Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Battling the alps and global warming (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, I jetted off to Turin to join a cosmopolitan team of would be Alpinists in Courmayeur. Nic and Sławek were to be our guides, having a fair bit of alpine experience between them, but I'd never climbed anything outside the Scottish highlands, and Andrea not even that - although this was to prove to be no hindrance to the machina! Completing the team was Philipino cranker extraordinaire (and Słavek's better half) Fatima.

The weather was fantastic when we got there with the sunshine splitting the trees. Too fantastic in fact - the snow and ice were melting rapidly, making conditions difficult. The initial plan had been to take the normal route up the Grandes Jorasses, but after consulting with the local guides Nic informed us they were no longer taking clients up there due to the ever widening bergshrunds - it wasn't particularly dangerous, just becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate. So it was decided that after an acclimatisation trek to the futuristic Gervasutti hut, we'd make make an attempt on Mont Blanc the next day, before conditions deteriorated any further.

The warm up got roughly as far as the first stream we had to cross... I sat down to get my boots off where the path crossed the water, and when I looked up a couple of the team were heading up the hill. Presuming they would come back to the crossing point if there wasn't something more suitable close by, I carried on and forded the stream, then turned round to see if anyone was going to need a hand across. Except everyone else was now climbing directly up the wrong side of the water. Ah well, I figured it would be best to just follow the path and keep the same height as the rest of the group until such time as they found a crossing point and came to join me. I was chuckling to myself as I watched them struggling up the scree whilst I wandered up a nice firm path, and enjoying myself in the sunshine as I sat down to have some lunch, when I got a call to say "trip abandoned, we can't get across, we're going back to the car". This pissed me off for two reasons - first we were missing out on any sort of acclimatisation (and the chance to properly test my new boots) before heading for Mont Blanc, and secondly I was annoyed at myself for not getting a map of the area we would be walking in, so I could carry on solo. Although the path was marked out with yellow paint dots on the rocks and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, I've seen conditions change and paths look different on the way back down often enough to know it's not worth being on a mountain you don't know without a way to locate yourself. So off I trotted down the hill fairly disgruntled. Lessons learned though - always carry a map whether you're leader or follower, and if the group does something strange go back and join them - even if it means a bit of extra fucking around in icy water. Anyway, with good weather, food and company in Courmayeur, it's hard to stay disgruntled for long.

The scree slope that defeated us
Next day we started out on the Italian normal route to Monte Bianco. This involves a day's fairly flat trekking up the Miage glacier to the Gonella hut at 3072m, and an early start up the Dome glacier to join the much more frequented French normal route. The first day went fairly well, right up till the last half an hour. We'd taken a fairly gentle pace to save ourselves for the next day, but all of a sudden I found myself struggling for energy with the end in sight. I was also ducking for cover from the sun at the slightest patch of shade, this should have been a warning sign - I've suffered heat exhaustion on several occasions before (and twice I think developed into heat stroke), but for some reason it never registers it's happening again.

Moraine on the Miage Glacier
Approach to the Gonella hut
Arriving at the hut I felt awful, but I didn't want to ruin it for the others any more than I wanted to abandon my own attempt, so I decided to keep it to myself until after dinner - giving me time to recover and giving the rest time to firm up their plans for a summit attempt before I announced I would pull out if it came to that (although there had been a couple of patches of snow on the way up, they were pretty flat and had very clearly defined crevasses, so there was nothing that wouldn't be easily negitiable on a solo descent).

Fats and Słavek on the snow plod below the hut

In the meantime, the news from the hut staff wasn't good - apparently everyone who'd left that morning had phoned to say they would be going down the French side and getting a bus back to Italy - the conditions on the glacier were not good, and with the freezing level at 4,600m they weren't going to get any better before the next morning.

The Dome Glacier, where the route was apparently getting a bit dicey
I went upstairs and tried to get some sleep. I dozed for a while, but every time I woke up the room was spinning slightly, my head was pounding and and my heart was racing; I checked my resting pulse rate - 104! It was another sign of heat exhaustion that I missed - I assumed I was reacting badly to the slightly thinner air. I did find this perplexing, having spent hours at a time skiing above 3000m in the past. Struggling to just rest at that height didn't make a lot of sense, but in my dazed state it seemed the obvious culprit nonetheless.

I headed down for dinner hoping that would sort me out, but I found it difficult to get much down, and it made me feel worse - I could now add nausia to my list of symptoms. So I dropped the bomb to Nic - I'm not fit to go for the top tonight. There was already some unease at making the attempt in the group, with half the teams in the hut having decided to abandon their attempts and the rest still debating, but despite insisting I was happy to go down on my own, I couldn't help but feel I was the catalyst for the subsequent change of plan - half an hour later we were all coming back down in the morning. I could see Słavek was disappointed, and I felt responsible. I sat outside watching the sunset, feeling pretty dejected despite the stunning surroundings.

As the temperature began to drop, I started to feel better. I thought "Shit! I bailed out too soon!". Even then, it wasn't till Słavek said "you were probably just cooked" that I realised what had been going on. I started checking my pulse - it was already below my earlier resting rate whilst wandering around, and steadily dropped throughout the evening to around 80 - the same is it is now sat at my computer. But the decision had already been made, and declaring my fitness and willing to have a go was not going to make a difference. The fact that retreating was probably the right thing to do didn't really help - I felt we were abandoning for slightly the wrong reasons, and that if I'd just kept my mouth shut a little bit longer we might have been going for a few hours sleep before breakfast at midnight.

Sunset from the Gonella hut

On the way down the glacier the next morning, Nic announced a plan to get us a 4000m scalp. He was going to head for the Gran Paradiso car park that evening and do an all-nighter to the top. Whoever wanted to come was welcome. I hesitated initially, not wanting my weakness to get in the way of another group attempt, but reasoning that we'd be climbing in the cool of the night so even if I wasn't fully recovered any problems with the sun would occur after the summit, I threw my hat in the ring.

The fun was about to begin...


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