Rohan Harrogate Lectures – November 3rd
Gill Richardson and Andres Helmer Climb Ev’ry Mountain
In all of my 50 years, I’d never had a relationship with a man which was anything like this one. It seemed particularly strange since he was almost half my age.
First he went through my overnight bag to see if the things I’d packed were ‘suitable’. Then he made me walk several paces behind him. At one point I was tied to his waist like some disobedient dog. I found myself asking for his approval before I ate anything and regularly ended up sleeping with ten other men before getting up at any unearthly hour of the morning he suggested, without complaint.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be your normal sort of male/female relationship and anyone familiar with climbing would know immediately that he was a mountain guide.
To me he represented my mid-life crisis rebellion. I had resigned my job to get fit and raise £25,000 for the new Yorkshire Cancer Centre in Leeds. The challenge was to climb the highest peak in eight European countries.
Until I’d hatched this so called, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ plan, my only ‘mountaineering’ experience had been a few days in the Lake District or in the Yorkshire Dales.
Twenty-seven-year old Andreas Helmer was an Austrian mountain guide who had taken on the job of getting this complete novice through the climbing journey which would culminate on Mont Blanc. He was my 50th birthday present – two weeks of his time had been bought for me by disbelieving relatives who’d attended a ‘Sound of Music’ themed birthday party.
I’d bagged the ‘joke summits’ of the Netherlands 322m, Belgium 694m and Luxembourg 558.35m before we met up in Austria in August 2007, to tackle the more serious climbs together.
The plan was to climb the Großglockner in Austria 3798m, then the Zugspitze in Germany 2964m, the Dufourspitze in Switzerland 4634m and finally Mont Blanc which at 4810m is the highest in France and its second peak, Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, which is the highest point in Italy 4728m.
Only later did I realise that my plan was extremely optimistic and that someone with a little more experience of mountains and their unpredictable weather would have hesitated. We had huge distances between the mountains which had to be climbed in more or less ascending order of height because of the altitude acclimatisation. Thankfully Andi kept his doubts to himself and kept his fingers crossed that the weather would be kind.
Of the 12 days we were together, we were climbing for nine of them and despite my training efforts, it took several months after the trip for my legs to begin to feel normal again.
I’d anticipated the muscular challenge but I was shocked at just how hard every step at altitude actually was. Another of the common effects of altitude, to which I succumbed, is not being able to sleep. Consequently, the following day was made even more gruelling for the rookie.
A real eye-opener on the trip was the high altitude huts – dark, crowded and smelly dormitories with a surfeit of loudly snoring companions and no running water. Instead of a luxurious en suite, there was just the perilous walk over the icy rocks to the loo if you were caught short during the night. Not my usual standard of holiday accommodation.
On a positive note, I was awestruck by the engineering and building skills which allowed the huts to cling to their inhospitable sites and also by the stupendous meals prepared by the cooks inside.
The weather was fairly hospitable and we did manage to tackle each mountain in the planned order. The Großglockner and Dufourspitze were tackled in near perfect conditions but a deafening thunderstorm caught us out before the summit on the Zugspitze. Setting off was a calculated risk on Andi’s part and we managed to complete the climb by taking advantage of the cable car for the descent. The high point for me was taking advantage of the sympathy that the diners in the cable car top station restaurant had for us in our soaked and exhausted state, and having a whip round for the charity, I came away with an extra €70!
I crossed glaciers, peered down huge, yawning crevasses, scrambled up rock faces in the dark, traversed spectacular ridges and trudged through snow-fields. In the space of one day I went from wearing every item of warm weather clothing I had to sunning myself in a T-shirt. I donned a climbing helmet, harness and crampons and experienced the enormous exhilaration of scaling the summit. I felt so privileged to have been given access to this amazing world of mountaineers and the high Alps.
The biggest disappointment was that high winds allowed us to go no further than the Refuge de l’Aiguille du Goûter on Mont Blanc in 2007.
However, on the return trip, we acclimatised on Gran Paradiso 4061 m – the highest mountain which lies within Italy – and finally conquered Mont Blanc on Friday 29th August, 2008 in glorious weather.
Andi and I have proved that with a bit of training and the right sort of guiding, a middle-aged, middling fit female can start from scratch and actually get somewhere in the mountains.
I’m fitter than I’ve ever been and I now class him as trusted friend – despite some of the obvious indignities he put me through.
My legacy to him was the memory of my awful renditions of all the famous ‘Sound of Music’ songs. If ever you’re in the Alps and hear a mountain guide humming ‘Lonely Goatherd’, you know who it’ll be.
Friends, business colleagues and family helped with all manner of fundraising activities, local journalists and radio presenters kept me in the limelight, Sally Helmer, my guide’s Yorkshire wife, raised a huge sum for the cause and my pal Phil painted pictures of the journey which resulted in an exhibition of paintings and pictures. The best thing of all, for me personally, is that after 50 years of being on the planet, I’ve finally experienced the real magic of the mountains and have an overwhelming desire to return.
Rohan Harrogate Lectures – November 3rd
All Rohan Harrogate Lectures are free but spaces are limited, to reserve your place please give us a call and we will take your details. The series of lectures will be held at Rohan, 21 Station Square, Harrogate, HG1 1SY, 01423 508766. The doors will be open from 6.00pm and the talks will start at 7.00pm drinks and nibbles will be provided.
Although the lectures are free, donations to Yorkshire Air Ambulance would be appreciated on the night and any money raised through the season will be matched by Rohan up to a maximum of £1500. There will be 15% off all purchases on the lecture evenings, although as it is going to be really busy it would be better to phone ahead and get the stuff you want set aside so you are not attempting to try things on during the good bit of the talk!
More information on Rohan Harrogate Lectures