Lost in the Clouds

I realised recently that in the talks I have given since my accident, whether the audience have been children or adults, I focus on my life post-accident, on ‘post-accident Darren’. Likewise, I speak about an ingrained sense of courage, resilience, and strength which I’ve relied upon to pull me through a time of real adversity.

I didn’t possess these qualities in abundance naturally. Instead, I discovered mental and emotional strength by taking on challenges, pushing my limits, and learning from life’s failures. ‘Lost in the Clouds’ is the first in a series of formative experiences I hope to write and to share with you all.

For those who did not know me before, here is a glimpse into ‘pre-accident Darren’…


 

Monte Rosa Massif (15,203ft) – May 2015

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” – George Mallory

 

I have always been captivated by tales of daring and sacrifice from the pioneers of high altitude climbing in the Himalaya, the likes of George Mallory, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Each story was one of total dedication and of total belief in the ability to succeed, even when the odds were stacked against them. It was my ambition to walk in the footsteps of these giants.

Almost three years had passed since I’d tested the limits of my courage, nerves and endurance on the face of Mont Blanc in the summer of 2012. With each month that passed, I became increasingly overcome with nostalgia for the raw beauty and power of the mountains at those heights, and by a yearning desire to be back testing myself physically and mentally in that environment.

Standing at 15,203ft (4,634m), Monte Rosa is the second largest mountain in Western Europe, and sits on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Described by the climbing website summitpost.org, Monte Rosa is ‘a collection off 22 peaks higher than 4,000 meters, with a stunning 2,470-meter eastern wall: a Himalayan wall in the Alps.’ I had climbed with my friend Matt since we were teenagers in college, and we had climbed Mont Blanc together in 2012. It seemed only right that the next big challenge should involve the two of us. With the climbing season opening up from late March, and running through until September, the only feasible time we could both make work in our calendars was May. We were very aware that this was early in the season to attempt to summit, and that we’d potentially have to endure more adverse conditions than ideal, but we were hopeful that fortune might shine in our favour.

Our base for the week would be a small wooden lodging above the isolated alpine town Alagna Valsesia. With our kit crammed to the rafters of a small rental hatchback, we followed pre-printed directions out of Milan and along a gently winding mountain pass until we reached Alagna. Keen to find our accommodation we chose to follow our directions past the town and up an increasingly steep and narrowing single track. Rickety and rusty iron barriers ‘guarded’ exposed drops, and solid tarmac soon gave way to sections of snow and sheet ice. The car started to slip. The engine revved noisily as the wheels spun haplessly beneath us, trying desperately to grip the slippery surface. Inside the car, Matt and I had entered a manic state of hysteria: shouting, nervously laughing, and trying everything to avert what felt like the potential for an untimely demise. Realising that we had a set of snow chains in the boot, we quickly set about securing the studded chains to the four wheels. Arriving at our accommodation no less than five minutes later, we were greeted by our Italian landlady, Maria. Looking somewhat perplexed, Maria looked at our car, and in her thick Italian accent enquired, “Why you use snow chains?” as she nonchalantly gestured to what was clearly her own car, a rusty blue Fiat from the 1980’s…with no snow chains.

Heading into town the next day, we hunted for the high street in hope of browsing the climbing shop, buying food for our trip in a market, and finding somewhere to have a good meal before setting off in the morning. There was a traditional and rustic charm about Alagna, characterised by its small family run businesses and large wooden chalets. We managed to supplement our limited military rations with cheese and bread from a local patisserie, and we found a restaurant where we could indulge ourselves and enjoy what might well be our last comfortable meal for a number of days. Later that night, as we dined at a table by the window and spoke about events to come, the warm glow of the restaurant shielded us from the encroaching cold night outside. I could see the jagged mountaintops of the massif high in the distance silhouetted against the night sky. The summits glistened majestically against the moonlight. Sat there locked in my gaze, I found it hard to imagine that by this time tomorrow I would be somewhere high on that huge, cold, dark expanse. It was a humbling thought.

As the morning sun began its arch high above the valley, Matt and I readied ourselves for the first stage of our journey to the summit of Monte Rosa. We’d spent the night before methodically packing our bags, checking and rechecking to make sure that we’d be bringing everything we needed for the next three to four days. With both of us carrying the weight of a small child on our backs, it was important that we’d distributed the weight evenly. The last thing either of us wanted was to be struggling off-balance as our bag pulled us from one side or another. Having shared our plans with Maria (who had very quickly assumed the role of our surrogate Italian mother), including when she should roughly expect us back by, we set off on the long winding road down to Alagna. The cable car station above the town was the first of three sections we would take that morning as we crisscrossed our way high above the bustling ski slopes. It wasn’t until we reached the second interchange that we faced our first challenge. The cable cars were noticeably smaller, and it was immediately apparent that this posed a problem for Matt and me. As our car began its bending journey around the carousel toward us we prepared to bundle our oversized luggage and ourselves through the cramped cabin doorway. We shoved, poked and shunted our way unceremoniously onboard, more Laurel and Hardy than Hillary and Tenzing, but we took our seats eagerly for the slow climb to the final changeover.

Exiting the station, we were stood at roughly 9,000ft (2,743m) and the view was utterly breath taking. To the north, the striking outline of the Monte Rosa Massif towered high above us. To the south, to the west, and to the east, mountain peaks rose grandly through the cloud line for as far as the eye could see. There was no mistaking the iconic outline of Mont Blanc in the distance, standing commandingly above its mountain realm. Each of the mountains below us were no doubt taller than Snowdon, yet in the grand context of the Alps, they felt distinctly commonplace. As we made the short hike to the final station only a handful of skiers and climbers were heading for the Punta Indren at 10,490ft (3,200m) alongside us. This final mechanised portion of our journey was the shortest of the three, but by far the most intimidating. A cable spun from our position and rose steeply along the mountain’s ridgeline to an exposed outcrop some few hundred feet above. Within seconds of leaving the station the ground dropped dramatically away, and I stood in stunned silence as a 1,000ft chasm opened up beneath my feet. The transit lasted no more than a couple of minutes, and as the car arrived into the Punta Indren, we readied ourselves for the first serious leg of our Monte Rosa adventure.

Leaning against the cold iron struts of the station’s exit, I removed my crampons from the top of my bag, strapped them to my boots, and unclipped one of the ice axes to hold in my right hand. The first section of the climb would see us traverse across the shoulder of the ridgeline and climb to the Refuge Mantova; a mountain hut nearly 1,000ft above us. We set off towards the base of an exposed cliff directly in front of us, no more than 100m away. The sun was shining strongly overhead and reflected brightly against the snow. My crampons crunched reassuringly underfoot with as they gripped the compact conditions with each step. Arriving at the bottom of the cliff, I followed a thin ledge running from right to left in front of us. In the distance I could see the silhouettes of two climbers as they disappeared round the shoulder of the ridgeline ahead of us. The closer we came to the end of the ledge, the narrower it started to become, and an exposed drop steadily opened up to our left-hand side. As we arrived at the final few metres of the traverse, we clipped gratefully into a line of rope bolted into the rock to our right hand side. With my right hand leaning against the cliff I carefully followed the rope to the edge of the ledge, and across to the other side.

The terrain opened up enticingly in front of us form this point, and we were able to follow a snaking path up the mountain until we reached the Mantova a little over two hours later.  The refuge was a juxtaposition of two styles of architecture. A sleek, modern building with panoramic windows and solar panels backed onto what looked like the original hut; a three storey grey stone square structure. As we basked in the warm sun sat outside of the Mantova, I looked up the mountain to the Gnifetti Refuge some 500ft above us – Our next target. The Gnifetti was perched on top of a prominent section of ridgeline, its slender wooden structure hugging the rock so tight that it looked as if nature had intended it to be there. It was our intention however to set up a base camp just beyond the refuge. Setting off from the Mantova, we followed a faint set of tracks in the snow as we arched gradually left across the slope until we reached a prominent section of rocks below the refuge. My crampons scraped and scratched awkwardly against the rock as I made my way toward the bottom rung of a wooden ladder. The ladder led us up to the refuge’s main gangway, but we weren’t intending to hang around. We pushed forward, and upward to toward the highest point of the rocky outcrop. As I took my final strides and approached the top of the rise, a breath taking view opened up in front of me. First, I could see the windswept summit of the majestic Pyramide Vincent, the first of Monte Rosa’s summits over 4,000m. Then, as I stood atop of the outcrop, my eyes were greeted by the imposing expanse of the Lys Glacier in front of us. Its slopes intricately marked and accentuated by the tell-tale dark scarring of crevasses, the sunlight emphasising their seemingly endless depths. Fortunately, our line of ascent in the coming days would take us away from the worst though by no means entirely clear of danger.

A small metal building sat above the Gnifetti, below which was a fixed line abseil down to the glacier. Clipping into the fixed line, I made sure that the rope was free of any snags before starting my descent. I took great care in stepping either side of two breaks in the snow, below which laid two much larger and potentially dangerous holes. Once we’d both made it to the bottom, we quickly set about establishing a camp base for the days ahead. We checked the area thoroughly to ensure that we were as clear of the glacier and any crevasses as possible. Taking it in turns, we used Matt’s collapsible shovel to cut down into the thick snow to create a sheltered platform which would help shield our tent. An hour or so later, and with our task accomplished, we were finally able to appreciate the raw beauty of the world which surrounded us. We traced the line of the glacier down the mountainside until it disappeared into the clouds below, and we looked up to the imposing Pyramide Vincent standing guard high above our camp. We gorged ourselves on copious amounts of Alagna’s finest cheese and bread, reflected on the day’s events, unrolled our sleeping bags, and settled down for the cold night ahead.

I slept restlessly. The temperature plummeted mercilessly in the early hours of the morning to -25C, and the crack and rumble of the glacier constantly shifting provided an unnerving soundtrack throughout the night. And whilst morning came as a welcome relief, it brought with it a certain and potentially hazardous unforeseen complication…I couldn’t see properly! The more I tried to open my eyes the harder it became. My face felt badly swollen. The skin around my eyes felt overly tight, and touched it felt worryingly tender.

“Matt wake up!” I shouted urgently, “Wake-up Matt! I think something’s wrong with my face!”

Matt turned over slowly in his sleeping bag, and once his eyes had adjusted to the bright interior of the tent he stared at me speechless for a few seconds.

“Mate,” he exclaimed, bursting out laughing, “Look at your face! You look like Kim Jong Un!”

 Grabbing my phone, I put the camera to selfie mode and stared at the screen in utter disbelief. My cheeks and brow were so swollen that they were putting direct pressure on my eyes. Worse still, Matt was right; I looked like a windswept, sunburnt version of Kim Jong Un. I continued to sit there in a state of shock, staring at my reflection, and poking my chubby face as confirmation that I hadn’t fallen victim to an elaborate prank. Delving into my bag I pulled out the first aid kit and downed a couple of Paracetamol in blind hope that they might help return my face to its (relative) former glory. As we scratched our heads for an explanation one thing was for certain, there was no way that Kim Jong Darren could even contemplate climbing today! With a forecast for steadily increasing winds throughout the day, we decided to make the short trip back to the Gnifetti. Reluctant to show my new-found appearance to much of the world, I was relieved to find that the refuge was sparsely occupied. In addition to the hut’s French caretaker (Nicolas) and its Nepalese cook, our only other company came in the form of two Swedish climbers. Sat in the large main room, surrounded by rows of empty tables and chairs we grouped together and traded stories of our lives back home, previous adventures, and our intentions for the days ahead. It wasn’t long though until the elephant in the room was addressed.

“So, Darren,” started one of the Swedish climbers, “tell me, what is wrong with your face?” If there was any consolation, it was that they hadn’t presumed this was my natural look!

The weather continued to deteriorate as the day progressed. Strong winds raced down from the summits above which engulfed the refuge in snow. I’d never experienced a white out before, but as I stood outside on the gangway, my eyes couldn’t identify any features in front of me, just a blanket of white. From the warmth and comfort of our current position, the idea of returning for another night in our modestly sheltered tent felt less than appetising. Conscious of the need to give my swollen face the best chance of recovery, and to avoid unnecessary hardship as winds continued to rise and temperatures dropped, we decided to upgrade to the relative 5* luxury of the wooden refuge. Bracing ourselves against the elements once more, we made short work of dismantling the tent and getting our kit into one of the hut’s many unoccupied bunks. With darkness falling, Matt and I huddled in the warmth of the main room and played what would be the first of many rounds of a card game affectionately known as ‘Shit Head’. Sat there fighting for the right to ungraciously gloat at being crowned the undisputed Shit Head Champion, I could have been anywhere in the world.

Waking up the next day we hoped that the worst of the weather had passed, and that we’d be able to try for the summit of Pyramide Vincent. Vital inspection first – I breathed a sigh of relief as a visit to the mirror in the toilet block revealed that my face was slowly returning to its former size. Although, like a snake shedding its skin, I was starting to leave a trail of dead skin behind me.

Heading downstairs I joined Matt and Nicolas who were huddled round the computer behind the main counter. Nicolas was busy scanning three different forecasts and trying to find a consensus between them. We didn’t have to talk French; the tone of his muttering was enough to know that any consensuses weren’t sounding positive. The bad news? Continued snow fall, high winds at altitude spelt a premature end to any major ambitions for the day. The good news? We’d have ample opportunity to dust off the chess set from the bookshelf next to the window, and for Matt to defend his Shit Head crown. He went to great lengths to explain the basic principles and movements which chess comprised of, which despite my enthusiastic nodding and confident muttering, definitely wasn’t sinking in. Now, although I found myself sitting at the wrong end of a mounting losing streak, and this is perhaps due to the lack of any other form of modern entertainment, I found a genuine love for chess! We passed a few hours quite easily in this manner, and it wasn’t until we said goodbye to our Swedish friends who had decided to head back down to Alagna, that I started to feel a slowly encroaching sense of ‘cabin fever’.

Unable to venture higher, we decided to drop down to the Mantova for the afternoon. In sections the snow had become loose and powdery, with a considerable build-up of snow drift in the sections below the refuge. Regardless, I greeted the opportunity to stretch my legs and to get crisp mountain air back into my lungs gratefully. After two or three hot chocolates in the large, white, empty hall at the Mantova, it was time to get back before last light fell. However, in the hour or two we’d relaxed indoors, the weather had taken a significant turn for the worst. A fierce wind had picked up and was racing down from mountain tops battering the Gnifetti, Mantova, and anything else in its path. As I hastily zipped up my jacket, I pulled the hood tight around my face, and set off into the wind.

Our progress was slow and laboured, but it wasn’t until we started to cut across to the base of the Gnifetti that our situation became increasingly precarious. The storm tightened its grip on the mountain, and over the two diminutive figures now battling against it. I was fighting to shield my face against an unrelenting hailstorm which had enveloped us. The wind ripped and lashed at my jacket, trying desperately to find a way through my fabric armour. I kept my grip firm on the ice axe in my right hand, knowing that at any moment I might have to self-arrest (prevent) a fall. I glanced up to see Matt who was only a couple of metres in front. With my very next step the ground gave way beneath me. As I slipped my trailing foot tore into my left trouser leg and hurled me forward. I plunged the head of my ice axe into the snow instinctively. It’d stopped the slide. Peering through the haze I found Matt’s figure and strained my vocal chords as I roared up to him. The moment the words left my lips they were devoured by the voracious wind. I might as well have been in space. I clambered unceremoniously back to my previous position and pushed forward until I caught up with Matt.

“Mate! What the hell?” Matt gestured pointing up the slope, “This is insane!”

I nodded in agreement. The intensity of the hail and wind was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. It was suffocating. We stood momentarily huddled with our backs to the wind, exchanged a wry smile, and we pushed on to the bottom rung of the ladder and the sanctuary of the Gnifetti. The final metres were by far the worst. Determined to extricate ourselves from our current predicament, we reached the section of thick snow we’d encountered earlier. Dropping to our knees we crawled on all fours trying to gain purchase on the sinking, treacle like conditions underfoot. An eternity since we’d left the Mantova only 500ft below, we reached the safety of the refuge. I was ready for a serious dose of cabin fever!

Waking on the morning of our third day on the mountain sunlight flooded in through the long horizontal window at the top of our cabin. We hadn’t seen this before. Had our luck turned? Sprinting to the end of the long corridor I looked out through the emergency exit. The mountain sparkled bright white as the sun’s beams reflected against the slopes below. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A little over five minutes later and it was official; we had three positive forecasts, and a thumbs up from Nicolas. Gearing up in the cramped hallway there was a nervous excitement about our body language and behaviour. Not much was said as we checked each other’s gear, making sure that we had everything we might need. Rope. Ice axes. Harness. Helmet. Crampons. Belay Devices. Carabiners. Slings. Prusicks. All set, we exchanged a quick double fist bump then opened the front door. Go time.

The reality of our situation was that, despite travelling in spring, we would be climbing in winter conditions. Crevasses were very likely to be covered in snow, and potentially spanned by ‘snow bridges’ which could conceal crevasses anything up to a few metres in length. Both of which would be hard to detect visually. We’d identified areas of highest risk courtesy of satellite imagery, but these couldn’t be relied upon as glaciers are constantly moving bodies of frozen water. As best possible we would have to probe the ground in front us if we suspected a crevasse before committing ourselves. In our favour was the fact that daytime temperatures had averaged around -10C – increasing the likelihood that any snow bridges were more likely to be frozen.

Stood above the abseil point to the glacier we started to rope up as a team of two. We each took nine to ten metres of rope and started to tie, coil, and thread around our torsos. With the length of rope left in between us we tied several overhand knots which formed the shape of a fist. These fists would give extra friction on the sidewalls of a crevasse should either of us be unfortunate enough to fall in. From our vantage point above the glacier I could see a group of three people in the distance heading up the slope. They appeared to be ski tourers, probably on the Haute Route over the valleys from Alagna to Zermatt in Switzerland. If we could get across to their line of ascent we could use their tracks to make quicker progress through the snow. That said, we couldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap of assuming that these tracks would be necessarily safe. Our weight would be a lot less evenly spread than that of a ski tourer, meaning that we would be more likely to collapse any snow bridges.

Both at the foot of the glacier, Matt set off in front as we looked to cut horizontally across to where we had seen the ski tourers. The weather of the last two days had made a big difference to the conditions underfoot. My legs were sinking to the middle of the knee, and I could see that Matt had become the designated ice breaker as he carved a path through the virgin snow. Even at this early stage I was conscious to keep the rope in between us taught at all times. If too much slack was allowed to build in the system, and Matt was to fall, I would be shock loaded and not just potentially unable to hold his fall, I could end up being dragged helplessly in with him. As we reached the intersection with the ski tourers tracks, we turned 90 degrees to the left and began our snaking ascent up the glacier.

I took the lead at the outset of our ascent. Taking a moment to readjust my harness I looked up the glacier. There was a light wind blowing snow off the summit of the Pyramide Vincent, and the sun was blazing high overhead in a cloudless royal blue sky. We hoped that Pyramide Vincent would be the first in a line of summits over 13,000ft (4,000m) which we could reach today. But that all depended on progress. Setting off, I followed the deep track in the snow stretching out directly in front of me. With my stride and breathing into a rhythm I made good progress over challenging terrain. I could feel the tension on the rope trailing behind as Matt proactively watched my movement.   As the gradient started to increase I began to climb in a zig-zag pattern up the slope. Climbing in this manner meant that, although we would be travelling a further distance doing so, we would expend less energy and force then if we were to climb straight up.

Our progress started to slow. As we gained altitude, and as the slope’s gradient started to increase, conditions underfoot started to deteriorate fast. My legs were beginning to sink further into the powder-soft snow and I was battling to keep any resemblance of rhythm going. It was evident that the point man of the team had limited shelf life acting as designated snow plough, and that he’d need to carefully coordinate transitions into and out of this role. With my legs steadily fatiguing from the repetitive grind of battling through the snow, I found a safe position and signalled back to Matt that we needed to swap over. A few choice words were exchanged as we carefully managed the transition, and reflected intellectually on our fortune at being surrounded by our current environment:

“It’s horrific. Honestly, it’s like wading through treacle.” I shouted as I wiped the sweat from my brow and flapped my now unzipped jacket.

“It’s gopping,” replied Matt in Navy slang, “Beautiful, but gopping.”

We continued to rotate the lead climber as we pushed forward to roughly 13,000ft. I could see that we had arrived at the most dangerous phase of our climb. We were entering the heart of crevasse territory. In every direction I could see dark depressions in the snowline potentially concealing multiple crevasses. Carefully probing a path forward, we found ourselves sandwiched between two substantial crevasses. To my right, perhaps two metres from my position, was a crevasse large enough to consume a mini-bus. To my left, a crevasse ran parallel to our line of ascent before cutting straight across the snow in front of us. I probed the ground ahead of me before taking each step. There was no way that we could avoid crossing this crevasse. A snow bridge had formed across the fissure in the ice, which was making it hard to identify its exact width and location. My heart was pounding. I could feel the tension in the rope as Matt stood poised to prevent a fall if required. Taking a sharp inward breath I committed myself and took a large stride forward. My right foot landed firmly and my crampon dug reassuringly into the firm surface, but as my left foot followed it dragged across the snow and collapsed a section of the bridge. I quickly moved from the danger area and into a position from which I could get Matt across. Using his ice axe he collapsed the bridge to reveal the full width of the crevasse below. I made sure that my feet were planted firmly before he made his next move. With a giant stride Matt leapt across the crevasse as I gratefully reeled in the length of rope.

The summit of Pyramide Vincent was now just off to our right. We were in touching distance of our first summit. As we started to make quicker progress off the glacier we were confronted with a new obstacle. The weather had suddenly started to close in around us, ominously. Visibility had become a major issue by the time I reached the summit, perhaps down to as little as 10-15 metres in each direction. At over 13,000ft, and with a crevasse field and glacier in between us and the Gnifetti, our situation was getting more precarious by the minute. The beautiful panorama which had characterised our ascent had now been replaced by an eerie fog and darkening gloom. We had to descend. Getting to the top had been optional, getting down was mandatory!

I took the lead as we started to retrace our steps back to the top of the glacier. I was confident that we could navigate our way back to safety, but I was more than conscious of the danger ahead. It would be easy for us to become totally disoriented in these conditions. Although I knew that we had tracks in the snow to follow, the fog had transformed our surroundings, nothing looked familiar. Arriving at the start of the glacier there was a menacing presence in the atmosphere. Crevasses had already proved impossible to detect at times, and now they had an added cloak to conceal their deadly consequences. Slowly but surely we began to retrace our snaking path through the crevasse field. Allowing ourselves to rush would only increase the risk of making a serious error. Progress was slow and careful.

Twenty minutes passed at an agonisingly slow speed, and we had entered what we suspected as being the most concentrated area of crevasses. I could feel the tension in the rope between the two of us. All of a sudden, there was a sharp and heavy pull on the rope.

“Shit! Darren!” I heard Matt scream at me, through the wind. “Pull me up!”

I could tell from the weight on my harness and the sound of Matt’s strained voice that he’d slipped into a crevasse. I pulled forward with all my power and sunk to my knees as I buried my ice axe deep into the snow. Through the wind I could hear Matt’s heavy breathing and ‘occasional’ cursing as he used my support to prevent slipping further into the hole. As he swung his axe into the surface and clambered free, we moved forward in tandem away from the danger zone.

“F*ck me. That was scary.” Matt summed up, perfectly.

The thick fog continued to make it difficult to navigate our way down the glacier. Worse still, the longer we were out, the fainter our tracks were becoming. However, finally away from the dangerous upper slope, we could start to increase our pace and make better time back down the mountain. I started to open my stride up, less tense and more relaxed than I had been before. The refuge had to be coming up soon. I should be able to see it by now. I swear it should just be off to our right. Doubt started to creep into my mind. The longer I looked, the more I doubted the accuracy of my navigation. Please God don’t let me be wrong…

“There it is!” I shouted back in utter elation to Matt. “Just off to our right!”

The fog momentarily dispersed, just long enough to spot the Gnifetti stood high above the glacier, more iconic, more heroic than ever before. A wave of relief washed over me. I would have shouldered ultimate responsibility if we’d become lost. With a new lease of life in our tiring legs we forged forward to the sanctuary of our mountain refuge. Climbing the last short roped section up to the top of our abseil point at the start of the day, we both slumped exhausted yet elated against the metal outbuilding. Gathering our breath and thoughts together, I turned to look at Matt properly for the first time since we’d started our descent. His beard had frozen solid, with large icicles hanging off the edges of his moustache and under his chin. He was a faded sepia photograph short of resembling a pioneer of Polar exploration. Laughter had been a common feature of our adventures down the years, and as we sat there mentally and physically fatigued, we found a satisfying release in poking fun at how shabby each of us looked: panda eyes, cracked lips, frozen saliva (and snot), and ice-covered beards. One thing was for sure, we’d both sleep bloody well tonight!

With snow continuing to fall steadily over night, and a flight back to the UK looming in two days’ time, it was time for us to head down through the clouds and back to Alagna. Nature, once again however, had other plans. On the morning of our planned descent, I hobbled unceremoniously to the window at the end of the corridor, my thigh and calf muscles stiff and aching after yesterday’s exertion. Wiping the condensation from the inside of the window, I was surprised to see that we were back in the grips of blizzard conditions. The news from Nicolas wasn’t positive either: all ski lifts down to Alagna had been suspended. Monte Rosa wasn’t letting us go just yet.

Facing another day of confinement in our by now familiar mountain home, we took our pick from the empty banks of tables, and set about resuming our shithead and chess rivalry.

“What’s Yahtzee?” Matt enquired from across the room with a quizzical expression on his face.

Oh my God do they have Yahtzee?” I replied hysterically. It had only been five days without the trappings of modern technology, and I’d unwittingly been teleported back to my seven year old mind set. Hopefully Nan would appear any minute from the kitchen with some After Eight mints!

Just as I had with chess, Matt soon discovered a love for Yahtzee. We wasted much of the day rolling dice, totting up our scores, and sporadically peering out of the window at the ensuing blizzard outside. The church like tranquillity and peace of the refuge only pierced occasionally by cries of “YAHTZEE!!!” and “you’re so bloody lucky”. Minutes and hours ticked slowly by, and as the afternoon drew steadily to a close the refuge’s mainline phone rang. Nicolas answered in Italian. As he continued to speak with whoever was on the phone, he began to look across to Matt and me. We looked at each other somewhat perplexed. What could our potential involvement be in this conversation?

“Guys” Nicolas called across the room.

“Yeah?” Matt responded.

“It’s your landlady on the phone. She wanted to check that you were both okay.”

It was Maria! We’d been so wrapped up in our own world that we’d told her that she should have expected us back by now. What a gem, our surrogate Italian mother had rung all of the refuges on the Alagna side of the mountain, asking after two English climbers. We reassured her that we were safe and waiting for conditions to permit us to descend. Finally, Maria reminded us that our flights were “very very soon”, and with that we said goodbye and thank you. It would be so nice to see her again. Going to bed that evening we both prayed that fortune would shine in our favour tomorrow…

This was it. Go time. With traditional routes down the mountain continuing to be out of action, it had been organised that Matt and I would piggyback onto a resupply helicopter heading up to the Gnifetti later that afternoon. It seemed that our wait had been worth with: we’d be going down in style. With Go Pros charged and kit packed ready to exfil from the helipad, we were prepared to make the most of what was an incredible slice of luck. Yet, as we sat waiting, and as time continued to pass by, doubt started to creep into both our minds – something told me it wasn’t going to happen. Around lunchtime the refuge telephone rang. Nicolas spoke on the phone for a couple of minutes. Putting the phone down, we waited in anticipation of his update. It was bad news. The resupply had been cancelled; the helicopter couldn’t fly in this weather. Our consolation was that a cable car had been sent to Punta Indren to help evacuate those stranded on the mountain. We were disappointed to miss out on what would have been a memorable flight, but relieved to now have passage down the mountain.

Gearing ourselves up to go, I shook Nicolas’s hand and said thank you for his help and support. We waved a fond goodbye to the Gnifetti – our sanctuary, games hall and refuge for the past week. There was no more time for shithead, chess, or for Yahtzee. It was finally time to set off on the long journey back to Alagna.

A little over six hours later, and as the setting sun crested the top of the mountains with evening approaching, we departed our final cable car and arrived in Alagna. After nearly five days of relative isolation, it was strange to be back amongst the hustle and bustle of ski resort life. We didn’t hang around however, we were keen to get back to our lodging and to Maria. An hour or so later we reached the final section of the winding track up to the lodge. We had forgotten quite how steep the track had been and how long the walk was. We were knackered. Yet, turning the final corner I could see Maria waiting outside. I couldn’t help but smile. I felt so thankful to Maria for looking out for us, and a real sense of adoration for her maternal instincts. She embraced each of us in turn, commented on our rough appearance, and ushered us inside to get showered and changed. Her puppy Border collie bounded energetically at our feet, vying for attention that I was more than happy to give. It was fantastic to be back.

All too soon time had drawn an end to our time in Alagna, and it was time to pack our bags once more and move on. It had been a trip brimming with adventure, laughter, and more than the occasional spot of danger. But, it was also one defined by its characters: whether that was our mothering Italian landlady Maria; sarcastic Swedish climbers; or Nicolas – the Italian who had the supreme pleasure of being cooped up with two game obsessed Englishmen at 12,000ft. On a personal note, I had tested the depths of my fortitude and resilience in more ways than one. When conditions turned drastically against us on the summit of Pyramide Vincent, it was the ability to remain focussed, and to keep emotions under control which had been the defining factor in our favour. I’d remember this trip for many years to come.

 

2 Comments
  1. Hi Darren
    I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to your presentation today at Oswestry Rotary Club
    Your talk was absolutely brilliant inspirational.
    It was indeed an honour to listen to you.
    Keep up the good work if I can help you in any way to what end I’m unsure but please feel free to contact me anytime.
    Kind regards
    Tony Ridge
    Oswestry RC

    Like

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