Winter has well and truly arrived and, with a brief break in the snow, I decided I needed to check out this Microadventure game that so many people have been enjoying (Sophie’s night out and Anna McNuff’s many microadventures). With so much going through my mind recently, I knew some quality own-time would be greatly appreciated. It seemed an easy choice to make. It turns out the harder choice was staying.
The plan for my microadventure
Sophie has been trying to get me out and bivi somewhere since we moved here. I’ve not played along, always feeling that I needed a reason to do it, like a climb that requires a night of poor sleep to get on it early, rather than inflicting a night of discomfort for its reason alone. Much to Sophie’s disappointment, as well as disguised pride, the moment she leaves me alone, I decided that was exactly what I wanted to do.
There are a number of amazing walks in Chamonix, walks that take you up high out of the valley and open up wonderful views of the whole Mont Blanc Massif. I opted for a classic spot high on our list, Lac Blanc. I could park up by Tré Le Champ and after walking up past the stunning and fun climbing on the Aiguillette d’Argentiere, be up there in two and a half hours. Add on an hour to prepare where I would sleep and sort out all my gear faff and I needed to set out at 2:30pm to get it all done before dusk.
Though not a long walk in, it would be over 1000m of ascent so I didn’t want to be packing too heavily. Also, I’m only going for one night so how much stuff do I need? All in I ended up getting everything into my 30l Haglofs Roc Hard rucksack, not bad when it included:
- An oversized sleeping bag rated to -9 Celsius
- An inflatable sleeping mat
- A bivi bag
- Jetboil stove
- A Lantern
- My Sundried Bamboo Sunglasses
- A walking pole
- My DSLR camera
- My phone
- An ice axe (just in case..)
Added to that my food and liquids:
- Chicken curry and rice, dehydrated dinner
- Muesli with dehydrated milk
- Two mint tea bags
- 1l of water
- A 100g bar of dark chocolate
- A Lion bar (my new addiction)
- A can of Bewdog Punk IPA
- Hip flask of Lagavulin Scotch
I knew it was going to be deep snow on the walk as well as cold at night so I wore:
- A full set of Kora Baselayers (these are the bomb)
- Trying out my new Jottnar salopettes
- An extra midlayer
- A light, hooded down jacket
- A buff
- A beanie
- Light gloves
- My big high altitude mountain gloves
I stuffed most of the clothing in a dry sac and squeezed it into my bag as the walk would be hot and sweaty.
Setting off on my first Microadventure
As I locked the car and started up the snow filled path up into the Aiguilles Rouges National Park, I had a giant grin on my face. It was so exciting! The clouds that had been stuck in the valley all day were, as promised by the weather man, beginning to clear and I could see I was in for a beautiful evening.
Each step in the virgin powder snow took me higher and higher until I reached the ladders at the foot of the Aiguillette d’Argentiere. As I made it over the top of the ladders I began to see tracks. Had someone else come this way before me? I heard a noise and looked up to see a family of ibex. I couldn’t work out who was more surprised and the look they gave me was initially one of shock then amazement that some idiot human would be out in these kind of conditions. The mother scurried off with her young and I forged on, in the tracks.
I carried on up with the sun racing away from me, every time I crested a ridge expecting to see it, it dropped behind the next one. After nearly three hours, I finally made it to the highest point between me and the lake but, with the rapidly falling sun, I decided I had gone far enough and need to make a bed for the night. Tucked under a giant cairn, I found a flat spot out of the wind and began clearing a platform.
Home sweet home
As I put the finishing touches to my room for the night I looked up to take in my view for the next 14 hours. I had the full length of the Mont Blanc Massif in front of me with the mighty and majestic Aiguille Verte towering right in front of me. Gaston Rebuffat once said that it is on the Verte that you become a true mountaineer. Needless to say, the lack of any easy way up it and it’s giant splendour puts it high on Sophie and my ticklists.
Once my bed was made I cracked open my solitary beer and wriggled into my sleeping bag. With every layer I had with me on I set to making dinner; boiling water with the jetboil, filling the resealable food bag, and then tucking it inside the sleeping bag like a hot water bottle while it cooked. As I lay there, the warm food pouch sitting on my rumbling stomach, I can’t tell you how lucky I felt, just to be there.
As I caved into the hunger and opened up the chicken curry, I realised I had made a rather silly mistake. The astute among you might have noticed a crucial piece of kit missing from my list above and it was only now that I noticed; I didn’t bring a spork. The genius invention was meant to help shovel the food from the pouch to my mouth but I was spork-less. What was I going to do? With no-one to impress and only myself to embarass, I opted for the elegant solution of just pouring the food from the pouch into my mouth directly. Not exactly classy but no-one saw.
The final rays of light faded as I heated a pot of water for some tea and I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. My watch was reading -3 Celsius and it was only 6.30pm, it was going to be 13 hours until the sun returned and would get a lot colder during that time. I sipped the hot mint tea, looking out onto the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses dreaming about the day that I get to be on that immense face and, again, counted my blessings for living in such a wonderful and incredible town.
With the tea finished, I found I was getting colder and so I tucked myself up in my sleeping bag and closed the bivi bag to try and trap the body heat in. In the pitch dark I instinctively reached for my phone and saw some of the incredible responses and support everyone was offering on Twitter and Facebook. I started to reply but a little Sophie-like voice in my head told me to put the phone down and turn it off. I’m not here to read social feeds or look at cat photos, I’m here to be on my own, to think, and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
I broke out the chocolate and unscrewed the cap on the whiskey flask, lying back to take it all in.
I chose to be there. I chose to stay
As I lay back and started to let my mind wander, I started to think about all the questions I’ve had recently; what am I doing with my life, am I happy, what could I change. As these came and went, I started to think more about my immediate situation. I’m out up at 2400m in the heart of the Aiguilles Rouge, alone and it’s pretty much winter. Is this a good idea? Should I be here? I started to run through possible dangers; there is no snow forecast, I’m in a safe position away from any cliff edges below or rock fall /avalanche risk above. The only dangers I could think of were the cold and being camped in the territory of an angry ibex.
I couldn’t shake that feeling of discomfort, though, in the pit of my stomach. Only afterwards, when talking to Sophie, did I start to realise what it was: fear. But what was I afraid of?
I wasn’t afraid of getting frost bite, I was cold but I’ve been colder and I knew I was far from my limits; I wasn’t afraid of the wild animals, none are a threat to humans in these conditions; and I wasn’t afraid of the objective dangers from the terrain, I had taken care to position my camp away from all of them.
I had made the decision to be there but the fear was growing from the decision to stay there. A decision that was mine, and mine alone.
If, while climbing with a partner, I’m feeling unsure of a situation and I feel they are too, I can jump on their doubts to reenforce mine, making the decision to bail acceptable as we both thought it was the right thing to do. Likewise, if I’m on a climb and I feel my confidence is wavering, my partner’s confidence can be enough for me to suck it up and keep going.
When you’re doing something with other people you share any decision making responsibility, even if only implicitly by not saying anything and carrying on. This time, all the responsibility was mine and it was scary.
I knew I was safe, I knew I was going to be fine, I knew I had nothing to worry about. But what if I was wrong?
As I snatched sleep in short bursts, the night slowly ticked away. Come 2am, my doubts had started to grind me down. What did I have to prove? It was reading -8 Celsius on my watch and, in all likelihood, was a couple of degrees lower, everyone would understand if I bailed. I was on the verge of making my mind up when, as I poked my head out of the bivi bag, I saw something that made me realise I was staying. My first shooting star. There was not a cloud to be seen in the night sky was completely clear, the full moon was lighting up the mountains beautifully and, just as I pushed my head out of the bag, a shooting star streaked across the sky.
It was beautiful and I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere else but here.
I took in the stunning view for a few minutes longer before I had to head back into my cocoon and I drifted off to sleep again.
I woke regularly from the cold and, just as my mind started to entertain the idea of bailing, I would poke my head out of the bag again, look at the view and know that I was staying, that I was choosing to stay, and that I was happy with that choice.
A New Dawn
Finally, at 7am, after 13 hours of darkness, the sun started to rise up behind the mountains in Italy. I could feel a change in the air even before the sun hit me, the feeling of a new day, and the sense of satisfaction of a what I had just been through.
I got the stove on and, after getting over the disappointment a second time of not bringing my spork, I poured a giant pack of hot musli down my throat. The sun had well and truly risen by the time I had packed up camp and it was only when I’d finished and I was taking a few photos that I realised I was grinning ear to ear. I still am two days later.
On the walk down past the waking ibex, and on the days since then, I’ve been thinking about this night and what I experienced; that choice to stay, that complete sense of self-reliance, and the excitement of testing myself mentally and physically. Sure, there are things I’d do differently like remember my spork and probably upgrade my sleeping bag but hey.
It has been incredibly empowering. If I can choose to stay up there when part of me wants to come back home, what else can I choose to do? What else have I not done because I’ve deferred responsibility to another person so that I don’t need to take the responsibility of making the decision myself?
I’m sure there have been countless occasions. Going forward, however, I hope that when I feel that fear of having to make a choice and stick to it I remember that shooting star.
The shooting star that I could have missed if I had chosen to go down.
The shooting star that I chose to stay and see.