Peak to Peak 2014 – Ben Nevis to Mt Blanc – Trip report with images
Ben Nevis to Mt Blanc – by human power
From the summit of the highest point in the UK, to the summit of the highest point in France. That was the plan that Alan Silva and I had and we attempted this mission in a similar style as the previous years highly successful Peak to Peak 2013 trip from the summit of the North Island of New Zealand to the summit of the South Island. With as little support as practically possible. on a shoe string budget (less than S$2000 each) and fitting into our annual leave.
This is a consolidated report of the entire expedition, complete with photos and a summary of the top highlights, lowlights, and the lessons learnt from the journey. I have tried to keep it shorter rather than longer for readability and have included lots of photo’s!
We always knew that the realistic chances of completing this journey would be very slim. I get 20 days annual leave per year and I used 18 of these days for this trip. Combined with the three weekends, meant I had 24 days in total. This included flying time from Singapore to Europe (and return) to complete the 2000km journey. This constraint on time meant that not only would we have to keep moving every day, but also we had almost no time to wait out bad weather. Something that any outdoors person knows is not the ideal situation to be in when you are attempting to climb large icy things or paddle wide, swift watery things. Cycling in the rain though was not too much of a problem – it’s just miserable, cold, mind numbing and at times a little dangerous.
We left Aberdeen on a cloudy overcast day, and were privileged to be driven the 5 hour car journey to Fort William by the legendary Bill ‘the Bonnie Scotsman but still part of England’ Stuart. I had been monitoring the weather forecasts and it was very apparent that our original ‘window’ for climbing Ben Nevis over the Saturday and Sunday 16/17 August was not looking good. High winds and lots of rain, were being swept through in a series of low pressure weather systems (I later found out this is considered normal weather for Scotland). So we made an executive decision to rip up to the summit that very Friday afternoon, rather than risk the chance of being stuck for two days waiting out bad weather over the weekend and getting behind schedule right from the word go.
After we ‘touched down’ in Fort William (i.e. Bill let us out of his car) we pulled on our walking shoes, bought a cheap paper map and headed off up the tourist trail with hundreds of other daring adventurers. Dogs, cats, small children, large children, fit people, unfit people, people in sensible clothing and people in ridiculous clothing more suited to a hot yoga class than a stroll up a mountain where the weather can turn quickly enough that it catches people out and kills almost every year.
Alan had I did not want to follow the tourist route however – we had our eyes and our plans set on the Tower Ridge which ascends the North Face of Ben Nevis. This is a full-on rock climbing route and we had bought harnesses, rope and the necessary climbing kit – however owing to our late start in the afternoon we decided that we probably did not have enough time to complete the route before darkness and opted for a variation known as the CMD arete. (Thanks to a friendly and helpful chap named Rob who suggested this). This route follows a large curving ridge around the North side of Ben Nevis – far away from the crowds. It is considered a scramble, rather than a rock climb, and turned out to be a really enjoyable walk, however we both looked up with considerable disappointment at the beautiful Tower Ridge as we passed underneath it. I tucked it away firmly into my ‘things to do in the future’ list (don’t forget Rob and hopefully you will join!).
Video from the summit of Ben Nevis:
After an enjoyable few hours we reached the top of the Ben at 5:00PM’ish. It was cloudy and cold on the summit, we took photo’s and video and I began to shiver after just a few minutes. There was very little to see due to the cloud so we soon set-off down, this time we followed the tourist trail. Two hour later we were back down in the carpark and met Bill wandering up the path to us. We spent an enjoyable night as the rain came in, celebrating with a cheeky beer or two and a relaxing dinner at the pub.
The next morning was wet. That rain the forecasters were talking about came rolling in. We were spoiled rotten by Bill once again. He cooked, cleaned and looking after us in royal fashion. Several cups of tea and a plate of delicious bacon and eggs later, we forced ourselves out into the rain and loaded up our bikes for the ride south. Here me made another executive decision. We had initially decided to carry all our climbing gear for the Mt Blanc climb on our cycles. Crampons, plastic mountaineering boots, snow stakes, ice screws, ropes etc. Bill kindly offered (and we readily accepted) to put this gear into a box for us and post it to Rye Harbour on the South Coast of England where we could pick it up as we paddled over the channel.
Off we set in the rain. I got 15 metres only before realising my front wheel was back to front and we had to stop and refit it. Back on the bikes we followed the shore of Loch Eil southwest for two hours until we reached the Glencoe valley. I was excited to ride through this amazing valley – having walked through it many years previously on the West Highland Way. However the rain and cloud obliterated much of the view. Some other factors also made it very interesting. It was a longgggg uphill for around 20km, the holiday traffic was intense, the rain was bucketing it down and there was no road shoulder to cycle along the single carriageway road. Concentration was required for hour after hour as we slowly ground our way up and over the Scottish Highlands, peddling along with traffic passing us continually in waves of vehicles. It was with considerable relief when we reached the top and started to cruise down the other side. The rain, cold and traffic was a shock to the system for the first days cycling, and we managed a meagre yet hard won 75 km before stopping, completely wet through at the small village of Tyndrum. I was carrying a tent, however in the pouring rain, it never is a nice option to have to consider so we dived into the pub and took one of their rooms for the evening. This set the standard for the entire trip and we never used my tent once, opting to sleep in cheap hotels or B & B’s at the end of the day. Especially when wet, it’s very nice to have somewhere to dry your gear at the end of the day and warm-up after you have been out in the elements for hours on end. And, even when it was not wet I used the possibility of rain as a convenient excuse to skip the camping option.
Over the next two days we rode down past Loch Lomond and right into the heart of Glasgow. Glasgow surprised me with its beautiful city centre and pedestrian mall full of colorful sights and sounds. I had expected a more industrial town, but it was exciting and energetic. We stayed in the Youth Hostel here and enjoyed an Indian meal followed by a slow wander back with Alan intrigued by every drain pipe, balcony and construction method he came across. He was in engineers heaven and I thought we would never make it back to our beds.
A short video from Loch Lomond below:
The next day we made it to Moffat – a beautiful little village close to the border of England. Here I got my back sprocket fixed as my gears were slipping and jumping all over the place. Alan was still hit with the flu so was feeling wiped out by this stage. The next day we had a lunch break in Gretna Green (famous as a place for English to elope to marry in) before crossing the border and entering England. We stopped in Carlisle that evening at the home of Sally and Tim Sarginson. They were perfect hosts showing us around Hadrian’s Wall (it’s not very big so I don’t know how it kept anyone out), the Carlise international airport(I think they were having us on) and we also visited the pub which was becoming a common theme on the trip.
The following day we had a tough ride but my FAVORITE day of the entire trip – we cycled through the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennine ranges which are known as the ‘backbone of England’. The riding was up and down numerous hills with our highest elevation reached a paltry 600m, however continuous rolling hills made my legs start to burn and I was feeling relieved when we finally reached the village of Leyburn. Alan struggled his way in – the flu really taking its toll on his energy levels – but as usual not a word of complaint.
Villages in England we noticed seemed to be built on top of hills, whilst in France they were at the bottom of valleys. I am not sure why, as both places have their strengths and weaknesses (e.g. water/defence), however if anyone knows do leave a comment here to explain! It was a beautiful days riding though. If anyone ever wants to ride through a nice part of the UK – go to Yorkshire! Nice quiet roads, quaint villages and picturesque farmland scenery. The Tour de France had recently been through this part also so all the way along yellow bicycles were tied onto trees and hay bales, and the road was in great condition to cycle on. We happily dived into the pub in Leyburn for the night and enjoyed a good nights rest.
A short video of Yorskhire
An overcast day welcomed us as we sped south the following day and we enjoyed lunch in Harrogate – a town popular with tourists for its natural ‘spa’ and also its proximity as a gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. That evening we made it to the industrial town of Doncaster. Doncaster reminds me of a terrible joke that David Brent made in the TV series ‘The Office’. ‘A nuclear bomb was dropped on XXX and there was 15 pounds of damage’. You may substitute ‘XXX’ for ‘Doncaster’. As I found a place to stay, Alan was chatted up on the street by the bride of a wedding party. He was then later chatted up in the bar by a barmaid who ‘just loved his Australian accent’. He therefore probably has fonder memories of the place than I do. It reminded me of being in a third world state.
With relief we left the next day and had a very productive day cycling over 120km to Boston almost on the east coast of the UK. Boston is a pleasant city and very welcome after the horrors of Doncaster. We had been very well behaved up until this stage of the trip – early nights and long day riding and I should have known something was about to happen. And happen it did as the next day we cycled further south to the horse racing capital of the UK, Newmarket. It was hot and sunny as we cycled into Newmarket, so we followed instincts and took shelter in the first pub we could find. Suitably refreshed with a cleansing ale – it started to rain and I was soon freezing cold. With burning legs we made our way a few km more to the beautiful home of Mr Tony who kindly put us up for the night and we were invited to his daughter Kate’s – husbands surprise birthday. It was definitely a surprise for him seeing us turn up. Lets just say we had a great night and I almost had to cycle south alone the next day as Alan was falling for the local Newmarket ladies.
Feeling decidedly sorry for ourselves the next morning – it was a slow day. But just when we needed some inspiration, it arrived in the form of a red haired, good natured, 100 kg, one-man, english entertainment system. AKA Ian Slack. Ian and his son Ben accompanied us all day on their bicycles, guiding us, feeding us, telling us stories, helping little old ladies across the road and passing me sweets as I grovelled my poor hungover, broken down carcass up hill after hill until we reached another town the UK will never be famous for: Brentwood. “Why the hell do you want to stay in Brentwood?” asked Barclay Morison, ex-rugby mate who came out with his bike to join us that evening. “Because I am tired, hungover and feel like a pathetic wimp who just wants to go to sleep” was the reason, however I fabricated another story about wanting to experience more off-the-beaten-track areas along our journey. The next morning it was raining – hard and as I ate my breakfast and looked up into the heavens above I noticed that it not only rains water from the skies in Brentwood but also used condoms. We informed the waiter and he dutifully sent someone up onto the roof to retrieve the offending item from the skylight where it was happily resting.
As I geared up to ride into and through the east part of London in the cold and the rain, Barclay took one look at my thermal layers, rain shell jacket and fluorescent vest before breaking into a long story about how soft I was. I think it was an attempt at payback for me telling the true story the previous evening of how he was once stretchered off the rugby pitch and whisked away by ambulance to hospital, only to miraculously recover 2 hours later and join us in the pub that evening. However his ribbing made me start to think I was maybe being a bit soft. Until we had cycled about 15 minutes when Barclays teeth started chattering and he started mumbling something about that was enough for the day and it was time for him to go home to catch up on some important admin jobs. Unfortunately the poor guy could not, as first Alan got a puncture then my entire back wheel blew out – ripping my tyre to shreds. In the pouring rain, Alan ‘McGyver’ Silva sewed my tyre together with needle and thread, good enough for me to ride to a bike store where I could buy a new tyre.
Barclay accompanied us to the Woolwhich pedestrian underpath, which allowed us to pass under the Thames river before we finally allowed him to leave us. As with Ian Slack, he was great value to ride with for the day and it was awesome to see familiar faces on the opposite side of the world when you are out and about. I did feel a slight pang of envy knowing he would be home in one hour in the warmth and drying off, whilst we still had over 100km of up and down, through Kent, in the pouring rain that day to get to Rye Harbour.
The next few hours sucked. It rained, and it rained and it rained. My chain started playing up, it turned out to be the plastic chain guard which thankfully Alan fixed by cutting off and throwing away. The steep short rolling hills were non-stop. We followed tiny backcountry lanes which I had to use my GPS to route find – but in many places the reception was not good enough to use the GPS and we had to guess the way. At 7PM that evening in the dark and the wet we rolled into Rye Harbour, after a really crappy day in the saddles, but happy to have finished the UK cycling leg.
Or so we thought -as the next day we realised we were starting our paddle from Dungeness beach – still 25km away. It rained again as we cycled out to Dungeness, and returned to Rye Harbour – our rest day in Rye Harbour turned into a 55km ride in the pouring rain, wet-through once again. Dungeness beach is a wind-swept barren place, with two huge nuclear power stations standing stoically as great square fortresses, visible from miles.
The shot 50 second video below gives an idea of the area.
Now using support boats or vehicles was not something that Alan and I wanted to do for this trip, however kayaking the English Channel is something that is actually very difficult. Not due to mother nature, but more due to the restrictions imposed by the French Coastguard who do not allow ‘unorthodox crossings’ of the English channel, by non-powered vessels like kayaks. Swimming is ok though. Yep, thats right. As crazy as it sounds. I had approached many organisations for permissions to cross the channel starting with the French Coastguard who said ‘NO’. And one-by-one the rest of them said ‘sorry the French control it so we cant help either’. So we reluctantly settled for second best. Using a support boat, and paddling most of the way across, but exiting the kayaks and getting into the support boat to motor across the 5 – 6 nautical miles of the French Shipping Lanes. In my view. if we had to take non-human powered transport for 2 metres of our journey it spoiled the spirit of the trip, so 5 – 6 nautical miles was just sickening and it still makes me froth at the mouth as I write this.
We departed in the kayaks along with our friendly support boat from FULL THROTTLE at 11:30AM to time the tides so that there was enough water in the Rye Harbour for the support boat to get out. The tidal range is over 6m in this area and the currents subsequently very strong. The English Channel is like a river, with the current flowing one direction with the tide, then turning in the opposite direction every 4 – 6 hours. The day was overcast with visibility of less than 2 -3 miles when we started and we soon last sight of the mother England after only 45 minutes paddling.
Having a support boat for this crossing took 99% of the adventure out of the paddle for me. There was no need to navigate as we simply followed the boat – about 100m in front of us. The knowledge that if we fell out or had a problem then safety was so close in the form of a RIB with over 200 HP waiting to gun us back to safety, completely ruined the fun. I resigned myself to sitting in the boat and padding for 60 minutes then stopping for a 5 min rest on the hour – with nothing of much interest to see at all, no land, very few ships and dirty muddy water without any sign of fish. We repeated this cycle for three and a half hours until we hit the middle of the channel. We made good time at 3.5 – 4 knots, then exited the kayak and motored over the French shipping lane. re-entered the kayaks about 7 nautical miles from Boulogne in France and paddled the last three hours into Boulogne harbour, fighting some current this time and pulling into the beach in the harbour after 6 hours of paddling. I was not in very good kayaking fitness and I was happy enough to stop paddling by now. I calculated we paddled around 20 nautical miles, and motored the rest. We saw a few large ships far out into the distance but the channel really is quite wide and we never got very close to any at all. The sea state was choppy and it felt more like being in a small pond than out at sea. No rolling swells coming through like we felt the previous year in the Cook Strait. Some parts we paddled over were only 3 – 4 m deep – whilst the average depth seemed to be 20 – 40m.
In terms of luck, I had to remind myself that we were indeed very lucky to get to paddle what we did of the channel at all. As the rest of the week, the days before and after our paddle, were not possible to cross due to the high winds. And we had turned up with no days to spare to wait and been able to set-off immediately. I guess padding most of the channel was better than not paddling any of it. However knowing what I know now, I would seriously consider next time quietly taking a kayak and paddling across with no support craft. Ignoring this ridiculous ruling by the fruitcakes sitting upstairs in the French coastguard. To add insult to injury – the day we paddled it, an Australian chap swam the entire channel. I hope any other kayakers reading this will ignore the French and set-off and ‘just do it’ (to borrow the words from NIKE) in a united show of protest against brainless rules.
Our first night in France involved a fantastic sleep for myself but Alan having elected to consume a sports drink full of caffeine and sugar before bed, hardly slept a wink. I woke to a wet miserable day. We boxed up our climbing gear and posted it off to Chamonix, before setting off on our bikes. In the UK, I had planned our route where we would stop every night. However in France, we went purely from day to day, working out the route and where we would sleep as we went along. Our daily routine normally had us waking at 6 – 7AM, having breakfast then setting off around 8 – 8:30AM. We would cycle till 11:30 – 12:00 then have lunch, then keep cycling until 4 – 5 PM when we would being to look for a place to stay. I used the website http://www.booking.com to book a few places which worked very well, and sometime we just found somewhere when we turned up. After we arrived we would wash our clothes and attempt to dry them, then wander down and find some cheap dinner and a cheeky beer before normally hitting the sack very early – around 9PM’ish.
For 8 days we cycled south-east through France, taking the shortest possible route we could. In France you are not allowed to cycle on the main motorways, and any road with maximum speed limits of 110km , so we tried to stick to the ‘D” and the ‘N’ roads as much as possible. We generally found the French drivers to be considerate – giving us a wide clearance as they passed. However like any country they have their bicycle haters and we got our share of angry horns as well. Unfortunately we were interested in making miles on the way south so were not taking the scenic or tourist route or stopping to take in much of the historic or cultural sights. The highlight of the ride was chancing across a festival in the village of Provins. The accomodation was completely booked out and we were lucky enough to be given the garden of a friendly chap named Max to camp in for the evening. We enjoyed the festival and a few beers with Max and his family that night and it was really nice to get a glimpse into the local life.
Attached is two short video clips of cycling through the SOMME and the second of cycling to Dijon.
Whilst the riding was through quite pretty area’s, much of it was through farmland, and the novelty of ploughed fields and fields of hay soon wore off for me. I did enjoy the Seine region, and the last 3 days when we crossed the Alps, over the Col De La Faucille into Geneva, Switzerland, and onwards up into Chamonix valley were the nicest and most interesting cycling, if not hard work on the legs.
When we arrived in Mt Blanc – we had been non-stop for 18 days – it would have been great for a rest day – but one look at the weather and I knew we had to push on. Alan initially had planned a very long route up the Mer-de-Glace glacier then a traverse of the entire mountain. This was over 20km in horizontal distance with a massive height gain of over 4000m and then we had the descent. Hard work on tired legs. We looked into the possibility of a more direct route. Climbing up the Frendo Spur, a mixed rock and ice route which after my research sounded very long with most parties having a bivvy on the steep exposed ridge – something I was not all together confident on, with tired legs. We discussed some more and settled back on the long traverse route, so loaded up with 4 days food and gear and set-off the next morning, trudging up from the town, following a walking path for the first 2.5 hours all the way to the massive Mer-de-Glace Glacier.
It was immediately apparent when we saw how dry and broken the glacier was was, that further up that there would be considerable route finding to work our way through the mass of crevassed and broken ice. I felt tired today, getting used to walking again with a heavy pack after 18 days cycling, and Alan lead out the front. Soon we left the crowds of day trippers who take the train up to the glacier and we were on our own. It then decided to start raining, really bucketing it down. It felt like real New Zealand weather, cold and wet – the hardest environment to keep warm in. Our aim for the day was to get to the Rufuge Requin, an unmanned mountain hut (unmanned because the warden had left the hut two weeks earlier as access was getting too difficult). This proved to be a very challenging afternoon as we zigged and zagged around the increasingly larger and deeper slots in the ice, getting wet through and colder by the hour. It was dejavu in a sense – reminding us both of a nightmare trip we had in New Zealand up the Hooker Glacer two years earlier in similar conditions, one which we had to spend the night in an emergency snowcave, made from a crevasse. We could see the Refuge Requin high up on a rock buttress – but getting to it was the problem. The glacier was so cut up and then trying to get off the ice onto the rock, over a yawning bottomless gap. Once on the rock our challenge was greasy slabs with torrents of water running down, which we attempted to climb with our heavy packs, not daring to make a mistake as a fall here would see us down in the icy tombs far below.
Most of my gear had got wet so I dried as much as I could by wearing it and sleeping in it or on it through the night. The next day dawned bright and clear and we had a hard slog all the way up and through the Vallee Blanche to Refuge Cosmiques at 3700m. It was so hot we got baked. Carrying reasonable loads, roped together, with tired legs we plodded along hour after hour. First we had to work our way through the messy icefall, past a SAR team searching for the body of a Belgium snowboarder who had fallen into a crevasse and died two years earlier. His body had moved a few hundred metres in two years and they found him later that day. May his soul RIP and his family now have closure.
We arrived at 5PM, pretty tired to a full hut. Huts in the Alps are a completely different experience to NZ huts. In the Alps they are run like hostels, with bunk rooms and assigned beds, and a resturant facililty where you buy dinner and breakfast. The popular huts like Refuge Cosmiques are often fully booked and I had booked by phone three days earlier to secure a spot. That night we prepared our gear, had dinner in the packed dining room and I was fairly miserable. I felt claustrophobic, with so many people in a small space, was dehydrated and it was noisy and hot I yearned for space and quiet. That night was awful, we had breakfast planned for 3AM but hardly slept as people groaned, snored and farted their way through the night. We were both tired when we rose at 2:30AM, had a quick breakfast of coffee and bread and set-off in the dark for our hopefully final day of Peak to Peak. We had to complete a traverse of Mt Blanc’s three peaks, Mt Blanc du Tacul, Mt Maudit followed by the main summit of Mt Blanc at 4800m.
It was a tough morning, and took us over 8 hours to reach the summit. It got very windy and a number of teams turned back due to various reasons, mainly the weather/confidence or feeling sick. But we plodded on and reached the summit about 11:20AM just as the wind died down. It was a very powerful and emotional feeling to stand up there, knowing how far we had come and how hard we had worked to get there. It had taken us 23 days and 10 hours to make it all the way from the summit of Ben Nevis. It was great view and we could see far into the distance in every direction. We stayed for 10 minutes before heading down the opposite side and following the standard route down. I was very surprised to find how exposed the ridge is on the Goutier side and took careful steps as we followed the ridgeline down the rest of the afternoon.
We reached the Goutier hut around 5PM, and our original plan was to make it all the way down and back to Chamonix that night. Alan’s knee said ‘no way’ to this and we stopped here and managed to get one bunk to share for the night, which was needles to say not the best sleep we both had ever had. We made our way down the next morning all the way to the train station, where we took train, cable car and taxi back to Chamonix village. We were both tired and instead of going wild and hitting the town, had one beer and a burger and went to bed. The next day we took a shuttle bus down to Geneva airport, packed our bikes into cardboard boxes and flew via London back to Singapore and Sydney where I and Alan live respectively.
It had been a great experience, Alan was a reliable, super solid and good company as ever and we had seen a new and different part of the world. However I still ached at the disappointment of those 5 – 6 miles of the English Channel, no matter what I told myself about how well we had done.
Top highlights from Peak to Peak 2014 (in no particular order)
1. French mountain guides – I heard so much about how rude and grumpy they are. All the ones we met – in the huts mainly, were super friendly and we talked for hours, I really enjoyed their company.
2. Staying with local people – at Carlisle, Newmarket and Provins in France. These always seem to be the richest experiences when travelling
3. Completing the journey without any injuries or deaths – the cycling was a little bit hairy at times, we were happy to come back unscathed.
4. Completing the journey on a very reasonable budget – I was aiming at S$2000 all-up, and eventually probably spent about S$2,500 (my airfares were not part of this as I was in Scotland on a working trip). Over half this cost was for the support vessel, so if we did away with this (as maybe we should have) then we would be well under the 2K mark.
1. Having to exit the kayaks to cross 5 – 6 miles of the French shipping channel – this defeating our 100% by human power attempt
2. Not being able to climb the infamous TOWER RIDGE on Ben Nevis
3. Breakfasts in Switzerland – a greasy please of flaky pastry called a croissant, and a coffee. When I asked for one more croissant – they looked at me like I had requested for a sexual favor with a goat and said no. Breakfasts in France are slightly better than Switzerland – you get the same but also a small piece of French loaf if you ask nicely. The french loaf is delicious. Sometimes in France they would give you two pieces. Still not enough for two hungry cyclists. They both need to work on their breakfasts.
4. Where are all the cyclists in France? We hardly saw any. I thought everyone was cycling around with a beret and a french loaf poking out of their cycle baskets but this is a myth, at least in the parts we rode through.
Top 3 lessons learnt or reinforced by our trip:
1. If you wake up every day, get out of bed at a reasonable hour, stay focussed and keep pushing on towards your goal, you will be amazed what progress you can make
2. When travelling together in a small team – with no one else around to rely on or to break up the social dynamic, the first rule is to always, always focus on being positive to one another. Travelling with just one other person can be tough work for long periods but I am pleased to say we came through the experience positively.
3. You don’t need lots of money, lots of leave or lots of special equipment to go on an amazing and unique adventure – just motivation and creativity!
Thanks for reading my ranting and raving my friends. May your lives also be filled with challenging, exciting and fulfilling adventure.
VIDEO of the trip coming SOON!
You can see an interactive map of our route from our GPS SPOT tracker by clicking the image below: