In August, three bilateral amputees summited Mont Blanc at 4,810 metres. Justin Davis, Hari Budha Magar, and Stephen Handley undertook the challenge to raise funds for Great Ormand Street Hospital. All of the men were severely injured in IED strikes in Afghanistan; to get them through the challenge they relied on their fitness, determination, and sense of humour to get them to the peak. We caught up with Justin and heard about the challenging climb to summit this fantastic peak.
The old train shudders to a stop, we arrive at the bottom of the mountain. Finally. We grab our kit and climb down off of the train. We are at around 1,000m altitude and look up at the steep angled slope in front of us. Only 3,810m to go! The ground is a well-trodden pathway and littered with loose rocks and shingle. It winds its way up and up, zig-zagging across the steep terrain. After a couple of hours we have gained a few hundred metres altitude, and everything is plain sailing; the training has paid off, up until now, it’s challenging but basic work – one step in front of the other, one hand onto the next large boulder – checking it’s not too loose, and we pull and push our way higher and higher.
After five hours we make it to the Refuge de Tête Rousse, which is the first hut where we can stay for the night. Stephen welcomed us from a vantage point just outside the hut, and it was a pleasure to see him. The guy is a machine and was always more than one step ahead of us. The day has taken its toll, and some much-needed rest and recuperation for our efforts is required. We sit down to eat some food and drink some tea before bed. We dream of the summit, but it’s not a certainty, the weather has been threatening to change all day, and as we arrived at the hut the winds picked up and gradually got stronger throughout the night.
We awoke fairly early after a night with very little sleep; there always seems to be people moving around at all hours in the huts due to the fleeting, transitional nature of the visitors to the building. The internal structure of the building allows the sounds of kit and equipment being prepared to carry through the corridors; and alongside the heat, the close proximity of strangers sleeping, all makes for an uncomfortable and restless night.
The penultimate stage of our ascent is to get to the next hut, which is the Goûter hut. It sits, perched tantalisingly close to the edge, in plain sight and on a clear day, no more than 1,000m away, but, up what seems a near-vertical cliff face from our current point of observation. We receive a quick brief, don our kit and equipment, leave the shelter of the hut, cross a few hundred metres of ground covered with large boulders and ice and move towards the bottom of the steep mass of rock in front of us.
It’s slow going and we use the aid of walking poles and the steady hand of our guides and assistants to meander our way through the terrain. We slip, trip and heave ourselves along until we reach the bottom of the Grand Couloir – which is a 100m gully on the Aiguille du Goûter that must be crossed on foot and is known for its tendency to attack you with falling rock. Shouts come from above warning of the impending danger. A few loose stones and rocks are making their way down as myself and my trusted Sherpa, Nishan, are crossing. “WATCH OUT! WATCH OUT!” By the time they get to us after falling for around 500m, they are travelling at speeds that could easily end in disaster, if hit. At the last few bounces, the rocks ricochet and make their way safely past us without issue. A close call puts us firmly in an excited but awakened state.
“We receive a quick brief, don our kit and equipment, leave the shelter of the hut, cross a few hundred metres of ground covered with large boulders and ice and move towards the bottom of the steep mass of rock in front of us.”
We all make it safely across, and we continue upwards. The temperature is now quite low, the wind strong and rain blowing in a blustery horizontal direction. The bright lightning flashes immanently follow the thunder booms all around us, and it feels like we are literally climbing through the storm. A fascinating and atmospheric period on the mountain! However, our guides and previous military experiences hold us all in good stead, and we are confident to continue. Some other groups decide they have had enough already and turn back until the storm clears.
A further six hours later of climbing, pushing and pulling ourselves up through the wind and rain and we have made it to the safety of the second hut. Similarly, to the evening before, we are greeted by Stephen, who has already had a beer and some food, and we share stories of our individual days and the challenges they held for us, respectively.
Each day that passes seems harder than the predecessor. A real test. This is what we are here for! The next day is summit day. Little did we know the challenge the mountain had in store for us.
We go to bed at 1800hrs and sleep for what seems like 10 seconds, which in reality was probably only 20-30 mins, if lucky. The aches and pains from the challenging ascent only a few hours earlier are still very prominent, and we are up at 0030hrs, ready to leave at 0100hrs for our summit attempt.
Very little to no sleep, cold and painful stumps and never having used crampons before – combined with a biting chill in the air are all factors that added to our eagerness to get moving towards our target. How hard could this be? Walk for a few hours, reach the summit, crack the mountain and we’d be back in good time for a beer and some food.
Well, we didn’t even reach the summit until 1500hrs! What a hard 14 hours that was, a true test of character. Every step of an able-bodied person was, for us, six at times. The terrain continuously alternating between soft powder snow and rock hard ice was depleting our energy stores with every single step. It seemed like the mountain wasn’t going to give us our summit easily. But we made it! By sheer will power, unrelenting effort and simply placing one foot in front of the other for 14 hours.
With daylight soon to be gone, we decided only to spend 10-15mins at the summit, and then to begin the long 9-hour journey back to the Goûter hut.
“ What a hard 14 hours that was, a true test of character. Every step of an able-bodied person was, for us, six at times. The terrain continuously alternating between soft powder snow and rock hard ice was depleting our energy stores with every single step. ”
After what seems like an eternity, carrying aches, pains and rubs from sockets and equipment we limp along the final stretch of snow and ice, and the Goûter hut comes into view, once again. What a sight. It’s now 0100hrs. The hut is quietly sleeping.
We take off our crampons, eat the food that the staff at the hut have kindly left for us. Rehydrate, prepare our kit for tomorrow’s descent and get to bed for some much-needed rest. Our bodies totally fatigued, dehydrated and just about running on empty. But we have made it! It’s hard for me to articulate just how tough this day was for us, but I can personally say it was the hardest task I have ever attempted, to date. Looking back, that day just provided us with the building blocks for further, and more challenging adventures in the future.
The next two days of descent are a formality. As soon as we are away from the snow-line and descending, we can start to appreciate our achievement. We believe we are the first double above-knee amputees to summit Mt. Blanc and we are now gearing up for our next individual challenges – Stephen is looking at the Matterhorn in summer ’20. Hari is out in the Nepalese Himalayas preparing for his Everest attempt, and Justin is aiming to summit both Kilimanjaro and Elbrus in 2020. Watch this space!
Thank you to everyone who supported us along this short journey. We have raised a much needed £5,000 for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and are all thrilled with our achievement. A special thanks to the team at Osprey for meeting our demands for all our kit without hesitation. It easily stood up to the rigorous test and is in perfect working order to be deployed on the next one!
Thank you and see you soon!
Justin, Stephen and Hari