Findings HauntingLocation: Sussex, UK
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My dramatic coming out story
My nightmare of being stuck alone on the Bonatti Pillar on the Aiguille du Dru (3754m) for 6 days, 4 days without food and water, and I had 2 chooses how to die
When most people come out they mean telling people that they are gay. My coming out was to admin to myself that I was gay.
I was lying in a hospital bed with three drips going into my left arm and hand.. I could only make out one of them which was 5% Glucose. I was watching the news. I could not understand what the commentator was saying as it was in French, but I could see pictures of 20 cars scattered about and smashed up. Then there was a picture of a road bridge being washed away by a river in flood. There were a lot of pictures like this. I turned and asked the person who was lying in the hospital bed next to me, 'where is this'. He had his right arm and leg in plaster, as far as I could make out he was driving a truck and had a crash, he was stuck in his lorry for 2 hours while the firemen tried to cut him out. He showed me the local Chamonix newspaper; it had a picture of the accident and an A4 size article about his crash.
He told me that this was all happening at the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel, in Italy, and that the tunnel was closed due to flooding. I then realised even more, how unbelievable it was that I was still alive and just how lucky I had been.
We had been in Chamonix for three weeks. This was the first time that there was a break in the weather, three days sunshine no winds and warm, then it would be stormy again.
It was my first time in the French Alps or any high mountains. All I had done before was in the mountains of north Scotland, so I left all the decisions to Simon, who had a lot more experience than me, and he was also a far better climber than me. After finding out that the weather forecast from the mountain guide's office, Simon said that it was time to climb the West face of the Aiguille du Dru the 'Bonatti Pillar' height 3754 meters, at one time it was the hardest climbing route in Europe. First climbed as late as 1954 by Walter Bonatti. It took him 6 days of climbing (and five hanging bivouacs) and still today is considered a masterpiece of climbing. The Bonatti Pillar is a shear 600 meter vertical rock offering very limited protection.
We planned to take 2 days to climb it. Simon said that this might be the only break in the weather that we get while we were here.
We caught the 1120 train to Gare. We then walked across the Mer de Glacier (the first glazier I had ever been on) to the Refuge de la Charpoura. The guidebook said that this would take 3 hours, it took us 4.5. From the refuge to the bivi site it took us 6 hours again the guide book said that it should be 3. (I could not understand this because if a guidebook for Scotland said a route would take 6 hours I would normally do this in 4. I was the slowest going up the hill, I was thinking to my self that surely that I have recovered from the Ben Nevis race (an 8 mile fell run from sea level to top uf UK highest mountain and back down again) two weeks previous (in which I did a Personal Best 2hrs 5mins) From the hut we walked along the path a few hundred meters then we hit the Glacier de la Charpoua.
The Aiguille du Dru is in the centre of the photo below and the Dru, the Bonatti pillar the west face of Aiguille du Dru and is a 600m shear wall. At one time it was one of the hardest climbing route in Europe I was going to climb this with him, and Michael was going to climb with us up to the bivouac site. Flammes de Pierre and stay there until we picked him up on the way down. He would be able to watch us and take some photos, once we had got about 1/3 of the way up We caught the 1120 mountain train to Montenvers Mer de Glace Gare. We then walked across the Mer de Glacier (the first glazier I had ever been on and the biggest glacier in France) to the Refuge, de la Charpoura, via the Glacier de la Charp. The guidebook said that this would take 3 hours, it took us 4.5. From the refuge to the bivouac site it took us 6 hours again the guide book said that it should be 3. (I could not understand this because if a guidebook for Scotland said a route would take 6 hours I would normally do this in 4. I was the slowest going up the hill, I was thinking to myself, ‘surely I have recovered from the Ben Nevis race’ (an 8 mile fell run from sea level to top of UK highest mountain and back down again) two weeks previous (in which I did a Personal Best 2hrs 5mins) From the hut we walked along the path a few hundred meters then we hit the Glacier de la Charpoua.
This was now the second glacier that I had ever been on after Mer de Glacier earlier that day, which we had crossed after the train, Mer de Glacier glacier was solid ice and very stable. This glacier (Glacier de la Charpoua) was alive, being on an angle of about 25`, as we were walking up we could see the end of it breaking up with big chunks tens of meters across crashing down the mountain. The top end was like someone had a board and lifted the end up then thrown sugar lumps over it, but the sugar lungs were the size of houses. We stopped at the edge of the glacier and put on our harnesses, crampons and ice axes on, then we roped up with me in the middle.
It was only 300m across. As we started to cross my right leg disappeared into a crack up to my waist. I pulled myself out, as I looked at the snow I could see a slight dark line where the crack was. I now know what that line means, I will not do that again. Looking closer I could see that Simon would have to pick a route through this by zig zagging through this maze, with big blocks up to ten meters high sticking up blocking our way. There were 2 crevasses we had to jump. The first was about 2 foot across onto a snow arete. The other jump was about 3 foot across, this was downhill onto a steep slope, the other side was also overhanging. I jumped across then moved to one side and belayed Michael. He jumped across, fell and hit one of my axes. This had put a gash on his chin, and chipped 3 of his teeth. We got to the other side without further incident.
This is the second glazier that we had to cross and later on unknown to me I would have to cross again alone We now had to climb up onto the ridge which was a grade 111 (v. Diff) Just as we started this it started to get dark (8pm). As we climb we somehow went off route, and this made it a lot harder than the v. diff that it should have been. We got to the bivouac site at 2300 after some hard climbing in the dark. According to my watch (I had a watch with an altitude meter ) we were at 3320m. I said to Michael that he could do the Dru if he wanted. I knew that he wanted to do it and that he had all the gear he would need, on him. I also knew he was a faster climber than I was, and that from the experience that I just had I did not think I could finish the climb before the forecast storm came in. He said yes. We put some hot food on which took a very long time to cook I can only conclude that this was from the altitude. We kept falling asleep while we waited. Eventually it was ready.
At first light I woke Simon up, he and Michael got ready. Michael had a water bottle that leaked, so I swapped it for mine. This meant that the only water bottle I had leaked because my other one I split on the way up.
They set off on their 3-hour abseil to the bottom of the route, (the route was 600m ED2 (E2)) so I went back to sleep.
Latter on when the sun was up I got up. I spent the day on top of the ridge in the sun looking at the wonderful view Les Grandes Jorassess, Aguille du Midi, Mont Blanc etc. I could see two piste machines near Dome de Rochefort in Italy, pisteing the snow. I was also melting snow all day for water. To my horror nearly all the food was soup and smash. Well it was only for 2 days. The food took a long time to cook so I did without brews so to save gas. I just drank water and made the meals really watery. Later in the afternoon I could see my two colleagues climbing up the face as they gained in high.
Their bivouac site was just below the level I was at. We could communicate by shouting at each other. As it got dark I could see that they still had quite far to go. I hit the sack and went to sleep. Then I realised to my horror that it they got into any difficulty and could not get to me (they could only get to me by finishing the route, and abseil down the ridge to me.) I would be stuck; I could not get down without a rope.
The next morning I could see my two friends on the bivouac site. They told me that they had got there at midnight, and it had taken them 4.5 hours to abseil down not 3 because of the loose rock. It was a log hard day for them since 05:00 that morning.
That day I did the same as the day before. While I cooked my tea the gas ran out so I had to have it luke warm, it tasted horrible. Simon and Michael had only climbed 150m that day, to the next ledge, I guess that they were very tiered.
When we were in Chamonix we left word of where we were and what we were doing. We said that we would be back by Tuesday evening. They told us that if we were not back by Wednesday morning that they would send the mountain rescue helicopter out for us. It was now Wednesday morning and I woke up at 10:00 to the noises of a mountain rescue helicopter. By the time I got out of my tight sleeping and bivouac bag, it was flying off. I could not communicate with Simon and Michael as it was too windy. They were higher up than I was. They stayed on their bivouac site for the day. I realised that they were not moving so I got up onto the ridge to wait for any aircraft to come along to signal to them.
I was also blowing my whistle to try and get attention. I could see the station at Montenvers Mer de Glace Gare, and I could see people walking about it, little dots in the distance I could even look at the camp site and see my tent. I hardly got any snow melted that day, and I was thirsty, all I had to eat was three quarters of a chocolate bar and a tube of Nessalies concentrated milk, I was hungry. The cloud level dropped and I could no longer see anything, then it was dark.
That was my third night over. That night it snowed, about three inches fell. This was my home for six days
In the morning I could just make out the calls of Michael shouting that they were going to abseil down and get help, I could not see them any more as I was above the cloud level and it was snowing with strong winds. Later that day I could hear a helicopter coming in and hovering but I could not see it because of the bad viability. I was watching my watch all day and I could see that the air pressure was dropping. I was thinking about trying to get out but I was stuck there. If it was just the glacier or just the steep ridge I might have risked it. I remember then how I got stuck on the way up, I knew it was harder to climb down then to climb up, I knew I would not be able to pass that section without falling, and to fall would mean a fall off a few hundred meters. I also remember how two Belgians had died this season:
There were five Belgians out on the mountains, they got caught out in a storm. They managed to find a refuge (nearly all refugees have radios) where they radioed in. They got told to wait there for two days till the storm had finished then they would send a helicopter out to pick them up, where they would also know exactly where they were. After two hours there was a break in the storm so they decided to walk out. The storm came back with a vengeance, the Belgians who were roped up fell, two of them died immediately, the rest dug a snow whole and stayed there. When the storm had blown over it took the rescue team a while to find them, as they did not know where they were.
That was another reason why I wanted to stay where I was, they knew where I was, and also I was easily silhouetted being on top of the ridge. That day I read the book "First ascent of Mont Doodle" I had nothing to eat or drink that day. Now all the food had gone I was no longer hungry, it was if my body was saying that there is no point being hungry as there is nothing to eat any way. The day past by.
I woke up on the fifth day. That night my `goretex bivouac bag was slowly leaking. The inside of it was wet, and the outside of my sleeping bag was damp. I stayed in my bivouac bag that day. The weather was just as bad except the snowfall was heavier. Heard no helicopter that day. Nothing to eat or drink. I felt my bottom getting wet. When I investigated the reason, I found that the snow shelf that I had made to sleep on had melted, under my bottom, and that I was lying in a slight V. All the snow that had melted from my body heat had run onto my thermal mat, and ended up in a big puddle, this had gone throw my bivouac bag, throw my sleeping bag it was getting me wet throw the zips on my salopettes. To stop this getting worse, I used the inners of my plastic boots to raise me in a straight line again. I would not be using my plastic boots again as the helicopter would pick me up. This was a bad decision, which was going to cost me dearly later. I started to realise that I was slowly dying. I wished that I had made a will. I was thinking who to leave all my belongings to which are not much. I realised how insignificant I was, like the small stone next to me, just sat there, no control over anything, including its destiny.
It was now the sixth day, my sleeping bag was soaking wet. If I stay here another night I would get hypothermia and that would be me dead. My watch showed that the air pressure had dropped 25 millibars overnight. The weather was getting worse, a foot of snow had fallen and now it was snowing heavily, no helicopters would be flying today. I made the stark decision, I would rather die trying to get out and fall to my instant death than to just lie here and wait for death to come from hypothermia. I seriously did not think that I would make it out alive. I had not eaten or drank for three days now. Fluid being very important at this altitude. I am an atheist but I knelt down and prayed, asking for forgiveness. Then I packed up.
I had more gear than I had when I came up, as Simon and Michael had left gear with me, they were going to pick this up on the way out. I managed to pack it all away, except for the rubbish that I left behind. (This was a hard decision, I felt guilty for this as I never litter the countryside and I hate people that do) I was thinking to myself now just take your time, I am not bothered how long it takes. I had 2, four-foot and 2, two-foot slings I tied these together then clipped them into my harness. This was to serve two purposes.
- If I was to fall they might get snagged and save me
- I could use them to lower myself down any tricky bits, it was a bit short for this
I went down a different route than on the way up. I went down a gully. Though I knew that this would be very dangerous, as any rock fall (which there is a lot in the Alps, I could hear them all the time) or avalanches from the fresh snow would come hurtling towards me at a very fast rate of knots. But the route up, or any other buttress would have been too hard and I would not have made it. It was a very steep descent. I looked down and I could see the glacier 600m below me, the crevasses seem to open up like jaws waiting for me to fall in. I could not believe how exhausted I was, it was an effort just to put one foot in front of the other. I had to worm my may round the rocks looking for the easiest route. I was using the slings by putting them on spikes, which would hold me if I fell. I fell, the slings came off the spike. I started to speed up, I swung my ice axe round to use as a brake, and everything was going in slow motion it was having no affect bouncing off the rocks. Well this is it, I'm going to die now, I hope it is instant or at least fast. I was bouncing off the rocks now myself. I suddenly stopped, it seemed on nothing, I was precariously balanced. I had fallen only 10m just below me were a massive drop. I had to contour round a bit. I could see a sling on a spike above me where someone had use to abseil down. Just in front of me I could see a 9mm climbing rope it was laying there like a gift from God. (We had seen ropes hanging down from other routes. People who had been in difficulty and abseiled down leaving the rope behind usually because they only had one rope and had left it behind). I got to the rope and gave it a hard tug, it seemed secure. I came onto the rope about half way along, the bottom half was in a pile at my feet with a single figure of eight knot at the end. I tied my ATC (abseil devise) onto the rope, it looked brand new. Then I tried to pick up the coil half and throw it down the gully. To my utter disgust I did not have the energy for this, I was totally exhausted, I could not pick the rope up weighing only 20lbs or so. I ended up kicking it down, this took a long time as would keep getting tangled. I was thinking then that if I fell I would not have the strength to keep a hold of the rope. I fell lots of times during that 25m, swinging about and putting a lot of strain on the rope. When I got to the end of the abseil I could see the cairns that marked the route back to the glacier. I was looking along the route I had to go, as I was now below the cloud level and I could see the route that I had to take. "Where's a safe place to put this rucksack I'll take the crampons and another ice axe. I'll find somewhere prominent so someone can come back later on to pick it up. I am too weak to take it with me." My eye caught on a fast flowing stream coming of the ridge, I needed to cross this, as I was watching this I realised something was not right. It took a while to cotton on that this was in fact a river of snow, which I had to cross. It would pour down for a minute then stop for 10 seconds then start again. I got to it, it was on a steep snow bank. I waited for it to stop, then I started to cross it. I could not make it without stopping I was to exhausted half way across I had to stop I could not carry on I was too tiered. "Come on you cannot stop here!" As I got to the other side it started again, I had just made it.
I found a 4-foot sling so I tied it onto the ones that were trailing behind me. The going was a bit easier now. Then I came across a big slab that had to be descended. I could not climb down it, so I lopped the sling round a spike and lowered myself down; the slings were only just long enough. As I pulled the slings throw, they got stuck. I could not pull them throw, could not climb up to free it. I did not want to leave half of them behind. After a ten-minute rest and a bit of aggression I climbed up to free them. The glacier was just in front of me.
I sat down for a rest I was totally exhausted, that was the easy bit over with. I took another ice axe out then took my crampons out of my rucksack. One of them was broken, the threads had sheared off. "How can I fix this"? I was on my knees again. "Dear god don't let me die hear. I don't mind if I die in a road crash, at home. I don't want to die here, please. I'll be good, please don't let me die here." I griped the nut with my teeth, I was not bothered if I ripped my teeth out. After a lot of messing about they were fixed, not knowing if they would last.
The tracks we made on the way out were just visible. There were avalanches all over the place, it was still snowing heavenly. At the beginning there was debris from a big avalanche, big chunks of ice. I just had to walk in front of it, I was not bothered if another on came down and hit me. Every ten meters I would collapse to the ground exhausted, this was whether it was in the middle of an avalanche field or not. I could see the refugee 400m away. I had to climb up hill all the way to the other side. On numerous occasions I would stop exhausted, and look behind me. "You cannot stop here, you only stopped back there five meters away, look you can see the mark where you stopped, come on. I cannot carry on. I've got to stop. If you stop you will die. I'm not bothered. I wish I was married with my 2.2 kids, semi-detached house, 9-5 boring office job, watching telly (Eastenders) and in the pub the rest of the time. I'm not bothered if I die."
My head would drop and be buried in the snow. If the rest of my body relaxed I would have started to slide down the hill. Come on pull yourself together you have got to tell the story. With that I would get up and climb another 5m find somewhere flatfish and collapse in a heap. This happened all the way back to the refugee.
At about half way across the glacier I could see the first craves we had jumped across (2 foot) this had gone there was a 45m gap now. That meant I had to go further up into a field of blocks of ice I could not see where to go. I was like small boat sailing thought massive icebergs. There was a crevasse two foot across, then walls of ice 50 foot high which blocked my view and I could not see which way to go. I sat down and just stared at it, my mind empty of thoughts, knowing I had to cross it, no other way round. Shit. This is it, goodbye world. I stared at it, again my mind empty. Ten minutes had past. I took my rucksack off, to leave behind. No take it with you. I clipped it onto the end of the sling, then throw it across, not knowing if it would make it. If it did not the weight of it would pull me into the crevasse. If I did I would never get out again. I dug both axes in to hold me. It landed with a thud. It bust open, two cups came flying out, one went into the craves. I jumped across onto the ledge that was only two-foot wide then a wall of vertical ice rose above some 40 foot. I landed and collapsed in a heap.
After a few minutes I got up, put my rucksack back on and walked along the narrow gap until it widened out again. I could now see the other side of the glacier 100m away. I could not see a route how to get there. "I do not believe this, I have only got 100m to go then I am safe. But how the hell do I get there. God don't let me come all this way for nothing. I'll go this way." By now I would walk 10m and then stop for 5 minutes I would come to a point then just collapse in a heap in the snow, and stay there for five minutes, and after a lot of mental hard work I would get up again. I picked a route, this I would follow for a while until it was blocked by a big craves, then I would have to retrace my foot steps back, Then I would pick another route round another block of ice the size of a semi-detached house. This happened time and time again. Mentally I could not handle this, it was too much. "I have not got the energy for this." I could just about handle the fact that I was exhausted. Knowing how far I had to go. I could see the route that I had to take. But this was too much to handle, walking 20m which took a lot of effort as well as time and finding the way was hard, then having to turn back. As you can imagine the old moral sunk a wee bit, which wasn't exactly high to start with.
Because of this I was getting higher and higher up the glacier where the blocks were getting bigger. After a lot of hard work and falls I got across to the more stable slide. All this entailed now was to descend the hard packed ice. The only danger here was large cracks in the ice under the snow, you could see these as the snow was slightly darker where this occurred. At one point I fell and I was descending the ice getting faster, I spun round and dug my ice axes in, I did not have the energy to stop, all I managed to do was to stabilise my speed. "What can I do. Nothing I will just have to see what happens." Luck was with me, I had slid over a small crack with the ice, as this happened the ice axe had sunk through the snow and jammed on the lip of the crack.
The edge of the crevasse was behind me now. I sat down and took my crampons off. Looking ahead the refuge was 300m in front of me. Along a small track. "I'll be able to make this in the oner." That thought was to be wildly incorrect. I could still only manage to walk about 20m before I would have to have a rest, even when I was only 40m from the refuge I still could not make it in the one go. I got into the refuge, sat down and burst into tears. That had taken 8 hours. This must have been in relief that I was still alive.
I used the radio to let people know where I was, I also found out that my companions had got down safely. I now started to feel cold. I then realised, that on the way down I had no sense of cold, fear, or pain, but now I could feel all of these. In many cases people die at this point as they realise they are safe and subconsciously give up the fight for life.
I took all of my clothes off as they were wet. I put my dry clothes on, got into a bunk with seven blankets on top of me. It took 4.5 hours for me to warm up. I could feel my feet freezing cold and slowly they would warm up not as a hole foot and ankle but as a line working its way down my ankle and along my foot to my toes. The only food in the hut needed to be cooked apart from a portion of ricecrispies and cream. Which tasted wonderful! I drank a lot of water. I put some of my wet clothing between the sheets, to try and dry them out.
In the morning it was hell, putting the wet clothes back on. I put every piece of clothing I had on. I soon warmed up on the way down the path back to Mer de Glacier. As I got onto Mer de Glacier the mist came down. which made crossing it I bit difficult due to the visibility. The first people I came across were from Dundee. One of the women in the party was a fell runner, who had been at a couple of the same fell races that I had been in. That probably saved my life. 7 (If someone else with the same climbing ability as I have got, had been in the same position I do not think that they would have made it as I think my fitness saved me, but probably more was my metal determination being in SAS for 12 years give me the mind set to survive this ordeal). Even in the SAS I was known as the mountain man, due to my fitness and winter mountaineering experience in the highlands of Scotland.
At the time my resting hart rate was 45 beats a minute, so very fit.
When I got to the end of the Mer de Glacier I was unbelievably slow climbing the ladders to the mountain train station. All I could think of now was going for a mega meal, this made me feel hungry. I did not talk to anyone but people on the train randomly gave me some food and drink, I must have looked some state.
I picked my car up from the station in Chamonix and went round to the campsite. My companions were not there. I went into the drying room took my wet clothes off. As I took my boots off I saw most of my toes were black. "How have I done that, I have not stubbed them." I asked someone why they were in that state. He said that I had frost nip and that I should soak them in water at 40`c. I went back to my tent and put some water in a mess tin and heated it up, then I splashed it on my feet. The pain hit me like a train. The water was nearly boiling (a bit too hot) I went back to the drying room, he said that I should see the doctor. I said that this is my body I am playing with here and that I am going to the hospital now. One of the girls drove me there.
As I was lying in the Chamonix hospital bed, dinner came round "I am not going to get fat in here." I wanted three times this amount. As I sat down to eat it I could not finish it, my stomach must have shrunk.
I complained to the nurses that I was cold, she shut the windows and gave me three extra blankets. I snuggled into these and was still cold. The poor guy in the next bed was getting really hot. The nurse could not believe how much I was drinking. It was four days before I went to the toilet, and over week before I had a crap.
There was an Irish girl in the hospital who had broken her neck abseiling. She came into my room and said
"I hear there has been an English man come in with frost bite."
"That's was me."
"I hear there has been an English man come in who has been lost on the hill for a week."
"That's was me."
"I here there has been two English men stuck out, a couple of weeks ago on a ridge over night with no food or bivouac gear, in a storm."
"I that was me."
I was very lucky to be in the Chamonix hospital, I lot of places would have amputated some of my toes due to the frost bite
This has changed my live so much!! and made by come out of the closet and admit to myself that I am gay. I am now a totally different person.
Most people coming out meant telling people close to them that they are gay. To me coming out was admitting it to myself. I had been fighting my sexuality all my life. If this character building incident had not happened I may well have staying deep inside the closet.