I suspect that everyone has significant birthdays. I felt
my 50th was a bit different as it preludes the onset of that awful period
called middle age. I have been wondering what it might be like for some
time expecting some magical transformation into a sofa bound, telly
watching, beer swilling grethy old man. Now I was on the threshold to
the delights of imminent decay I decided to celebrate doing something
a bit different. So to it
I nearly fell into the deep pool under me. It was totally dark,
wet and cold and I really wanted to get a photo. I was 1122 metres underground
and I still hadn't started my birthday treat Challenge. I'd been planning
this for months. Could I do it? Well time to find out.
Stood at the bottom of the Gouffre Berger with my companion Jules Carter
we had the minor task of climbing up 1122 metres of the cave, getting
on our bicycles cycling 160 kilometres and then strolling up a hill some
4808 metres high, Mont Blanc. It felt a long way to go. It was!
It was 11:10am. We'd started.
I felt fresh and not too cold in spite being wet from the spray of the
river. We wore lighter suits with single piece under suits for ease of
moving, not waterproof but a good compromise. We had very light bags with
food, a small amount of spare clothing, first aid and a survival bag.
This allowed us to move with ease through the passages and up the ropes.
In fact it was a joy to be so lightweight. It meant we could climb the
pitches without needing to stop to catch our breath. Familiarity with
the cave also allowed me to be relaxed and also know when to be cautious.
I had to remember to take photographs, not so obvious when you are under
pressure to keep a steady momentum. We met many of our friends from SWCC
coming down on their own bottoming trips. We all had ideal conditions
with low water levels. We stopped for quick chats and then kept heading
I felt I was bounding along which is normally a good sign at this early
stage but one to be cautious about. Keeping a steady pace is the key.
Soon we were revisiting the entrance series. Everything was fitting together
fine. This was the first time I'd "bounced" the Berger as I'd
always either rigged or de-rigged the lower cave on my previous visits.
Doing the cave without hauling a great tackle bag [or two] made it seem
quite a lot smaller and easy. We glided along the meanders without a hitch
and exited 5H 19 min after we'd left the sump to the great surprise of
the surface team. It was the fastest I'd ever done the Berger but we hadn't
raced, I'd even taken some time out to climb into the gallery de DED at
We'd been underground 9H19mins.
Now we ate and drank. We lingered longer than I really wanted, some 45
minutes, but it was probably the best thing to do as we would only be
stopping for short periods after this.
The normal way from the cave is back to La Moliere. But this wasn't a
normal trip. At the top of the first climb we picked up two "mountain
bikes". Jules referred to his as the chip shop special as creaking
off for a bag of chips was all it was up to. We took off down a 600 metre
decent to the village of Engins in a brake squealing hell descent. It
took over half an hour and my hands felt like rubber from the over application
of the brakes. It was probably the most technical part of the trip for
me. Jules, more of a mountain biker than me grinned and used his standard
statement "it's all a laugh really".
Now onto the road bikes and the great descent to Grenoble. I knew
the road and shot off leaving a rather nervous Jules behind as never ridden
his cyclo-cross bike with road tyres before.
All too soon we were in the Grenoble basin and a pleasant 30 C. As it
was evening we were soon out of the glare of the sun and as the evening
wore on the air cooled giving ideal cycling conditions, if not a bit tedious
from being flat and through interminable villages strung out up the Gresivaudan
Odd feelings of fatigue and the rather nagging knowledge that we were
not half way yet kept coming to mind. I drank gallons of water [literally]
to clear my system, requiring frequent pee stops. The cycle had to be
the easy section where could recover. So we stopped every 20km for 10
- 15 minutes and ate. We passed a series of bistros and restaurants and
tempting wafts of food filled our nostrils. This led to a near confrontation
with my wife, Gill, who was following us in the car as support. She had
a car full of food and nearly ran us over when we asked for pizza!
On the mind bending long straights on the route national leading to Albertville
it went dark. We had all sorts of lights on our bikes and I was wearing
my caving helmet as it was the best light I had. It was also on the same
batteries I'd done the Berger on!
With relief we hit the climb up to Megeve. I'd been dreading the hill
climbs on the bike section but they broke the monotony and the bends gave
shape after the tunnel effect of the valley riding. As we got higher it
got cooler and damper until I started to get cold accentuated by a deepening
tiredness. Jules briefly lay on a bench and began to drift off. Behind
him, silhouetted against the sky was a large white mass. Our objective,
which looked unreasonably steep and large rearing up above everything
The end of the cycle ended with a vicious scorpion's tail. The
most in line start of our ascent of Mont Blanc is from a village called
Bionnassy at 1400m. A short road led up the hill from just south of St
Gervais. The road was short because it was steep. Very steep. 1:4 type
steep and it rose for nearly 500 metres. Just when I could at least have
done with it I was at full effort standing on the pedals in the lowest
gear I had [and I had 30 to choose from!]. At 3:35am I arrived at the
top just before I did serious damage to my muscles after a half hour climb.
At our stop we did three things: eat, drink and sleep. I managed to get
my head down [if crashing out in the seat of a car is sleeping] for 1.5
H. Then more food and finally off at 06:30 am.
Jules started up strongly and I felt that my edge was a bit dulled. We'd
been going since 05:00 yesterday and we'd covered quite a bit of terrain.
Three weeks before I'd climbed Mont Blanc to recce the route and as training
and had made the summit in 7 hours from the same start. I now had the
muscular baggage of the Berger and a stiff cycle. Stage three was going
to be especially hard!
I had plans to ease this stage. At the Tete Rousse Refuge [3100m] a couple
of friends of mine, Jean Charles Desheys and Pascal Verdier, were waiting
for us with our boots, crampons and axes. Another advantage was the mountain
was less busy as the train wasn't running.. This gave us the last moral
boost before we got onto the real hill.
We soled up the messy climb to the Gouter hut. It was 11:00 and we were
just ahead of the sun and the rock fall that really gets going when the
sun gets at the ice. Jules and I slowly separated and it was me who was
drawing ahead. The fact I live at 1000m and I'd been training for he altitude
was starting to make a big difference. I waited for Jules and we had a
conference. Jules was happy for me to go ahead and drink and eat at the
Gouter and he'd catch up, and then decide.
Jules was over half an hour behind me and I was ready to go on. Jules
was feeling the altitude and needed a good rest before he tried to go
on. I knew if I stopped I'd loose my momentum and the lack of sleep would
kick in. We decided to split and I would go for the summit alone. It felt
a shame to break the team this close to the end but the altitude creates
a whole new set of rules.
I began the soul destroying ascent of the Dom de Gouter [3817m]
at 01:19pm. The guide book gives 5 hours from the Gouter to the summit,
but I couldn't afford to be that slow. I was in the full glare of the
sun but the warmth helped me. I was still in my running tights but had
enough in my sack to survive -20 C if necessary.
At the Vallot hut [4362m] I began to get the effects of the whole journey
full on. I pushed on up the Bosses ridge. It was a fantastically clear
day with only a light North wind. I thought I was alone on the mountain
now. I was slowing down. The continuous effort, lack of sleep and lower
level of oxygen was getting at me. Before I attacked the last 3/400m of
ascent I took the decision to dump some of my spare clothing and food.
I dug a hole and buried it in the snow amongst the traces of human excreta.
The mountain is climbed by too many who are too far beyond their limits
I spied a team ahead of me. Could I finish my ascent before they arrived
and left the top? Could I make it? I was now dropping to a painful 40
steps and panting. Last time I'd kept up a continuous pace and this slowness
made me feel like a decrepit old man. I seemed to be gaining ground very
slowly but I was surprised as I topped a small rise and found I'd caught
up the other team! They insisted I pass them as they thought I was racing
up. I felt like a snail over taking a slug. I had to keep my speed just
right to avoid over burn and exhaustion.
And finally I arrived. 29H 29 minutes from the bottom of the Berger
to the top of Mont Blanc. The elation lasted 3 seconds before the
wind bit through and forced me to hide in a hollow and get a few more
clothes on. The other team arrived and I got my summit shots. After 10
minutes I started down. This is when I had to really concentrate as the
trip was far from over. I had to get to at least the Vallot for safety
and I could feel my energy levels were low. My ability to eat was severely
reduced and drinking wasn't easy.
I passed through the Vallot and stopped for 45 mins to recover and finally
made the Gouter at 7:38pm looking like a zombie. Jules gave an excellent
welcome but the refuge staff wouldn't sell us any food at all as we hadn't
booked it [!!]. I could barely eat anyway. At least the hut had some space
and I had two whole wooden benches to lie out on. At 01:00am we were up
whilst the other climbers got up and ate for their ghastly alpine starts.
They couldn't eat, which was wonderful as we got all the left over's for
free. We crawled into their empty beds and I slept like a log until 08:00
After breakfast we popped down the ridge and gully in an hour to the
tete rousse hut where Gill had come up to meet us. Finally w could relax.
It was a long stroll down to the car and time to reflect on what was an
extraordinary journey of complete contrasts. Combining three such different
activities had worked. They had come together in closer harmony than I
The first, the cave, is a team effort. The environment is almost constant
with small variations in temperature and an aggressive 100% and chilly
humidity ready to suck the heat out or you when you stop. Progression
is varied and uses all the muscles in your body. The view is limited by
the curving walls of the cave and the reach of your light. It is very
isolating and at the extreme end of the cave you are acutely aware of
the remoteness of the place.
Cycling is much more a part of normality. You are rubbing shoulders with
people leading their daily lives. Your body is locked in a limited position
for hours on end and you become partly a machine.
Finally there is the mountain. The climate changes continually from the
heat and green of the valley to the white and sterility of the summits.
Yet it can feel claustrophobic with the streams of people on the popular
routes and the crowded huts. The dangers can be out of your control with
hanging seracs ready to collapse at their own whim. The environment can
change from one minute to the next. It has a similarity to caving in the
feeling of remoteness but you can see the villages below you which can
offer a false sense of security. The weather can change and cut you off
I had toyed with the idea of doing the whole trip in reverse yet a summit
is a clearer end than the gloomy sump at the bottom of a cave. Also the
thought of having to go UP out of the cave after such a long ordeal had
even less appeal. Against that was the combination of physical and mental
tiredness plus altitude that can so easily confuse the mind and be dangerous.
This is what I trained to be able to cope with and ultimately what I had
to deal with.
There is a question as to whether it could have been done quicker. To
my surprise I found we'd been at a standstill for over 7 hours of the
29 of the challenge. However those stops allowed continuous recovery and
meant we were able to keep up a steady pace. To go faster may require
much more extensive back up to allow someone else to take the mental strain.
It is not clear if this is less safe as you might allow yourself to overstretch
yourself given the false sense of security it might create.
The idea and Planning
The idea of doing a continuous un-motorised link from the bottom of the
Gouffre Berger to the top of Mont Blanc started slowly. A friend had wanted
to do the cave to the bottom for his 50th and then he added why not do
Mont Blanc? However I had already done them. This got me thinking.
In the past I have done the odd long distance challenge. At the age of
24 I'd run 42 summits in the Lake District in the UK in under 24 hours,
a challenge called the "Bob Graham". Then in 1988 aged 32 I
climbed all the Swiss 4000m peaks linking them all by foot over 112 days.
So it seemed logical to link the bottom of the Gouffre Berger to the top
of Mont Blanc. A look at the map showed it broke into three neat sections.
Each should take about 8 hours. Section 1 - from the bottom of the cave
at -1122m to the entrance. Section 2 a 160 km cycle Then section 3 a walk
up Mont Blanc.
Well that was the theory.
I contacted a friend, Jules Carter, who was coming out on the caving expedition
to the Berger with the SWCC that summer. I mentioned my idea and, being
a long distance runner as well, decided it was worth giving it a go. So
I now had a partner in madness.
For my training I set out to actually do equivalents of each section.
I began putting in a few serious cycle rides and found that I was unable
to do anything after an outing except have a bath. Then I slowly came
round to being able to walk afterward and finally felt no ill affects
after an outing. The caving side was already well known to me and I was
quite happy with the cave IF it was fairly dry. Finally I had to check
out the mountain and began a series of acclimatisation walks including
a 7 hour ascent of Mont Blanc from Bionnassy [3400m ascent].
It was all coming together and I began to believe it was possible. I
still couldn't gauge how I would be on the mountain after 16 hours effort
prior to starting. Earlier experience suggested I would have a low point
at 20 hours. I had to plan my timing to ensure I arrived on the mountain
to allow me to summit and get off before nightfall. I would already loose
one nights sleep so I wouldn't get up too early to set off down the cave.
So I set up a timetable as follows:-
Get up [out of bed] 05:00 am 04:50
Enter the cave 07:00 07:10
Start up from cave bottom 12:00 [To]* 11:10 [To]
Exit the cave 20:00 [To + 8 hours] 16:29 [To + 5:19 hours]
Rest, eat and bike to Engins 18:26 [To + 7:16 hours]
Cycle to Bionnassay, arrive 04:00 [To + 16 hours] 03:35 [To + 16H 25Min]
Rest, eat and restart 06:30 [To + 19H 20Min]
Arrive Summit Mont Blanc 12:00 [To + 24 hours] 16:39 [To + 29H29min]
* [=Tzero=To] This would be the actual start
These were basic times without stops. We'd need to eat 3 good meals and
probably sleep for an hour or two so the times would go to at least 30
hours overall. This would get us to the summit for 18:00 on day leaving
3 hours daylight to get back to the refuge de Goûter for the night.
It looked like it might work.
Paul Mackrill Feb 2008