September/October 2017: The start of my mountaineering adventures, something that I never imagined I would be into. For those of you reading this and not sure why, please read my previous blogs and watch the videos. You will understand how I have now come to be on this 'life path'. The first mountain. Gran Paradiso.
What a good name for a mountain. Gran Paradiso is the highest mountain situated in Italy at 4,061m and the 7th highest in the Graian Alps. Not bad for the first one.
The mini bus was parked at the bottom of the hiking path up to the mountain hut, Rifugio Chabod. During the hike up to the hut, there were times when I felt like I was actually in Paradise. I was in awe of the beauty surrounding me and was hard to not get caught up and just stop and stare. It was a perfect day. Brilliant blue skies and enough breeze kissing your skin and keeping the temperature manageable while hiking. I was able to take in as much as I could while concentrating on my footing and the ascent as this was my very first mountain and wasn't sure if I had prepared myself with enough training.
HIKE UP TO RIFUGIO CHABOD
It was about a 2.5 hour hike from carpark to the hut, 4.74km. I allowed myself an internal high 5 and pat on the back, just a small one, as I knew that the next day was going to be the proper test of physical and mental strength, the summit day. I did feel like I had just climbed up to heaven.
OUTSIDE RIFUGIO CHABOD
I was surrounded by a majestic mountain range and even through I had more to climb, I was on top of the world, mentally.
This is the route details from carpark up the the hut
We got to Rifugio Federico Chabod. A refuge located at the foot of the northwest face of Gran Paradiso at an elevation of 2750m. Everyone at the hut was so welcoming. I'm sure they get a lot of people staying, using the hut as the start of their summit day and acclimatization process but you were made to feel as important as anyone else and looked after.
Early to bed for us all as a 5:00am start was required for summit day. I got into my bunk bed like I had just finished walking. I was in my base layers, socks etc as I wanted to be as ready as I could be to reduce the time needed to get ready and limit the risk of panic and stress.
Of course, me, never needing much sleep, I was awake before everyone else, clock watching, slowly getting ready, packing things up and mentally, preparing my mind for the day ahead. I made my way outside with my rucksack, made sure I had my helmet, crampons, ice axe, harness, lunch and snacks and my hydration bladder was full.
The equipment worried me more than the actual hike. I had never used crampons before or an ice axe and they both looked terrifying, like some medieval torture instruments but I knew I couldn't be in better hands being with the team that I was with.
Rucksacks in place, head torches on and off we went. It was pitch black, head down so the torch was highlighting where you were placing your feet. Every now and then you would look up and see other hikers head torches ahead in the distance which gave you a visualization of how far away you were and to the right was what looked like a 'nothingness' off the mountain. Being the only female, surrounded by physically fit guys, gave me an amount of reassurance needed for me to just carry on.
We got to the start of the glacier. By then, the sun was up enough that you didn't have to wear head torches any more. There was a combination of such varied feelings and thoughts. Happy that it was light enough to see without the use of the torch, proud of what I had just walked, worried about wearing crampons, trying to use an ice axe without the use of my dominant now disabled right arm, walking over a glacier and the risk of cravasses and falling in one, seeing the extent of what more was needed to be hiked and worried if I was going to be able to do it and didn't want to effect anyone elses hike, what if I suffer at altitude, why am I doing this, its so beautiful here, I'm glad I'm here. I managed to switch off the irrational side of my brain and consentrate on the hike.
Crampons were on, harnesses were fitted and attached to the guide who was in front, Martin (founder of the Adaptive Grand Slam) and Terry (Military veteran/ mountaineer with the AGS) roped behind. Not having the rope slack and walking in single file was mentioned with importance because of the cravasses we were going to be walking very near to and someimes over.
I was doing it! the training had paid off. The mountain was beautiful, the hike was awesome. I was so proud of myself.
Then it became much more difficult. The elevation suddenly increased a lot more, the use of crampons became harder, you really had to stamp every step down because the ground was now solid ice, the use of the ice axe was needed on the arm that was on the mountain ascent side so when my right arm was needed, I could feel myself becoming internally angry, feeling that I was fit enough but I had to deal with an arm that was not much use. I had an internal battle going on of not wanting to be seen by the others as mentally week and having the burning desire to just complete it and reach the summit. That part of the mountain was reducing but then the ground changed again.
Rucksacks needed to come off and another, new challenge was ahead. This time, scrambling up a rockface. The final 60m of Gran Paradiso is rocky terrain and requires mountaineering skills. I was thinking 'how am I going to pull myself up a rock face with not alot of use from my right arm?'. I tried not to think about it too much, I just needed to get on with it. I'm lucky that if I place my right arm somewhere with my left arm helping, I can pull myself up. After the first few times of doing this I was experiencing so much enjoyment, that I was able to do this combined with the near completion and the summit not far.
I made it. I reached the summit! Then came a flood of emotions. A combination of tears of happiness, feeling proud of myself, elation that I had reached the summit even after my accident and injuries, the drive to do more mountains, the hope that I prove to everyone that anyone has the ability to overcome the most terrible things if you have the right mentality. Then the dread set in of getting down. Hiking back after you have reached your goal is a real test on your mental strength and continued endurance.
Getting down the rocky section was a lot easier than climbing up. Another challenge awaited me at the bottom of that section though. Jumping over a crevasse. Martin and Terry both did it before me so I was able to see how it was done. Also being a female doing it, there was even more of a want to prove to them that I'll do it without worry and plus I had to get down. I couldn't stay to there. This is the video taken by Martin of jumping over it.
Getting down seemed to go on forever. It felt so much harder than the ascent. I was in so, much, pain with my feet. Every time I stepped, my toenails felt like they were being pulled off. I was in tears. Gone was the want to prove anything to the guys, I just wanted the pain to go and the only way to do that was to get back to the hut and take my shoes off.
As well as being in pain, I needed a wee. Being a female, this was one of my biggest fears. It might be my first time needing to go to the loo on a mountain but it certainly won't be my last with people literally 10m from me on both sides. So harness and trousers down and another, different but still a challenge conqured.
The rest of the descent was a blur. Mainly from the pain I was experiencing and tears in my eyes but I was able to eventually see the hut. More tears had, this time from being so happy that I did it. I summited Gran Paradiso.
This is the route from the hut up to the summit and back
After getting back to the hut, taking my shoes boots off, using an actual toilet, having a shower, eating hot food really made you grateful for the simple things in life. The next day we headed back to the mini bus. I wore my trainers as I was still in so much pain with my toes but I was just extremely happy with the whole experience and myself.
Happy that I was able summit the highest mountain in Italy, 19 months after learning to walk again after being in a coma from falling off a mountain. Here's to many more adventures and staying on the mountain.
Toenail update: both my big toe nails eventually came off.
Next blog will be about hiking 2 mountains in Scotland January 2018 with City Mountaineering.