Tag Archives: mont blanc

What’s in my running bag

Don't leave home without it

It’s not a lot – but it works

When it comes to running I’m consistent. I don’t do bells or whistles. I don’t own a GPS watch – in fact I rarely run with any electronic device. Nor do I sport hi-tech socks or fancy layering.

Frugality is the name of the game. I like to keep my kit to five or six items.

This works well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a lighter load. Secondly, packing is easier for runs in other places. Thirdly, there’s less stuff to lose – and it all fits in a 15 liter pack (a Berghaus Twentyfourseven bag).

Over the last decade of running I’ve boiled it down to a simple collection, pictured above. I have one duplicate of each clothing item and that’s it. (Did I mention I’m frugal on the track?)

This is the kit that gets me around the bridges in Portland, along the beach in Dublin, on the pavement in Toyko or through the park in New York City.

So, as they famously ask at Amoeba Music, what’s in my bag?

The kicks: Nike Vomero 8s. The most reliable running shoe I’ve owned. This pair are a couple of year old but a little TLC and a lot of avoiding cross country surfaces has kept them intact. Even after a solid drenching (Portland or Dublin-style rain) they’re dry in 24 hours.

Kit in action

Kit in action

The top: I’ve had plenty of running tees over the years. This New Balance sticks out for two reasons: it dries quickly and it was given to me by my fashion-forward sister. No doubt she noticed that it would match my Nikes.

The shorts: Every runner knows the feeling. You arrive in a city, unpack for a morning run, and spend ten minutes in the darkness trying not to wake your spouse and locate the running shorts you left in the laundry basket at home. This pair was picked up in the wake of one such morning, on a visit to Galway, Ireland.

The socks: Socks are socks are socks. Nothing fancy here. Black’s handy for hiding the mud stains though.

The outer layer: …And breathe. This North Face Flight Series has got plenty of ventilation and the green/yellow color means I’m less likely to become a road statistic. The downside is an unstorable hood which flaps demonically in the slightest wind (works well in the rain though – see above).

The glasses: A basic pair of Pepper’s, their Speedline brand. They’re polarized, which limits glare on early morning outings. Not too expensive because – inevitably – I will mislay them.

The watch: My only nod to the digital age. I bought this Polar AW200 nine years ago, ahead of an ascent of Mont Blanc. While barometers and altimeters are rarely required where I run the stopwatch is handy. No GPS or other workout tracking though – but then again I run for other reasons.

Needless to say I’ve spared you some less glamorous elements of my kit – the underwear, the sunblock, the Vaseline, the blood, the sweat and the tears.

But what you see is what gets me around. It’s enough to push out a 44 minute 10k in the park or around northeast Portland – which is all I need for now (just don’t ask me to do it every day though, or I’ll have to add a jumbo bottle of ibuprofen to my bag).
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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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‘Next parish America’

Slea Head

The Blasket Islands from Slea Head.

IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?

Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.

Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.

For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.

That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.

The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.

As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.

I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.

One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.

Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us at least.

Until I returned last weekend.

I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.

I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.

As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.

The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.

Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.

Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.

It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.

She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.

I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.

Taking in the view, 1960. Pic: MJ Richardson

‘On the edge of Europe’. The rest-stop in 1960.
Pic: MJ Richardson

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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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What I Talk About When I Talk About Runners

Got sole?

Got sole?

Until I reached the age of 30 I had never ran further than 200 metres at any one time. When I did it was at a stretch – one which often involved my hamstring.

That changed when I decided to climb Mont Blanc in 2008. I wasn’t fit enough so, one spring evening in that year, I ran five kilometres for the first time.

What followed was a reality check of the severest nature, and a gut-wrenching realisation that I had to change the way I lived.

So I started running. Almost five years have passed and – allowing for a six month lazy wobble after that Alpine trip – I am still going. Five times a week, regardless of weather, location, state of mind, tiredness or any other factor that conspires to trip me up.

Most of it happens in my hometown of Dublin, but sometimes it’s further afield. In the past two years I’ve pounded pavements and parks in Los Angeles and London, New York and San Francisco, Killarney and Tuscany.

I’ve run on the morning of my wedding and the nights when jetlag ruled out sleep in Manhattan.
My first thoughts on hitting any new place are a little like George Clooney’s secret agent in Burn After Reading.

I’ve done most of those runs in my Nike Zooms (above). And this week, after two and a half years, they’ve finally began to fall apart.

Dawn run, Central Park, 2010.

Dawn run, Central Park, 2010.

I estimate I’ve clocked up around 5,000km in these runners since I bought them, a stat which would horrify most orthopaedic surgeons. (Common advice is to change running shoes every 700km, I’ve discovered.) For the record over all that time I’ve lost four or five days to shin splints, but suffered no other injury.

Despite the crumbling soles, the ripped fabric and the ratty laces even at this late stage I am loathe to bin my shoes. They’re a beat-up symbol of how far I’ve come. But now they gotta go.

– Haruki Murakami readers will have spotted the hat-tip in the title of this post. Murakami’s book is full of on-the-mark observations about running. One of his best is one of the simplest: “You don’t need anyone else to do it, and [there’s] no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

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