by | Mar 10, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

The first time on Mont Blanc—Europe’s highest mountain—

Who would have thought that, in my sixty-five years of existence, I would ever get lost? Me, the virtual inventor of the map, to whom the Ordnance Survey is a religious order. I have, though, been so on three occasions. The first time on Mont Blanc—Europe’s highest mountain—and the second since the passing of my wife, Miriam. I must say the feeling of helplessness that I experienced then is much like the emotion that I am sensing now, the third time, facing up to the loss of someone special, but more about that later. The fear of the unknown, the sense of vulnerability, and the notion that I got myself into this mess define the three encounters as if they were looking at each other in a mirrored room. Climbing a 15,000 ft mountain, at the age of eighteen, with just the experience of Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills under one’s belt was reckless to the extreme. Decades later, taking on a triple peaked monster of culture, age and distance, proved equally foolhardy.

However well-equipped we were, in those early days, this did not make up for lack of Alpine knowledge. Everything was on a different scale, and the challenges were all completely new. Our sheer physical fitness had taken us to within touching distance of the summit. We hadn’t previously seen a glacier in real life, nor had we experienced the dangers of a crevasse; especially one covered in snow. We definitely hadn’t before seen, as we did then, the body of a man who had fallen into one or his distraught wife waiting for a rescue helicopter.

Fast fforwarding to 2019, I was equally resourceless to cope with losing someone over a period of three months. Strong, feisty human to corpse in just twelve short weeks.

Not ccontent with those experiential blows, I dived headlong into a point-of-no-return relationship with the most taboo of subjects. Talk about ill-equipped? I might as well have climbed Mt. Blanc naked.

With respect to the mountain itself, all of these things were real, including being stranded in a mountain refuge for three days, while the rest of France thought we had met the same fate as that Monsieur in the crevasse. We’d ushered away the helicopter pilot who had come to remove his corpse. Before our escape, we were branded “Les Quatre Anglaises Fous”, the Four Mad Englishmen. No one had ever endured three days and nights in the Vallot Hut before. This was, however, before we had spent a further two days and nights marching to the summit. It was during this period, on our triumphant but exhausted descent, that we managed to get lost.

It was in, what climbers call a “white-out”, where the sky, snow, and ground merge into a homogeneous horror show of pallidity—akin to staring into the face of a corpse. All that one can see is the gloved hand in front of one’s face when held at arm’s length, not even the man roped to you six feet away is visible. Everything else is pure guesswork, the ultimate unknown, darkness’s pale cousin. This nightmare continued for several hours on what we thought was our way back down to the Vallot. However, in the white-out, we had changed direction towards the sheer drop from L’ Arête des Bosses to the glacier below. At the last minute, however, one of our party heard the alien phenomenon of a door slamming behind us. We halted as the sky cleared, revealing a patch of blue and below our feet, a sheer drop.

As the murk lifted, we turned one hundred and eighty degrees to see the tiny shelter built on a promontory one hundred years previously by French botanist, Joseph Vallot. The hut that had been our home two days earlier. We turned and made a slow, altitude-affected dash for the hut before the gloom descended again. On ascending the short wooden staircase, we were met by two French Alpine Club climbers who informed us, somewhat surprised at our existence, of our new Gallic nicknames.

The rest, as they say, is history. As was the painstaking but wholly inadequate planning that nearly led to our untimely demise. I can see the headlines now, “Four former Kenton School sixth form pupils plunge to their death on Europe’s highest mountain”. Luckily, thanks to that slamming door, it was not to be and here I am to tell this and many other tales.

Speaking of which, my current experience of being lost is happening as I write. It’s as if I’m in the white-out that nearly led to the premature meeting with my maker all those years ago in the Haute Savoie. Rarely is my metaphorical hand visible and there is no reassuring slam of a door to pull me from the gloom. The blue sky rarely shows itself even though we’re in the middle of summer. I often wait for the ground to disappear beneath my feet sending me hurtling towards the pointed ice seracs below. There is no comforting tug of the rope behind or in front to remind me that at least my encounter is shared. The only occasion I saw the reassuring azure turned out to be a false alarm. No sooner had the clarity beckoned, it was whisked away to be replaced by thick icy mist. The optimism that was promised with that glimpse of blue never materialised. So, as I sit here relating these two tales of misfortune—one with a fortunate ending, one yet to be revealed—I await the signal that I am on the wrong track. Perhaps that blue sky will return if only to guide me to safety. My Mont Blanc, on this occasion, remaining unconquered.


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