The Ascent of Mont Blanc
The electronic peep of the alarm pierces my wandering dreams like a knife. Reluctantly I drag myself from the security of sleep. Consciousness floods in all too quickly. One am. Tete Rousse hut. 3100m. Summit day.
Next to me Manu springs from his bunk and starts pulling on his clothes as if he’d been waiting for the alarm. Further down the dark little dorm other figures stir and rise, shadows from the grave. Cursing, but not wanting to hold anyone up, I push back my musty blankets and crawl to the edge of the bed.
The joys of the Alpine start. Five hours trying to sleep. One hour a lost cause due to the outrageous noise of a helicopter right outside, working on the new extension to the hut. The other four hours interrupted by constant shouting and laughter from the adjoining room where it sounds like a party is still going on. And now it’s time to get up, leap into action, and climb one thousand seven hundred metres to the summit of this mountain.
This mountain. Mont Blanc. At 4808m the highest mountain in Western Europe. A great white dome, towering over the fantastic peaks of the Chamonix Aiguilles, it is an icon for climbers and tourists alike. By no means the most difficult mountain in the region, nor the most shapely, it is by virtue of its height the most sought after. And now it’s my chance to attempt to reach its lofty summit. To stand on that elevated snow crest and to feel like I am on top of the world.
As I sit on the end of the bunk I realise I’ve left my head-torch in my rucksack, out by the hut door, and fumble in the dark until Manu lends me his. By the pale light of the torch, I prepare to put on my legs. The silicon sleeves are cold and chill my skin as I roll them carefully onto the rounded stumps of my lower limbs. Next I pull on some nylon stump socks, padding against the rigours of the day, then push my stumps firmly into the carbon fibre sockets of the legs. Finally a pair of silicon suspension sleeves, for added security, are pulled over the artificial legs and onto my thighs. Now I can stand up. My arms are cold and I blow on them and rub them together. They, like my legs, are truncated stumps, round ended and handless. I pull on a jumper and go through for breakfast, red-eyed and hobbling. My legs should get more comfortable as they warm up and settle in to their sockets.
An hour later, after some weak tea and a bit of bread and jam, then a while preparing our equipment, it’s time to go and we emerge into the black fledgling day. Manu puts my crampons on for me – I can’t do it myself – we rope up and wave goodbye to the hut guardian and his friends, still partying, clutching their drinks by the front door.
The snow underfoot is hard and crystalline and grates beneath my crampons with a sound of metal on metal. I keep my balance on the uneven surface with my two sticks, a pair of modified walking poles which attach to my arms with plastic prosthetic sockets. We climb the slope above the hut, gently at first then more steeply as the slope rises to meet a dark rock face ahead of us. In front of us another group of climbers makes swift progress. Behind us, Philippe, a friend of Manu’s from Paris, and his two companions. I can hear their breathing and the soft murmur of their conversation as we climb. Overhead a handful of stars shine in the inky sky.
The gentle introduction is soon over and we reach the rocks. The climbing now is more difficult, steep and complex, loose rock and scree. Often I am forced to shed my sticks, let them dangle from their lanyards, and haul myself up by the arms, scrabbling for purchase with my senseless feet. All those hours of practice at my local climbing wall in Edinburgh have definitely paid off.
For Manu the climbing is straightforward. He clambers confidently ahead of me, keeping the rope between us tight, stopping at each awkward step to see me safely over. I am glad of the confidence he inspires. Manu Cauchy was one of the doctors who helped save my life. When I was airlifted off the mountain, Les Droites, back in January 1999, hypothermic and frostbitten, inches from death, and brought in to Chamonix Hospital, Manu was part of the medical team which fought to save me and my ice savaged limbs. They saved my life, just, but it was already too late for my hands and feet, frozen into blocks of ice, and all four had to be amputated.
Of course I was devastated. How could I not be? I spent a long time wondering if my life could ever be worth living again. I wondered if perhaps I wouldn’t have been better off dying on that ice cold ledge, four thousand metres up the wind blasted mountain, next to the frozen body of my climbing partner and best friend, Jamie Fisher. I know that in those early days many other people thought the same thing.
But somehow I pulled myself round. Somehow I persuaded myself that the gift of life was the most important thing, no matter what disability I was forced to cope with, and I vowed to go on and live my life to the full, for my own sake and for the sake of Jamie who hadn’t been so fortunate.
So, day by day and inch by inch, with the help of my girlfriend Anna (now my wife), my friends and family and a host of patient professionals, I slowly put my life back together again. Rebuilt it according to a completely new set of rules and parameters. Learnt to accept my new body and make the most out of it.
And here I am now, three and a half years later, attempting to become the first quadruple amputee to climb Mont Blanc. Back, climbing in the same mountains that cost my friend his life and so very nearly cost me my own. I suppose a large part of the reason why I’m here is to provide the ultimate vindication to all those who believed that my life was worth saving, to give the ultimate two fingers to myself and anyone else who thought that there was no hope for me. I want to prove to myself and to the world that my life is whole again.
We come to an impasse. The rocks above us rear up, black and precipitous. The only way is to traverse rightwards across a wide snowy scoop in the mountain face – the Gouter Couloir. The couloir is an evil place. During the day it is exposed to constant stonefall, rocks loosened by melting snow, destabilised by powerful gusts of wind, or knocked down by careless climbers above. Every year there are many accidents here, some of them fatal. In the night-time we are comparatively safe. Hence the early start. Nevertheless we don’t linger in the couloir and it is with a sigh of relief that we reach the other side.
Our route ahead lies up a broad shattered ridge, rising for five hundred metres to the summit of the Aiguille de Gouter. This is the Gouter Arête and it is the key to the normal route up Mont Blanc. Manu helps me take off my crampons and we carry on up the rocky ridge. The moon, full and silver, rises over the shoulder of the mountain lighting our way.
We climb for what seems like an eternity, scrambling over rocky buttresses, weaving an intricate path back and forth across the crest of the arête, trying to pick the easiest line. Occasionally there are fixed ropes and handrails which mark the way. High above us I can occasionally glimpse the Gouter Hut, its aluminium cladding glinting in the moonlight. For many climbers the Gouter Hut is the next night stop on the ascent of Mont Blanc, the summit being gained on the third day. We however intend to press on to the top today and stay at the Gouter on the way down. Gradually the hut inches closer. By the time we reach its storm battered door it is 6.30 am and daylight. 3800m.
The occupants of the hut have all left already and only the guardian is at home, snoring on a bench. So we sit down for half an hour, eat some food, drink tea from our flasks before setting off again on the next leg. Philippe’s friends decide they have had enough and will wait in the hut so Philippe comes with us.
Outside the hut the wind has got up, a strong piercing wind. We are onto the upper snowbound reaches of the mountain now. The way ahead is all on glacier and ice-cap. We set off, Philippe in front, Manu behind. I trudge diligently in the middle.
“Slowly Philippe!” Manu cries, “We must go more slowly. We have to preserve our glycogen. We can go fast later if we want.” Manu, an expert on mountain medicine, is always very scientific.
As well as being a busy A&E doctor, ‘Manic’ Manu is also a mountain rescue doctor, a qualified mountain guide, a film maker, a father of two and many other things. It was Manu who first persuaded me to return to the Alps. After being medi-vaced home from Chamonix Hospital I stayed in touch with the medical staff to whom I owed such a debt of gratitude and with whom I had become quite close. I sent them photos and kept them regularly informed of my progress. A year later, at Manu’s invitation, Anna and I returned to Chamonix, and I proudly walked back into the hospital from which I had been helplessly wheeled twelve months earlier.
Apart from an attempt at snowboarding, I didn’t go into the mountains on that occasion. It was still too soon. But being back in the mountain town of Chamonix, surrounded by the glorious peaks of the French Alps, somehow rekindled the flame of mountaineering that had burned so strongly in me and it was then that Manu and I first hatched the idea that an ascent of Mont Blanc might be possible. I have been working towards this day since then.
The next section of the route is the broad white pate of the Dome de Gouter. Marching through the snow at our slow, regular pace, we zig-zag our way steadily up the great convex slope of the dome. Fortunately there is a good track, trampled by the passage of many feet, and there are no route finding difficulties. Occasionally we encounter small crevasses, innocuously small fissures cutting slashes through the pristine whiteness of the slope. But when peered down, these fissures are impossibly deep, blue, dark and threatening. We step across the crevasses carefully or pick a crossing point where thick snow has bridged the gap.
Soon we begin to pass other teams of climbers, weary souls on their way down from the summit having started early from the Gouter Hut or the Cosmiques Hut on the other side. Manu seems to know at least half of the guides leading these teams and we pause often for news of the summit conditions. My French is too slow to follow their conversations but I regularly pick up the phrase, “A lot of wind”. Manu seems relatively reassured however and he says, “I think we can succeed!”
We have passed through the 4000m barrier now and I am glad of all the acclimatisation work I have done over the last week. I have spent several days walking and climbing in the area at high altitude, spent one night in a hut at 3700m, and climbed the nearby peak of Mont Blanc du Tacul (4200m). It seems to have paid off as I have none of the symptoms of altitude sickness – nausea, headaches, breathlessness and fatigue. I still feel fighting fit and ready for anything. Perhaps we really can succeed.
I dearly hope so. There’s a lot of effort gone into the preparation for this climb. Since the day I took my first tottering steps, weak kneed and unsure of my strange new legs, I have been slowly building up my strength and confidence, walking longer and longer distances, climbing bigger and bigger hills, hoping one day to have the ability and stamina to make it to the roof of Europe.
A lot of thought and effort has gone into preparing my equipment too. Not having any hands makes taking care of myself in a mountain environment difficult. Buckles and straps have to be chosen or modified so that I can operate them with my clumsy stumps. Zips are extended with extra large loops. My jacket is altered to fit my shortened arms.
My legs are fairly standard modern devices, carbon fibre, titanium, and flexible carbon fibre feet. Mountaineering boots are no longer an issue as I don’t need ankle support and I don’t suffer from cold feet. I wear a pair of hill running shoes, lightweight with good grips. My crampons strap neatly on. My walking poles are a development which have evolved over the last couple of years. Telescopic for adjustability, they have sockets which fit comfortably onto my stumps with room for a specially made pair of fleece stump mitts.
My two ice-axes are perhaps the most interesting modifications. My prosthetist made a pair of plastic and carbon fibre sockets which fit my stumps. The biomechanical engineering department devised an interface, joining the sockets to the component parts of a pair of axes, supplied by a Scottish manufacturer, and I drew up a design for a harness, made for me by a climbing equipment manufacturer, which holds the devices securely onto my arms, whatever the positions of my elbows and shoulders.
I’m not carrying them with me today but the finished axes have proved very successful when training on steep ice climbs back in Scotland, although I do look a bit like Terminator when I’m wearing them.
Finally the three of us round the crest of the Dome de Gouter. A whole new vista opens up before us. And it’s not all good news. Ahead we can see another rise, crowned by the black box of the Vallot Hut, an emergency refuge. Beyond, the final slopes of the mountain, the summit already obscured by swirling cloud. On either side, the peaks of the Haute Savoie, some of them too capped with cloud. And above everything, a vast ceiling of cloud, the colour of lead, buckling, twisting and scalloped, by the force of the wind rushing through, between it and the mountain slopes. It is an awesome sight, beautiful and terrifying.
We press on regardless. The force of the wind is getting stronger now, making walking more difficult. Before long we reach the Vallot hut at 4400m. It is 10.30 am. A final team of climbers passes us on their way down. We struggle on.
Just before we pass into the clouds, I catch a glimpse of my mountain, Les Droites, in the distance. Automatically my eye scans along the distinctive summit ridge, settles for a moment on the slight indentation of the breche, then traces out the descent route, the descent we never made.
In a flash I am back there. Trapped in that tiny break in the ridge, on a pitiful ledge scraped from the hard winter ice, Jamie lying next to me, shivering uncontrollably. Our two-day climb, the North Face, had gone well. But then the storm struck, un-forecast, vicious, and our escape was cut off. We held out well. Tried to stay warm. Kept each other buoyed up. Two days. Three days. Four. The helicopter couldn’t reach us. The wind was too strong. We had no food left. No water. No shelter. In the night Jamie died. I waited to join him. The helicopter came in the morning.
The mountain vanishes behind swirling clouds and I snap back to the present. I’ve been over those memories too often now for them to disturb me. The wind howls and I shiver.
We climb through the clouds now and the wind is reaching gale force. It catches my feet as I lift them and trips me up. I start to feel scared. Perhaps we shouldn’t go on. But we’re so nearly there, it would be madness not to. Manu and Philippe are still looking confident.
Eventually I pipe up, “Manu, I don’t like this. What do you think?”
Manu turns and looks at me. “You have to say if we go on or turn back, Jamie. It’s your choice.”
“Let’s continue to the top of this bosse, then decide,” says Manu, “We’re nearly there.”
So we struggle on to the top of the bosse, a broad lump in the ridge, and sit down in the snow. Philippe’s altimeter reads 4500m.
“I am happy to go on,” says Manu, “There are strong winds, but no lightning. I think it is safe.”
“I am happy too, Jamie,” put in Philippe, “Go on or turn back, it is as you want.”
But I am not happy. I so badly want to get to the top of this mountain. We’re so close now. Only 300m of ascent. Forty-five minutes max. Probably it’ll be fine. And yet there are so many other thoughts running through my head. Thoughts of my ordeal on Les Droites, the terrifying forces of nature in their full fury. Thoughts of my life back in Edinburgh, my friends, all the good times. Thoughts of Anna back at home, waiting patiently once again, praying for my safe return.
I just can’t take the risk anymore. I’ve simply got too much to lose. This does mean a lot to me but not so much that I would put it beyond all else.
Manu is telephoning to the valley for a weather forecast. “The weather is to deteriorate this afternoon,” he summarises.
“OK,” I say heavily, “Let’s go down.”
Manu and Philippe help me to my feet then we begin to trudge wearily back down the hill. The tears that begin welling in my eyes remain hidden behind my sunglasses.
You must be tired Jamie. The mountain will still be there next time. The mountain will always still be there.