Blood River

Tim Butcher describes his book Blood River as a journey to Africa’s broken heart. This book, together with an image that has been haunting me on facebook, make for an interesting discussion. At the time this book was written Tim Butcher was the chief war correspondent and African Bureau Chief for the Daily Telegraph. For a number of reasons he becomes obsessed with the goal of walking in the footsteps of the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, when he mapped the mighty Congo River in 1874. It took him a number of years, but Tim finally made it to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004 to start what many thought was a suicidal journey following Stanley’s route.

What does this have to do with the image that keeps being shared on facebook? Well the image shows an African child drinking from a puddle. It’s accompanied by text declaring the injustice of sending humans into space when we cannot solve our own problems here on earth. It’s not the image itself that haunts me, it is the message it’s attempting to convey. It implies that if we took all the money invested in space travel and ploughed it into Africa, their problems would be solved.

If we think about it though, Africa has a vast array of natural resources, diamonds, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum, cocoa beans, woods, tropical fruits – all these things are in high demand and earn Africa money. The trouble is not money, it’s that often the money only makes its way into the pockets of a relatively small number, not to the country in general, and not to the people who need it. Tim see’s this first hand in the Cobalt mining town of Lubumbashi where only a few locals are benefiting from mining jobs. The rest of the income quickly leaves the Congo via a network of bribes and back handers, each official taking their cut.

Tim also describes life before colonial rule when the majority of Africa was ruled by local village chiefs, and above them paramount chiefs. During that time the local people had a level of sovereign power as they were able to oust chiefs who were not serving them well. Consequently, the chiefs had to act in the interests of the people. When colonial rule spread across Africa this sovereign power was taken away. The tribal system of chiefs still existed, and continues to today, but ultimately they are overruled by the government.

Of course it is not just Africa that was subjected to colonial rule. If we consider my two most recent homes as an example. Singapore gained independence 51 years ago, Ghana 59 years, both from the British. Both countries were in a similar state of development and now, in 2016 they are about the two most opposite countries I can think of. Yes you could argue Singapore is a small island and much easier to control and develop, but consider Malaysia instead. Why have some countries advanced much further than those in Africa despite similar circumstances when they gained independence?

Tim asks an interesting question. At the end of colonial rule, when power was surrendered, did it end up in the right place? In Congo he feels it certainly didn’t, that power was taken, not by the people, but by elites claiming to work in the interest of the people. These are the leaders that walk past the children drinking from puddles or dying of malnutrition but still continue to rule in their own self-interest.

Tim’s account of his journey is a fascinating insight into a massive African country, still in political unrest and perhaps largely forgotten about. He meets some wonderful and also unsavoury characters along the way. He had done a huge amount of research before undertaking this journey and whilst in the Congo he asked people what really happened. He was trying to understand why, in 2004, the Congo had less infrastructure, resources, and security that it did 70 years previously.

Ironically the situation is summed up by a diamond trader that Tim meets – “If you think you can solve Africa’s problems with money then you are a bloody fool. You solve Africa’s problems by creating a system of justice that actually works and by making the leaders accountable for their actions. If that happens, I guess things would get a lot more competitive in my business, but it would be good for Africa.

There are reasons why that facebook image bothers me, and a lot of them are discussed in this wonderful book. You can’t help but feel that until the right people, their own elite, want to change Africa, there is only so much help outsiders can provide, just money isn’t the answer.


Mont Blanc

Often referred to as the classic route up Mont Blanc it’s quite exciting to jump on the Bellevue cablecar and then transfer to the Tramway du Mont Blanc. With the help of these two modes of transport you eventually pop out at 2372m. This tram is the highest rack railway in France and from its stop at Nid d’Aigle you can already see the Gouter hut perched on the cliff edge. It took us four and a half hours to climb the 1445m to the hut and we could see it the entire time. From the tram station it is steadily up all the way, first on relatively easy ground before gradually getting steeper.

Near the Tete Rousse hut it’s necessary to put on helmets and rope together to cross the Grand Couloir. We crossed the most risky section at a slow jog, roped together, such is the hazard from serious rockfall. Once passed the immediate danger we remained roped together with helmets on for the remaining 550m ascent to the hut. This section was really fun to scramble up, aside from the moment that a group above sent some pretty big stones rumbling down the mountainside. Thankfully their path didn’t cross any climbers although they came close enough to us to be a little worrying.

At the top of the scramble you arrive at the old Gouter hut. From here crampons are necessary to cross the last short section to the new Gouter hut, 3817m. For us the weather was clear and crisp, and setting eyes on the space age Gouter hut was a very welcome sight. The drop down to the valley either side is immense and breathtakingly beautiful.

After some lunch we headed up the ridge above the hut for some crevasse rescue training. Another comedy moment ensued as Gianni suggested I walk off the side whilst attached to the rope so he could demonstrate rescuing me. The slope was sheer and I would have fallen a couple thousand meters had I not been attached to a rope. This is the sort of thing every mountaineer should try, a lesson in trusting your equipment! This is also the point I learnt that my lightweight alpine harness is not that comfortably to hang around in for any length of time, ouch! Various techniques were practiced and repeated, but I must confess to finding the surrounding views somewhat distracting.
That evening I had very little sleep in the Gouter Hut. A combination of nerves, excitement and slightly irritating night lights meant that I maybe got 2 to 3 hours at best. By 2:30am we were sat having breakfast and just after 3 we hit the ridge for the long slog to the summit. Gianni had insisted on inspecting our bags the night before and we were told under no uncertain terms to leave everything behind in the hut that wasn’t essential. We would return to collect these items on the descent. Despite having a lightweight backpack I found the first 30 minutes after breakfast very difficult. Gianni seemed to take off at top speed and we passed quite a few groups. Each surge to pass a group seemed to take so much extra energy. My legs had turned to lead, my chest was tight and each uphill step was a struggle. Thoughts tend to stir at this point, as you trudge on suffering in the dark. Your mind will try to play tricks on you, giving you reasons not to continue. It’s fighting those thoughts and feelings and continuing to suffer that is usually the key to success. Also in the back of my mind the commitment factor reared its ugly head again . If I opted to turn back Tara would be forced to also and there was no way I was letting that happen. So, I plodded on, taking deep breaths and just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The gradient was pretty relentless and Gianni kept promising that we had reached the ‘last’ steep section. A common guiding trick, just lie about what is still to come!

Gianni had told us that it might take 4 or 5 hours to reach the summit, so when after just three hours he said we were nearly there I suddenly realised that I could make it. The first shafts of light broke the skyline and soon the struggle to climb was forgotten as we made our way slowly up the summit ridge. We were just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon, with a cloud inversion shimmering, almost like a liquid, in the valley below. We stayed on the summit for around 30 minutes, totally unheard of in normal, cold weather conditions. We were very lucky. We were on top of Europe, and for each of those 30 minutes the light changed and danced and lit up the whole of the Alps at our feet.

When we turned to descend the ridge I was taken aback. There was our route up, unknown to us in the dark, stretched out before us. No wonder it felt so tough, look how steep it is! Then there are those views, I couldn’t stop smiling. It took all my will power to concentrate on my crampon placement and not just stare at those views. Concentration was indeed required, its generally good etiquette to step aside for those going up so we had to pick our way down slowly and surely. Its funny how things look so different on the way down and in daylight. We came across a reasonable uphill section, I remember this feeling flat on the way up, not downhill! This was the Dome de Gouter peak and Gianni reasoned that we should add on a short section in order to climb two 4000m peaks in the same day. It was a very short detour so we couldn’t really argue with the logic, even on tired legs! Getting back to the Gouter hut was a very welcome rest. After an hour of recuperation, food and caffine we geared up once more to walk down to the Tete Rousse hut. This meant scrambling back down the loose rocky section, once again on the rope. Slow and steady on tired legs. We repeated our dash back across the Grand Couloir and finally reached the Tete Rousse, 3167m, and all that by lunchtime. We had been on our feet for 9 hours that day, climbed 992m and descended 1642m.
As we sat enjoying the afternoon sun at the Tete Rousse we could hear and see regular rockfall on the Grand Couloir. I can’t quite imagine doing this section in the dark if you had been late down from the mountain, or starting from the Tete Rousse hut in the early morning. All that was left was for us to toast our achievement and walk back to the tram the following morning. Mont Blanc the dream, had become a reality!

More photos here –


Grand Paradiso

Our Mont Blanc journey started with 3 days of acclimatisation and training on Grand Paradiso. After the drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy we climbed 850m from the road to the Federico Chabod hut, 2750m, reaching our destination by lunchtime. As we sat around acclimatising we practiced knots and some easy rock climbing, although maybe not so easy in big mountaineering boots! The knot lessons turned out to be hilarious as our Italian guide Gianni only knew the Italian names for the knots and us only the English. Each time he showed us a knot we had to work out if it was one we had seen before and try to remember the English name. After an incredibly hot night in the hut, we rose at 4am for a quick breakfast before heading off wearing our head torches. We made our way towards the glacier on the North West face of Grand Paradiso. First crossing moraine, before pausing at the base of the ice to gear up with harness, ice axe and crampons. 

This was the first time either of us had been on a glacier and as the sun rose it illuminated numerous crevasses. This is the point to be grateful that we were on a rope…….and attached to a guide! Peering down into the larger crevasses revealed nothing but darkness and a real sense of the potential danger. Even a small crevasse would hurt if one leg suddenly fell into it, although with no fresh snow this is probably less likely to happen. As we climbed the glacier I began to get more and more frustrated. The sun was rising, the views amazing, but we couldn’t stop to enjoy and instead had to continue moving. My head was swimming with the altitude, that familiar feeling of being light headed, and I began to get very, very hungry. I was also frustrated with Gianni who kept tugging on the rope as if to say, hurry up!! Only later did he tell me he was keeping the rope tight in case we fell, not as a means of rushing us on. I knew we were making good time, we had passed a couple of other parties but not been passed by others and this did nothing but add to my frustrations. Thankfully I have been on enough guided trips to know that ultimately you just need to trust the guide. I knew it was important to move steadily on the glacier, reducing the risk, and I suspected he had an ulterior motive for getting us up there as quickly as possible.

alps-36I was eventually promised a break at the saddle where I promptly shoved a Trek bar down me whilst listening to Gianni repeatedly saying ‘Strong Sarah’. I think it was a given that Tara was strong (she was to have her frustrated moment later) and his approach was that if he said ‘Strong Sarah’ enough times I might begin to believe him. With food in my stomach and my breath caught, his enthusiasm worn me back down to my usual smiling self. In the back of my mind I was already making mental notes to pack my snacks in more accessible locations for Mont Blanc!

At this point I seemed to get a second wind and off we plodded to the summit ridge. We removed our crampons and rucksacks for the last airy scramble to the Madonna statue, 4061m. After taking some photographs and enjoying the views we scrambled back to retrieve our bags. Just in time it would seem as the steady stream of people now trying to pass each other on that thin ridge line was getting a bit crazy, hence Gianni’s rush up the glacier earlier.

I am generally happy going downhill, my muscles cope better and the altitude very quickly eases as you descend. Tara however, hadn’t prepared herself for the monotony of going downhill on a rope in crampons, normally used to running down at breakneck speed instead. She became increasingly frustrated when she caught her crampon on her trouser leg and tripped herself up, sending her ice axe flying. As with going up on the rope, going down must be slow and steady. It is amazing how mentally draining it is to walk as a group and not at your own pace. Gianni was his usual cheerful self, repeatedly telling us to walk like a duck, which was not particularly Elegant! Apparently this is the best way to engage all the crampon points for good grip and the technique can be applied on both ice and exposed rock. My GPS watch was tracking us for 7 hours that day, probably at least 5 of those were spent on the rope, moving together as a group. When we eventually reached the glacier edge and were able to remove our crampons and harnesses we were very happy girls. As we picked our way down to the Vittorio Emanuele hut, 2735m, it started to sink in that we had our first 4000m Alpine peak under our belts! We had a short walk out the following morning before returning to Chamonix for some sport climbing. That evening we repacked our bags for Mont Blanc, trying to go as lightweight as possible and incorporate the lessons learned from those first three days.


Dreaming of Mont Blanc

I can still remember the first time I laid eyes on Mont Blanc. It was my birthday, October 2005. Whilst on holiday in Geneva we had decided to take the slightly complicated train route to Chamonix and up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to 3842m. This view point and restaurant shown below, high on the side of Mont Blanc, is a very popular tourist attraction.


Even then, before my mountain addiction had really manifested itself, the joy of being in the company of great rising peaks would bring a smile to my face. I remember watching a man in mountaineering kit slumped on a seat trying to catch his breath. I looked at his alien, technical equipment and wondered what he was feeling. It may seem strange that seeing someone struggling would be in some way inspiring, but I suppose I have always recognised that the greater the struggle, the greater the reward.

On that day in 2005 the seed of an idea was planted, although back then I knew nothing about mountaineering and didn’t really consider that one day I could stand on Mont Blanc’s domed summit. It was a few years later in 2009 that I joined a hill walking club for the first time. I started to enjoy the Scottish hills with the club and new friends before eventually, due to offshore shifts, going solo. I learned to navigate and keep myself safe and soon found that being alone in the hills was just as enjoyable as sharing the journey with others.

In 2012 I experienced high altitude for the first time when I summited Kilimanjaro, 5895m. Although I have walked above 4000m several times since, the African summit is still the highest I have ever been. I took up rock climbing, did some Scottish winter walking and slowly the dream to climb to the top of Europe developed. I even looked into going it alone but I was faced with two options. Either the expense of one to one guiding, or pairing up with a stranger. Although great friendships can be made in the mountains I had no interest in investing in months of training to put my faith in a stranger doing the same. Mont Blanc requirIMG-20160827-WA0011es commitment, either you both make it to the summit or you both turn back, as is the nature of roped guiding. Then a few years ago along came Tara, initially just a climbing partner and now one of my best friends. We have been through a lot together and it’s hard to believe I’ve only known her a few short years. Tara is incredibly strong and, luckily for me, she shared my Mont Blanc dream. A plan was developed, organisation started and skills and equipment tested in the Sierra Nevada in January.

Despite having been higher before, Mont Blanc made me nervous. It felt in my mind like a long term, elusive dream with so many elements of uncertainty. It was really my first technical, high altitude peak, the others had been purely walking. Commitment is required to walk on a rope, the decision to turn back would be not just affect me, but also Tara. I really didn’t want to let her, or myself down. Physical strength is necessary but mental awareness and concentration is also key, a roped party should move together, slow and steady.  The itinerary laid out by Mountain Tracks was excellent. The aim was to use the first three days to train and acclimatise by summiting Grand Paridiso in Italy. We would then return to the valley for a night to refresh before the three days allocated to attempt Mont Blanc. Those six days in the mountains were truly unforgettable, with a few lows and many highs along the way. That journey deserves its own post, so stay tuned!