Failing is part of trying shares the lessons from Paul’s first trip to the Alps and a mentor called Big Phil. We hope you enjoy it and find the points useful.
When, as 17 year olds, my friends and I ventured to the French Alps for the first time, it was a big deal. Everything was new. Our journey south on the British Mountaineering Council Alpine Coach, arriving in Chamonix and staring at the huge mountains that bore little resemblance to the UK peaks where we’d cut our teeth. Even the different language, currency and food. It was a big eye opener for boys from the flat lands of Cheshire.
We had heard you could just pitch your tents in the woods near the Montenvers Railway and we did just that. Six weeks in the forest with other climbers taught us a lot and we gradually learnt the tricks of two key Alpine trades. The first being how frugally you could live in one of the Alps most expensive resorts. Second, how you actually climbed these huge and, initially at least, scary mountains.
Some friends had already been out for several weeks by the time we rolled into town. They welcomed us into the squalor of the camp. These boys were hill fit and acclimatised. Most significantly, they had already gained the knowledge we desperately lacked.
Ascending Mont Blanc
An example of this being their opening gambit as soon as we arrived. They were heading up Mont Blanc in the morning and did we want to come? Of course we went and of course it was an epic struggle. We lacked fitness, skills and acclimatisation in equal measure. We survived and summited, but only just. The highest mountain in Western Europe really doesn’t make the ideal acclimatisation peak.
Meeting Big Phil
We must have staggered back into the woods exuding such an air of naivety that we were soon taken under the wing of an Alpine veteran known around the site as big Phil. He hailed from Kettering and certainly lived up to his name. Big Phil was as broad as a couple of normal sized climbers stacked together and stood at 6’3″ in his socks (anytime he was in the valley he seemed to prefer being barefoot). Big Phil had lived in Chamonix every summer for the past decade and knew his stuff.
Over campfire chats and local cragging sessions he taught us a wealth of information. Our lives in the valley began to run more smoothly along with info that definitely helped prolong our life expectancy in the mountains. He showed us, for example, which restaurants would throw eatable scraps into their bins after closing. He knew where to collect glass bottles that the supermarkets would give cash refunds on. He had contacts for getting occasional work as apartment cleaners. He even knew how to avoid payment on the valley buses.
For the mountains Big Phil suggested progressive objectives to hone our skills incrementally. He would turn up at the campfire with hand drawn topos and route beta. These works of art even included details on rappel stations, specific equipment requirements and bivvy spots.
He started us off on some long rocks climbs before pointing us towards some glaciated approach terrain and onto longer mixed routes. It was just like having a personal coach and, although at the least Big Phil made our lives so much more comfortable, it was really far more than that. I firmly believe he kept us alive in that first season.
Tragically, Big Phil died in a rockfall incident the following summer but I will never forget him. In many ways his kindness and generosity towards others have influenced the way I’ve tried to live my life since. I also admired the time and effort he was willing to put in to helping less experienced climbers progress safely. He was in no small part responsible for guiding my journey into instructing. Thanks Big Phil.
Fast and light
The concept of fast and light wasn’t something we understood too well in those early days. Our rucksacks bulged with stuff that wasn’t fit for purpose or was never going to be needed. On that first year I had, for example, decided rock shoes would be surplus to requirements. I had some of those bulky white plastic double boot Koflachs that were popular at the time. So, as they were my only mountain option, they were used on everything. From technical rock to mixed and ice. Those instruments of torture were my constant companions.
My sleeping bag was an ex army behometh which filled half my rucksack. After hauling it up a few climbs I realised it was best left behind. My friend Al had an ex army bivvy bag and we took to just taking a spare fleece and spooning in this. We shivered through many an Alpine bivvy, but at least our rucksacks were lighter.
We also saved weight by carrying less water, leaving a stove behind, bringing less food and only climbing on one half rope (not recommended!). Our rucksacks got lighter but our safety margins dropped. Certainly, as we were half starved and dehydrated, our performance did too.
Heat illness and jammed ropes
I remember staggering into camp after a long route on the Aiguille d Peigne. I started vomiting violently outside my tent before crawling inside to lie down. I had reddened skin, dots swirling before my eyes and a mind numbing headache. Looking back I see the signs of heat illness but at the time, as I lay there in pain, I really had no idea what the problem was.
We got ropes caught in cracks and dropped a bandolier of crucial gear a hundred metres up an off width crack, We ran out of headtorch batteries long before dawn and crossed glaciers without the skills to help one another. On occasion we abseiled on single pegs when we’d been enticed off route by the false promise of easier ground or a guide book reading error.
It was an era where climbers learnt by trial and error and our only trainer was Big Phil. If I had my time again I wouldn’t hesitate to get some expert tuition. I wonder how we survived some of the situations we stumbled into but we did. Each mistake became another learning point.
Failing is part of trying
We walked into camp one day after bailing on a route we’d both really wanted success on. Big Phil was waiting to greet us. We must have had such a look of despondency that he didn’t even need to ask how we had got on. Don’t worry about not bagging the route he told us. Failing is part of trying. The only true failing is not learning the lessons from it. He was a wise man taken too early and I have no doubt, had if worked out differently, that we’d still be friends till this day.
If failing is part of trying was of interest, please also have a look at my article Learning From Experience. This shares some other hard learnt lessons from the mountains.