Thursday, 20 September 2012

Battling the alps and global warming (Part 2)

We got back to the flat in Courmayeur from the failed Mont Blanc attempt around lunchtime. I headed upstairs to try to get some sleep - it took a while to doze off but in the end I got about three hours shut-eye before it was time to grab a quick shower, re-pack my rucksack, and head down for dinner. We took it easy for the evening and left for Pont around 11.30 with an air of expectation in the car - I felt determined that this time I wouldn't be turning the group around.

Leaving the car about 12.30 am, we headed a short walk along the road to where a track began to zig-zag up a steep hillside. Andrea strode to the front, and I automatically tried to match his pace. It didn't take long to realise that I wasn't going to keep that up easily though, and with the rest strung out behind there wasn't much point, so I eased back to a steady plod.

We reached the Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II (2,735 meters) around 3.00 am and sat outside for a while eating breakfast, until someone wandered in and discovered the staff were already up preparing for the guests to arise, and happy to make us a coffee.

One latte later, I was feeling pretty good as we headed out back onto the trail. It didn't take long however till I started to experience the first signs of gastro intestinal distress. Soon, I was farting about every 10 steps - clearly there wasn't much blood flowing to the upper intestine so I was already struggling to provide my brain and muscles with the required level of oxygen. This didn't particularly worry me though; I've been through it before in training for long distance triathlon so I figured as long as I kept the pace steady I'd be fine. The rest of the guys slowed to my pace and we kept a steady plod up through the darkness, the head torches of the first guys to leave from the hut twinkling below us. A little later on, I started to notice my breathing getting worse. I couldn't drink from the hydration pack without stopping while I sucked on it, and even then I had to take a few breaths before I was ready to resume walking. Nevermind - I wasn't going to let myself be the weak link again tonight!

Around 3400m, as it was getting light, we reached a point where the route dropped down towards the bottom of the glacier to our left. Nic had been scoping further up the ridge we were on however, and found a shiny new via ferrata in place. All I had with me for protection was slings, and I was acutely aware of the danger this presented in the event of a fall, but the ridge looked a fairly gentle angle so I reasoned a factor 2 was unlikely. I was feeling wobbly enough not to really trust my judgement by this point though, so I asked Słavek and Fats (who were coming behind me) to just keep an eye, and yell out if I did something stupid.

The climbing was a pretty straightforward traverse so I was able to forget my discomfort at climbing on slings (and even grab a couple of pictures of the other guys), up till the end when it turned up a set of ladders on the wall. For the first time I began to doubt the sanity of carrying on - if I didn't trust myself to climb a ladder any more, what was I doing up here? But I looked over my shoulder to the summit and thought "Fuck that, we're too close for me to pull out now", took a rest for a short while to gulp down some air, and climbed out. Sitting down to put the crampons on and get roped up for the slope to where we would re-join the main route, I started to feel a little better.

For a short while I had the feeling it was all going to be fairly straightforward to the top, but then the breathing difficulties got worse again. I was on the back of a three with Nic and Andrea, and moving so slowly we were almost stationary. The guys kept turning to offer encouragement and ask if I was OK - I stopped speaking in response, and began resorting to a thumbs up and wave to carry on up the hill. I couldn't waste precious breath on words any more. I remember thinking to myself "What the fuck is going on? This isn't fucking everest, why are you walking 10 steps and taking a breather like you're up in the himalaya?" I'd been to this height by ski lift many times in the past without issue, how could it be so difficult now?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I had tears welling up in my eyes. I fought them back down and wondered where they were coming from. I was suffering but I didn't feel particularly emotional, in fact I was settled into one of those comfortably numb states I use to get through long hard bike or run sessions - switch off and keep putting one foot in front of the other. The tears came again, and I pushed them back, but when they came for the third time I thought "Fuck it, let them go".

Within seconds I was sobbing... and then suddenly I felt a second wind. "It's now or never" I thought, and picked up the pace to what felt like a sprint - but was in reality no more than a normal walking pace. I must have looked a sight, tears streaming down my face, snot and dribble coming from my nose and gaping wide mouth as I gasped for air like a fish out of water. With about 100m to go, my throat began to constrict and I developed an asthmatic wheeze, but I figured if I stopped now I might not be able to start again, so I kept going.

This last push was the hardest thing I've ever done - finishing the half ironman was a walk in the park in comparison. I arrived at the queue for the last few meters of rock an absolute wreck. I couldn't speak for a couple of minutes, but as I began to come back to reality I realised just what I state I was in. I had massive pins and needles - my hands and feet felt like balloons. There was a bitter metallic taste in my mouth, and the world was slowly rotating around me.

After a bit of a break, we began scrambling up the the statue of the madona on the very summit. My balance was all over the place, and I really though I was likely to topple off. I considered untying from the rope to avoid taking anyone else with me, but in the end it seemed like too much hassle... better just to do my best to stay on the ridge.

Eventually we made it up to the statue, grabbed a couple of photos, and got back down to the top of the snow field. I remember musing to myself that I should be feeling elated, but was mainly relieved that the ascent was over, and dreading the walk back down. Now that Nic had realised what a bad state I was in, he was keen to get me down as quickly as possible. I wanted to wait at the top of the glacier for Fats and Słavek (who'd been quite a bit behind us to the summit), but he was insistent we should get moving after just about long enough for me to catch my breath and cool my head in the snow. At the time I felt critical of this decision, but with hindsight he was absolutely right - I was not just exhausted, I was ill and staying at that height longer than necessary could have had serious consequences. Even lying still in the snow I was struggling a bit for breath.

Going back down by the normal route there were a few crevasses to get across, and it was hard going in the sun softened snow, but we made it down the glacier without incident. Nic headed off down towards the hut, and I waited with Andrea for Fats and Słavek to arrive. The break was welcome, and for the first time in about three hours it felt like there was enough oxygen in the air.

We took our time down the rest of the way to the hut, where there was a welcome freezing lake for weary feet, and some hot food. On the way, I began to think about my behavior on the way to the summit. I have a very stubborn streak under pressure, which can be very useful in an individual pursuit such as a long distance triathlon, but in a team event such as this it was not fair for me to hide my condition from the rest of the guys. You need to be able to make an informed decision on the hill, and I witheld that information from the people who would have had to look after me had things got any worse - they should have been allowed to fully understand what continuing upwards meant for us all. Arriving at the hut, I apologised to Nic for this, and resolved not to let it happen in future.

The last steep slope seemed so much longer than it had in the darkness the night before, but eventually we arrived back at the car, a full 19 hours after we had left it.

The day after I noticed I had very swollen ankles (peripheral oedema) and for the next couple of days I felt quite short of breath - both in Courmayeur and down in Turin, but by the time I landed back in London I was back to normal again.

At the time, I was immensely proud of myself for pushing through to reach the top (OAPs and children on the summit not withstanding - it was a personal battle to get there). Looking back now though, I realise it was foolish. I didn't really understand the potential consequences at such a relatively low altitude. Since I survived to tell the tale I'm kinda glad I proved to myself I could do it, but in future I think that level of commitment at altitude shall be reserved for when my survival - or someone else's - depends on it. One thing's for sure though... any time from now on I think I can't do a last few lengths of the pool, or another lap of Richmond Park, I can think back to that day and know that I bloody well can!

The glacier we skipped on the way up

Andrea on the via ferrata at 3500m

Slavek and Fatima
Nice views
Nic and Andrea just below the summit

From the top

The queues for the very summit

On the top with Andrea, photo by Nicola Ciancaglini

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