Have you ever agreed to something in the heat of the moment and then instantly regretted it?
We had just scaled the north face of Ben Nevis, it was freezing cold, the wind was howling, sleet and horizontal rain blasted us, as we stood at the trig point cutting into a frozen Mars bar, when one of the team suggested that our next climbing expedition should be Mont Blanc in the Alps, a very different experience with crisp white snow, blue skies and sunshine, huge glaciers and stunning alpine scenery.
And so it was over a few glasses of whiskey in front of a roaring fire back at the pub, that the plan was hatched to do just that. The next time we were together was on in a minibus to Chamonix.
Each day we acclimatised ourselves to the conditions that were very different to Scotland especially the altitude of over 4000 metres, a tad higher than Norfolk, where reduced oxygen levels can slow your brain, and cause difficulties in thinking coherently.
We practised skills such as ice axe arrests to stop us careering down the slopes after a fall, rolling over onto the axe, plunging the point deep into the snow and holding tight.
The Alps are renown for avalanches and deep crevasses, so rescue drills are essential. I was volunteered, placed in a harness, and lowered deep into an ice blue glacial fissure, the walls of shear ice making climbing out unaided impossible. As I gently spun round, dangling in mid air, the bottom too far down to see, I wondered how long it would be before I was rescued.
I definitely looked the part, a bright red one-piece climbing suit made out of Gore-Tex, 4 season boots, crampons, rucksack and head torch.
We travelled to the top of one peak, the Aiquille Du Midi, by cable car to the visitors viewing platform. As we came out the cable car and I was immediately surrounded by a dozen Japanese tourists with cameras, desperate to have their picture taken with me. I have no idea who they thought I was, perhaps a famous female mountaineer, or perhaps a giant red tele tubby!
Photo shoot over, from the platform and all securely roped together, we stepped out onto an exposed knife-edge ridge with a sheer drop of over 1000 feet either side with clear instructions that if someone slips, falling down one side of the ridge, to throw yourself over the other side as a counter balance, in order to prevent us all being pulled off the mountain. I don't think I was the only one scared as we slowly but purposely stepped along this ridge.
I had practised climbing steep gully’s in Scotland but here they were something else. From the bottom, one looked almost vertical, so roped together, we kicked deep with our crampons, an ice axe in each hand and slowly made our assent. All of a sudden someone slipped, the rope went taught, we were pulled down, instinctively we tried to get ice axes sunk deep into the snow, as we all fell down the slope. We are all a bit shaken knowing what could have happened. However, as they say ‘the only way is up’, we continued on, eventually braking through the ice cap at the top of the gulley, jubilant but exhausted we walked the ridge and abseiled down again. Back down, the chaps were buzzing with adrenaline and testosterone, I was just pleased to have made it in one piece, when to my horror the guide said ‘let's do it again’. I felt sick, my heartbeat quickened, my breathing rate speeded up, I was terrified with an overwhelming feeling of impending doom, with flashbacks of the fall.
My fellow climbers were very sympathetic, recognised that there was no way that I was going to do that climb again, tied me to rock, told me not to go anywhere, and said ‘we'll be back’. As they got further and further away, looking like little coloured ants on the side of the mountain, I can still remember the intense feeling of loneliness as I waited for them to come back for me.
But the blue skies turned grey, the weather conditions changed, the window of opportunity to climb Mont Blanc disappeared and my short career as a mountaineer was over.
Normally I would never have considered this expedition however gave me experiences that I would never otherwise have had and although physically and mentally demanding, not one I would have missed.
It taught me never to say I can't do something without trying it first.
It taught me never trust a man who says ‘it's not a long way down’ when he's carrying a 50 metre rope.
To never give up the opportunity to have your 15 minutes of fame. It still amuses me to think that my photo is sat on a dozen mantelpieces back in Japan.
It taught me to never say never. But I might say never again!
Julie has been a valued member fo the club for over ten years and part of the club committee as Club Secretary for four years. A most inspirational post Julie, thank you Russell Eden- Vice President Education 2021-2022