Friday, 8 July 2011

Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before

Since May, it’s finally been getting back to business as usual at fivemarathons. The looming Liverpool Marathon in less than three months’ time is no doubt focusing my mind. Last month, I helped with training plans for Mel, Ron and Libby, and was back training in Central Park - just in time for the launch of this year’s New York City Marathon. This month, I’ve been making friends all over again with the hills around Shap and venturing to Norway with Martin for our annual mountaineering jaunt. I’ll no doubt tell you all about it in a future blog.

Running in Central Park, April 2011: “I’m walking here, I’m walking...”

This time last year, we were getting ready for a summit attempt on Mont Blanc (4,810 metres) and various other high Alpine peaks. With mountains in mind, regular blog readers may remember my all too brief career as a Roman Catholic priest (see “The Devil Wears Puma” -, when I officiated at Laith’s wedding in Great Langdale. The chapel at which I performed the ceremony is part of the Achille Ratti Climbing Club (see The club is named after Father Achille Ratti, a parish priest from Northern Italy who was also an accomplished mountaineer. Despite discovering (with Giovenni Bonin and Luigi Grasselli) Mont Blanc’s north Italian route in 1890, and publishing the seminal “Climbs On Alpine Peaks” in 1923, Achille turned his back on a promising mountaineering career to become Pope Pius XI. If the Vatican looks kindly upon mountaineering accomplishment when selecting a new Pope, then perhaps my chances of promotion are not entirely hopeless. This was at the forefront of my thoughts as I set out in Pius’ footsteps towards Mont Blanc.

I travelled to Zermatt with Martin and James to prepare for our summit bid. We acclimatised and warmed up with ascents on Theodulhorn (3,469 metres), Roccia Nera (4,075 metres), Dom (4,545 metres), Castor (4,228 metres) and Pollux (4,092 metres). The twin peaks of Castor and Pollux, also known as die Zwillinge (literally, “the twins”), are named after the twins of Greek and Roman mythology, who were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The Jedward of the classical era, if you will. The principal difference being that Gemini has some genuine star quality.

Three Wise Monkeys? On our way to Castor and Pollux, July 2010.

Mont Blanc itself is a big undertaking. Fortunately, I was in a very good team. Both Martin and Jim are serious marathon runners, so fitness wasn’t one of our concerns. The conditions, on the other hand, can be much more unpredictable. However, as we left our hut at around 1am, things were looking good for a clear ascent. The mountain has some reasonably challenging moments, like walking across ladders laid flat across gaping crevasses. Easier said than done, on three hours’ fitful sleep, with only the light of your headtorch to guide you, and steel crampons on your boots making you walk like Charlie Chaplin.

Don’t Look Back. Mont Blanc, July 2010: one of the smaller crevasses we needed to cross.

About two thirds of the way through our ascent came an almost vertical ice climb. Fortunately, there are fixed ropes, already attached to the rock face, which you can clip onto as you make your way up, digging your ice axes, and the front points of your crampons, into the ice as you go. The route up is in a natural channel, so it creates a bottleneck as several groups of climbers converge at the same point. The amount of ice coming down the channel, and onto your head, displaced by the climbing teams above, makes you grateful you wore your helmet. You honestly can’t look upwards; you just keep looking at the ice face, as golf ball sized ice fragments rattle down on you from on high. I just thanked my lucky stars for the fixed rope and got on with the job in hand. As I reached two thirds of the way up, I got to the point where my fixed rope was anchored, and got ready to swap to the next one. To my horror, the rope I was hanging onto had been rubbing back and forth across the sharp edge of a protruding rock and only a few fibres were left holding me up. I felt like Wile E Coyote, gazing in despair at the rapidly deteriorating rope as the Roadrunner looks on with a grin, chuckling to himself as I disappear into the abyss with only a frayed ACME climbing rope for company. Worse still, Jim and Martin were climbing directly beneath me, probably using the same rope. Later, back at the hut, when I related the rope situation to Martin, he doubted whether, in my position, he’d have been able to even consider the cartoonesque humorous elements of the frayed rope situation. If fate is watching me, the least I can do is try to be entertaining.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place. Mont Blanc, July 2010: I’m the character on the right, clinging on with a heady cocktail of sheer terror and colourful language.

The remaining ascent to the summit was hard work but, fortunately, nowhere near as eventful. We were on the summit at a little after 5.45am, UK time, and it felt great. Unbelievably, my mobile phone was managing to get a full signal and I used the opportunity to make some suitably boastful calls to several non-plussed acquaintances. If France Telecom can get you a full signal on the top of western Europe’s highest mountain, why does O2 require me to stand on a chair on the top floor of my Liverpool flat to get even two bars?

The unpopularity of my mountain telephone calls wasn’t necessarily anything new. At the end of 2004, I was in Argentina for an attempt at Aconcagua. On Christmas Day, I trekked across three glaciers to reach a hotel which had been built two thirds of the way up the mountain. The whole hotel venture had not been at all well thought out. The idea had been to fly in the guests by helicopter, but they’d made no allowance for the fact that the guests would be arriving at high altitude with no opportunity to acclimatise. The first guests checked-in, closely followed by headaches, nausea and loss of bowel control. A bit like a package holiday to the Dominican Republic. The hotel was now largely deserted, with the building frequented only by mountaineers. It did, however, have a satellite telephone and that was the reason for my no-effort-spared trek across the glaciers. I got there and called my then girlfriend to wish her Happy Christmas. I had naively imagined that she might appreciate the effort, and the uncharacteristically romantic gesture. To my surprise, she wasted no time in telling me that, if I went away on an expedition again, she wouldn’t be there when I got home. I commented that it sounded like a win-win situation and assumed that the long pause was due to the satellite lag on the shaky South American connection. Losing a girlfriend can be hard. In my case, it was damn near impossible.

Finally, you may recall my incredulity during my recent visit to Seville, when Spanish supermarkets were giving away a choice of free carving knives every time you spend over €20 (see It seemed absolutely bizarre and you didn’t need to be clairvoyant to see what might happen next. Sure enough: Now I’ve seen Spain’s version of a customer loyalty scheme, I’ll be a whole lot less dismissive the next time Sainsbury’s ask me if I have a Nectar card. Come back Green Shield Stamps, all is forgiven.



Barcelona, 1 March 2009
3 hrs 57 mins (new PB)
London, 26 April 2009 4 hrs 01 mins
San Francisco, 26 July 2009 3 hrs 43 mins (new PB)
Berlin, 20 September 2009 3 hrs 46 mins
New York, 1 November 2009 3 hrs 53 mins


Vancouver Marathon, 2 May 2010
3 hrs 31 mins (new PB)


Coniston 14 (14 miles), 28 March 2009
1 hr 48
Humber Half Marathon, 15 June 2009 1 hr 40 (new PB)
Congleton Half Marathon, 11 October 2009 1 hr 33 (new PB)

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NYC Marathon, 2004

NYC Marathon, 2004
NYC Marathon, 2004