At 9am. (local time) on the 25th June 1996 Don Planner became the 1st blind man to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter Route. The chain of events which lead to my involvement in Don Planner’s achievement was a bizarre one.
One day last year Don stepped onto a Zebra crossing only to be hit by a car and sent over the bonnet. In the coarse of obtaining accident compensation, the conversation with his solicitor turned to Don’s intention of climbing Mont Blanc in order to raise much needed funds for the charity St. Dunstans which looks after blinded ex-army servicemen.
Don knew he would need the services of a High Mountain Guide but like many people, he did not know how to go about finding one. At this stage in the conversation the solicitor said “I have a school friend who has just married a Mountain Guide who lives at the foot of Mont Blanc. I will give you his address.” This is how I gained my first blind client.
Don lost his sight in 1975 while serving as a Sergeant with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers when a lorry’s fuel tank blew up in his face.
That Don was blind was enough of a challenge in itself. It was not until the press releases about the proposed trip started to filter through to me that I learnt that Don had only recently recovered from a heart by-pass operation. He definitely did not have the ideal mountaineers credentials!
At the time I did not know anything about blind people. What I did know was that I needed to find someone who was already a mountaineer, who had experience of leading blind people in the hills who could help me. My enquiries lead me to the Calvert Trust just outside Keswick. (They are an Outward Bound type organisation for the disabled). The Calvert Trust did indeed have someone who could help me: Dave Ridley who not only worked with the blind but had also climbed Mont Blanc, albeit 18 years ago.
I put Dave and Don in touch with each other and they arranged to go walking and scrambling in the Lake District. I was kept in contact with their progress and list of Lakeland fells ascended.
The next thing I had to decide was which way we should climb Mont Blanc.
In the past all attempts with blind people have been via the Grands Mulets, simply because it has the lowest technical grading – “Facile.”
Despite its modest grade, I was not convinced that this was the most suitable route. Primarily because it is very crevassed. The key to negotiating glaciers is to be well spread out and roped together. It was necessary for Dave and Don to be very close together so that they could stay in contact with the use of a broom handle. The requirement for them to be this close together meant that if one of them broke through a snow bridge then they might both fall down a crevasse. While I was confident I could rescue one person from a crevasse, I had no intention of seeing whether I could extract two people simultaneously.
I next discounted the Traverse of Mont Blanc, because at that time of year there is too much snow making it prone to avalanches.
This left us with the Gouter route.
By far the technically hardest of the three popular routes involving considerable rock scrambling at over 3000m. Yet virtually no significant crevasse problems and the shortest distance from the refuge to the summit. Yet I still did not know whether Don would be able to climb over this rocky terrain. Even so this remained my preferred option with all things considered.
Don was driven from his home in Poole to the Alps by his wife, Sharon. When we finally met in Chamonix Don apologised for being a little late only he said he had been navigating, as way of an excuse. “Er….How?” I tentatively enquired, “With a Braille road atlas!” he replied. “Thank heavens you weren’t driving.” I said.
The next day we were due to start our training programme prior to the actual attempt on Mont Blanc. It was raining. This was the type of rain that did not so much fall out of the sky, but slapped you on the head, as much to say “don’t you dare step out of the door!” It was cold too. I was certain it would be putting a lot of snow down on the mountains. We were not getting the start we needed. Our plan was to climb some smaller peaks and stay in mountain refuges in order to acclimatise. The following morning the torrential rain had downgraded itself to a drizzle. Still horrible, but just about good enough to walk to a mountain refuge.
We were now a team of four: myself, Don, Dave, and my wife Jane who had been asked to make a film for St Dunstans charity and also the BBC News.
We headed off towards the Albert 1er Mountain refuge, normally just under 2 hours walk on a simple mountain path. Four hours later we burst through the door of the refuge looking as if we had been ship wrecked. The weather had thrown everything at us, including forked lightening.
During our 2nd day together it continued to rain and snow. We tentatively ventured out because I was keen to discover how Don performed on rocky scrambling ground. Plus it was important to teach Don how to use crampons on the glacier. The answer to this was astounding. There were moments when I almost forgot Don was blind. Any reservations about climbing up to the Gouter refuge had been dispelled.
Never the less, the weather remained our major hurdle. The next day over a meter of snow fell at 2500m. Now back in the valley we just watched it rain and rain. We were running out of time.
The forecast for the following day was a little better, but hardly “Beau temps” (beautiful weather). I decided we should set off. I was not optimistic of our chances of success, yet concluded that we should try and climb as high as we safely could. “Take each day as it comes” was the phrase I used.
On the 24th June the four of us stepped off the mountain railway at the Eagles Nest station.
We were greeted by thick mist and a meter of fresh snow which had obliterated any sign of the path. Don was always keen for us to describe the view to him. “You’re not missing much here” Dave remarked, we all laughed.
Jane and I took it in turns to break trail. Don and Dave followed connected by their broom handle. The plan was to climb no further than the Tete Rousse Refuge which is situated at 3000m. Normally 2hr 30m to 3hrs walk.
7 hours later having battled through a blizzard we arrived, weary but feeling quite pleased with ourselves. Several beers later and the best of Don’s blind man jokes, we all agreed that we were at last having a good time.
There is a saying that sometimes you make your own luck.
On this occasion we did. The weather cleared. Yet below us was a sea of cloud probably still raining. Above us it was clear, crystal clear. “Tomorrow might be fantastic” I tentatively suggested.
The next day was fantastic, but very cold. Hands and feet soon lost their feeling. This was the day we were going to climb to the Gouter Refuge at 3800m. In order to do this we firstly had to cross the notorious Gouter Couloir, which can be the scene of some of the worst stonefall in the Alps. However, all the snow we had suffered was now holding the rocks in place. It was as safe as I had ever seen it.
It was just before the couloir that Don and I roped our selves closely together. I kept the rope very tight. Don was able to place his hand on the rope and sense which direction to follow, rather like the harness moves on his guide dog. The good snow covering on the ridge was working to our advantage, because it allowed Don to place his crampons anywhere and they would stick like a knife in cork. We were able to make rapid progress up the ridge.
Our arrival at the refuge was a very important moment for us. Don was the 1st blind person to have ever visited the Gouter refuge.
The hardest part of the climb had been completed. I now knew that if the weather held we stood a good chance of reaching the summit of Mont Blanc the next day. This bubble of optimism was burst by the weather forecast:- “Strong winds and storms developing in the late morning”. We retired to bed thinking “Oh well, we’ve got this far; that is not too bad”, expecting to be descending the next day.
At 1.30 am, breakfast time at the Gouter refuge, the guardian woke us and announced that the weather was good. The big question was would it hold? We left the hut with a sense of anticipation and determination, knowing that if we made it we would be achieving something remarkable.
The 1st couple of hours went well. We crossed the psychological 4000m contour. Dawn was breaking over the impressive Bosses ridge bathing it in an orange light, but it was very cold. We had every item of clothing on. Balaclavas pulled over our noses and I was now wearing 4 pairs of gloves.
We arrived at the Vallot Hut (4300m.) and stopped for something to eat. Drinking was thwarted by our frozen water bottles. Don was feeling faint and dizzy. He had no feeling in his hands nor his feet. He expressed doubt as to whether he could continue. Then like many people at this stage he found a 2nd wind. “It’s only 2hrs from here” I said. As I shoved some boiled sweets in his mouth and waited for the sugar to kick in like a turbo boost.
We continued up the steep ridge, over the two bosses which give the ridge its’ name, moving slowly but always in the right direction, up.
Finally we moved onto the final summit ridge. The wind drilled into us. The ridge was narrow, no more than 30cm wide. There were big drops on either side. There was little point telling Don this (that could wait until we were back in the valley). My job was to keep the rope rigidly tight between Don and myself. The wind made it impossible to hear each other. Our progress was desperately slow. Don lifted each foot carefully and placed it directly in front of the other. Now and again the ridge would slightly deviate. Don’s boot would hover in space until Dave shouted right or left. He would then place it decisively. It was in this way that we reached the highest point in Western Europe. I said nothing, we just hugged each other. Tears of joy could not be held back and became frozen on our faces. Jane fought with the film camera as the wind tried to rip it from her grasp. She managed a few memorable seconds and then we were off back down the way we had come.
If ascending had been a challenge, then the descent was as complete a test of neat crampon work and nerve as one could ever wish for.
Dave went first followed by Don with me bringing up the rear keeping everyone on a tight rope. Don made Nazi style goose steps holding his leg above the knife edge ridge before being told by me where to place his boot. The descent was slow and stressful, we were all very tired.
10 hours after leaving the Gouter refuge we returned. We were too tired to continue down that day. Besides it was now snowing again.
On our final day we descended from the Gouter refuge, moving so fluidly that we even overtook several parties whom were also descending. They could not believe that one of our team was totally and utterly blind.
Don Planner was an inspiration to me and the bravest man I have ever met.