After successfully cycling from Chester to Chamonix, there wasn’t much time to reflect, relax or enjoy the home comforts. It was straight into the mountains again, to the disgust of my leg musculature, in preparation for EPIC7 challenge number 4.
Having been in burnout for several weeks prior to the trip, I’d barely come round from the bike ride before I found myself trying to recollect some grit and focus to acclimatise my mind for the greatest vertical ascent in the Alps.
I’d been expecting an obstacle sooner or later, and coming down Mont Blanc du Tacul I must have taken an awkward twist which left me with a bad strain in my groin muscle, sending searing pain through my legs in every step. Able to ignore it, I plodded back to the lift and down to Chamonix, hoping a good sleep, stretching like a Buddha and anti-inflammatories would help. A relative Julie and her partner Marcus had kindly been putting me up in Chamonix for the week so I was able to get a good kip.
The next morning hiking about 1500m of vertical ascent to the Domhutte along stunning woodland trails, the pain sharper than before, and realising it hadn’t. Concern was rife with a major objective the next day that had been planned for a while at great expense, and no real option to delay it. Cruelly coincidental it would seem if I wasn’t able to complete it due to a freak injury picked up just a couple of days ago, after surviving 878 miles of cycling.
That morning I’d met with my IFMGA guide James Thacker, and we’d set off for a 2 hr drive to Randa in Switzerland. Halted quite sharply upon realisation my passport was still in the apartment in Chamonix. Back we went- it’s not often my ‘Mr Bean’ moment comes this early on in the challenge. Randa was a quaint little village, albeit a little weird with those wooden houses that remind you of Alpen cereal, milkmaids, mountain goats and Toblerone chocolate.
The hike to the Domhutte was a big’un. I’d gotten this far and I’d decided to risk ignoring the twinging in my leg on every step up the trail. Trying to distract myself instead with music, the sweeping Alpine valleys and wildlife around me. It was certainly a unique place and different to anywhere else I’d been. After being sponsored with my extreme Everest clothing by Marmot it was great to see a real one!
I was moving far too slowly and we didn’t want to arrive at the hut late and soaked with an impending early start, so I picked up the pace the best I could up a maze of cables, steps and ladders through the next rocky section. As the fog encloaked us it was a relief to see the hut just ahead. It was a relaxing afternoon inside, sorting gear, stretching off and enjoying a coffee.
The weather wasn’t great but we’d have to see- I knew James would do his best to get me up the Dom safely. Our evening meal was epic considering we were at nearly 3000m. Having been on a strict budget in Chamonix that had me eating mostly Subway sandwiches and supermarket-brand Ham slices, it definitely set me up well.
I hardly slept. Frequently waking up and instinctively kitting up before realising it was still 10:30pm. This cycle continued every half an hour until it actually was 3am. Ate breakfast dreary-eyed but fortunately my appetite was as Himalayan as ever. Kitted up quickly then James and I headed out into the darkness about 4am, surprisingly mild and perfectly still. We moved over the moraine quietly until we reached the glacier and passed a rather strange burping creature – which I’m told was a Ptarmigan!
I’d felt a twinging pain upon crawling out of bed that hadn’t disippated, leaving me mentally struggling and wondering how far I’d get. I was tired, unfocused and despondent, making frustrating mistakes with my ropework and general movement. The glacier endlessly inclined until we reached a steeper jagged line of rocks which we followed, roped together, to the Festijoch. From the crest it was a relief to see something remotely mountainous ahead, as the sun began to rise softly illuminating 3 figures on the glacier below a distant Weisshorn in wispy cloud.
The Dom came into view. We had the choice of the Festigrat, an exposed snowy arete graded PD, or the “normal” route. James said the Festigrat looked in fantastic condition so naturally we went for the more interesting line! Suddenly the cobwebs and anxieties that morning had melted away into adrenaline. I felt alive, empowered and on the edge. We plodded up the steep snowy incline with a subtle sunrise over the peaks to our left (I can’t remember the name but they probably ended in Horn) and Dom finally began to feel in reach. I loved the true, wild sense of remoteness- just James and I in this pristine environment… broken only by a cry of ‘Scheisse!!’ below as one of the Germans dropped his helmet down onto the glacier.
I felt equally disarrayed upon the discovery of mustard on my cheese sandwich. But food is fuel, ja?
I focused eyes on feet rather than the peak above which I knew would cruelly be the ‘false summit’. Aside from burning calves on the unforgiving ridge and occasional wading through patches of sludgy soft snow, I felt strong and unaffected by over 4000m of altitude. But mentally, I found myself reflecting on the Chester2Chamonix bike ride to reascertain to myself that I COULD do this and that I could carry on for just a couple more hours. Mentally I try to numb out the negative thoughts and focus on progress. Counting down from 100m of altitude remaining, I knew it was ours and began to smile even as the altitude started to drain my muscles and my head throbbed slightly. It’s always the turning point where you begin to ‘smell the barn’ that I love about big summit days- the true reward of pushing on when the little voice on your shoulder starts poking you in the eye and doubting your capabilities. “I can see the cross!” I said.
We were almost there – the slope lessened slightly and the blinding morning sun cloaked the summit ahead as if on the Stairway to Heaven… and as we reached the summit of the Dom, it certainly felt like it. After just under 6 hours, at about 9:47am, we reached 4545m with a handshake as the Alps panorama opened up around us. Utter elation.
It was well worth the effort. There was no café to be seen – only a precipitous drop on both sides of the summit ridge that likened Crib Goch to the M6. We edged carefully over to the summit cross – the true summit of the Dom des Mischabel, with views over to the Taschhorn, the Matterhorn, and the Monte Rosa peaks.
James kindly got a few photos which really captured the moment, environment, superb weather and vulnerability of the summit. There was no queuing up here and for me, felt like my first proper Alpine ascent. The job was a good un and I’d got four EPIC7 challenges in a row.
After 10 minutes or so we reluctantly headed down from the incredible, exposed platform down the normal route into the sun, losing height quickly and absolutely beaming. One particular section of the route was threatened by enormous seracs so we flew past into the safety of the Festijoch which was sweltering hot by now, carefully passing some impressive crevasses and strolled into the Domhutte about 2pm looking as if we’d just wandered up Snowdon.
A well-deserved drink then we decided to head down to Randa. Took about 2.5 hours of hurtling down the Alpine trails until we reached the comfort of the village, vowing to return to this amazing place sometime soon. It was a sleepy 2 hours in the car back to Chamonix after 5000ft of ascent and 10,000ft of descent in one day. We had another day of climbing planned, but with the groin injury and the logistics of organising something else in just one day- I was exuberant and extremely satisfied we’d summited the Dom so we said our farewells. James is based in Les Houches and so if you have any Alpine ambitions – I’d highly recommend him!
Overall, the Dom climb was difficult but with such a marked increase in my fitness it was difficult to compare it to anything else. It definitely fitted into the EPIC7 class- being the greatest vertical ascent in the Alps, the highest peak entirely in Switzerland and for the reason it pushed me in a different way to the bike ride, with a more intense burst of prolonged exertion, the unknown of what lay ahead and deciding whether to push on through injury. A friend of mine picked up a groin injury over two years ago from running- and hasn’t returned to sport since.
It was great to be climbing a major peak but harder than before, something different with more character and remoteness which opened future mountaineering possibilities and ideas to explore. What felt even more rewarding was the satisfaction of taking on two physical and mental tests so close to each other, and making a success of both. Although the Dom didn’t push me to my limits how I expected, without the consecutive daily grind of Chester2Chamonix, it threw me out of my comfort zone yet developed the skills most specific to Everest training. It built some confidence in my physical and mental ability, whilst highlighting the need to improve a number of skill areas to move efficiently at altitude- as on Everest, I’ll likely feel far more tired, sluggish and despondent and the consequences are much greater. A big thanks to James for the superb company, teaching me a lot and for enabling me to achieve my objective.
So, with sore and seizing muscles endowing me with a Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ type walk down the familiar streets of Chamonix, I had 2 days to kill and tried to recuperate before returning to the daily grind and chipping away at opportunities for Everest 2015. Naturally I sink into depression after the high of a challenge. The doubts and questions seem to follow success, creating a vicious cycle that always needs another challenge to fix it, as I question my passion, direction and meaning for life. Tomorrow I return home and only then do I think things can begin to make sense. My mind and body has had enough adventure for 2 weeks. I’m not going to pretend otherwise- we all have our weaknesses, and right now, I feel as motivated as a box of scrunched up paper.
A great video produced by James of the summit! I don’t have walk slowly but with an exposed summit ridge, it was probably for the best…
But what have I learnt? That sometimes, it’s when you’re doubting yourself, you’re just around the corner from your next success. And that my next EPIC7 challenge, is going to need to be even bigger than before. I want to find out just how far I can push myself in the name of adversity. Although,I’ve realised that my mountaineering ambitions come more from a will to live a meaningful life and discover the limits of what else I can overcome- and not just a thirst for being in the outdoor world doing adventurous things. Walking through Chamonix yesterday, I was stopped by a chap who recognised me and had followed my progress on Twitter, saying it’d made him think ‘Maybe, just maybe’ that he could live the same way. Sometimes that’s the fuel I need to keep pushing myself in and out of my comfort zones.
There’s a long way until Everest 2015 and I need to get myself back in gear quickly if I’m going to get myself to the top of the world next Spring. 4 incredible challenges have been completed, and with the bike ride I knowingly didn’t have a clue what I was doing- but this lack of planning solely added to the adventure and achievement. I urgently need other businesses to join this incredible journey along the compelling partnership I have with Westgrove Group to prepare me for Everest and inspire others at the same time. You’ve seen me cycle around the Lakes, hike around the highest Welsh mountains, cycle to the Alps solo and then climb the 3rd highest peak there. So what’s the limits? Only I can put one foot in front of the other to reach the top of the world- my holy grail- but with your help with sponsorship, donations or even your precious time, you can be part of the journey and feel like you’re breathing the thin air with me in the spirit of tenacity, determination and achieving through adversity.
Does that sound epic to you? Please get in touch and let’s make this happen. Nothing worth fighting for is easy.