Friday, August 26, 2016

The final reckoning

Andy Nelson, leader of Glen Coe Mountain Rescue, said over a glass of wine in the shadow of The Matterhorn, “There are three aims in mountaineering. First: get back safely. Second: make friends. Third: summit if you are lucky.”

Whilst at the point of turning round at a height of around 4,100metres, roughly 400 from the summit, I was extremely disappointed; those words provided huge comfort, coming from someone who knows after all!

So it was that Guy and I failed to reach the summit of The Matterhorn, which was, after all, our ultimate aim. 

Preparation days

We had a great week building up to our attempt. 

Arriving in Chamonix in the rain and dark did not bode well and gave no indication of what was to follow. What we awoke to frankly took our breath away. Steepling snow-capped mountains surrounded us on every side and with one cable car station which looked as though it had come straight from a James Bond film with Jaws expected to jump at any moment.

James Thacker, our primary guide for the week arrived and informed us that the forecast was not great so we would be heading to Italy to begin our acclimatisation. The first remarkable experience was actually going through the Mont Blanc tunnel, what an amazing feat of engineering 11 and a half kilometers of  tunnel driving through the heart of the mountain connecting France and Italy. From there it was a cable car to the top and our first experience of glaciers, followed by a climb to the top of Punta Helbronner. 

That certainly gave me a lot of confidence as it was probably the spikiest piece of rock I had ever seen far less experienced climbing. Having summited that at around 3,500mt it was time for some r&r in the fantastically situated café at the cable car station to get used to the altitude.

Friday saw us begin what felt like proper adventure.  James had researched the weather and it didn’t look good for Saturday afternoon, so we had to be a little less ambitious and headed for Cabane des Vignettes with the idea being to summiting Pigne d'Arolla before the weather set in, rather than a more challenging ridge route. In addition we would be sleeping at altitude for the first time.

The walk to the glacier was superb, leaving the stereotypical Swiss valley village up through Alpine forests to the snout when it was suddenly crampons on and high alert for crevasses! 

It was a testing slog up to the hut, but largely uneventful. However, arriving at the hut it was like something out of “Where Eagles Dare”, perched on the side of a very precipitous drop. For those who haven’t been to The Alps, huts are quite a thing. Used to provide shelter and accommodation, run by Alpine Climbing clubs in the main, they provide access to the highest routes and passes and essentially “open up” The Alps. It wasn’t long before dinner was served, and hat’s off to the chef for his remarkable vegetable soup in particular. Then bed by 9 as breakfast was served between 5 and 5:30!

I had a reasonable night’s sleep but hardly undisturbed and as a man of a certain age, the mid sleep visits took on a whole new twist as Alpine winds swept into different crevices!!!!

So an early start saw us head out on to the glacier adorned with head torches, crampons and ice-axes heading for the summit. Having negotiated a couple of interesting crevices we were rewarded on the summit with some stunning views including across to our ultimate objective, The Matterhorn. 

We also saw quite clearly the looming weather front that was predicted and so we didn’t hang around and found ourselves back at the hut before 10am. What followed could only be described as tedium. I was grateful that I had packed a luxury item in the shape of a book, but once finished I sought solace in the pictures of French and German books on site, a quest (unsuccessful) for a complete set of cards or dominos, an impossible cryptic crossword in a week old Guardian and for the first time in my life completed said paper’s Sudoku – it was a VERY long day with only us and the staff for company. I have NEVER drunk so much tea in my life!!!

Just before dinner a father and daughter arrived to rattle around in the hut with us (it can hold around 80 guests), the surprise, for me at least, was all of us in the same dorm – sad for her as by this time Guy and I were a bit ripe, neither of the showers working and packing minimally!

Next morning saw another early start as we headed into the valley to pick up the car and head to Zermatt to get ready for the big one.

Summit attempt

A two hour drive saw us arrive in Tasch to meet Andy and take the short train ride to Zermatt (no cars allowed there!) where The Matterhorn was superbly revealed. After a bit of refuelling it was time to take the lift up to Schwarse and a walk into our base, The Hornli Hut. The approach was stunning, but incredibly hot, so we were grateful to arrive and get some extra water.

A 4am rise in prospect for the next day drove us to our room to grab some rest (I was going to write nap, but no one was sleeping) then a bit of reconnaissance mission at the start of the climb to experience the early stages of the climb in daylight – the climb itself starts in pitch black! It soon became clear why the practice was important as the start is a bottle-neck and any marginal gain on the day would be repaid.

The atmosphere around the hut as we waited for dinner was a strange mix of excitement and apprehension as everyone apart from staff had the same objective. Bedtime again was early and it was not the best time for me to have my worst night of sleep since arriving – I was lucky if I got an hour! None of my usual breathing techniques worked, I was either too hot or too cold and add the adrenaline …..
Boom! 4am arrived and suddenly the head torches were on (no lights before 4:30) climbing gear was adorned and a big queue for ablutions. A meager breakfast was served and consumed before doors were opened and the rush began at 4:50.

We were towards the back of the queue which didn’t cause me a particular problem, but people were soon trying to barge past as a line of lights headed up the mountainside. After two hours the aim is to be at the Solway Hut at 4,003Mts and after that length of time I was still appreciably short of that.

Once at that hut it was clear, 3 hours after starting, we were behind schedule and probably fatally so. The wind was very strong and felt, if anything, getting stronger as we began to move out onto even more exposed ground. It was at this point that safety took precedence and the decision was made to turn back.

Morning after the night before (well almost)

I can’t lie, I was bitterly disappointed to turn round (Guy followed soon afterwards). Even now, back in the UK after a night in the Schwarse hotel with the guides and some R&R in Zermatt and Geneva, I feel a bit down about it, despite some truly overwhelming support from people on Twitter, some of whom I know and some I don’t (that aspect has been truly humbling). Consolation is definitely found in the fact that I have raised sufficient funds to get a defibrillator for the club in memory of Harry Faulkner (please don't donate to that element now) and as I type raised a few quid towards C-R-Y too - feel free to donate there!

Guy and I agreed not to discuss a return attempt until we have both got over the emotions of the trip, and at the very earliest after I return from a week in Scotland with my family. Clearly my incredibly supportive wife knows me best and one of the first questions she asked was, “When are you going back to try again?”  I genuinely don’t know the answer to that, or if I will, what I do know is that I am absolutely clear on what I need to do to increase the chances of a successful summit, from lighter boots and other gear (“Every Ounce Counts”) to brighter clothing which keeps you cooler amongst other things.

The guides James and Andy were superb, I truly cannot commend them highly enough and a little doff of the cap to Max Hunter for recommending them.

I will sign off my final piece on this adventure (I am expecting to post Guy’s reflections at some point and maybe James’s too) by saying thanks to all my supporters, too many to mention, but some I really ought to:

Gary Nisbet for making me the strongest I have ever been.

Nick Matthew and Mark Campbell for sharing the bike routines and some fabulous publicity.

England Squash and Active Luton for their publicity efforts too.

And finally my family. Debs, Eilish, Lily and Natalie for being so supportive of my efforts, on the Sunday I am not ashamed to say I got a little emotional knowing the risks of what I was about to take on.

My final comment is a reminder that the fundraising effort was all to raise sufficient money to buy a defibrillator as a practical legacy in memory of my late club mate, Harry Faulkner, taken from us at only 18, still sadly missed – may he Rest In Peace!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Sweetness and Sadness

Well this time in two weeks I hope to be heading down after successfully reaching the summit of The Matterhorn. However, it would be wrong of me to gloss over the tragic events of the weekend described here. The thoughts of myself and Guy are with their families, but perhaps underline the scale of the task we are undertaking. Recently there has been a lot of coverage about Pippa Middleton's successful summit and a double amputee which has led to some gentle p*ss taking, it's all stopped rather abruptly!

For those taking the trouble to read this I would add that we are going with a highly qualified guide who is under no illusion from my wife that wants me back safe and sound! (Lily wants a Swiss Army knife whereas Nat wants the biggest Toblerone I can carry!!!)

Speaking of my daughters, they came with me to the gym recently to video me doing a Nick Matthew bike routine and so here it is.

It's very sweet, as well as sweaty. Just a couple more of those and two S&C sessions and it's time to taper down!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Two weeks to go

Well it's the home straight as far as preparation, publicity and fundraising goes.

As far as preparation goes I have upped the CV work in the absence of squash (see prior post) and am reliant on three times World Squash Champion's bike routines.

Below is the pool of sweat I had to clear up after a particularly tough one of 5 mins on, 1 min off, 4 mins on, 1 min off, 3 mins on, 1 min off, 2 mins on, 1 min off, 1 min on, 1 min off, 30 secs on 1 min off, then return back to 5 minutes - I did it all at resistance 8 and covered 25Km

As far as publicity goes, I have upped the ante in social media and that has paid dividends in the form of a great piece in todays' Luton News.

In addition England Squash did me proud with this piece.

Finally the fundraising has gathered pace, thanks everyone who has donated so far, I am just awaiting the treasurer telling me what the total to date raised is.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Uveitis returns

Just a quick update as yesterday I thought the expedition was going to be over before it began as my Uveitis flared up again.

I was first diagnosed with the condition in my right eye around 4 years ago and it flares up every now and again, prompting a visit to the rather marvelous team at Moorfields Eye hospital. For most of the time it lies dormant and I go on with day to day life.

Every now and again it flares up prompting a series of drops and creams to be taken, starting off hourly and tapering off. During the time that the drops are active I can't wear my contact lenses or see properly out of my right eye as the pupil is dilated to absorb the drugs. (The first time I was diagnosed the drops didn't work which meant I had to have injections into my eye - I'm not ashamed to admit I passed out!). Given that I will need to wear my lenses and see where I am going on The Matterhorn it was a serious problem, however, the timing was lucky in that I will be down to twice a day by then and can apply the drop well before I set off on any given day and last thing at night when I dispose of them.

A very close call, a week later and it would have been over before it began

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Out of the mouths of Babes

With just over 4 weeks to go until we fly out to The Matterhorn it's all getting rather serious.

Having said that there was a moment of extreme amusement as well as crudeness at the weekend as Guy, myself and Lily, my daughter walked from Lewes to Alfriston. It was late into a very hot afternoon on the South Downs, with heavy packs and sweaty bodies that after yet another expulsion of wind to dilute the pleasantly cooling sea breeze that Lily asked, "Is that all you two do? Walk and fart!"

Bang to rights she had us!

Better to do that out in the open than in the confines of the tent we were sharing is my only defence.

All in all another good weekend of walking, this time with a very heavy load, tomorrow it's back to the gym!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

8 outta 10 ain't bad

I was going to title this blog, “Move along, nothing to see here!” but as will become apparent later that wouldn’t have been quite true. So I plagiarised a Meatloaf song instead – for those of a certain age, and mindset, you will appreciate that I did rather better than Meatloaf did!!!!

The aim of this training session was to REALLY test myself over a prolonged period, so Guy and I returned to the Mamores with a different strategy to last time. My aim was to tackle the whole ridge travelling light, whereas Guy was going to tackle a shorter section having recently completed the hundred miles of The South Downs Way recently.

Flying out of Luton to Glasgow on the Friday night to pick up a car and drive through to Fort William seems like a good plan, until there are delays. I won’t bore you with the detail, but arriving around half past midnight when you aim to be on the mountain by 6:00 is not ideal. A very truncated sleep followed; including a suggestion by a wide awake me to get going at 4:30, rejected by a tired Guy.

On the hill at 6:15 wasn’t a bad effort but thick cloud on the summits had been forecast and so it proved. It took a little over 2 hours to make the first summit, a route I remembered well from last year’s expedition and the broken stake where Jim tried to climb the fence remained. I have to be truthful and say if I don’t see that ascent again I wouldn’t be too disappointed.  With nothing to see I cracked on through the cloud, grateful for the assistance of my GPS app.

To be honest ticking off the first summits, having been there before in better conditions, was at best perfunctory. The aim was to spend at least 12 hours on my feet, so I took a decision to miss out Sgurr a'Mhaim because I had done it before in our last attempt and it was out and retrace steps and would gain me nothing. And so onwards to Am Bodach, as far as we got last time around.  As I approached the summit there was the vaguest essence of watery sunshine trying to peak through the gloom. On the summit I could see the vague outlines of the summits I had just done, but not much more. Suddenly I turned to leave and was greeted by this:

Arguably one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Crystal clear peaking above the clouds Bidean nam Bian, what a sight, the snow patches on the summit making it look like a killer whale surfacing in the ocean.

Sadly there was no time to be lost, so back into the cloud I went bagging summit after summit until An Garbhanach, where I saw the first people of the day, two fell runners, sadly for me I couldn’t locate the route to An Gearanch, despite map and GPS, so rather than dally (it was another out and back on the ridge) I took the decision to return another day.

Shortly after this whom should I meet but Guy on his way down from what he thought was the summit of Na Gruagaichean. The reason for his error was easy to see when I arrived at what he thought was the summit and was confronted by this:

Quite surreal, however, the real summit was a few hundred metres higher up. Guy could probably feel his ears burn as I cursed having to haul myself through a horrid boulder field.

As I mentioned, in the cloud I was having to rely very heavily on my map and GPS and the route I was following is one which isn’t so widely used and thus often there were no paths. Leaving the summit I have to say that for a good half hour to an hour, I was worried that I was way off-piste, considering a call so that someone could check my location using my phone. Thankfully I had no signal so was forced to trust my instincts and as if by magic I was back on a path – phew! There I met 4 lads from Notts who were keen to get back for the football – no idea why?!?!?

As I left the summit I met the last people I would all day in circumstances which showed how poor visibility was. They were less than 10 metres away, but clearly hadn’t seen me and I heard them more than saw them as they discussed where the path I was on ought to be. To their surprise a voice from the gloom pointing them in the right direction must have been quite un-nerving!

At 18:30 I made the final summit, 12 hours and 15 minutes after starting, now all that remained was the long slog back to where Guy would either be waiting or else where I would text as soon as I got a signal. By this time I was pretty tired and the descent involved a lot of slips and slides which I could have done without and then having to take socks and shoes off to wade across a river. It was a boggy trudge back I can tell you. Then when I got to the car park unsurprisingly Guy wasn’t there, watching the football I was sure, but no phone signal so I had some walking on tarmac to do until I picked up a signal. Whilst it was still light I didn’t expect anyone to be around at 21:00 so when a minibus approached I hoped for a lift and was terribly disappointed when I was passed without acknowledgement on the tiny single track road – clearly not a native or REAL outdoor enthusiast!

After a mile or so my phone exploded with incoming messages and texts and after much fumbling managed to get a pleading text out to Guy, who came and collected me at 21:45 (perhaps it was serendipitous that Russia should equalise then!!!!)

As a graphic illustration of how out of sorts I was, I couldn’t even eat half of my haggis and chips and I only had two pints whilst watching the highlights in our room – an epic day, proving that I am certainly fit enough to do The Matterhorn. Now the only things that will stop me are the weather and how I react to altitude, none of which I can control. Someone more erudite said, “all you can do is control the controllables”, so now after a few days off it will be back to the usual training regime with just over two months until departure.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Support from the stars

Well it's a little more than a month since my last update, but that doesn't mean nothing has been happening.

Firstly in order to raise the profile of the causes I am supporting I had some t-shirts made which point people towards the summary website which is a simple way to see how to sponsor me.

First up to model them was my eldest daughter Lily who proudly wore it for her senior team debut for our squash club, Luton and Dunstable.

However, I think she would concede that she was trumped with the awesome support of my favourite Australian squash player Cameron Pilley who wore it during his warm up in the semi-final of the Canary Wharf Classic, broadcast live on TV

I was in the audience cheering him on, but my wife Debbie managed to catch this screenshot, I cannot thank him enough for his support and kind words.

As for my preparations I am continuing to work with Gary Nisbet My current weekly routine is as follows:

Warm-up - Round the clock lunges one without weight, other with 20Kg, 2 sets

Squats 6 Reps at 70Kg 3 sets
Single Leg Deadlift 6 Reps each leg at 40Kg 3 sets
Turkish get up 6 each arm 9Kg
Bench Press 8 x 18Kg, followed by low row pulley 8 x 30Kg 4 sets

Then alternate to the following 48 hours later

Same warm up

Squat press 6 reps at 40Kg 3 sets
Deadlift 6 reps at 80kg 3 sets
Glute ham raises 6 reps 3 sets
and finish with an attempt to do 8 pull-ups followed immediately by 20 press ups, 4 sets (I haven't managed a complete set of pull ups yet in all honesty.

Then back to the original. 

This weekend sees my final progression with Gary so I await with slight nervousness for what's in store.

For a long time I was quite dispirited by my lack of ability at pull-ups, however, recently I saw a well sculpted man in the gym doing narrow pull-ups with a weight between his ankles and felt suitably inadequate until I asked if he could do wide ones with no weight as I do, I cannot begin to explain the feeling tantamount to adulation I felt when he barely managed 4, certainly gave me a boost to keep pushing.

In addition to the S&C work I have been doing some extra CV work in addition to my squash, principally bike intervals kindly supplied by Nick Matthew - they certainly work up a sweat.

I will finish for now on a blog piece written on the BBC which highlights graphically why defibrillators are so important and why I want to raise enough funds to buy one for the club

Thanks for reading.