Tag Archives: Alps

A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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Why I climbed Mont Blanc

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

SITTING in the departures lounge at Geneva International Airport I had little sense of feeling lucky.

I felt sore. My toe was busted up and my legs ached.

I was happy though. It was Sunday, August 24, 2008 and I had summitted Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, 48 hours earlier.

Then I got the message.

“Are you ok? Eight missing on Mont Blanc after avalanche yest.”

The text came from a work colleague back in Dublin, himself a climber, who knew I was pushing for the summit that weekend (just not exactly when).

More messages followed in the coming hours as the full scale of one of the worst accidents in  the French Alps in decades began to emerge.

The climbers, five Austrian and three Swiss, were swept to their deaths when a huge ice serac  broke off, avalanching down the mountain and burying them underneath. Seven other were injured.

The final ridge to the summit,

The final ridge to the summit.

Eyewitnesses told of a huge tract of ice, 200m long and 50 wide, sweeping silently and rapidly down the mountain face at 3,600m, and climbers’ desperate attempts to get out of its path in time.

The recovery mission was later suspended; the local mountain rescue chief said there was little chance of recovering the bodies.

The French interior minister described the serac fall as “monumental” and “inescapable”.

All this unfolded on the same peak where I stood a little over a day earlier.

Reading the reports over coffee in a sunny airport cafe I had a sense of ‘there but for fortune’.

But I was aware, as most who undertake any Alpine climb are, that accidents happen on Mont Blanc like they do anywhere else.

It’s just that when they happen on Mont Blanc they tend to be far deadlier.

Despite the thousands who attempt it each year ascending the peak is not safe. There are areas of the mountain, such as the notorious rockfall run of the Grand Couloir, that remain very dangerous – despite every precaution.

The mountain – and the risks borne in climbing on it – was back in the headlines this week.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

An accident on the Dent du Geant, a sub-peak on the Mont Blanc massif, claimed the lives of two Irish climbers last Sunday.

The two were experienced climbers and, by all accounts, were operating well within their comfort zone.

Nonetheless a single event – which appears to have been a rope breaking loose from the face – caused the pair to fall 200m to their deaths.

Many people are troubled by the apparent meaningless of such a tragedy. Every such catastrophe leads to loss of life and devastation for families left behind. People ask ‘for what’?

Nothing tangible, it would appear. No great advance, no ground-breaking progression. The significance rarely stretches beyond whoever’s on your rope.

The Irish climbers surely knew this, as do the hundreds of others on Mont Blanc today.

That’s because at its core, and despite the necessity of teamwork, mountaineering is a solipsistic pursuit. The camaraderie is enjoyable but for many a successful ascent is, firstly, a personal achievement.

That achievement comes at the cost of personal risk and most who climb seriously, on Mont Blanc or anywhere else, will accept this.

The gains – chief among them watching the dawn break from the highest point on the continent – completely outweigh the risks. The danger is traded for the feeling and the memory – a bargain forgotten once you step off the mountain.

But all that didn’t stop me sensing an echo of that Geneva Airport feeling as news of this week’s tragedy broke.

There but for fortune.

'Watching dawn break from the highest point on the Continent". Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008. Pic: Eamon Costello

‘Watching the dawn break from the highest point on the Continent.  Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008.
Pic: Eamon Costello

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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

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Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

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As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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‘The beckoning silence of great height’

Ger McDonnell.

Ger McDonnell.

Irish climber Ger McDonnell died in the Death Zone on K2 on August 2, 2008, most likely in an avalanche of ice from a falling serac.

I remember where I was that day – working the newsdesk of a paper in Dublin.

The afternoon was spent urgently checking web reports from climbing parties at K2’s basecamp and trying to contact McDonnell’s friends and family.

Verifiable information was scant that first day and would continue to be in the months after.

What occurred on ‘the Savage Mountain’ over the course of 48 hours that August weekend proved to be a story of information and lack of information, accurate and inaccurate reports, of blurred recollections.

When deadline arrived in Dublin that night McDonnell was missing, presumed dead. Witnesses later reported seeing him being struck by a devastating icefall that day.

In the hours, days, weeks and months afterwards the story of what exactly happened to the 37-year-old has been the subject of TV interviews, online and print media reports, more than one book and now a documentary feature film, The Summit, released in Ireland today.

Most of the ‘McDonnell on K2’ stories focus, understandably, on his desperate final hours and the aftermath of his death.

Dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

The author, dawn on Mont Blanc, August 2008.

But what of the years, months and days that led him to this remote mountain and his summit push of August 1, 2008?

Why did this engineer leave a partner in Alaska and family back in Ireland to climb a peak which boasts a fearsome fatality rate, killing , some say, one in every four of those who attempt it?

Just two years earlier McDonnell was medivacked off K2 after being and injured by a falling rock. Surely once was enough?

What brought McDonnell back? The easy answer might ascribe his 2008 attempt to a competitive nature, a desire to knock the mountain off. Or, having already climbed Everest, a desire to stand on the second highest summit or Earth.

I’ve no idea. I didn’t know O’Donnell.

But I imagine the main factor at play was evident in a matter-of-fact comment by his brother-in-law Damien O’Brien – that McDonnell “did it for the love of it”.

This is a feeling common to any mountaineer, climber or hillwalker, whether on K2 or Croagh Patrick.

It ranges from the ‘earth beneath your feet’ feeling of a short weekend hike to the mind-clearing, elemental vistas of dawn breaking over the rim of world seen from a 5,000m summit.

Ger McDonnell memorial, Carrauntoohill, May 2009.

Ger McDonnell memorial, summit of Carrauntoohil, May 2009.

Joe Simpson dubbed this draw the ‘beckoning silence of great height’, a description of a  sensation that is both a physical experience and an all-encompassing psychological lure.

In my own (limited) mountaineering experience this feeling can be tempered with anything from a Zen-like bliss to icy fear – and it lasts long after you’ve departed the peak.

I’ve found it stronger in moments of quiet or solitude, at dawn or at the foot of the mountain, in memory or anticipation, than in the exhilaration of summiting itself.

Perhaps this is the feeling that led Ger McDonnell back to K2 in the summer of 2008.

I like to imagine it was and that something of it remains where he lies to this day, up there amid the great heights of the Karakoram.

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