and because of the hard crust of snow on the face above the glacier, stones sprayed out in all directions. Everybody was on edge and we hadn't even reached the couloir.
Marcelle, the French guide said afterwards that it was the worst conditions he had seen in over ten years. We were the last group to cross the Grand Couloir, the others had all made it safely to the other side. The guides then positioned themselves with a clear view up and down the couloir and when all was quiet, they would give me the thumbs up to go for it. At the start of the couloir we crouched behind a wall of rock and prepared to do battle. I imagined it must have been akin to fighting in the trenches only I was handicapped by being tied to the three clients!
The first half of the couloir is usually the worst. Being late in the season, the old snow was hard and icy and a protection cable strung across its breadth was out of reach and in tatters, having been bombarded by rock fall throughout the season. Stones whined over our heads at super high speed. The big ones frapped menacingly, while the smaller ones whistled like rifle shots. And then all fell silent. Now rested I thought Jessica would be ready to put in a real effort and move quickly across the first part of the couloir to the relative safety and sanctuary of a rocky island, a half way spot which provides a brief respite before the second section of the couloir.
I carefully peered out from behind the wall and saw Mark Diggins and Paul Aubrey, both of whom gave me the thumbs up. "Okay folks, LET'S DO IT NOW!" but as I started out, I may well have been pulling a forty tonne arctic behind me for there was virtually no response. "COME ON FOLKS THIS IS A SERIOUS PLACE," I cried, not wanting to induce a sense of panic! I pulled with all the strength my disproportionately large arms could muster and slowly we started to move. I've never felt so exposed in my life, a scene that would have put the Deer Hunter to shame. Fortunately, all stayed quiet in the couloir and as we approached the rocky island, another team took up our positions behind.
Everyone's chest heaved with the physical exertion and painstakingly I had to wait once again until we had recovered sufficiently to make the second stage of the crossing. We had barely recovered when once again Mark gave me the thumbs up. The stone fall started and I hesitated but in the excitement of the moment I decided to go for it and sprinted to the safety of the raised ridge at the other side. Exhausted by the physical exertion, Jessica was speechless, trying to catch her breath, her head buried in her arms. I looked back as the rocks continued to pepper the couloir and to my horror I witnessed the two climbers behind us receive a direct hit. One lay motionless on the bed of the couloir while the other appeared to be injured. All of us looked on in disbelief but I don't think it registered in their minds the true extent of what they had just witnessed. I didn't have the heart to tell them.
As we continued up the Goutier ridge, a helicopter came in and picked up the bodies. Two Germans, one dead and the other died in hospital we were later to learn.
Situated at an altitude of 3,817 metres on the west-side of the Aguilla de Gouter, just below the summit snow cap, the Gouter Hut is a weird place. It's like a social scene in a sci-fi movie, situated on another planet. People feeling the affects of altitude, local guides gather for a soiree, a few Schnapps and the latest gossip. For most though, it's a two or three hour restless sleep before the mass exodus, people on the floor, under and on the tables and in over crowded dorms. And always somebody, somewhere, a reverberating snore echoed throughout the dorms.
We were the last to reach the hut but we had gelled together as a team and we had done exceptionally well to reach this far. But in the hut I could sense that teams were beginning to fray around the edges and personal goals were beginning to creep in. Alan, our sports psychologist was feeling the effects of altitude and did not have it in him to deliver the usual de brief and seminars.
I could easily have left Jessica in the Gouter Hut and were it not for the fact that we had planned to return via the Grand Mulet Route, I must confess that I would have been very tempted. Instead I talked her into going at least as far as the Vallot Hut. Situated at 4,362 metres, I thought it would be an amazing achievement for her. We ate, talked and then tried to sleep. At 2am, the dreaded hour, the Guardian sends out the wake-up call. As usual I had lain awake in its anticipation. Everybody in the groups has been well versed in preparing for the morning and all we needed was a hut breakfast, typically consisting of dry bread, jam and tea or coffee made from the melted glaciers of Mont Blanc - yuck.
The usual chaos ensued. Heads bobbed up and down, conversations in whispers, queues for the loos and dazzling head torches. It's hard enough looking after myself, let alone a team of novices but everyone makes an extra special effort for this is the big day. First out are the Mont Blanc guides. One gets the impression that they can't survive from one week to the next without their fix of thin air. But off they go, triplets of little rays of light, marching like ants over rank upon rank of snowy domes, disappearing into their folds and reappearing again in the distance like a Sameval cartoon postcard.
Outside on the aluminium mesh balcony, crampons are donned, ropes are uncoiled and everyone is securely tied in. Above our heads shooting stars score a black, starry night sky. Their vapour trails are so vivid it's almost as if a struck match has been thrown across the hut entrance. Jessica waits to the very last moment to tell me that she should stay behind with Alan. But I tell her otherwise, that she should go as far as she thinks she can and only then do we all turn back. Nobody disagrees, yet nobody says anything.
All the groups start out together as one long crocodile but I know that it won't be long before we are all on our own again. We begin our journey at a Himalayan pace, up steep snow to the top of the Aguille de Gouter. I've calculated that if we can maintain this pace, extremely slow that it is, there is a chance that we could summit Europes highest peak but only time will tell. Already the other groups had pulled away. After a season of private guiding and being on my own for most of the time, in a strange sort of way I was enjoying my new found company and had become accustomed to having all the groups around me. But as the others started to leave me behind, I could not help but feel a sense of loneliness.
Jessica managed to maintain her pace but she is a big woman, if a little overweight and she was beginning to complain of chest pains. Was it just the sheer physical exertion of her lungs working so hard at altitude, or was there a more serious underlying problem? I'm no doctor and I began to have doubts over how much I should have pushed. Jessica was beyond being able to hold a sensible conversation or make any decisions, which is not uncommon with clients who are working under the strain of altitude. After the initial rise of the Aguille and Dome du Gouter, the next section across the Col du Dome was much easier going. Fortunately Jessica's chest pains had subsided so I pushed on closer towards the Refuge du Vallot but as we got closer to the shelter, I noticed that Steve was beginning to show signs of the effects of altitude. Finally, we made it to the Vallot. It's a horrible place, parts of it are full of excrement and people everywhere generally feeling ill but it does provide a place of rest and shelter from the wind.
We met up with the others, some of whom were just about to set off. Our pace had been so effortless for me that my toes had gone numb with the cold. After a drink and some food I looked around at those who had been left behind and trying to come to terms with their failure. Steve was quiet. He couldn't eat nor drink and was a sickly jaundiced yellow in colour. He could barely speak and was not with it at all. Ian was in good form and as a mountaineer, we both knew he was capable of climbing Mont Blanc but he had no idea of what my decision would now be.
Was I prepared to leave Jessica and Steve on their own? Ian was quiet and the team spirit, which had been so vibrant earlier on the climb, had now vanished into thin air. There was no question about Jessica going any further, it had been a superb effort to get to this far. But what do I do about Steve, he was in a bad way. My instinct was telling me that he too should be left behind. At least there were others to keep them company. Now what? Do we all go down the Grand Mulet together, or do I leave Steve and Jessica together, while Ian and I go on to attempt the summit? After half an hour in the hut, I was convinced that Jessica should stay behind. Steve's condition had if anything, worsened and so I decided to go on with Ian. In two and half hours, I could be up and back down. It was hard leaving Steve behind but it was the right decision, I was convinced of that.
Ian and I adjusted the ropes and stepped outside the hut. It was a relief to get moving again. Morning had broken and the sun's rays were warm and psychologically comforting. I pushed hard, perhaps twice the speed we had adopted on the approach to the Vallot but Ian coped well. We switch backed our way up the icy slopes at the start the Bosses ridge and didn't stop all the way to the summit. We passed some of the others but I preferred not to disturb my pace, nodded and said "hi" to them and kept going.
We were soon at the top. I had pushed Ian hard and he had maintained his pace without any complaints. The wind was bitter on the summit. Ghostly clouds skimmed the tops of Maudit, the Aguille Vert and the Aguille de Bionnassay, and in the distance the Grand Jorrasse. It goes against the grain to leave clients behind, so we shook hands on the summit, took a couple of photos and began our descent.
The round trip from the Vallot took one hour, forty-five minutes. Out of the sixteen Apple executives, 11 topped out. But the biggest surprise was that the MD was prepared to sacrifice team spirit and climb to the top, with or without the rest!
We all met up at the Vallot. Jess returned via the Gouter Hut to pick up Alan and they would be back at Chamonix that day. The rest of us descended Mulet and stayed out another night at the Grand Mulet Hut at an altitude of 3,051 metres, we had a relatively comfortable night by comparison to the confines and mayhem of the Gouter but it's a tortuous situation to be in. All those who summited were buzzing, those that didn't put on a brave face but underneath, disappointment was painful. You could tell. I really felt for Steve. He was so upset and even now I don't know if my decision was the right one.
In the morning the skies were overcast and as we picked our way over the tottering seracs at the junction of the Boisson and Taconnaz Glacier, the snow began to fall silently. We reached the Plan des Aguille shortly before it closed for lunch. It had been a long season and only when I stepped outside the rickety old bin would I feel safe. In the morning I drove home.
Questions were asked as to why such an ambitious project was undertaken. We could just as easily have sent everybody on an assault course in the Brecon Beacons. Alan was slightly lost for words on that final de brief. Personal goals in some cases were quite evident. Just how much does a company benefit from an experience like the one on Mont Blanc? I dont suppose we'll ever really know. But Chris stepped in and said, "it is true everything that has been said and questioned, but this was an experience, a true mountaineering experience, and one that will stay with you for the rest of your lives." And how right he was.
So, where was I? Oh yes, in the chalet at Badaguish. It all came flooding back, the snoring, the incessant snoring. It's hard enough at the best of times trying to get some sleep in an alpine hut, but when the reverberating roar, of Mr Bonnington starts up - well that's the end of it! Even more annoying, is knowing that he's getting the Zed's in and you're definitely not. CB's snoring capacity is well known and when I mentioned it to the Berghaus team, they were quite sympathetic but of course yours truly had the double room, so when Chris asked where he can sleep, what could I say. I call it fate - getting his own back for hiding his axes and crampons each morning on Mont Blanc all those years ago!
Well I'm afraid that's the last of the Cubby Column for a while. I'm sure some of you will be more than relieved that I'm taking a break from my attempt at journalism, and hopefully making some space for somebody else. It's been an education for me personally, not to mention a discipline and of course, a great pleasure. But most of all, I was pleased to be able to write about just some of my experiences as a Scottish mountaineer for a website based in Scotland.
Take care on the snowy peaks.