Thursday, 16 May 2013

Swim on the Blanc.

Spring hasn't really said hello around the Chamonix mountains much this season. I don't know if it's lazy, busy or doing other fun things somewhere else. Maybe Spring had had a shameful experience on a night out in town and was just too shy to show its face. There's mutual feelings going around Chamonix with everyone being fed up with the poor weather. Just feels like we've missed out on those long special periods of good settled weather where you can ski up high in the mountains in the morning, go climbing in the afternoon then have a BBQ whilst the sun is setting. Don't get me wrong I've had some great days out recently but they seem to be quite spaced apart.

Spring's face?!

One of my main objectives that I wanted to complete whilst the snow line was still quite low. Was a link up starting at Contamines, skining up the Tre la Tete glacier to the Dome du Miage, then along and up to the Aiguille du Bionnassay, onto the Dome du Gouter, and then a final slog up to Mont Blanc. The time had come. I had climbed a few things up high the week before so felt well acclimatised but knew that this was going to be a long day out. Ben, Misha and Myself had been planning  this goal for a while and were waiting for some stable weather to go. Tuesday 14th May the weather was looking pretty good for it. Ben called and got the detailed weather forecast. We had planned it out knowing that if there was a change of weather there were places we could bail from. So the day before we all talked through our logistics, then went home for some crucial sleep and food.

Misha gearing up at the car.

 Being picked up by Misha at 12.50am to start our adventure was quite hard hitting. A quick drive to pick Tibbetts up and then we headed over to Contamines where we drove to the last car park up the valley, geared up and left around 2.15. In the dark we hiked up to the Tre La Tete hut in just over an hour.

Way to early for hiking in ski boots.

We then had to walk a small section before reaching the Glacier. It felt great to be on the snow after walking up the dirt trail in my Scarpa Aliens.

First sights of what we thought was
going to be bad weather.
Tre le Tete Glacier.

Misha and myself on the glacier.

A light breakfast for Ben.

 Once here it was a long mellow skin up to the Col du Miage. It felt good to be skinning as this meant we could control our pace a lot easier, and could switch the brains off for a while as we shuffled our way up the Glacier. As the sun started to rise we could see some clouds starting to build on the mountains next to us, which made us think about what lay ahead and whether we might have to bail. However reaching the Col du Domes we discovered that the wind wasn't as bad as we first thought and the sky was looking as clear as the choice to continue on.

Misha & Ben.

Let the boot pack commence.

From now on the skis were on our backs and until the summit of Mont Blanc we'd be on foot. The  wind was having an amazing party on top of Mont Blanc, it looked super hectic up there, everywhere else though was sunny and bright. Apart from the occasional gusts that would pick up and make you cold, this was a good day. We made our way over to the Durier hut, where we relaxed for a bit and refuelled.

Ben heading off along our first ridge.

Misha following.

Myself & Misha.

The next section was a long slog up to the rock section of the Aiguille du Bionassay. When we arrived at the rock step we scoped out which way was best. Misha said he was starting to feel a bit tired so we thought it'd be best if Ben and Misha tie on together and take their time for a bit. The climbing was actually really good fun and felt amazing to be pulling with the arms and climbing on rock rather than snow bashing. Ben and Myself were climbing side by side chatting to each other about how lovely this was. The rock climbing wasn't too hard and we all felt pretty comfortable. After the rock climbing we had to make our way up yet another final snow slope. As I was in front I thought I may as well just keep pushing on with breaking the trail. I got to the Summit of the Aiguille du bionassay around 12.30.

Misha on one of the many slomps.

The severe winds were still raving away at their party on the summit of Mont Blanc, it looked pretty grim up there and I was aware that we were all getting tired and still had a while to go. I started to have that accepting feeling inside me that we wouldn't be going to the summit of Mont Blanc. Instead we'd go to the Dome du Gouter, as planned, and maybe head down to the Plan du Aiguille lift station. This would not be a bad thing at all, sure we wouldn't complete our main objective but we'd still have travelled a hell of a long way and done so much together.

Me rock climbing on the Bionassay.

From the Summit of the Bionassay I looked back and saw Ben and Misha approaching maybe 200m behind me, I looked ahead and studied the remainder of our journey. We had a long traverse on the slope in front of me, a down climb to the Col du Bionassay and then a 400m climb up some snow ridges and faces to the Dome du Gouter. However things were due to take a much more dramatic  change for me! I left the summit and carried on along the ridge/slope. I could see that the ridge proper was a built up cornice, so for obvious reasons stayed a few meters below that. Also I didn't want to go to low as I wanted to keep the height that I had gained. I walked for maybe 400m from the summit along this slope and nothing felt strange or unsafe. The snow had a very slight crust on top, but the consistency through it felt fine and I was comfortable with my position. Sure I was tired, my eyes would look up every so often to see how much progress I still had to make, then would return to my thoughts and watch my body do it's automatic function of one foot in front of the other. Axe in the upper hand and walking pole in the lower to support myself and allow me to carry on ahead. The winds had started to play around me, so the hoods went up and now I was properly locked into my own wee world where random thoughts would creep in and those incredible annoying songs wouldn't leave you alone.

Me walking along the slopes after the summit.

Silently and unexpectedly I fell onto my side, and for half a second I couldn't grasp what was happening. I then immediately noticed the slope I was lying on was cracking up and the crest of the ridge was moving away from me. In these first few seconds I tried so hard to crawl and 'Swim' (copyright to Ally Swinton, any papers that use that term owes me a fiver) my way to the top of the slope that was going with me, the top was only a meter away and even though I gained some ground it was too late. After these few seconds I knew I was going down. ''No... Fuck No!'' were the words coming out of my mouth. Still trying to claw onto the slope underneath the avalanche that I was now well and truly engrossed in. I was then thrown off a cliff band and into the air. All I could see was white. Whilst freefalling, in this white room, I remember actually feeling gutted that this was the way I was going to go. This was my lights out and all I could hope was that it just wouldn't be that sore! But I knew something was about to happen and that it was going to hurt, and I wasn't really looking forward to it. It did actually feel like I was awhile in the air until I hit something. Probably was only a couple of seconds, but I had enough time to think. I banged into some sections of rocks, and kept thinking that something worse was about to come. After hitting the rock section I was dragged down and washed around in even more snow. I had no idea if this was the end of it or if I was about to be taken over another rock band for round two. My mouth filled with snow once and can remember spitting it out and it immediately filling up again. I had to put my fingers in my mouth to unplug it.

Looking back up from my landing zone.

Suddenly it was all over and I was sitting upright looking around at my new surroundings I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I couldn't stop swearing at myself, and just being quite angry with what had happened. It took awhile for me to get up, I was sore, but I knew nothing was broken. I put my big Rab down jacket on to stay warm, and then tried to phone Ben. But I had no signal. I was in a sort of bowl with mountain sides all around. I looked up and couldn't see Ben or Misha. This felt shit. I gathered my bag, broken skis and poles then started hobbling away from the debris to see if I could either get phone signal or see Ben and Misha. I had no idea if they saw me go, or even if something had happened to them. After around 20 mins, I could hear Ben shouting my name. I looked high up to the ridge line and saw Ben waving and shouting. A huge relief hit me. I knew that once they had seen me they'd get help and look after me.

My quicker variation off the mountain.

However I still had no phone signal and could hardly hear them shouting, so I had no idea of what was happening. They phoned the PGHM but as I was on the Italian side it was passed onto Aoste Mountain rescue. After a while I could hear the beat beat of the chopper arriving, then not long after it set down, I limped onto its skid and was pulled inside. It flew over a ridge down to a safer spot on a glacier and dropped me off with a few crew members, then it flew back up to collect Ben and Misha. After that it came back for us all and left for Courmayeur to drop Ben and Misha off. Then they took me down to Aoste Hospital A &E. I went through a lot of checks, ultra sound and x-rays. Amazingly I came out of this with a few bruises and scrapes. Damn lucky is all I can say.

My last tracks. 

I came out that night and went home to start recovering. The one thing that has been strange to deal with after this accident is all the press attention. I never thought they would be bothering us about it especially so soon after. Ben and Misha got contacted yesterday about it and Ben said a small piece just to clarify what had happened. The papers weren't satisfied with this though, they wanted the 'Briton who swam a 700m avalanche'. Funny cause I'm a really shit swimmer and would struggle to swim the length of my bath. So the journalists contacted many British climbers and guides to see if they'd been in an avalanche on Mont Blanc. I would like to apologise to anyone who was bothered by the press about this, but you do have to admit it's kind of funny.

Which article do you think is for me?

So I've got a lot of training to do if I'm going to enter the winter Olympics triathlon; Climbing, skiing and 'Swimming'...! Swimming 700m at 4000m altitude is a pretty good start! In all seriousness though, Ben, Misha and Myself were well prepared, had all the 'Safety Equipment' and are all well experienced climbers who knew what we were doing. It was just a very unlucky incident that happened to a very lucky boy.
I had such a nice dinner with my girlfriend, Ben, Misha and a few friends last night, we all had a good laugh about it. Honestly I've not laughed as much in a long time. Not to be ignorant but at the end of the day if everyone is ok then all you can do is laugh.

One of the rescue while we waited for Ben and Misha to be lifted.

I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone who has sent there love, the rescue crew and the hospital team. A big thanks to Ben Tibbetts and Misha Gopaul for such an awesome day.

Ben approaching the Durier hut. Awesome day!


  1. You're a jammy sod, Ally, but sounds like it was a great day up until then and, hey, you got a cracking blog post out of it! :)

  2. Good work mate, and glad you made it to dinner!


  3. So glad those AREN'T your last tracks, lad!

    1. Pretty glad as well Dane. Hope you are well.

  4. Good story Ally, yer a lucky Laddie. The song in your head before it happened wasn't Brown Girl in the ring I hope.


  5. Glad you're okay mate! Sounds pretty sketchy!! Alex

  6. Just talked to Dane and realized that article I'd read earlier was about you! I took a 'ride' 2 years ago but you took the 'big ride' mate! Glad you walked away from this one. I owe you one of my CD's!

  7. Just saw the Rab Facebook page story on this and wanted to say glad you're okay. Nice write-up too. Best wishes.