My time in Chamonix could have got off to a better start. I was unaware of my dependence on my phone until the moment I left it on the plane seat, my reliance soon becoming painfully clear. Hotel details, navigation, pin numbers, email passwords, AirBnB address, camera-my entire life was on that device.
I realised within moments, but policies and protocols meant that I had a restless 12 hours wondering if I would ever see it again. A sigh of relief and a lesson learned. I couldn’t dwell, as I needed to shift my focus to the week ahead, ticking off more training goals!
When I arrived in Chamonix, I wondered why this was my first visit. It was breath-takingly beautiful. Looking up, glaciers, hanging valleys, aretes and moraines painted a picture right out of my geography text books and the 4,807-metre-high peak of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, towered over the town.
“What have the mountains of Chamonix got to do with the landscape of Antarctica?” you may well ask. Antarctica is the land of snow and ice and the whole continent is covered in a giant ice sheet. The glaciers are continuously moving, their depth disguising the geography beneath. As they move, crevasses form, deep chasms measuring tens of metres in depth and can span many kilometres in length. I was in Chamonix to access the high mountains and the glaciers, taking time to understand their anatomy, where I should expect to find crevassing, how to identify it and most importantly, how to avoid it.
I was here to meet Simon Abrahams, an international mountain guide with over 30 years of Antarctic experience, whose current role is the travel safety manager for Antarctic logistics and Expeditions (ALE). When it comes to solo, unsupported expeditions to the South Pole, Simon knows it all and most importantly, he knows how to do it safely! I arrived eager and ready to tap in to all that knowledge, taking onboard all his advice.
On my first morning, the cable car was my classroom, a fantastic viewing platform of the crevassed terrain below. I have always found an energy in the mountains, a feeling that’s difficult to describe. I felt that energy and excitement in abundance here. The ride took us across the border to Italy, firstly to enjoy the superior coffee, and then to don the crampons, rope up and head toward a suitable area to practice rope skills and crevasse rescue drills.
As a solo expeditioner, there really is very little I can do if I fall into a crevasse. The more experience I can get travelling on this terrain, the better my ability will be to read the conditions ahead. I’ve enjoyed a bit of climbing in the past, so thankfully the knots and techniques weren’t completely new to me. In August I will be joining a small team crossing Greenland, so whilst I may not be able to easily self-rescue from a crevasse, I now have the skills to place an anchor in the snow/ice and rescue a team member from such a situation.
Despite being in this incredible adventure playground, not all my time was spent outdoors. I spent a full day inside, exploring in detail, every aspect of my route from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. I studied radar images of the route, identifying the areas of crevassing where I will have to be extra vigilant with my navigation. There were definite parallels with dentistry and reporting on an x-ray; a 3D world being transformed in to a 2D image and the subsequent limitations in its interpretation.
We had discussions on processes, expectations, kit, and an honest look at my own view of risk and its management. My training is basically one big exercise in risk management. I am identifying the risks that I will face and then taking active measures to minimise, monitor and control the probability or impact of an adverse event occurring. This training felt like an important step, linking together all the aspects of my preparation so far and fortifying my mental game.
The weeks and months really feel like they’re flying by and whilst I’m successfully ticking off my training goals, my ‘to-do list’ becomes increasingly daunting and there are days when I wonder if I will ever see the end of it.
From the beginning of this adventure, I’ve been conscious of taking things one step at a time, trying not to get overwhelmed by the bigger picture. There are certainly times when I sway from this, but for now, I’m moving on to my next challenge and focussing on my upcoming training expedition: crossing Greenland.
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