How it all began…
I am sitting in my study with rain and wind pouring down at the behest of Storm Gareth as I am sipping coffee and trying to capture the whirlwind, intense, amazing week during which I took part in Everest in the Alps 2019 as a member of the only all-female team, Team Artemis – goddess of the mountains…..just in case you were wondering.
A bit of background before I launch straight in. I managed to strong arm the wonderful Kate last December into signing up to EIA as I, perhaps somewhat selfishly, felt it was the perfect fit for us. We both love the mountains, we could ski, we had been ski touring before, and we had a reasonable base level of fitness. I had seen a group of mothers from school achieve this fantastic feat last year and it piqued something in me.
I knew that I would regret it if my children had grown up and out of school and I had not given this challenge a shot. Life always throws some unexpected ups and downs and I figured that it is healthy and very empowering to prove to yourself that you can still push yourself and really focus on something that is tough but hopefully manageable. However, I needed a wing woman, a team mate who wouldn’t flinch at everything this adventure would throw at us and I knew that Kate would be the perfect fit, she agreed (luckily not too much persuading was required) and we were booked.
Everest in the Alps is the brainchild of Rob and Tanya Ritchie as a brilliant vehicle for raising money for the Brain Tumour Charity, it is a stunning idea as it encourages mere (read competitive) mortals like me, not elite athletes who run the Marathon de Sables for breakfast, to train hard for an elite event which is just within our grasp but requires a lot of time, effort and planning. It has the double benefit of making people’s mouths drop open when you say what you are doing as well as being doable if you put in hours and hours and hours or training (more on that later).
However the Ritchies are even more expansive by not limiting fundraising to the Brain Tumour Charity, you can choose who you want to fundraise for. However, my children are at school with their son Toby, who has a brain tumour, and as a family we are very aware of the long journey the Ritchies have had in the past few years as well as having friends who have children also affected. Yet my history tells another story and having had breast cancer twice and been so well looked after by the Royal Marsden Hospital, I also felt it was time to both give back and acknowledge the incredible debt I will always feel to their medical expertise and support they have given me year after year after year. Kate very generously agreed to add the Marsden to the Brain Tumour Charity so then the work had to begin.
Arriving in Verbier…
There followed weeks of intense focus, in fact almost every waking moment on fitness, fundraising and of course; snacks. We flew out on Sunday 3rd March, happy to be on our way, after a week of building excitement and trepidation, culminating on Saturday 2nd waking to the feeling that I had been plugged into 10,000 volts of adrenaline and nerves. Not really knowing what do with myself I had mindlessly made endless lists, moved kit to endless other bags and generally felt increasingly snappy. However, once I had said goodbye to the patient and gracious Timmis family I travelled to Southampton airport, definitely an easier gig than negotiating Gatwick or Heathrow. Fortuitously, we met Rob Ritchie who was also going to join us here and there for the week and add another dimension of support.
Kate of course was also there and as she and I have been gaffa taped together in the proceeding months and would be during the event, there was no way I was going to take one step without her. We had spent weeks running, sprinting, sometimes jogging, jumping, planning, eating, sorting and ordering from Amazon prime – we were a cast iron team. At the airport.
I spent time feigning a bit of nonchalance with Rob while inwardly churning over what was to come and mentally running through kit lists to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind but also acknowledging that as useful as Southampton airport was, it wasn’t going to provide any missing hardcore ski touring kit that I may need.
After the flight, we jumped into our cab and zoomed our way to Verbier, Rob opening up a bit about the first EIA, their family experience and tidbits of intel on the area we were driving through. More and more snow appeared on the mountains and the last bit of the route from La Chable progressed like a veritable snake climbing up the hill till we reached our destination.
We were staying the first two nights in Mont Gele, a kind of hostel cum hotel. Clean, warm and absolutely comfortable enough it was in prime position next to the ski rental shop, the end of the piste and importantly to the Artic juice bar that we found out pumped out great coffee and even better protein smoothies that we knocked back with total abandon in the knowledge that we were being encouraged to carbo load and eat as much as we could of pretty much anything – bring it on!
We had appointments booked at Mountain Air the ski rental hire shop to deal with pain that Kate and I were both getting in our Scarpa touring boots, that of incredible burning pain in the balls of our feet which, during our training weekend in Klosters, had made it difficult to breathe at the end of the day. We spent about 1.5 hours in Mountain air having patches put on our feet, stockings over them (tasty one that) and, heating our boots up to extreme temperatures and then freezing them in buckets of ice for 10 minutes. Who knew it if it would work but feeling like they had done the best they could, we picked up the rest of our kit, telescopic poles, ski touring skis with pin bindings, skins and crampons.
Kitted out we made our way back to Mont Gele where we met up with the other two members or our team, Suzannah and Cally who had joined the event much earlier in the year. The other two teams were also arriving – 6 guys who made up the Sagarmatha team, one of whom lives full time in Verbier. Earlier in January Sagamatha had already trained for 3 days in Verbier, staying at the Mont Fort Cabane where we would be staying for three nights on the mountain, so I felt a little bit overawed by what they had already done, how much they had posted on social media and clearly how fit and prepared they were. However, they were very, very welcoming and slightly humming on too much adrenaline like us – wanting to get on with it. Team Blackline also arrived, another group of 5 guys one of whom is my good friend Rupert, they made a beeline to Mountain Air in an attempt to get sorted and deal with some excess energy. We were all drifting around with not enough to do apart from buy more kit in exorbitant expensive Switzerland and behave like race horses at the gate, just dying to get going.
Knowing tomorrow mid-day would start the event with a briefing, Team Artemis went out for supper at La Caveau (great suggestion Nigel and Lucy thank you) where we celebrated getting this far (prematurely perhaps) with cheese fondue and a kirsch schnapps. The place was humming with French and English families and felt like a perfect start to our Swiss week as we raised a large schnapps to carbo loading.
Monday 4th March. The day before…
Slightly concerned with the bag limit of 20 litres we were allowed up to Mont Fort Cabane (we would be carrying day packs with us each day but an extra bag with everything we need for three days/nights is taken up to the hut), our cumulative snacks to fuel us for each day alone were about 8 kilos! However, we soon got wind of the inspired intel that the other two groups were heading up to Mont Fort Cabane to dump an extra bag ahead of schedule. Kate and I headed out in grey drizzle (after mainlining another protein smoothie) to be told that due to high wind the first lift was running very slowly (with a zillion French ski school kids trying to get on) and all upper lifts were shut, yikes. We decided to queue and in our queue met a great English ski instructor who had lived in Verbier for years who gave us intel on how to get to Cabane Mont Fort (ie stop wimping out and use your skins girls). Very fortunately the other lift after Medran was working so we got one step further and then put on our skins for the first time and made our way in the direction to the Cabane. Little did we know that this would be our route at the end of each day and we would become very familiar with this section of the path. Feeling triumphant and moderately intrepid that we had negotiated malfunctioning lifts, and after sorting some minor issues with skis, the ski area in thick fog we made it to the Cabane and dumped our extra TON of snacks (Kate had definitely drawn the short straw of carrying this titanic bag of snacks, I carried her skins which on reflection doesn’t in any way equate to her extra 8kg but all good extra training.)
We had planned to then meet up with Suzannah and Cally for one on snow kit run through prior to the briefing but Suzannah was having a bit of a kit nightmare. Her skis had been rented out by the ski shop to someone else and her binding on her second pair of skis wasn’t fixing properly. We all took the cable car down the mountain (about the 2nd time in my life I have done that) as team support and to make sure that Suzannah’s kit got sorted. We were all feeling a bit tense and nervous so it didn’t take much to make nerves fray and kit was the one area we felt we could control, well at least a bit. We managed to make it down to get more lunch from Artic Press (they were making a fortune from our carbo loading tension) before we returned to Mont Gele for the EIA briefing.
At the briefing we met our guides and support team – all linked to the company Secret Compass who run the EIA adventure and some of whom are affiliated to Adaptive Grandslam, a charitable foundation of veterans who have received injuries in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and other disabled adventurers who are setting out to conquer the notorious global Grand Slam of 7 peaks, 7 continents and 2 poles. To say these individuals are focused and strong would be an obscene understatement and most of them were using EIA as a training ground for their forthcoming challenges. Being in their company made you think twice about whining about blisters.
Tom Bodkin, co-founder and guide at Secret Compass, talked us through a google map of our routes over the next four days – I felt ok about this until I saw the Verbier resident and part of the Sagarmatha team wincing when he saw what we were climbing and then I felt sweaty. We had further briefings about hydration, i.e. drink a lot and with hydration tabs when you can as you will always be more dehydrated than you think particularly in the cold and then briefings about kit. The kit demo was alarming – the guide showing us his bag to go up to Mont Gele (which was the size of my wash bag) and was neatly divided into individual grab bags all colour coded. There was much discussion about admin of kit and suddenly I was feeling very much that I had no military organisation experience and Kate and I desperately wanted colour coded grab bags (we did walk around Verbier for about 30 minutes later that day looking for them and ran into 3 other people doing the same, sadly no luck on that score).
Team Artemis’s guides were going to be Tom Bodkin and another guide Nick who was just in his final week after decades in special forces so I felt pretty well supported and grateful for this supervision. Next on the agenda was to do a dummy run on skins to see how all the kit was working and to give all of us last minute tips on efficiency while touring.
So off we set all three groups to skin up the piste and through the woods to a restaurant called Chez Dany. I felt for those who had not skinned before as it was a lot to take up in terms of technique, rhythm and how to do kick turns with half your boot not attached on your skis. However, we all faired pretty well and skied down to do last minute repacking (again) and meet for supper (not to mention shopping through the whole of Verbier for the aforementioned grab bags).
Kate and I sat with Sagarmatha that night over supper, a great bunch of men wholly committed to the fundraising for the Brain Tumour charity in response to friends whose families had been affected by brain tumours. They are a dynamic and fun group and very, very organised, they had been training since August/September and had utter faith that they would make this challenge. They were also very encouraging of 4 women taking this challenge on with both hands.
After yet more packing and putting skins on our skis the night before (I am finding out that this challenge requires, as does the military influence, zero faff, and getting ahead of the game at all times) we were ready to try for a good nights sleep knowing that Team Artemis were the first to kick off with a 5am rise).
Tuesday 5th March, Kick off finally…
Obviously woke up way before 5am in the anticipation of the first day finally beginning after the accumulation of months of training, day in, day out, 6 days a week, streams of fundraising emails and letters as well as kit buying, calming the nerves and getting the mental game sorted.
With adrenaline pounding we were in the boot room way before 6am having had as much breakfast as we could fit down as well as a litre of water with a Precision Hydration tab in it. We started off with a 10 minute walk along the quiet early morning streets of Verbier before arriving at a place called La Rouge. As we walked we passed beautiful cosy chalets with people presumably sleeping comfortably in their beds and we were about to start the hardest semi elite challenge I had ever done in my life. After taking pictures next to the start banner Team Artemis was off. We were Tom and Nick, Suzannah, Cally, Kate, myself. Joining us for the first ascent was Rob Ritchie, his brother Jaime Ritchie and our elite athlete and journalist Tobias Mews. Tobias was joining a group a day in order to get the flavour of EIA, what was the essence of the challenge, what had made us want to be a part of it and ultimately produce a podcast on the experience and hopefully entice more people to take part.
Off we set at steady pace, Tom cutting a skin track, step after step after step always pushing down a little bit so the skins would stick. I find the morning start up tricky until I get into a good rhythm, with breakfast and litres of water sloshing around it can be difficult to get into the groove initially. However the views were outstanding, the mountains were framed in the dawn light and you could see the pink and blue of daylight emerging, and as we climbed, Verbier felt smaller and smaller behind us.
After our first pee stop, inevitably my request, Tobias hooked up Kate to the microphone to get her views on EIA, why she was doing it etc etc. Of all the people who probably least like being hooked up Kate would be number 1, she looked utterly horrified but in the spirit of why we were there, she took one for the team and her fitness was put to the utmost test as we climbed up the mountain having to constantly answer questions and desperately trying to come up with the meaningful answers while gasping for air and using the majority of brain power adjusting to and negotiating steep skinning tracks. Our trainer Anna always told us to keep talking throughout our training sessions and runs for fitness but at altitude that is another thing altogether, little did she know that this skill would come in useful in interview tactics. One of Tobias’s great strengths is that despite walking at almost right angles he was able to keep chatting non-stop so could keep conversation happily flowing even when you started to sound like a rhino struggling to breathe.
It became apparent quite quickly that Suzannah was struggling with very low energy and not feeling well. It was the first morning and it must have been incredibly daunting to not feel well at this stage. Things only proceeding to get worse for Suzannah who couldn’t get enough energy to keep going and was feeling too ill to eat, this is classic altitude sickness and there is not much you can do about this except go down. However, she bravely struggled on to the top of Savoleyeres where we took a short break, short being the operative word here, our days are now broken up into transitions ie when you put your skins on or take them off, and time to eat which is about 5 minutes every hour max.
We skied down feeling great but what goes down must come up and the reason it had been so nice was that it was a great pitch, for skiing down, less amiable if you are skinning up as it was STEEP. However, before we got to that stage we put our skins on in the beautiful trees and the jokes starting flowing freely the more crass the better.
Suzannah still was feeling dire and soon after the second ascent began, she was physically sick, concerned that this could now progress dangerously the decision was made to get her back down to Mont Gele and assess once she was able to get food in board.
It was now Cally’s turn to chat to Tobias which was tough going on an incredibly steep incline we were skinning up, yet she seemed to skip up chatting away non-stop when I could feel my breathe coming in faster and faster. What had felt like another level of endurance for Kate and I (as I had been after Kate on the microphone) and which made skinning just a little bit harder, Cally seemed to utterly take in her stride and when I could barely talk I heard Cally and Tobias chatting non-stop and laughing……dear god, how was I going to keep going with this level of fitness all around me? The sun was shining and we managed to keep the exploratory chats about each other and the good humour going the whole climb up and distract ourselves from the reality of our ascent on morning 1.
This climb followed the most glorious ski/ traverse to Chez Dany where we had lunch outside in bright sunshine with our skis up and skins drying in the sun as we had to skinned up the last bit through the trees. I think we were all feeling pretty on top of our game and good about life at this point. This was cemented by an industrial carbo loading lunch, fill up of the camelbaks (water bladders in our rucksacks) and we were off. So here was the first lesson we learnt the hard way. Do not eat too much lunch or you end up in a food coma and it’s practically impossible to keep going and put one foot in front of the other. We were winding up a beautiful path in the trees (thankfully as less sun on us) but it was really tough going as we were hot, full and sleepy. Once out of the trees I could feel blisters emerging, really already….so Tom kindly stopped with me and we put on gauze and zinc tape to protect, the zinc tape I had put on that morning (actually our SAS guide had put on, questionable skill set there ☺) had totally rubbed off and with the sweat on the sock my skin was soft as melted butter ripe for blister production. On we went up to Fontaner which turns out is a VERY STEEP PISTE, I mean I felt like the tips of my skis were hitting my nose. It was very, very hot work and kind of head down and plod on kind of work. For me it was all about focusing on the top of that slope, don’t think too much beyond that and then take a break.
This was followed by a short ski down to La Chaux which then included the longer skin up (only 30 minutes) back to Mont Fort Cabane at 5pm. We nailed 2400m. A long day, longer than it sounds writing it down as there were many, many steps involved in those 2400m – all while trying to work out the terrain, the kit, the layering, the company, how to keep up with Tom during transitions, the endurance needed, where was hurting on our bodies and what we could do about it, how to get water and food on board while still moving and breathing hard.
Feeling euphoric and strong we made our way into the Cabane, such a welcome sight each night I cannot tell you. The evening routine on arrival was TAKE OFF SKI BOOTS, which is point blank the best feeling in the world, yes better than all the others, then drying skins and unpacking and sorting snacks.
Very spoilingly there was two sports masseurs there to temper the stiffness in our thighs, calves and our arms, (holding on for dear life on the steep slopes I guess). We managed to sneak in before supper about 15 minutes each which was incredible while the rest of us were sorting kit. Cally, Kate and I were in a room of 2 bunk beds, short straw for Kate again who was on the top bunk which was accessed via pygmy steps with a handle only on one side and were more suitable for 4 year old ninjas. We were lucky though as there were only 4 of us women now, the lovely logistical support Olivia being the other who had to share 2 showers (requiring tokens -CHF 5 a piece-and the running joke was whether you were having a 1 or 2 token shower) and 1 loo as opposed to about 28 guys sharing the same amount. This was followed by a titanic supper of carb loading and then frankly, with the help of a sleeping pill, trying to pass out till your next 5am wake up.
The morning departures were incredibly special, the sun rising behind the peaks and alone on the mountain. By night we could see the sun setting in the isolation of our Cabane and below, the odd light of the snow plough making the pistes perfect for the hoardes of skiers that would fly down them tomorrow. In the morning though all you could see was the torchlight of the group in front of you and the slow methodical movement of their skins sliding and pressing down on the snow which showed as a gentle bobbing of movement in the distance, belying the fact that the team ahead were probably bursting for air having been thrust up a huge hill before their bodies had a chance to wake up let alone warm up.
Wednesday 6th March. Day two.
Day two started with a very intense skin up to Col De Getaines which was 2950m from the Cabane at 2457m. The weather was cold and very windy and Kate and Tom’s skins kept on slipping so at one point they had to divert from our steep direct route on piste to a slightly (and I emphasise slightly) more gentle incline on the crusty off piste.
We reached a plateau bit before our last climb which looked to me like we were about to scale the north face of the Eiger until I realised there was a switch back route. Our trusty guide Nick found a vaguely sheltered area semi escaping the wind though layers went back on quickly. We took on more food to boost energy as well as a pee stop (highly efficient whilst on skis as no time for dithering). We started climbing, this section was excruciatingly steep, high in elevation, more exposed to the wind. We managed a methodical rhythm following the skis of the person in front of you. We had about 30 minutes until the cable car went down the mountain (yes you read that right, down) so just for the fun of it we skied down that aforementioned north face of the Eiger and then skinned back up it for another 200metres. It was no easier second time around. That is the kind of thing you do when you have time on your hands during the EIA week.
So luckily (although I’m sure Tom our trusty ex-military leader was frustrated by this) we had a 10 minute break sitting down in the cable car while waiting for the descent. This is the other thing you do, you take chair lifts and cable cars down the mountain, downloading I think the term is, so you can conserve energy in the legs. Having spent my whole life taking the last cable car up for the final ski down and nothing short of a partial tear on my PCL stopping me not taking a lift down, this was a new experience. But already I was recognising the need to go along with anything that was going to preserve energy in any way, particularly in the legs. We ate a lot of snacks (do you notice a theme here) while listening to Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones, I could have stayed there quite a while.
Down to Siviez, a very pretty area of the wider Verbier area and blissfully avoiding the notorious mother of all mogul fields Tortin, which we were told, if we attempted, would have shot our legs to bits, no complaints on that one. We descended until we could start the climb to Combatseline (1730m-2238m) and though the path up here was lovely and began through the trees I found this section a tough slog. I think the repeated attempts on the ‘Eiger’ had tired me out and I had to mentally really get myself in gear for this one. The only bit that really woke me up was what Tom had described as the ‘crux’ bit at the end just before the restaurant. This, it turned out, was a sheer, very steep piste section of which about 70% was ice. We gingerly made our way up this route, placing our skis very carefully one after the other and making sure to press down hard with the skins to ensure we didn’t slide down. Nick however did slide down and I could see the effort it took to right himself. It is incredibly unnerving when you slide on skins as you assume they will stick and your heel is detached which means that your traction is further compromised. Once you are back on the upright if takes a couple of very tentative steps to start to feel confident again and resist the temptation to lean forward too much as that can push you too far forward and heels up and out again. We found out later that one of the boys teams had put on crampons for their sojourn up the icy slope but luckily we had successfully crept up like tentative cats on ice.
A great but short lived lunch which also required me to change socks (to minimise blisters as your feet get so hot and skin so soft). This was accentuated as my boots and socks (despite all being brand new) smelt so much I was worried it would kill any rodent at 50 yards not to mention the horrified glances as the smell emerged mixing with the aroma of German veal sausages and chips.
Once re watered and fed we set off for another climb past the restaurant up to Grepon Blanc (black run in case you were wondering) 2238 to 2700m. The sun was shining and as the sweat poured down, Cally and I plugged into music. I was listening to the playlist that Alexander (my music mad son) and I had made during a 1.5 hour walk a few weekends ago which made me smile and it was amazing how much more energy it gave me. Luckily, we had practised our kick turns as we did about 15 on this slope in the beating heat with a staggering view behind us.
If we were feeling remotely fit and smug it would have been wise to remember that one of Sagarmatha team in front of us had their 70+ mother with them who was literally zig zagging up the slope with seemingly no difficulty whatsoever. Tom had the audacity to mention at the top that perhaps we didn’t need to do the final traverse which went on for ages, was painful on the dominant traversing leg and only gave us an extra 10 metres. This was met first with silence then incredulity, we hadn’t got here by not being competitive or pushing ourselves and if Sagarmatha got the top (not to mention their mother) then we were going to as well. Nick was less impressed firmly requesting could we traverse the other way to even out the blisters and dire hip flexor pain on one side.
Made it to the top (of course) glorious ski down where we vaguely talked about the motivation of music. At this point Tom asked whether we would like Olivia to find a speaker we could attach to our rucksack for the group to listen to, yes we replied and Olivia duly came back that night with a kick ass Bose speaker that became our best friend (more on that tomorrow). We skied back to lunch hut (1.5 hours up, about 7 minutes down if that) and then took the chair lift down. Two more lifts back up to ski down to La Chaux again and back to Cabane Mont Fort once and then just to bag another 50 to get us to the 2300 mark we did it again much to Kate’s chagrin who at this point was ready to saw off one foot. Nailed 2305m.
Thursday 7th March, Day three.
By all accounts this is the big day emotionally and physically. Everyone had warned me if you were going to feel exhausted and start crying with emotion this was it. As we woke up (5am of course) Cally said to me, ‘this is the day we have been mentally training for’ I agreed but couldn’t help feeling just a little bit nervous about how we would get through this day? By this time we were a very tight threesome. We were feeding each other paracetamol and nurofen at regular instalments, taping each others blisters and spending a lot of time bent over with much needed laughter (read possible hysteria).
Cleverly, it seemed EIA organised the ski tours to make sure that day three was particularly beautiful. So while battling increasingly empty legs and exhaustion there is the energy from the mountains to spur you on. We started by skiing down to La Chaux and then skinning up to Fontaner, again a beautiful morning start and all you could see was the bobbing of head lamps of the group ahead as they were a few stages in front of us. Making our way onto Attelas however it was windy and the snow was blowing so for the first time since starting we needed goggles on and hoods up. This was pretty isolating and led to much less banter and more a feeling of being alone and digging deep. We transitioned from skins to skis in a shelter at Attelas, really wind blown and frankly less than enthusiastically. We skied down to Le Lac to skin back up, such a lovely run down but zero visibility and again a fast transition in blowing snow and wind to get back up. We took the lifts down to Siviez again, same start place as day 2 but this time we started to skin the other side of the valley up to Plan du Fou 1870m-2430m.
Before we started this, we took refuge in a café for a hot chocolate, a warming up and an energy boost. This was unheard of for our brave and fearless time conscious guides and clearly indicated that he saw we needed a pick me up. As we peeled off our soaking hats, gloves and jackets and mainlined chocolate/coffee or pie we received an email message from Toby Ritchie via Tanya which was very emotional and galvanising. Cally produced it on her phone for us saying ‘this is why we are doing this girls’ after which we were all crying and utterly determined to keep going and storm up this hill. Tanya who did EIA last year was well aware of the possible Day 3 blues and she absolutely touched the right spot reminding us exactly of why we were on this journey.
Miraculously as we headed to our starting point the clouds cleared and the sun came shining out. In my excitement, I whipped out our new trusty Bose speaker which clipped neatly onto our rucksack and slapped the tunes on. I think Nick was totally overwhelmed by the 200 beats per minute being more used to a good Tom Jones session, but Tom LOVED them and the music carried us through what was another long, steep climb needing impetus to get going and keep going. As a result, we stormed up the slope shaving a half hour off our estimated time to reach the top. The sun came fully out and the view was utterly magnificent and the beat continuous. We did kick turn after kick turn and at the end our nose practically on our tips going up some precipitous ice sheet. Utterly triumphant we made it with our faces wreathed in smiles.
What didn’t go so well was the first morning for the photographer who was poised up the slope to take photos of us, unfortunately for him his snowboard had slid away from him down the slope to god knows where so he found himself without any way of getting down, part stranded waiting for the other team to come up after us.
After a fairly brief lunch, taping, sock changing exercise (which we have now nailed after the carb coma of the first day so we now stick to just chips or soup and salad) we skied all the way down to climb back up the same slope (tunes still blasting out) to about a quarter of the way back up till we had another couple of hundred metres on our tally.
Out of nowhere the snow came in again, we were freezing and like out of a film we found some dinky Swiss hut which looked homemade and beautiful where we transitioned back to skis and skied down for the final time. Lifts back and up to the top to ski down to La Chaux again and skin back up. At this point we took a shot block, genius small high energy wine gum type thing that really does the job for the final push.
We trundled along but pretty tired, my legs were empty at this point and I took great pleasure in thinking that as this was the end of day three that meant the last night at Cabane Mont Fort but more importantly it was the last time we would have to skin up this last path. This final path which you always assume is in the bag, has two big slopes in it and really knocks whatever cocky energy you may have in reserve till you are literally begging for the cabane to come into view, know the day is done and ski boots are about to come off.
The poor photographer missed us again and having borrowed another guide’s skis and boots he legged it on skins to the cabane literally sounding like he was about to go into cardiac arrest and asked us if we could recreate the high fiving we had spontaneously done at the top of the mountain. To make matters worse one of our lovely guides had already removed his boots, did I mention already what a moment this was, and point blank refused to put them back on so we had to recreate the image with him, crocs on and trousers rolled up with the explicit promise that the photo would only be taken from the waist up. I guess we had our own version of photo editing even during an endurance event like this.
We were Day 3 down. Nailed 2205m.
Exhausted, weary and very ready for rest we piled into the cabane for our evening routine of unpack bag, organise boot liners and skins to dry, quick shower, muscle massage, food and catch up with the other teams, blister care and lights out.
Friday, Day 4, final day!
Wow we had made it to day 4, wooohoooo this was an amazing feeling as we woke up and knew that we were packing up to say goodbye to the cabane for the last time. The over careful packing we had managed to come up the mountain was replaced with careless shoving into bag understanding that we would deal with the debris when we were back in Verbier. We all had sunflowers attached to our bag from one of the Sagarmatha team in memory of a boy they knew who had lost his life to a brain tumour. These sunflowers would keep us company, keep us strong and fuel us for the last day. With much excitement we departed waving goodbye to the hut with windows lit up like lanterns in a dark night sky.
We followed the same beginning as day three, skiing down to La Chaux and walking up to Fontaner. We then skied all the way down below Chez Dany and started the same climb that we did after lunch the first day but the difference being a) we had not carbo loaded, b) it was early so not so hot c) we had great tunes. However on the down side the path was icy so slippage was quite a problem to begin with. Also there were patches of the path that had no snow so some who owned their skis took them off, the rest of us basked in the knowledge that they were on rental skis and nothing skis (or skins) quite like a rental!
We stormed up the slope to Fontaner, some exposed sections, steep sections, some enroute blister taping and some incredible moments coming into sunshine taking in the enormity of the mountains around us. This climb finished with an industrially steep pitch which really was a matter of me walking alongside Kate and taking each step with her, step, push down, step push down, I couldn’t break the pattern for fear that I would totally stop and fall back. Finally we got to the top and I felt totally and utterly exhausted. The difficulty about day 4, which in some ways I felt was harder, is that you are near the finish but not quite there so the adrenaline is there but you still have to keep going for a long time, the muscles are done, the reserve stores are depleted, the tiredness has hit you and the finish line is close but not quite close enough.
At this point we also heard the awful news from team Blackline that Rupert had fallen and damaged his knee badly, so close and he had no option but to go down to Verbier and get medical help. I felt so sad and sorry for Rupert at this news and it certainly took a bit of the shine away from the final day.
We were permitted a mid-morning lunch or boost up in Les Ruinettes. Cally’s knee was hurting, Kate’s foot was very sore and my hip was really aching, clearly there was an accumulation of factors that were taking their toll on all of us. This required some serious medication and energy nutrition in the guise of (and I’m not joking) a hot chocolate, croissant, chocolate and pancakes. We were exhausted and I wondered if I could make the last 1000m climb that was required. This was on reflection a good place to be as we had accumulated more metres in the last few days so we didn’t need to drop quite so low for our final push but as we lay there legs up on the table and eating on our laps (manners anyone) it was going to take a Herculean effort to finish the job.
However, the time came that we had to get involved, put skis on and ski down to Carrefour for the last ascent to Attelas (965m precisely). It was warm now and blue skies and the tunes were blasting. Methodically we kept going and rather disturbingly we kept on being passed by other people ski touring (one woman with her dog) who raced passed us. I wanted to clarify that this was day 4 averaging 2300 per day for us and we weren’t some bunch of touristy slackers.
This last climb, we could look up (tilt the head right back) and see our end destination required more than ever determination to keep one step going after the other, do not stop, do not hesitate, grit teeth and ignore pain. As I was told before this event, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional, this was it in real time. Either the hot chocolate or was it the pancakes, starting working and taking shape into pure energy in us as our pace increased enough for our guide to suddenly realise we were in a position to reach the top first, who said this was a race? He turned to us and asked if we were competitive, we look at him in disbelief and said of COURSE WE WERE, we were here weren’t we? We could see both the other groups of men below us, and we picked up our pace really excited now that the finish line was in our grasp and we would be first to arrive.
At the top of the next hill we had to slow down as our tails were wagging so hard that it was hard to catch our breath however we had only 1 bend, 1 slope and 1 final turn up to the finish. Cally said she had to plug into her own music for the final bit but it wasn’t working. Kate had to be on my right so she could metaphorically plug into the music and Cally ditched her music and stayed right behind me. I followed our guide step after step keeping time with the rhythm of his skis, Kate did that on my right and Cally behind me literally right behind me. Suddenly there we are and we form a horizontal line to finish together and there we are at the top with a group of people taking photos and cheering us on and champagne being tossed in our direction.
I couldn’t quite believe we had done it and found myself bursting into tears while hugging Cally, Kate, the guides and Tobias non-stop. Not only had we finished but we finished strong, with smiles on international women’s day, and having raised a ton of money, we had literally climbed to the top of the world in Verbier and I felt like we were dancing on clouds.
Just as an example to our children of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it no matter what sex you are was an incredibly powerful feeling and it was as close to euphoric that I have felt probably since giving birth,
- After all the celebration, back slapping, hugging, crying and congratulations it is useful to reflect on the experience of EIA. I can safely say it was one of the best weeks of my life for a few reasons;
- The camaraderie and the laughter, it was non stop and made all the difference to the event, it pulled us up when feeling low and kept us going hour after hour after hour. It is difficult to replicate this in any other sitting unless (in my opinion) undergoing some extreme situation that requires a lot of mental and physical stamina and acts as an instant bond amongst the group.
- The group support, not only in our fantastic Team Artemis and our guides where we really looked after one another but in the wider group. There was shared pain, stories, concern and huge huge huge amounts of encouragement from everybody throughout the four days. This event and effort also let everything hang out, we were walking around in underwear and ski socks not caring but laughing about pain, blisters and the exhaustion, it was a fantastic equaliser.
- It is hard, it takes huge effort and it’s the long game. Not only does this include the actual skinning during the day but it’s the morning prep, the afternoon unpack and re pack and the endless thinking about the event, how you are feeling, how are you feet and the energy levels. It is an all consuming experience for the week.
- The messages of family and friends back home, everyone was rooting for us and that kept us going, the knowledge that school was tracking us, friends were tracking us and everyone was willing for us to do it.
The message an event like this gives to your children; if you believe in yourself and you are 100% committed you can absolutely do it. We completely pushed ourselves beyond our limits and it more than paid off both physically and mentally. We were able to show our children the importance of getting a bang for your buck when you push. Our pain more than makes up for the charities gain.
- The friendships, all the build up, the bonds made during the event and the memories you will always share are stronger than anything you can recreate in normal day to day life.
So after weeks and weeks of training, enduring adverse weather, overcoming exhaustion snack analysis, kit assessment, fundraising emails, fundraising thank you letters, worry, tears, smiles, patience from friends and family, support from friends and family, the endorphins carry you through and you prove that you can do something so outside your comfort zone, not only did you do it but you made great friends in the process, got fitter, and most importantly fundraised for exceptional causes and set an example to your children. Would I do it again and put myself through all that effort, hard work and time spent preparing? We all need to face up to our own Everest in our lives so of course the answer is, you bet I would, but only with the team.
Lorna Robertson Timmis