Monday, July 26, 2010

Climbing Mont Blanc (almost live blog)

Evening – Day 1
Well, we have made it to the first hut. All 500 metres of the way. Heroic.
Blizzard when we emerged from the top of the Aiguille de Midi, the double cable car up from the centre of Chamonix. Somehow coming down the thin wall of ice to get to the mountain in the fog and wind was better than doing it in balmy sunshine - you cannot see the thousand metre falls that you are reconnoitring without a handrail. Much thinner (and no handrail) than in winter with ski boots for the Vallee Blanche. At least you have crampons and no skis...
Then a short descent and climb up to the fuggy, mountain-macho hut - full of strong, mostly silent types contemplating their next abseil, and debating whether to use a rope or not. We feel suitably uncraggy and unweathered.
The storm comes and goes - breaking briefly as we arrive for a glorious evening view over the rolling clouds below. Then the wind and hail settles back in. We have delayed one day because of the weather - and were lucky to get new places in the hut the following night.
We’re at 3600 metres. There is a storm outside. Hail the size of airgun pellets rattles the windows. We discuss the Bellancourt scandal. The cramped dormitories begin to whiff damply as people circle each other’s mattresses warily, wearily. Dinner soon.
Life could be worse.

Morning - Day 2

Its quarter to one. In the morning.

The building is full of scurrying figures, preparing themselves for the day ahead - grabbing ropes, crampons, poles: strapping things on; emptying and refilling rucksacks - dashing in to the night with hearty embraces to their comrades. Last night everyone had the heavy air of a fully uncoiled spring. Now - on 3, 4 hours sleep - they are again alpha men (and occasional women). In the gloom a crowd forms outside the food hall as we eagerly await breakfast.

Gloom? All this is played out in the half dark - broken by the sparkle of headlamps that everyone has sprung in the night - some sort of virulent but vital technical veruca that we all picked up in the close proximity sleeping quarters. Perhaps the building lights work but who cares? That’s what our headlamps are for. Or maybe we are showing sensitivity to our sleeping neighbours and not shining lights in their eyes. They - poor fellows - have after all just been run over by the Alpine uber-elite.

And us, creeping towards breakfast and the mountain.


Its 1.30am and the stampede on the mountain begins. We strap on our gear - crampons, head torch, harness, rucksack with ice axe and rope - then start off down and across the plain towards the first peak. All around us the night is full of little glow-worms of torches as other groups move out. Already there is a chain stretching ahead and up the mountain - a pathway guiding us heaven-wards. It is chilly with an occasionally sharp wind, laced with sharp hail.

Masha (my wife) and I each have a guide - she is with Roland, our charming, chatty regular guide who has been training us all week and would find a friend in any given snowstorm in the Chamonix valley and I am with Christian - his quieter but solidly experienced friend. This was originally a cunning plan in case one of us (read: Tim) was hit by altitude sickness and there had to be a parting of the ways. But although - possibly because we have been chewing bucket loads of Diomox - this never happened, it still proved a good decision.

How much so was swiftly apparent as we began the assault on the first peak. The angle vectored brutally upwards, the snow and ice (there is no rock in this story until later, and no earth or grass at all) increasingly treacherous and there is relief in the knowledge that we had one man's entire attention should we put a foot wrong on an increasingly steep slope.

My entire focus was on the next step - both as a matter of balance and planning but also so as not to think about anything mundane like how much my legs might hurt. That way lies doom. Occasionally glancing up I'd see faint stars overhead and a clear path of lights up the mountain.

A few hairy moments: a ladder over a chasm (there were many crevices here and later) where we saw the first of the slightly pushy nature of these alpine men. Naked without their ropes, with the occasional carabineer necessary to protect their modesty, they are usually jovial, if quiet folk, but knowing that there are choke points up the mountain find their competitive (read French driving) habits coming to the fore. Roland had gone ahead and Masha was due up next now that he was braced in case she fell – the clear line of the rope being critical for this. But a young German pushed in between them saying: "I am on my own". Not hard to see why.

Two gruelling hours (made worse by the battered path, even Christian loses his footing occasionally) later we reach the top of the first climb - the actual peak is off to our left. Down the mountain - too far a fall to contemplate - the lights of Geneva can be seen.

A brief descent and then we begin the next push up what will prove the toughest hill. Icy, steep, I am on all fours at times and then slogging up a series of parallel paths. For this climb I have taken one of the two walking poles I usually walk with, put it in my rucksack, and replaced it with an ice axe. Here at the end of each parallel I swap them over - pole on downside, ice axe on the topside. This latter would be the best hope in the event of a fall - you would throw yourself on top of it to dig in and slow (and stop if you can hang on...) the rate of slide. Our guide has got us roped on - leash-like - and presumably knows what to do but the there are many scenarios, not all pretty. We are in our own tiny world - Christian and I. Its too dark to see others except when we pass them or they pass us - usually because someone is grabbing a quick break. Precious few pleasantries are exchanged - exercise and altitude renders breath too valuable a commodity to waste. I have not seen Masha for several hours.

Its as we near the top of the second leg-sapping climb that we catch sight of her ahead of us in the queue for what we can tell is a tough patch by the concentration of glow-worm lights (if its easy they are all spaced out). Its a bit of a wait and they have headed up as we pause and Christian tells me to put on my ice helmet. Good advice - I will soon catch a large chunk of ice on my head from a climber above - but it brings a terrible realisation. Light is breaking across the mountain tops - the sun has not yet risen but there is enough to make out the world around us. Shadows do crazy things along the side of ice pathways - and I realise how precarious is our hold on the side of the mountain. Until now the limited distance illuminated by the head lamps had let me lull myself in to a sense of relaxation (or only dim awareness) of this: no longer. Crampons are fabulous beasts - they hold you at crazy, icy angles - but if there is one thing that I have learnt this week it is that I have an overactive imagination around great heights. And it is a long way down.

Not a problem that seemed to afflict the Italian mountain guide who sauntered up to look at the ice climb ahead, through a couloir only one person could go up at a time. With his back to a 100 metre fall, his feet at a 30 degree angle to the gentler part of the slope he got his backpack out and started rummaging around in it, totally relaxed.

Quite a wait, enlivened by colourful French expostulations against those dropping ice on them from above and then in to the couloir we went. Ice axe in, make sure it holds then crampons up to the next toeholds. Climbing in crampons is a pleasure - you barely need to find your own toe holds: the wicked mandibles on the front of the hungry ants do that. But there are lots of wild, unguided, youths blundering around, chunks of ice tumble from climbers further up and I am still shaken by the height we are at (or more precisely could fall) and so I sprint up the mountain, pounding away. Not smart as I am quickly exhausted. But Christian has rigged us on to the top ropes with a carabineer system so its easier then to slowly make our way to the top. The climbing is fun but I am delighted and exhausted to collapse at the top.

And from there its basically a slog – one slope and then the last 300m up the mountain with the summit tantalisingly close, but the insects crawling up its face are still people a long way up. Twenty five minutes from the top Roland calls Christian to say that they are already there and now heading down to a refuge to await us. Its partly better queue placement, partly that I am carrying her tea and food but largely that mountain bred Masha is simply fleeter of foot on the way up than her lowland, riverside-bred husband. The sun is rising but its still not warm, the wind is biting and brief, welcome breaks are tortured by sudden hail shoots - there is no cover up here (or no cover you want to be close to in case of rock or ice fall).

Its short, slow steps. Managing the rhythm. Gasping for breath. Not looking up. Brief pause. Slow, steady steps. Then we reach the summit! False alert.

One last push - and we are on the top of the world. Breathing hard but afloat on exhiliration. Below us the clouds float, mountains pushing though them to peer up at us. The summit is a broad, beaten ridge where we can sit, eat, drink (although my camel back tube has frozen solid), take photos but probably not talk too much as breathing is hard. Its taken nearly seven hours - its just pushing towards 9am.

Then the hard part begins. The descent. We have taken the harder "technical" way up and will now complete the tour and take the longer way back down.

It starts easily, if hairily enough. Down thin ridges - an icy spine on which we balance our way. Christian has me on a tight leash. If I fall one way then he would leap the other so as to balance us out. Given its several hundred metres either way this sounds like the preferable (if sub-optimal) outcome. Slightly more hairy when others shuffle past us on the way up.

If the calf muscles hurt on the way up (and my injury was twinging to remind me that its only been a few months out of crutches - according to my physio mountain climbing to rebuild muscle mass is entirely the right approach) then its thighs that suffer on the way down. And they soon start burning. A hut has been pointed out me as where we'll meet Masha - getting there is hard and then I am mistaken: its the next hut another hour away. Urgh.

Before then we come across a group huddled in the mountain with a very sprightly gentleman racing around them. Its their guide and one of the climbers has lost his glasses and been struck by snow-blindness. He can see nothing and stumbling along these ridges fully sighted is already scary. His guide has clipped him to him to get him this far. Now the mountain rescue chopper swoops in - and then again. The gusting wind forces multiple passes before they come in sideways and the securiste descends, spider-like, on his cord. Christian (and Roland) are both former securistes so he's taking a professional interest and chatting away. The spider himself, dressed rather like a well-padded bicycle cop, albeit with harness and ice axe, in a natty dark blue costume is taut and professional. A few quick questions - then terse instructions in to his helmet mike to the circling pilot. The victim is attached to the chopper and winched away - watching him dangle below the helicopter as it powers aloft makes me wonder whether that's fun - or frightening; and better or worse when blind. He is swiftly deposited on a nearby flat mountain top and as we stumble on down the mountain the Eurocopter sweeps back to pull the rest of the party out as well (they having decided to go on down because the blinded man has got the car keys....).

The last bit to the Gouter refuge is excruciating - down, up, down and then a final approach along a ridge riddled with crevices and dangerous looking cracks. Cannot have been fun for people going up at 1.30am. My legs are dying - and I think even Christian is tiring - when we finally remove our crampons and leave our bags for dead outside the hut and stagger in to find the others.

Masha is elated - apart from the last bit its all been a breeze for my little mountain goat. Plus she has had the best part of an hour to have some food and sugared drink and recover from the wordless world of pain that I am in. Takes a while to get any food as in traditional French style the "20 minutes" lunch break is going strong an hour later.

We continue the descent - we have well over 2000 metres to go to exit. And now we realise why the guides will take any chance to crampon on snow and ice rather than clamber over rocks. Its a brutal descent, helped by steel wiring over craggy rocks. The climbing is fun - the risk of dropping stones on the heads of those below and the potential to tumble nastily or turn an ankle on tired legs not. We begin to pass increasing numbers of people heading up to the Gouter hut, their base for the following days push on Mont Blanc. We get down but - as we later discover when the rescue helicopter zeroes in again - someone shortly behind us doesn't. He falls in to a gully. He's fifteen.

At the bottom there's a gulley which you have to dash across as rocks are falling. Mostly they are small and at foot level, sliding shale. But occasionally they are football sized chunks bouncing haphazardly down the mountain - randomly coming in at head height or similar. Someone slightly melodramatically likened it to a sniper's alley where you have to watch, prey and dash. Several groups made it across with minor incident - we then followed. Masha was lightly hit (on helmet and rucksack) but made it fine (her husband probably suffered more watching than she did running) and I got across fine, with a slight twist to the ankle.
Adventure over - but long hard slog ahead still to be had. Down towards the tramway to take us off the mountain, still several hours away. Masha had hurt her knee and so was limping in at the end - even the rather tame chamois grazing as we passed could add little cheer.
So its done. The mountain and the write-up on the early morning trip back to London. I'm tired but the complete, desperate exhaustion of yesterday has been replaced by a quiet gratitude to the engineers who keep the Geneva airport and Heathrow escalators running so smoothly.

Not sure the kids are that impressed. They are a hard audience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Parliamentary arithmetic

Part of the new electoral deal being proposed is to reduce the size of Parliament - to have fewer MPs.

"And why not?" runs the argument. They don't do proper jobs, they cost a fortune (mostly in illicit expense claims), "snouts in the trough", we've got too many politicians anyway etc etc

There are various tactical reasons why cutting the number of MPs will not be a good move. The increasing volume of casework will accelerate exponentially as constituencies get larger (either reducing the quality of the casework done or costing more in constituency staffing). Party-driven squabbles over electorally sensitive boundaries will reduce everyone's appetite for the hard work of genuine political reform - and further turn people away from democratic politics.

But most critically our Parliamentary system means that the House of Commons is our primary source of executive talent (such as it is) to run the country. OK - the House of Lords acts as a top-up but when non-politicians have been brought in to Government they have tended to flounder - think of distinguished businessmen like Lord Simon under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown's GOATs.

And if we cut the number of Parliamentarians then we cut the talent pool for the Cabinet (and the various traineeship positions to get there in the form of junior Ministerial positions). And - potentially as importantly - we risk weakening the independence of Parliament if all the available talent ends up on the Government payroll. This will also mean less people are available for manning the Select Committees that should be holding Government to account.

If we go down this route then we'll risk needing to evolve a form of separation of powers - whereby members of the Executive (Government) can be brought in from outside the Legislative (House of Commons). This might be a good idea anyway but it would be a fundamental shift in how we run the country.

And that surely should be based on something more important than winning a few "we're all in this together" bash the politician headlines. I struggle to believe that the cost savings will be serious (or sustainable - the pressure to raise MPs salaries and expand their office staff will grow); and would anyway be counter-balanced by the cost of the new Boundary review.

We have a mixed track record in Britain of deploying brilliant Ministers to lead the country - cutting the Parliamentary base of the pyramid simply means (mathematically) that there will be less good Ministers at the top.

So why not cut the number of  Ministers? Well that's a far better question...