An expedition has 3 components: Plan, Do, Recover…Fantasise, Criticise, Romanticise!.
“We’ve climbed Mt Kenya…what next?”. That was the challenge posed by the Commanding Officer on our return from Kenya in 2013. The European Alps were closer and Mt Blanc the highest in western Europe at 4808m was a perfect ideal.
The long and laborious process of bringing an inchoate plan to fruition began. We wanted a small group of mountaineers to aim for the ultimate prize but also be inclusive and so planned for a larger group to traverse the base of Mt Blanc along the world famous Tour de Mt Blanc (TMB). This 100mile circumnavigation with 10,000m of ascent and descent was the perfect foil to the attempt on the mountain at its centre.
Right up to the last minute the expedition hung in the balance with instructors and finances keeping us guessing. In no small part the generosity and speedy contribution from the Ulysses Trust allowed us to book flights and accommodation and gave a momentum which maintained the planning morale.
Notwithstanding almost missing the flight we arrived with some relief at the foot of Mt Blanc in glorious sunshine, in the crucible of world alpininsm: Chamonix in the Haute-Savoie region of France.
After a pizza and a thunderstorm our teams separated. The mountaineers travelled to Saas Fee in Switzerland to take advantage of the relatively easy terrain where we planned to train and acclimatize. The walkers set off from the campsite on the first of their 10 days hard walking aiming to curl West from Chamonix then East around into Italy, onwards to Switzerland before finally turning on themselves to return back into France.
For the mountaineers our week in Saas Fee was perfect. Simple Swiss hospitality at our basecamp allowed us to take advantage of very competitively priced lift tickets to access the hills. We completed 2 days of alpine training: crevasse rescue techniques, alpine ropework, using axe and crampons to travel safely on all manner of slope & snow. Then we managed 2 excellent ascents of 4000m peaks (the Allaninhorn and the Strahlhorn) which along with a very useful night spent at altitude in a mountain hut set us up perfectly for an attempt on Mt Blanc.
Returning to Chamonix we stopped briefly in La Fouly, Switzerland to drop off a tent flysheet. This was to be retrieved by the TMB walkers when they passed through later that day after a freak rockfall had destroyed a tent one night in Italy. A near disaster was averted thanks to a simple communication plan using Satphones and a little off the cuff improvisation. The perfect example of thorough planning still allowing maximum flexibility.
Unfortunately the next week was marred by truly awful weather. A massive low pressure system sat across Europe and over a foot of fresh snow and 60mph+ winds at altitude scuppered our chances of attempting Mt Blanc. To illustrate the unseasonable and freakish weather at least 4 people disappeared on the Mt Blanc massif, presumed dead as they could not be found. We satisfied ourselved with easier objectives such as the Petite Aiguille Verte although even this was exciting as we were caught by an electrical storm whilst descending and the atmospheric static had us casting off our metal ice axes as they’re buzzing warned of imminent lightning strikes!
The TMB walkers endured sun, rain and gruelling ascents with occasional mountain oases to salve their toil. Not least the guardian of one mountain hut providing them with a free bottle of local “firewater” which guaranteed a late night and even later start the next day!
As we relaxed in Chamonix canyoning, rafting and visiting a vineyard for the final weekend we could reflect on an outstanding 10 days of effort. New skills learnt, significant physical challenges and no little teamwork brought out the best in all involved. A huge amount of hard work from the instructors set the scene for success but ultimately the esprit de corps of the officer cadets was the bedrock for the enjoyment of all involved. In summary the ethos that adventurous training embodies is echoed in another line from Ulysses, “..how dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished not to shine in use..”.