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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland


NEWS

TEAM FROM 2 ROYAL IRISH CONQUER MONT BLANC

26 September 2017

Historical Background
0715 hrs Aug 1996 at a height of 4,513m, just below the Bosses Ridge that winds on a steep snow covered knife-edge to the summit of the Mont Blanc Massif (4810m); weather has deteriorated to ‘whiteout’ conditions.  The team of experienced mountaineers from 9 R IRISH are now exhausted.  It looks like all the other groups have turned back in the search for shelter. High winds force freezing snow into the faces of the soldiers.  Due to sheer stubbornness and reluctance to be defeated the team had tried to force its way up the ridge from the Vallot Hut below, but progress was just impossible; the snow gathering on the steep ground is just impassable with the climbers now waist deep.  Every step is exhausting, understanding the Altitude Mountain Sickness being suffered by all.  Icicles Hang from Cpl Dee N’s moustache as an indication of how cold the air has become.  Communication among the group is barely audible even by shouting.  The team leaders assess the situation and with a heavy heart make the decision – ‘Abort the mission to summit Mont Blanc!’
The battalion flag is dragged out from the relative comfort of a rucksack into the howling alpine winds.  Everyone huddles around for the photograph to capture the moment for the history books. Totally deflated, equipment is adjusted and the 9 R IRISH team start their descent off the mountain.
Mont Blanc – We’ll be back!

EX SHAMROCK GLACIER 2017 - 2 R IRISH Mont Blanc Summit Expedition

August 2016 and 2 R IRISH conduct their first ever Alpine Mountaineering expedition to the French Alps, Chamonix - Ex SHAMROCK GLACIER.  It was during this exercise, which was an introduction to alpine mountaineering, where the growing thirst within the battalion for more extreme mountaineering was first realised.  Despite this, when the suggestion of a Mount Blanc summit attempt for 2017 was first muted amongst the battalion’s growing mountaineering community the challenge of raising a team capable of such an exploit in only 10 months was daunting.  Nevertheless, ideas became concepts, which became a plan; a team was selected and training started early in Jan 2017. By Feb 2017 the team were digging snow holes in the Cairngorms and by the end of May 2017 they were ready; fit, dedicated, motivated - unstoppable!

16 Jun 2017. The plane lands in Lyon airport and the summit team members find themselves making their way to the front of the airport. The heat is already nearly unbearable as they bus around to the hire car premises. CSgt Paddy P takes charge of the dent covered minibus and within a short period of time the team are on route to Chamonix.  The Road Party have already driven from Northern Ireland bringing all the heavy equipment and they have taken charge of the Villa Les Praz accommodation in Chamonix.  By early evening equipment is being prepared for the next morning’s first acclimatisation trek up onto La Flégere to Lac Blanc (2,352m).

The morning of 17 Jun 2017 is already warming up and it is only 0800 hrs when the team leave the villa and start to ascend up through the forest tracks that progress high up into the La Flégere region. Ranger Gordon leads the first leg to work on his map reading skills. By early afternoon the team are enjoying a cool overly priced Coca Cola at the Lac Blanc café before practising security on steep ground above the ice filled Lac Blanc water.  This is a testing enough trek for the first day; the importance of acclimatisation was well emphasised during training and the team are now living it. Late afternoon the team make their way back down to the Villa where they meet up with their French Mountain Guide Mr Guillame Thebaudin who discusses the next busy serial, which is a Three Day expedition into the Alps.  After confirmation of the packing list crampons are adjusted to the alpine mountain boots. With the prospect of an extremely demanding three days on the glacier at altitude the team have an early night.

First Light of 18 Jun 17 and Guillame our guide is walking up the long drive to the front of our villa. He is a slight individual in his late twenties who has spent his whole life in the mountains; a professional who appreciates the timeliness of the military as the group are poised and ready to go, as agreed the night before. They set off on foot and make great progress to the high ground at Montenvers that dominates the Mer de Glace glacier. With harnesses on the group descend the Via Ferrata (Italian or ‘iron road’) fixed ladders onto the glacier surface. After scrambling awkwardly across an expanse of rock debris the going becomes easier. The glacier, whilst being packed ice, provides great purchase underfoot due to the abrasive nature of its surface.  They will only don crampons when crossing snow, where there is a risk of a crevasse fall.  Afternoon’s activities include ice-climbing and abseiling down ice walls.  Some of the team have not conducted this type of climbing before and the session is a well-received adventure.  The young Rangers are fascinated by the purchase of the crampons and ice axes and gain great trust in their equipment by this.  Soon they are standing on their front points on vertical ices walls.  



By late afternoon the team have progressed up into the Glacier du Tacul where they ascend 500m of Via Ferrata to the Refuge du Requin (2516m).  Here they will enjoy a well-earned meal and rest before another alpine day as they progress further into the French Alps.

By mid-afternoon 19 Jun 17 the team progress far up through the Glacier du Tacul across crevasse fields on the high alpine plateaus and they are now enjoying the breath-taking views down into the Glacier du Geant from the rocky crag at the bottom of La Petite Flambeau.  All that lies between the team and the Italian Torino Hut is L’arete du Petit Flambeau that towers majestically above them.  This formidable scramble will prove to be the most exposed part of mountain terrain on the entire expedition.  Put simply, if the Rangers can climb this they can climb anything during the summit approach. Large unstable boulders, awkward steep rock with an ever present 1,000 foot drop to their left flank; this is no place to get things wrong!  The challenge finishes with a steep snow trail to high ground that overlooks the Torino Hut (3,375m).  The group make their way easily to the hut’s balconies to take in the views of the Italian Alps and the Aosta Valley. This is a busy, buzzing refuge that could be easily accessed by cable car from the Italian town of Courmayeur, far down below in the valley.  One feels frustrated by those individuals who are enjoying this place but who have not earned the right to be there, the prize that should be gained through sweat and tears whilst transiting mountainous terrain, as the team have just done. Altitude is having an effect. Not too uncomfortable yet but ever present now.

After a hearty bowl of pasta the team leader chats to Guillame.  It is during this conversation that Guillaume reluctantly raises concerns amongst the guides during the last few days regarding the ever growing danger associated with traversing the Grand Couloir, a gully that dissects the route to the Gouter Hut, which was to be crossed on the first day of the summit climb. Summer has started very early and the heat is having a destabilising effect. The extent and frequency of rock falls down the gully has been increasing in the last number of years and due to this more and more guides are refusing to cross it with clients, due to the number of fatalities and serious injuries suffered by those unfortunate enough to misjudge the dash across.  On his advice the team leader brings this to the attention of the remainder of the group, offering Guillame’s suggestion that they consider an alternative more minor objective for the expedition:

“………………………………..SILENCE ……………..(a piano stops playing; a glass drops) ………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Six months of blood, sweat and tears in preparation for this expedition.  Sleeping in snow holes. Hundreds of mountainous miles covered in the worst of weathers. Their eyes say it all!  There will be no Plan B for the 2 R IRISH Mont Blanc Summit Team regardless of the danger!

The sentiment is passed to Guillaume with the agreement that we would push to the Grand Couloir and make a decision when we are staring across it (and up it!).

The third day on the glacier sees the team progressing up the Vallée Blanche towards the Aiguille du Midi, the finish point and cable ride back to civilisation in Chamonix.  Words cannot begin to portray how absolutely incredible and breath-taking this place is. It is hard to believe that the highest battle of the Second World War was fought here across this very expanse of glacier on the morning of 17 Feb 1945 between the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) Alpine Troops and the German Gebirgsjager German Elite Mountain Troops as part of Hitler’s failed strategic endeavour to capture and summit Mont Blanc.

The final approach to the Midi is one of the most demanding parts of the day with everyone in the group now experiencing the effects of the altitude at 3,842 metres.  As their busy gondola trundles speedily back to civilisation they can feel their bodies repairing as the altitude drops back to what they are more accustomed to. The team are tired now after four days of relentless mountaineering and yet, without a break, the main challenge will soon be upon them, commencing the next morning.  Equipment has to be prepared, packed and checked. The team enjoy a shower, the finest of WO2 A’s hot food and a night’s sleep, not at altitude.

The Summit

Reveille comes too early on the morning of 21 Jun 2017.  Nevertheless, by 0730 hrs the team are standing outside the Les Houche Bellevue cable station ready to board the first cable to the train station that will carry them to the Nid d’Aigle (2,372m).  It is from here that they will start their ascent to the Gouter Hut (3,815m), where they will rest before commencing the early morning summit climb. The team need to get this early train in order to clear the Grand Couloir before the sun starts releasing its deadly cargo of fridge size boulders.  This is a serious timeline that if missed could jeopardise the whole expedition.  If the guides are not happy with conditions at the Grand Couloir they have made it clear to the group that they will not cross.

It is 21 years since the Group Leader last crossed this piece of ground during the 9 R IRISH expedition but despite there being much less snow in it than back in Aug 96 the intimidating aspect of the gully looks all too familiar as preparations are made for the traverse.  It is looking like they have made it on time.  “If she only sits dormant for 5 more minutes we are on for the summit ……. !!!!!!!!!!!!”,are the thoughts of the team members who are arranged in groups of three including the guides.  There is no cue to go, no whistle blast, no green light.  This is an individual’s decision; literally a life and death call and once on the move one is committed to a 75 metre sprint in crampons on unstable ground with one eye up, one eye on the track and as importantly ears to the ground, as the sound of falling rocks is the first indication that a fall has initiated. It is a great relief to see the last team member safely across but they are all mindful that they have another date with the Grand Couloir still to be enjoyed on the return leg.  The team enter straight into the next stage of the approach, which is a 2 hour scramble to the Gouter Hut. This is demanding but very enjoyable.  The group are only 20 minutes in to the scramble then shouts ring out from below!  The Grand Couloir has awakened and some less fortunate climbers are regretting that they had not crossed earlier as rocks stream down onto their position as they cross the gully.

Reaching the old Gouter Hut, which now lies dormant, the ascent for the day is complete.  It is mid-afternoon and all that is left is a very enjoyable 200m snow traverse across flat ground to the space like new Gouter station that is perched on a cliff edge overlooking the Chamonix Valley. This is a great photo opportunity and a time for reflection on what has been achieved so far.  



The remainder of the afternoon will be about consumption and sleep.  Altitude is taking its toll but the team are motivated and electrically charged for the big push to the summit.  Everyone settles down to rest in the most poorly designed sleeping quarters.  The Gouter Hut is full to capacity and, despite the good manners of all its occupants, silence is not achievable.  Nevertheless, it is clean and warm.

Proper sleep is barely possible. The team members clock-watch in their bed space from late evening until 0145 hrs 22 Jun 17.  Now the whole station is alive. Fuelled with adrenalin but feeling slightly nauseous from the altitude the team make their way down to breakfast and join the congestion.  The dining area is packed. Everything is a competition in this strange international community of mountaineers. Everyone wants to be first even to the cereal bowls.  The food is European and not at all tasty. Not a bacon roll or fried egg that would have been more appropriate as fuel for what lies ahead. Hard bread and ham is washed down with lukewarm coffee.

Down in the kit room, where the sharp stuff has been stored, sounds of scraping crampons on concrete floors, the jangle of karabiners on harnesses and the clanging of ice axes break the early morning silence. Frosty breaths are easily visible below head torches shining from climbing helmets.  Ropes are being coiled outside the station door as knots are tied onto harnesses. It is now 0240 hrs and the 2 R IRISH Summit Team is roped up, ready to go, 20 minutes early.  The long snake of headtorch lights can be easily seen rising up and around the Dome du Gouter as the group progresses up onto the high ground above the Gouter station.  The next 5 hours is all about settling down into a comfortable, progressive pace. The ground becomes very steep quickly as they arrive at the southern edge of the dome.  It is easy to lose the trail in the dark, which forces one onto untrodden ground making crampon purchase on steep ice difficult, almost painful.  It is a welcome relief to see the higher plateau.  The light from a sleeping Chamonix stands out in the darkness, as do the stars in the night’s sky.  The first embers of the inbound dawn are just visible on the horizon.  Altitude is really challenging now! The group can make out the outline of the Vallot Hut, the next marker on route to the summit.  Typically they will expect to be there by first light.  Arriving at the Hut, this was an opportunity to pause and take in the scenery.  The group cannot believe their luck with the weather – not a cloud in the sky as the morning arrives.  The sun reflects off the East facing slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif now, emphasising the knife edge of the Bosses Ridge with the western edge falling steeply away into shadow.  The team’s spirit is elevated by the light as the dream of summiting starts to realise with every step upwards. Travel up the ridgeline is progressive, not rushed.  Everyone finds their own pace as to attempt to go beyond this will leave an individual light headed and struggling to breathe. They are well above 4000 metres; the body is now being subjected to all the changes associated with High Altitude; this is where training and understanding kick in. Bosses Ridge proves to be a challenge as expected however, the last steps onto the summit are beyond description.  Suddenly there is no more up and the team, complete, are at the top. The team leader looks at his watch - 0704 hrs. The culmination of all those sacrifices over the last 6 months of training as the team bonded, the hard yards put in on training days; the volume of planning to launch the expedition. All these things! The triumphalism at the summit is an open display of the collective joy and relief felt by all.  With great pride the team don caubeens and the Second Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment flag is presented to the fresh morning alpine air at the top of Europe! This is their day and the photos taken will suspend the occasion for all eternity, to be viewed by future generations!

Job done!  The team must now descend safely and extract off the mountain. CSgt Al B calls out in good humoured military parlance “Right lads, two minutes, kit on, let’s go!” as Caubeens are placed safely back into ruck sacks. Equipment is checked and the descent begins. There is no room for complacency, being tired at the top of Europe.  The steep ground covered on the ascent will present different challenges on the descent with gravity ever present to take advantage of a trip or misplaced boot. This is also an opportunity to take in the scenery with the sun rising into the morning sky. The Vallée Blanche and surrounding Alps are as clear as a post card below, ground that was covered only days before during acclimatisation. Great progress is made on the decent and the first group are now preparing to cross back over the Grand Couloir. The team have moved well and, similarly to their ascent, arrive at the infamous gully in good time; it has remained dormant so far this morning. First group to cross includes guide Edouard Bruchez, Corporal Gary B and Lance Corporal Keith J. There is ice at the midpoint of the crossing so crampons are fitted on to boots as a safety measure. This is a necessary precaution but will make movement on the rocky narrow crossing more difficult.  They position themselves at a vantage point where they can view up the gully and observe whilst the two English climbers before them commit to the traverse. The climbers make good ground and start to close on the half-way point; there is no turning back now. Suddenly the chilling thuds and cracks of falling rock high above them echo down the couloir! The first rock fall of the day has initiated with people caught on the traverse!  The team look on helplessly while the two English climbers seek refuge below a large rock as boulders rain down across their hiding place. One large rock crashes perilously close to one of them and it is not certain whether he has been injured.  Another rock the size of a suitcase smashes off the area of the exit path. Had they made a dash rather than hull down they would have been seriously injured or killed for sure.  As they remain in their temporary sanctuary the rock fall reduces to a trickle of small stones and the gully goes back to sleep.  The English climbers make good their escape and disappear out of sight.  The true danger of this place has just realised in front of the team’s very eyes. Edouard, Corporal B and Lance Corporal J take full advantage of the temporary cessation and like thieves in the night sprint across the gully to safety.  The other team members look on with envy that their comrades have crossed safely.  With the recent spectacle fresh in their minds the remaining team members gingerly cross the couloir with all senses alive like assaulting troopers moving across open ground in a ‘contact’.  It was a great relief to the Team Leader to see all safely across. The remainder of the descent was without incident and the team arrived back down into Les Houches greeted by Major Mark L and Warrant Officer 2 Colin A who were the first to be regaled with colourful accounts of the summit adventures.

Conclusion

For the young soldiers who put their heart and soul into the preparation and execution of Exercise SHAMROCK GLACIER 2017 they have proven themselves as gladiators who are prepared to suffer and put in the hard yards in pursuit of excellence. They have functioned selflessly, proving that in every way they value the importance of aspiring to be great, both as individuals but as importantly as part of a team; it is this that places the soldiers of The Second Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment at the top of the pile within the British Army Reserve.  For the Expedition Leader this was an old score that took 21 years to settle with the Mont Blanc Massif and it was done with vengeance with all team members gracing the summit!