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!

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