ChallengeMD! Mt Blanc 2011 – Through Boris’ eyes…

As a Team we had reached for the stars and managed to ascend 300,000 metres up. That placed us officially in outer space! So did we come close to reaching the stars? Well the stars occupy outer space, so I guess we can claim we rubbed shoulders with them. We basked in the light the stars provided we Made a Difference!

We came, we conquered and with the support of our family, friends, donors and sponsors we raise a magnificent $200,000 dollars to advance research into Muscular Dystrophy. There must be a timely solution and we have played our role in advancing this by ascending 300,000 meters closer.

I nearly missed my flight when I met Mike Howell (ex RAW Travel) at the airport departure bar. We shared a few drinks – no Grey Goose, so settled for G&T instead.

During the course of our conversation I realised I had left “Monkey” behind at home – too late as I had already cleared customs- annoyed because I wanted to shoot him in Ukraine and on top of Mt Blanc.

Conversation was great and time flew by – “ouch, what time’s my flight?” with less than 15 minutes to spare, I made a mad dash to the gate lounge where the Duty Manager, George, (Leon’s work colleague) asked me to send him my return flight details so he can organise “the best seats on the plane” – as long as it’s not the toilet seat!!

While I had a window seat, the 13.5 hour journey was frustrating having a 10 year old fidgety French kid sitting next to me. His Mum was in the seat in front of me and a constant “Mum, Mum, Mum emanated from the mouth of this delightful young kid 🙁 if I hear “mum” again it better be once only and not like a broken record!

The iPod lasted 10 hours and I managed to get some very broken sleep. Flying into the west was fantastic as we nearly outran the rising sun in the east. This made for a long and spectacular sunrise but nature at 1200 km ph was quicker than us mere mortals doing 900 km ph and the Sun eventually won with a gorgeous sunrise.

It was made more spectacular by the heat haze rising from the desert floor.

Three hours to kill at Abu Dhabi airport. They have this small “fishbowl” 1 x 1.75 metres with a huuuuge exhaust duct running up to the ceiling – and more than 20 DESPERATE smokers crammed inside. Talk about second-hand smoke. One could save money by just doing a massive drawback, I’m sure there’s enough crap in the air to give them a hit!

My first coffee hit the spot and it came in a “medium cup” – I kid you not, best part of 500ml !!!! and only AUD$5 – they were happy to take the Australian Dollar.

While waiting to board in Abu Dhabi and trying to sort out our email problems back home again, I chewed up a sizable portion of credits on Travel Sim. Just as well it wasn’t Telstra roaming.

Another familiar voice called out to me “of all the gin joints in town…” Dave Hall, fellow Nepal Trekker and now soon to become Mt Blanc Trekker sat with me while waiting to board. It was only after sitting in close proximity for some time, Dave informed me he had a “bug” and it wasn’t the bed variety either.

Hope the incubation period is 6 months.

Ok, so now I’m about to be sitting in 21K window seat, when I discover a rather portly local sitting in my seat. It took some convincing him that he had the aisle seat. So he moved to “H” but half of him is still in “K”. Not my luck with fellow passengers at all. What happened to that petite brunette, blonde or red head I ordered at check- in?????

Should be a fun flight to Geneva, he has passed wind twice and I reckon he’s got a couple of barrow loads of phlegm he’s trying to move. Oh joy!!!

Half hour delay on the Tarmac while missing luggage is being located. With my luck, I may be buying new clothes in Geneva. With 100+ degrees outside, we were getting a bit toasty and ripe and I kept eyeing-off a seat three rows in front of me. Why? It was obvious that we had a “no show” in row 18H – emergency exit row – so I caught the eye of the hostie at 8,000 metres put my case for kindness to be shown and she moved me! yeah, a shite-load of leg room and a skinny brunette next to me. Ok don’t get excited Big Fella, it’s a guy!

Grateful for the legroom AWESOME!!! And the Czech hostie soon plies me with more caffeine. Feels like I’m back at the office with copious quantities of caffeine stimulating the neurons!

More to come from Geneva or if there is anything exciting happening on the flight, of course once our mail server behaves.

Well a couple of hours into our flight and I see on the screen our actual flight path, surprised we are flying over Baghdad, just hope the Yanks don’t mistake us for something they want to shoot down. She’s a long way down to terra firma.

Arrived in Geneva without incident, my bag was one of-the first to-come off the line and so I proceeded to the arrivals hall. En route I received an SMS from Yvonne advising she was not far behind. While waiting, Dave Hall disappeared and it was apparent he was either stuck in customs immigration or had flown the coup and was heading to the hotel.

In the meantime, Kelly found me and we were soon 6 with Lisa, Simone, Nicolle joining us. A quick reconnoitre provided a solution for transport to the hotel – via train. Boarding the train was an eye opener as was the subsequent tram trip. Efficient, clean NO graffiti and smooth as silk. We have a long way to go in Oz to even come close to this level of public transport.

Disembarking the tram and heading somewhat in the direction of our hotel, we accosted by Dave Reynolds from RAW who had spotted us from behind. A two minute walk and we were soon in the lobby of our salubrious hotel. Room allocation was painless with Dave Hall and I allocated a room on the 7 floor. The gullible in the group bought it hook, line and sinker that there were no lifts and we, as part of our training would have to trek 7 floors with our luggage. I enjoyed the prank!

The room was neat, clean, old and two single beds size-by-side – so close together, you could not squeeze a sliver of paper between the two beds. I cautioned Dave that if a hand made its way over to my side of the bed during the night he would be enjoying breakfast much earlier in the form of a knuckle sandwich.

I was under orders (polite request) from Ryan to photograph the area around the Red Cross HQ, UN Flags and the three- legged chair. One inch on the map turned out to be a half hour bus ride. The No 8 took Dave and I all the way to the Red Cross HQ but I only managed to get a a few photographs from outside as it was well after hours and entry, even by road was all locked.

The three-legged chair was across the road and massive! This is a significant symbol representing the diversity of disability. We made it back to the hotel just as the balance of Trekkers was assembling to head off to dinner. It was a warm greeting with Anne, Lynne and Michael, Sara, Christine and Paul.

A beautiful walk to a nearby restaurant showed us the richness of this society. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Audis, Mercs and Rollers were abundant. Two young guys decided to throttle- up their red Ferrari coupes and fang up the hill at significant kph. Not one local including police batted an eyelid. Geneva appeared to be the home of the wealthy “petrol head”.

A local eatery was chosen – pizza, pasta and red wine was in abundant quantity as was the conversation – an animated night but a few “crashed” quite early and a few of us decided another bottle of Chianti was in order.

Head hit pillow about 11.30. But sleep did not come readily – it was more of a “guest” coming and going as it pleased. Total sleep time did not exceed two hours.

Day 2 Saturday 25 June

Up bright and early at 430am – sleep eluded. An email check revealed some donations had come in. This is good, but still waiting on the response to the big bailout of Monday.

Lake Leman looked fantastic at 530 am and the camera was put to work. I was happy with the imagery. A brisk walk around the lake was invigorating and welcome.

A 7am breakfast in a traditional French patisserie hit the spot! However the coffee was pure unadulterated crap!

Walking around the streets so early, on a Saturday morning, was interesting with few people and fewer cars on the road. Local market stall holders were setting up their produce for sale in the main street and half a kg of the best looking cherries really made the breakfasted complete.

I was advised that Dani, Joy and Bec had connecting flight problems and were stranded in Amsterdam overnight. They arrived at 10am – just in time to meet the bus transfer Chamonix.

The 90 minute bus ride was uneventful however fear of Mt Blanc was increasing as the size of the mountain was increasing the nearer we drove toward it. Our Refugio Les Houches was on the main street in the village.

The meeting room was filled with our Trekkers for the initial intros and briefing. This was our first time together. The first Team pic was taken prior to splitting up and heading into Chamonix 8kms away by bus. The free afternoon was spent at a local restaurant then a walk through the picture perfect village.

Several of us caught the cable car to the peak at 3800 meters where the temp was easy to records as a big 0 degrees. The views like the altitude were breathtaking! Photos do not do justice to the views.

The return to our base was interesting – Sara, David and I caught the right bus the No 1 but going in the wrong direction. We managed to see much of the valley and just got back in time for dinner. The food, at best, could only be described as average!

While sunset is after nine, given our latitude, the twilight oozed over to past 2230 – amazing! Windows were left wide open and the room air was quite crisp at 3am. But the view of the snow-capped mountain illuminated by the moon was so unique.

Tomorrow is our first day of trekking and again solid sleep eluded me.

Day 3 Sunday 26 June

Up at 6am but awake much earlier!

Breakfast and trek briefing then packing the support vehicle saw us depart for the first day of trekking. This was a 500 metre walk to the gondola where we ascended to 1700 metres and regrouped. Anticipation was ripe anxiety was evident in some. The first two hours was spent trekking through dense alpine forest and the roar of the glacier stream several hundred metres below our altitude was increasing in volume.

A steep descent put us at the rough river crossing where we first climbed over large boulders then stepped onto the first of many swing and solid bridges.

We maintained a vertical rise for a number of hours to the crest of the mountain Col de Tricot 2120 metres, where once eons ago a glacier cut a swathe through the granite to leave the perfect grassy plateau for our lunch stop. Lunch comprised baguettes filled with local cheese, tomatoes and other delicacies. With stomaches filled it was time to peer past the edge of the plateau. Rest assured a 1200 metre drop with an unimaginable path leading to the valley was awesome! Again photos cannot convey how steep this next section of our trek would be. Also unthinkable was how we could possibly descend down this path that even the local goats ignored.

The knees received a significant pounding as step-by-step we came nearer what we thought was our final destination for the day – the refuge at the bottom of the valley. It took the best part of 90 minutes in 32 degree heat to reach our watering hole.

A beautiful oasis of grass, families and dogs, and I was treated as one of the family. A magnificent German shepherd caught my eye – 6′ 2″ tall blue eyes and blonde hair dressed in Lederhosen with a crook. On a serious note the dog was magnificent and so similar to our “Max”.

Exhausted we sat, water bottles and bladders empty, scorching sun and skin that was starting to resemble a potato chip and in desperate need of a refill. One of Trekkers found a water pipe spewing out pure mountain water half a degree above freezing point. So cold, that the stainless steel water bottle instantly frosted over. I skulled down half a litre in 15 seconds this brought a tear to my eyes, instant pain to the teeth and instant relief to the body. We all agreed this was “the best ever” water experienced by humanity. We planned on shipping this back home by the tanker-load to make our millions.

Our exhilaration in tasting water so good was soon quashed. This is when Dave gave the bad news – this refuge was not our night’s resting place. With a very timid wave of the hand Dave pointed out our refuge more than 400 metres above, on the other side of the steep valley!

More trudging up the mountain, lungs screaming for respite, blazing sun burning a hole in the back of the head, and still several hundred metres to go and this is supposed to be fun? It was certainly a challenge, having to draw on inner strength to keep rising to the occasion.

FINALLY! We arrive at our home for the night Auberge Le Truc @ 1750 metres. We entered the area of the refuge to see a neat looking “building” with little evidence of the necessities we take for granted. No shower, outdoor dunny, and horror of horrors, our sleeping arrangements were cattle-like. A room full of bunks in blocks of three wide. I picked one of the last remaining bunks at the end of the room with two other mattresses side-by-side and not knowing who my sleeping buddy was going to be. A valuable lesson was learned – stake your claim! By the time I returned with my gear, I had lost possession of this bed. I finished up on top, being one of three with enough elbow room in proximity to injure my opponent (for sleeping space).

Phone nearly flat and iPad also in need of a electrons saw the potential for a recharge diminish rapidly when the French owner of the refuge advised (read following with a French accent) “this is not possible” the tight-arse had solar power panels of sufficient size and quantity to power several homes, but he was worried the two items would blow a fuse. Mine not his!

Dinner was had outside surrounded by the beauty of the mountains. The food was plain but tasty – it may have been the fact that hunger was at its peak but nevertheless less we all liked our meal.

Sitting waiting and watching the setting sun sink slowly behind the mountain was a visual treat. Magnificent colours illuminated the mountain range from yellows, purple to reds, just like the wine we were now enjoying. Twilight was so long again and slowly the stars started to punch their way through the emerging darkness of the night, just like the jewel box of stars I saw in Central Oz two months earlier.

The dorm was packed toe to toe, the sounds of snoring, coughing and other less wanted sounds filled the air and nostrils.

A group of six French were also sharing our dorm. The interesting thing about that was that we, (Australians), all went to bed – at different times, and were all very considerate, in terms of talking etc. Not the French, they came to bed, and proceeded to rustle around in their back packs, and whisper loudly, and giggle incessantly.

The night was way too short, I rolled over a squillion times always careful to invade the mattress of my fellow trekker.

Then in the morning, the French, souls that they are, unashamedly pranced around in their underwear.

Day 4 Monday 27 June

A 530 am wakeup and 615 trekking……

Breakfast was even more ordinaire than dinner. A bowl of coffee, yes a bowl – no mugs or cups here. The etiquette is you drink your beverage then use the bowl for cereal or whatever else is going. In our case, bread and jam – end of story!

We packed up and headed off- some on a route via a forest – I chose the more picturesque river route with Anne and 5 others.

Near enough to a 6 hour day, and only 8 kms or so, but interesting and challenging in parts. I have learned already that when the guides say today is an”easy” day, it actually means hard!! I have also learned that “a gentle climb out of the valley”: means something very different. But, ignorance is bliss, and I just kept going on.

The 500m descent over a “carpet” of tree roots – I think they are almost as treacherous dry as they are wet! The Mt Donna Buang Training Day saw my fill of slips on these slippery little suckers. We come across a critter in the form of a legless lizard – really! We thought it was a mini-snake or deadly viper at first but discovered that they are a common locally species.

It’s even hotter than yesterday, estimate 32 or 33 the back is soaking wet from the daypack and the eyes look like road maps with red highways crossing streets – bloodshot from the copious litres of sweat heading south.

Eventually we reached a gravel 4WD track, and went steeply down into the village of Les Contamines. Time was with us so we had a coffee in the main street and then walked along the river to Our Lady of Notre Dame – a gorgeous little church in the middle of a national park. The winter photo of the church is amazing; the only missing item was Santa on his sleigh. We find a power socket in the church and plug in our phones for a little bit of charge, then we ate our lunch by the river, took our hiking boots off and dangled our feet in water which is straight off the snow, and so within 30 seconds feet were aching and shortly thereafter, numb! Huge relief for the blisters so re-dipped the feet once more.

A very steep climb past a bridge built in Roman times then a continuation of the tough climb with more sweat, and almost BS & T flowing. Our home for this evening The Nant Borant, but on the way we stopped 100 metres from the refuge for a beer. Now for someone who does not particularly like beer, the several that we had were as refreshing as the 5 minute shower under the garden fountain of the establishment providing our drinks. The locals must have thought we were crazies from the Antipodes. Great exhilaration!

Soaking wet, we make our way to the refuge The Nant Borant, which is neat, clean and hospitable – a nice owner, and nice rooms – approx 10 to a room. Our room only houses 7 – my bed was the only non-bunk bed in the middle of the room under a window.

A great spot and I was so looking forward to the fresh crisp air during the night. However, I soon suspected that all was not right in the room as muted comments over dinner advised that Michael Pazzullo, while trying to get to his bunk stood on my bed and smashed it to a number of pieces. It looked unlikely that I would have this bed. Not sure if Management received a bribe or not, but soon my bed was rebuilt and with an extra mattress as “compensation”. And I only found out about this well after the event. Awesome!

Day 5 Tuesday 28 June

Breakfast was bread and jam and cereal – we are getting there!

Each day we have a baguette making session before we depart – our driver Joy, buys supplies each day for us to use the following morning.

A different day today – it’s a 10-hour walking day (plus stops), and very difficult.

Out the front gate and straight up the hill for a long forest walk. Out of the forest onto long sweeping hills, continually on the up-and-up, so far that we went through the snow line, still wearing a T. We assembled on a large sheet of snow for the group picture opportunity. Wet, slippery and snowballs then up again to the Col de Bonhomme.

It was all downhill from here, this is where I do OK having weight and gravity work in my favor. Descending is fantastic! We hit the bridge at the bottom and then continued to walk down steep grassy hills recently mowed for the sheep, goats and cows.

Joy was waiting and several of us got into the van and driven to where eventually we spend the night – on a farm which also has a lovely refuge called Les Mottets. Wildflowers everywhere, lovely rivers, cowbells tinkling, snowy alps one way and rolling green cols the other. It is so hot – even hotter than yesterday, and I am frying. The refuge is expansive, everything is new, and so new the smell of fresh concrete is pervasive.

A nice shower block where I further perfect the art of showering in 5 second bursts – that’s exactly how long the water runs before switching itself off. It’s a mixed shower men, women all unashamedly au naturale!

Washing is done and almost dry.

A funny night in the refuge – a large dormitory – previously a cow shed! And a couple of rooms for 4 in another building, I snagged one in the latter. Two of us in one room while the younger Trekkers were crammed into the main dorm excellent!

Dinner was wonderful. An accordionist appears afterwards, and a sing-a-long occurs – with half the room singing in English and half in French – to the same tunes!!! Later the French kicked on singing songs “de la revolution”!! Alarmed to see the same “frogs” we met 3 days ago, and one of the men is still prancing in the same pair of jocks!!! Complaints from those who slept in the dormitory (an old cow shed) – bed bugs!!

I need to get up during the night, nearly trip over the ropes adorned with our washing and as I gaze toward the heavens I’m awestruck by the wonder of so many stars – is magical.

This was a working farm by the way and one which makes the famous (and very expensive Beaufort cheese). Just as with the wine, cheese “provenance” is strictly controlled here (we are still in France by the way!), so Beaufort cheese only comes from Beaufort. Tonight we snack on cheese which sells in Paris for Eur40. Here it is Eur 12. Love it, and we eat it like chocolate!

There is a donkey and some horses in the yard. We are also seeing quite a few marmots in the wild – they are beaver like and make a funny noise when they see us. Bad weather is forecast for tomorrow.

Day 6 Wednesday 29 June

Up and at ‘em today for a long climb to the Col de Seigne which is the Italian border.

So we carefully pack our warm woollies in anticipation of wild weather on the way, and walk hard to get to the summit before it arrives. Cold on the top and jackets out for the first time on the trip, but we are also at altitude of 2500 metres.

The official border marker between France and Italy looks very much like rifle cross hairs, I manage to straddle the border and be in two countries at the same time.

I try ringing home to say “G’Day” and to confuse the phone – straddling the border, will I be charged at French or Italian communications rates? Walking about trying to find that elusive signal, I finally manage to get 1.25 bars on the phone and only in one spot about 1 meter square. In less than the blink of an eye, the conversation is no longer “private” as half of my fellow trekkers invade this one square meter to also call home. At least they provided a great wind-break. We then gather at the “frontier” for picture taking. We continue to plod along and eventually reach the Rifugio Elizabetta – high in the mountains and right beside a glacier, for “smoko”. The view from here is amazing as you can see right up the valley floor at the long straight track we will soon descend down to and walk along.

But before we get to this road, we have to tackle small, medium and larger sized stone crushed by the glacier some eons ago. Really hard thing is having to “pick” every step – if you could just walk without having to worry too much what was underfoot, it would be easy – otherwise this is just as hard on the brain as it is on the soles of the feet. We then descend down and down to the valley floor and follow the river for a few kms and then spot a beautiful bitumen road which we will need to follow to our pick up point. You’d think walking on bitumen would be a relief, however to my surprise it was damn hard on the feet and a return to our “normal” walking surface was keenly sought. Joy drove us to get to tonight’s Refugio Monto Bianco just outside Courmayer. 30+ degrees burning sun all the way today. Lots of sunburn! We drive up, up, up and fall into the refugio. Always a surprise packet!! This is our first in Italy, so we know there will be differences, but what could they be I wonder!! But first we are told we can take a van ride into the village below, so off we all go – for an ice-cream, some internet access, and a drink. We feel like prisoners on day release! In search of WiFi the local pub offered free if you purchased a drink. We did, and with that drink came free nibblies, cheese, meats, bread etc, etc etc. Not a bad deal at all.

Our rooms are very, very tiny – 2 x 2 bunks. I share with Paul & Chris and Anne in a space about the size of a laundry! I gallantly take the top bunk. Toilets are one floor up, and showers up again – in the roof so you whack your head if you stand upright! Clean though. Dinner is – pasta and then chicken and veggies. It begins to pour with rain. View is unbelievable. Before I close my eyes, I offer an apology in advance for my snoring – either diplomacy was running high or I didn’t…

Day 7 Thursday 30 June

We wake to a fine morning and the sound of avalanches cracking in the mountain opposite. Breakfast is average – they all are!

We set up our lunch making table – Subway on the run it seems! And make our lunches. A big climb awaits – our biggest yet, and also our biggest day. We begin by hiking up steeply 600 metres on a lovely track – firm, but spongy forest floor. It is our best track yet, great grip, and no rocks.

A great forest walk and even though it’s hot, we are largely in the shade – a nice change. There are lots of birds – always flowers, and everything is fresh after last night’s rain. Stunning views down to the valley tantalize and amazement at how far we have risen in such a short, but exhausting climb.

We stop at Refugio Bertoni for a smoko, before heading off again for what turns out to be a very long walk on an undulating track around an entire mountain range – we are very high, so the views are amazing, and we now have Mt Blanc right beside us. Helicopters everywhere above and beside us making sounds like a swarm of bees and busy ferrying provisions to refugios high above the valley floor. No doubt this is how our meals will arrive – by air mail. We see lots of marmot – one of the few species of wildlife in these parts. The day is perfect for walking – warm, sunny, but not in the 30’s. The wildflowers are so beautiful. I can’t imagine how many photos I’ve taken so far and no doubt the shutter finger will be kept busy as we continue. Lunch is al fresco (they all are), outside a disused dairy. A beautiful resting spot and the brain thinks it’s time for a siesta – 40 winks never felt so good. We stop at Rifugio Bonatti, which is (as they as all seem to be) in a wonderful spot, and enjoy a slice of the famous fruit tart and a drink. We cross several streams and a few trekkers end up with either damp or wet feet.

The trek continues until 20 kms and 11 hours walking later we arrive at our home for the evening Refugio Elena. Along the path we met a herd of very fine looking but docile cattle – making it easy to get around. The last few hours are excruciating – a big descent, and then a big ascent up to the refugio – hard any time, but after all these hours of climbing and walking? You gotta be kidding me!!! Dinner which is spaghetti and then veal and veggies followed by Birthday cake for Chris & Lynne’s birthdays which are today – Michael’s was yesterday.

Sadly this refugio is not so good. It is new, so you would think all would be good but the owners are rude and inhospitable. The dormitories are OK – I am in a corner with the Freestone and Anne. Since everything is aching tonight I couldn’t care less. My feet hurt so much – but anyone’s would after 20 of the kind of kms we did today. The bathrooms are terrible – four showers and two toilets – both holes in the ground! One is blocked, one has a non working door – there is no paper inside (you have to get it from outside and take it in with you, – and both are filthy. They are shared by about 40 poor souls like us.

The “usual” was happening again. Packed like sardines into the dorm, sleep evaded most of us and I was head-to-head with a trekker from another group. At one point I sat up and was considering two options – tapping him on the head or punching his lights out to stop the incessant snoring centimetres from me. Not knowing what the assault laws were here, I covered my head to block out this human chain-saw and that’s how I woke in the morning.

Day 8 Friday 1 July

Up at 545, showered and “the squatter” was put to use. This is a tough gig so early in the morning, more so with the crook knee. Damn, shoulda taken my trekking pole into the loo with me, at least I would have been able to minimise the increasing pain in my knee.

I nearly got blown off my feet when I opened the door to place my bags in the van. An ice cold gale cut through my T shirt just like Jack the Ripper’s blade! A hasty retreat back inside saw the application of two jackets, one being a wind-breaker.

We started at an elevation of 2062 and ascended to 2537 in less than a kilometre. A killer “hill” ahead was mentally demoralising so early in the morning and despite a reasonable breakfast, I found the legs wanting, the furnace nearly extinguished and the lungs screaming for air. Do not let anybody think this is a picnic. Bloody hard!!!!

It took ages to reach the pass – Col de Grand and the Trekkers were assembled at the border of Italy and Switzerland. I did not really get to enjoy this transition as I was left behind by all as the temperature was too cold to afford the extra time to wait for me.

The next three kilometres was all downhill in more than one way. I was pissed off at the lack of mountaineering etiquette. Exhausted! Knees killing from three kms of downhill pounding and to cap it off, the thick cloud provided a white-out and perfect camouflage for the markers advising the correct direction to go. Two wrong turns saw several hundred metres added to my total. I was on the verge of desperate and lost and only another millisecond away from ringing Dave for directions, when a significant gust of wind opened a window in the clouds exposing that elusive marker. No need to change my underwear just now! More blisters to my feet and more calories burned – at least the calorie burning was a positive outcome. ?

By the time I hit the way point, cold coffee was waiting for me. My jacket (under the wind-breaker) was drenched in sweat, and I didn’t even realize given it was so cold.

A serious discussion was had with the guide pointing out the potential for disaster was great and had this been one of our Trekkers placed in this situation I would have sacked him then and there. He now understands our expectations for appropriate care to be delivered at all times.

Heading off for the final downhill 10 kms was a welcome relief from the significant pressure of the morning. Through fields of cows and sheep, crossing several streams and the migration of hundreds of cows to the high country was a sight and sound. Each cow was equipped with the traditional bell and the sound of hundreds if not thousands of bells tolling was truly amazing.

The last kilometre placed us at the night’s accommodation at an elevation of 1610 metres.

A constant thought and foremost in mind is the reason why we do this. The pain and exhaustion is absolutely no comparison with any of the other ChallengeMD events. I keep thinking how best to convey this to the community at large. Surely if they were aware of what 17 people had committed to, they would come on board. Honorable, ethical fundraising without stand-over tactic SHOULD win, but will it? The reason for me is – To make a difference – as simple as that!

Sitting in the “beer garden” of our refuge and writing this and surrounded by the mountains was inspiring.

A visit to the local village supermarket next door reinforced just how much we are being ripped of back home in Oz. Food, alcohol and general items found in the supermarket were considerably cheaper.

A washing machine full of dirty jocks, socks and Ts expertly washed, ironed, folded and delivered to my room was $5 euro.

A 7pm call to dinner was greeted with the usual hunger – the big bad beast needs regular feeding. The meal was typical Swiss but tasty, and very well received. A bottle of red shared with Paul, Christine Anne and my good self whetted the appetite and provided a further ingestion of calories. I figure what I gain at night is lost during the course of the next day. Hmmm… Not sure if Dr or PT agrees with this logic.

A 10pm shower and the best bed to date provided a great night’s sleep for a change. This was so wanting. And deserved!

Day 9 Saturday 2 July

A 650 am “sleep in” was unusual for us – bags repacked, and a breakfast fit for a trekker. Heaps of yoghurt, the world’s best muesli and a litre of apple juice prepared us for a relatively easy day, for a change.

Outside the hotel the stage was set for the start of the Mt Blanc 12 Hour Marathon. Barriers, adverting and a huge sound system to greet the expected mass of contestants was in front of our departure point. Of course I couldn’t help myself, having asked the MC if I could borrow the mic to address the population of the village through the PA system spewing several thousand watts of audio power. What a buzz plugging MD and acknowledging all Trekkers and MD Oz. This was greeted with smiles and questions from the locals.

We pack the van and I ditch the boots for a wary change and try the “Rivers Runners” and find great comfort around where all the blisters have formed. Given it’s going to be a relatively “easy” day the option was well considered, although new blisters in different places would be a disaster. It’s a gamble I’m willing to take at this point.

We set of and the first 3 kms are fantastic, walking through the pine forest where the pine needles kept the sun’s heat at bay. The pine needles also offered a beautiful “cushioned” track to walk upon. This is great for the sole and soul. The next stage saw us descending down a rocky, tree-rooted path with knees starting to experience that pounding again…. And by this point of the challenge both of my toe nails have parted company with their usual home attached to my big toes.

The knee is now significantly sore and impacting on my ability to keep up and to be with pain, again! Crap!!! A knee brace is not having any effect at all and subsequent application of medicated patches around the knee provides little respite from the pain.

By now some of marathon runners are coming toward us, one-by-one sometimes minutes apart. Of course we have to move over to make room on the narrow paths as they run past us up the mountain path. These runners are not even heavy breathing. A game soon starts – each runner has a number and his first name below on a large chest tag. So what do we do? Ask Jean-Claude… We start clapping and yelling out “Go Jean-Claude Go!!” and when we saw an Aussie it was so easy to cheer with “Go Roger goodonya mate!” these antics helped entertain us while descending and with increasing pain in the knee.

We reach a beautiful village, many of the places were obvious weekenders with residents commuting from places afar in their Porsche Carreras, Bentley’s and other vehicles displaying the obvious sign of the wealth and opulence of the Swiss. Lunch was enjoyable, sitting in a large, lush green field surrounded by these now “boring” snow capped mountains. A well earned break with knee getting worse and worse came to an end with a two km flat walk. We still had a 450 meter ascent to Champex but I piked out with Anne reluctantly taking my seat in the “Loser Cruiser” (our van), to the hotel.

Three Voltarins looked like a likely source of relief and went down with hope, followed by a very pleasing dinner.

Met a couple of Yanks after dinner and a conversation was had based on their three year experience in Kiev (my next stop after ChallengeMD). While no surprises on recommendations on what to see, they reinforced that my selection of places to visit was well planned.

Dave and I decided that at 2230 it was time to hit the cot, however on the way up to our room a quick look through the window placed us on the bank of Champex Lake two minutes later. Twilight is just so long here and the snow capped mountains reflected in the deep blue of the lake was absolutely stunning! Very pleased with the images the trusty Nikon D700 provided.

2330 to bed and a great night’s sleep – “thank you”.

Day 10 Sunday 3 July

630 wake-up two more Voltarins, breakfast and it was time to leave Champex.

A slow steady climb of more than 600 metres to 2000 metres was hard and saw us climbing rocks, boulders and a million tree roots. The knee was great, lungs kept up and what more could I ask for.

We reached the plateau Alpert Bovine, surrounded by cows and the sound of cow bells. Very relaxing, it was time to head down hill to Col de la Forclaz.

Four of us formed the breakaway peleton and almost ran down the mountain. I felt as if I was in somebody else’s body. Truly remarkable!! No poles, ditched them to attempt mimicking Lynne’s downhill style – she’s like a gazelle – so sure footed. Well, I was running and skipping over rocks and roots. And just like a chess game where you need to look three or four moves ahead, I was able to pick my footsteps three four ahead of the need to plant them on the track. The iPod was in use for the first time and I was singing along with Pink Floyd while blitzing the downhill. Can’t describe how different I feel and strong. Just hope it holds out for the 1000 metre ascent tomorrow.

We reach our day’s end resting spot well ahead and order some well deserved cold “refreshment” (beer). Hmmm… this liking for beer is a bit of a worry. I have drunk more than three years worth of my usual meagre quota. It’s at this point in time, I’m advised that my singing along to PF was not “private” but entertained Lynne, Michael and Joy on the last exciting leg.

I have a room to myself for the first time – great and while waiting for the shower queue to reduce we decided to have a red or three. Sitting outside we see the pass we have to climb tomorrow. Yes, I am concerned but hope the strength remains for tomorrow, if not, I’m stuffed.

Took the blood pressure over a red and it’s 123/70 – best it’s been for ages – yea!!!!!!!

So happy with my level of fitness and state of mind – what a relief!

Dave and I finished the night with a G&T – bed at 2300 and a great night’s sleep.

Day 11 Monday 4 July

Up at 550am downloaded emails from the free wifi, send Leon a birthday email – yes he was born on the 4th of July and with my sister living in USA, well let’s put it this way, it gave me many opportunities to “prank” Leon when he was young!

Having received my morning “media monitors” emails provided opportunity for discussion over breakfast. We all wonder and want to know what sort of drugs Mr Jerry Lewis is on. How could he possibly omit Mother Teresa as a reference when describing Mr Gatto as a “great humanitarian in the same league as JFK and Martin Luther King?” Absurd! This guy who is running out of friends, needs to stay in USA… but then with the MDA USA removing all reference to him on their website maybe he thinks he is doing us a service by interfering in what to date has been moral and ethical fundraising undertaken by us. – He is not!!!!

While making our lunch outside, Lisa stepped backward and had a nasty fall down stairs. Fortunately after ice and bandage and a half hour to settle down she was able to continue the day. An absolute “trooper” to be able to go on with such a bad sprain – well done Lisa!!!

It was tough day and we peaked at 2200 going up 900 and down 1000. I wondered if the Voltarins in the system provided a sense of false security, we still had 300 metres down straight after breakfast and that was intimidating. But, I was in “The Zone” again.
From this altitude, the village below looked like Lego-land and it took us 35 minutes to descend the 300. But what goes down must go up again – and up we went, one step following the other for 900 metres. This was our biggest day yet.

We crossed the Swiss border back into France. This was at the highest point for the day. A tough slog with many short breaks to allow the lungs to catch up with the air required.

On the long slow descent Mt Blanc filled our vision, getting bigger by the hour and with a potential storm brewing. Fortunately the weather held out and we had a swift final leg to the Refugio Aberge la Boenre.

No WiFi, two power points and rooms so small – not enough to swing a cat. A three story bunk in a space so small looks ridiculous. Dave moves out and that leaves me on the bottom and Simone on top. At least we should be able to breathe. This “building” violated every possible building code, and if a fire erupted during the night, well I don’t even want to think of the consequence.

We had a very nice Swiss dinner comprising a fantastic salad, rice and two sausages that we saw cooking on the stove for several hours. The taste and texture was amazing. The food was accompanied by a couple of carafes of gamay a local red.

Dave briefs us on the next day’s walk. No vehicle access at all so we need to carry two days worth of jocks, sox and clothes. To make matters more complicated, the next morning will be our last day of trekking back into Chamonix. So one of our biggest “up” days with the added weight of two days worth of clothes, can’t wait. And… I’m told that this section will provide great photo opportunities and the added 2.5 kgs of Nikon D700 adds to the overweight load I must carry.

2100 hours and it’s time to visit the world’s smallest bedrooms…

Day 12 Tuesday 5 July

Had more exercise rolling over numerous times during the night – what’s the point of staying in bed when it is so uncomfortable?

Before saying “Goodbye” to the hotel, we make our lunch, pack for two days and leave our big bags with the van. My thoughts about photography occupied my mind last night. Biggest dilemma for me is to decide if I want/need to take the beast of the D700. A heavy camera, plus two days in my back pack our biggest day yet, was a lot to consider.

Common sense prevailed and I carried the camera for over 9 hours – well worth it!!!

Packed and ready to head off. The first few kms were via road a side track, reasonably flat. Crossing the road, the task ahead was evident, a sheer climb of 700 and more metres. Up, up and more up. Frequent mini-stops of 10-5 seconds, enough to refill the lungs and have them feed the leg muscles.

The climb was unrelenting, the added weight of extra days packing and camera certainly added to my discomfort. The climb eventually tapered off to an undulating track and in the distance – many kms away, I could see our Refugio for the night.

We hit the cluster of beautiful mini-lakes and that was planned as our lunch stop. Magnificent!

The water looked inviting, emerald and crystal clear, Lynne was the first and only Trekker gutsy enough to immerse and swim across and around this beautiful body of water.

The lunch was consumed with vigour as the stomach was screaming for food – we had burned a truck-load of calories during the vicious accent. A siesta was in order, even though we were not in Spain and soon the mountain sustained a mini earthquake, registering 5.5 on the BSS – (Boris Snoring Scale). The ten minute snooze recharged my batteries, and just as well because the next leg was steeper than the first! So steep that in sections they had bolted steel ladders to facilitate the accent.

I repacked my NIKON for fear I would drop it. The ups were relentless, but rounding the corner we spotted our next stop. Still several hundred metres above us, but upon reaching it was so sweet. The panoramic views took the breath away, just as had the climb. This was a new definition for “breathless”.

I was still in good form as the knee was great – I’m so pleased about this as it was a of considerable prior concern. I’ve said it before and say it again – I’m not a beer drinker, but rest assured the 750ml bottle of Mt Blanc Mountain Beer, never touched the sides. Straight down in one fell gulp.

We spent the next several hours sitting, relaxing, soaking-up the sun and the view. I was glad to have survived this day. Several panorama images were taken. These images, up to 15 are taken and overlapped during shooting and then in post-production “stitched” to form a flawless much larger panoramic image. (Visit my website at to view these panoramas).

The relax and respite was over and there was more to come with 500 metres down this time along a loose rocky track. Excitement as we came across a single Ibex, more curious than we were. I just hope the pics are good because these animals are gorgeous.

We continued the downhill, nearly falling several times. Is it possible to complete this huge trek without an incident and personal injury? So close and I hoped safety would prevail.

The Refugio is now in sight with a last 50 metre vertical ascent – our last “up” for ChallengeMD Mt Blanc 2011 – a celebration in itself.

A tasty meal, good conversation and waiting for a warm sunset which never arrived. Just a plain old mountain sunset, very average and how disappointing. Time for bed as tomorrow is our last!

The accommodation is interesting, with one very large hall, partitioned into cells with sleeping for 6 in each cell. I’m in the “hallway” just under the window with views of Mt Blanc in what appears to be in arms reach.

Day 13 Wednesday 6 July The Final Leg!

Our last day of trekking! A reasonable night’s sleep was had without the usual snoring emanating from “somewhere over there”. Laying there very early in the morn I could see the ever changing colours of sunrise however, did I have the strength or desire to get up and photograph this? So many days of trekking, so many kilometres, so many meters up and an equal number down. Nope. Just could not motivate to do so. So I let myself drift off again to catch the last of the early morning “sleep-in”.

Breakfast, packed lunch and we were ready to go…
After a false start, Simon got a bit ahead of himself, we rallied the troops. I wanted to speak to each and every trekker to extend the deepest appreciation for their support and commitment to MD. Several eyes were tear-filled and emotion was running high. This was a journey shared. This was a journey with a common goal – to Make a Difference -and how often I repeated this mantra to myself while enduring the positives and the pain. New friendships were forged. I don’t think my emotions have been to such a lofty altitude for quite some time. I’m not a wordsmith and I’m struggling to find the right words to express just how heightened my feelings are. It’s not euphoria, it is something else and it is so welcome. It’s a feeling of being “alive” and of high achievement, physical, emotional and psychological.

Just wish I could express this so you the reader can understand what seventeen Trekkers endured for the MD cause!!

We started the long walk back to Chamonix… Through a changing landscape mapped out and influenced by the altitude, growing thicker and thicker as we descend with a forest floor more familiar now on as previously descried. A carpet of pine needles. What a blessing. After more than 180km around Mt Blanc (forget about the considerable ups and downs) the path was comfortable on the poor old, tired and blistered feet.

This will be our shortest day – just three hours of trekking.

Chamonix was to our left as was Mt Blanc on the other side of the valley. As we descended, we could hear, in increasing volume, the hustle of this beautiful city below. Reaching a magnificent “tea house” we opted to sit, relax and partake of the unique view and drinks. A thirst quenching freshly squeezed Lemon really hit the spot – even sucked the cheeks right in.

While walking this last leg, I was also working on some math. How far had we gone as a team, how high did we ascend? Big questions when the brain is exhausted. I nutted out the figures and Lynne agreed that the rational was sound.

As a Team we had reached for the stars and managed to ascend 300,000 metres up. That placed us officially in outer space! So did we come close to reaching the stars? Well the stars occupy outer space, so I guess we can claim we rubbed shoulders with them. We basked in the light the stars provided we Made a Difference!

For days I was thinking about how best to cross the finish line – how to recognise the motivation for a small handful, those of us directly affected by this dreaded disorder MD. So with less than 1 km to go we regrouped. My camera went ahead and I wanted to share this moment with three other people in particular without disenfranchising the other committed Trekkers as we all form the Team. Lisa (mum), Sara (sister) and Dave (dad) joined me at the front of the pack. Four abreast, arms locked together we walked around the church into the square to see the red ribbon finish line metres ahead. With cameras clicking and tear-filled eyes we walked across the line just as the church bells tolled for midday. Perfect! We could not have asked for a better conclusion to this mammoth task.

Much hugging, many tears, glasses filled with champagne and many more photos. It was done and what a relief. Exhausted, every muscle aching and we still had several kms to get to our final nights resting stop. I didn’t think we would make it! But we did.

One more hurdle – to carry our bags to the first floor, Room 12 where a shower was waiting for me.

A quick shower and drink and we walked back to Chamonix for a coffee and relax. All T’s were dirty so Euro19 was spent one a fresh shirt.

Back to hotel for a change and to clear emails. Of course the connection was unreliable – again! And while I could download sending eluded me again.

We reconvened at 7pm and walked as a group for the last time to Bistro Le Sport where a long table greeted us. Speeches, prezzies for our local guides sealed the night. Of course the younger and not so young Trekkers wanted to expend some more energy on the dance floor. So, to the incessant sounds of ” doof” “doof” we dance till we had had enough, nearly 130 am! Time to head back to the hotel – not a dog, cat, car or human was passed on the long trek back to the hotel. Exhausted I hit the cot again and sleep was all too welcome, but all too short!

We came, we conquered and with the support of our family, friends, donors and sponsors we raise a magnificent $200,000 dollars to advance research into Muscular Dystrophy. There must be a timely solution and we have played our role in advancing this by ascending 300,000 meters closer.

I acknowledge the Trekkers forming the Team MDA

Rachel Broadmore
Nicolle Bruhn
Kelly Canavan
Yvonne Chiu
Simone Cramer
Lisa Evans
Rebecca Fraser
Paul Freestone
Christine Freestone
Joy Goubran
David Hall
Sarah Heard
Lynne Pezzullo
Michael Pezzullo
Anne Rogers
Daniella Villano

RAW Travel for their commitment to MDA and magnificent organisation of this important event.

So this was ChallengeMD Mt Blanc 2011!!!

Boris M Struk

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