Literally the moment I sat down to try and put into words what had just happened this week my phone pinged. It was Damian Hopley (RPA founder and CEO) on our group WhatsApp from the challenge.
Hoppers – Hi guys, I’ve written a blog about our climb, its on twitter, lawyers on standby…
Well it’s fair to say that its great; he’s been far to nice about me in parts but it captures the trip brilliantly. So instead of me rabbiting on as usual i thought i would just share his version of events with you instead….. Enjoy:
The Alpine Challenge (Damian Hopley)
Sunday 9th September – Arrival Day
The great and the good have gathered in Chamonix for the @RestartRugby Alpine Challenge 3.0, supported by RISE Management Consulting, and I’m duty bound, reader, to report this looks like a very lively ensemble. Some of the trekkers have arrived early to acclimatise and sample a local drop to help calm the pre-trek nerves, and quite right too.
We have a number of new faces on the Trek and the opening dinner is a great opportunity to break the ice with the 19 strong crew. Unfortunately two of our trekkers have returned home for personal reasons, so we raise a glass or two to absent friends. Trek veteran and Restart Rugby ambassador Charlie Hodgson hands out the shirts to each of the squad who, in turn, are asked to say a few words about why they are here supporting the charity. Think ‘Living with Lions’ with considerably less production value.
What follow is an extremely poignant ceremony as everyone openly explains to a room full of strangers their individual motivation for coming to Chamonix and climbing Mont Buet. The final recipient was none other than Ed Jackson, who suffered a life changing spinal injury 16 months ago at the age of 28, which left him virtually paralysed from the neck down.
Following an operation to realign his spinal cord Ed embarked on an intensive and exhausting course of rehabilitation and Restart Rugby was able to offer support providing vital funds to pay for the essential physiotherapy Ed needed. To hear Ed speak so passionately about the support he received from Restart Rugby and also the entire rugby community sets the tone for what promises to be an incredible adventure for those of us lucky enough to be here.
The extra bottle of red we share at the end of the night is unnecessary but helps us all get to sleep, despite the very tangible excitement for what is to follow.
Monday 10th September – Buet Village to Refuge Pierre a Berard
1300m to 1925m
Our bags are packed, our boots are padded and we are all set for the off. The kit list sent out by our fantastic trek organisers, Chamonix Hard Cross, is extensive, and I have to admit that I have actually bought some walking poles. For someone who used to wince at the thought of wearing hiking boots, this is a Damascus moment. I have reached an age where they have become both essential and a badge of honour. Good grief. That said, if anyone sees me walking over Putney Bridge with them, you know exactly what to do.
With overnight bags packed, we set off from Buet Village in Valloracine to Sur les Rochers 4km and climbing 250 vertical metres. The first 75 minutes climbing is brutal as the aftermath of last night’s energetic revelries take their inevitable effect. We are extremely fortunate that the weather is set to be stunning for the Trek, but temperatures of 25 degrees aren’t so helpful for the climb. Ed has bought his personal (and multi-talented) physio, Mike Denbee (aka Denners) to help him on the trip. Ed’s left leg is heavily strapped around the knee and he has a stabilising device around his walking boot to help him lift his leg sufficiently to climb. It is nothing short of incredible to see Ed clambering up the tracks and is a constant reminder of why we are all here.
Our first stop is for an excellent lunch, the group is moving well and, as we fill our faces with cheeses, hams and bread, spirits are very high. Our next destination is 7km away and another 375m of climbing. We will be spending the night at the refuge Pierre a Berard, some three hours away, and for those of you who know me well, this is not something I am looking forward to. I am more a towelling robe and club sandwich-by-the-pool kinda guy, so heaven only knows why we agreed to this change in the itinerary for this year’s event. I suspect I am not the only one who is terrified about what lies ahead.
The pace of the trek is steady, as previously mentioned, as this is the first outing for the majority of the group so it’s important that we hydrate regularly and don’t spread out too far. The ‘esprit de corps’ is a key ingredient for this adventure and everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.
We get into the refuge mid afternoon and our guide Sebastien suggests that there is a good ascent to a hidden lake some 3km away for those who fancy another couple of hours on their feet. The landscape is very different to previous treks and it proves to be a very challenging climb. As with all things mountainous, when we finally arrive at the destination it more than makes up for the strenuous approach. Led by former Wasps and Gloucester star Will Matthews, a former schoolmate of Ed’s, some of the braver trekkers decide to get into the lake for a cool down, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
On descending to the refuge, we are shown our quarters for the night and I am horrified to learn that there is no spa on site. In fact, there isn’t much at all. One WC, one trough with four taps to wash with and our accommodation is a shared dormitory for 20 people. The majority of our group are staying in a dedicated hut, but eight of us have selflessly volunteered to go into a dorm with a group of German and French climbers. It is our very personal gesture to soften the Brexit blow.
There is a distinctly quieter mood at dinner as we steel ourselves for both an early start in the morning and a dormitory night spent with 20 fellow trekkers all crammed in like sardines and sleeping cheek to cheek. I become slightly hysterical but, as with all mountain men, I keep my emotions well disguised as I feast on a slab of over cooked ham and dry pasta. Yum.
Having met a couple of local donkeys who Daisy Hodgson takes an instant shine to (can’t think why), we all wish each other a bonne nuit and head up to face the music in the dorm. Andy Summers, a returning trekker from last year and all round top man, has drawn the short straw as the only available berth left for him is wedged in the eves of the pitched roof. If you imagine Ryan Reynolds in Buried you get the picture. As a former front row, Andy is a stocky, athletic individual who literally has to crow bar himself in. Andy also courageously confesses that he snores and physio/singer in-chief Denners is thrilled at the prospect of spooning Andy for the next seven hours.
I can barely contain my excitement as I get into bed, neither can Ali Stork, superstar of the CHX team, at the prospect of sharing a top bunk with five strapping men. Some girls have all the luck. Her husband, and CHX co-founder and fellow superstar, Damien, draws the short straw of lying next to me and he pushes me away as I attempt to spoon throughout the night. The night is one of the longest on record and poor old Denners has to endure a snoring performance from his bed pal that sounds like the advance on Leningrad.
In the other hut there is slightly less commotion, not helped, we learn over breakfast, by Daisy Hodgson’s fits of giggles and ghost story renditions minutes after lights out. Her husband and all time Premiership record points scorer, Charlie has heard it all before and slips gently into the arms of Morpheus unlike the rest of us.
Steps: 29, 498
Calories: 7, 572
Tuesday 11th September – Summit Day
Refuge Pierre a Berard to Mont Buet
1925m to 3096m altitude
It has been agreed the previous night that the trek would be split into two and that Sebastien would lead one group out early at 5:30am (yes, you better believe it) and then the second group would go an hour later and catch up before summiting together as one dream team.
Breakfast is awash with laughter as we cannot contain ourselves after the night that was. Daisy complains that her Daily Mail hasn’t been delivered whilst Gareth Stapleton, from Rise Management Consulting, our founding partner of the Alpine Challenge, asks his wife Sarah whether the thread count on their Egyptian cotton sheets was actually 400, as seen on Trip Advisor.
Today is THE big day and we set off climbing up some extremely difficult terrain before sunrise. As we make our way up the sun creeps over the mountains and the true majesty of our surrounds is revealed like we are on a film set. As a late comer to trekking, I have always maintained the sheer scale of the Alps is both awe inspiring and humbling, and we soak up the 360 degree views to Mont Blanc and into Italy and Switzerland.
As well as Rise Management Consulting, we are very lucky to have more of the Rugby Players’ Association’s partners join us for this trip to support our charity. The little and large element of the group is provided by our insurance partners, All Sport Insurance. At 6 ‘7” Kevin Davies strikes an imposing figure on the mountains (and in the bar) and his live-wire side kick, Andrew Pearce, an RFU referee for over 25 years, are excellent value. Even though they are more experienced than the majority of the group, their perseverance in tough conditions is fantastic to see.
The other RPA partners represented on the trip are Team Argentex who are also excellent value on and off the mountain. Their dedication to the chalet hot tub pre-hab and recovery is commendable and despite niggling knee injuries, they get on with the job in hand with a smile on their faces (most of the time). Brilliant effort from you all.
After three long and extremely sweaty hours climbing up the 12km to Col Salenton, we catch up with the early risers and are both inspired and amazed at how Ed has navigated the terrain. His remarkable physical strength is surpassed only by his indeterminable spirit and courage as he literally hauls himself over rocks and scree with the summit in sight. Ed Jackson is an extraordinary young man and it is our privilege to see this play out before our very eyes.
We all assemble at Arrete de Mortine and then start the final ascent to the summit of Mt Buet. At almost two -and-a-half times the height of Ben Nevis, what we are about to achieve is amazing. What Ed is about to achieve is almost unbelievable.
A few people go on ahead as we strive towards the summit and film the final few steps of Ed’s incredible journey. 16 months ago he broke his neck and was told he might never walk again. Today he has climbed Mont Buet. It is mind blowing. He is the embodiment of what Restart Rugby is all about.
Emotions run high at the top of the mountain and, quite understandably, Ed struggles to compose himself and say a few words, having taken in exactly what he has achieved. He speaks straight from the heart and there is not a dry eye on top of the mountain. I’m not sure words or pictures can do justice to that experience we all shared. To echo Ed’s words, “We must never take things for granted and always focus on the things we have, not the things we don’t”. Amen to that.
Looking out over the valleys to Mont Blanc from the top of Mt Buet is totally life affirming and to see the sheer delight on everyone’s faces for having successfully made it to the top is equally rewarding. The obligatory group photos ensue and everyone is having their own special moment looking down from where we came and pinching themselves about what has been achieved as a group.
In the lull after our early lunch, we press gang Daisy to don the fancy dress head-wear purchased pre-trek and do her best Maria von Trapp impression on the mountain top as The Sound of Music blares out of the portable speaker. Look out for her on the new series of The Voice..
Mont Buet to Buet Village
3096m to 1500m
What goes up must come down and at 11:30am we start the long descent back to the refuge (I’m still breaking out in a cold sweat as I write this) to stop off for a break, before heading down to Buet village. The temperature is rising and the sun is beating down on us as we start to descend. As the late, great Tom Petty sang in Learning to Fly: “Coming down in the hardest thing” – I’m not entirely convinced he was talking about the Alps, but let’s not dwell on that.
The interesting fact about coming down mountains is that it requires great concentration to plot where you are going to put your feet and then try not to skid on the boulders as you step down. It puts significant pressure on your joints and is mentally exhausting as you have to be on your guard for fear of tumbling. What makes Ed’s achievement even more super human is that he has to concentrate wherever he walks, up or down the mountain, so his resilience and mental fortitude is even more remarkable.
What ensues is a very long and challenging journey back to the refuge across extremely unpredictable terrain. In the words of Brian Hanrahan of BBC, we had counted them all out and counted them back in again, and after our very emotional farewell to the team at the refuge we start off for the final push.
What follows is extremely tough but to see the entire group who only, two-and-a-half days ago hadn’t met, all chatting, laughing, walking and enjoying the experience was a great sign of exactly what the mountains can do to people.
We found our way down to Buet village where the minibuses whisked everyone back to the village. A few old hands headed to the pub to see Ed sinking what he described as the best tasting beer of his life and one he, above anyone else, thoroughly deserved.
Steps: 42, 300
Calories: 8, 600
Beers sunk: Undisclosed
Our closing dinner is out of Chef Phil’s burger van as the entire group sits round the table absolutely shattered but very proud to have achieved what we all set to do. A small prize giving from CHX recognises the absolute gem of a man that Will Matthews is. His contribution to team morale has been remarkable throughout. Thank you Will, you are a very special human being and it was a pleasure to spend time with you.
We then recognise and thank Gareth and Sarah for all their support through Rise Management Consulting. It is entirely due to your help that we can stage such an incredible event, so thanks again for everything you do for Restart Rugby.
After dinner and in time honoured tradition, I am given the floor and permitted to say a few words of thanks to the organisers, Ali, Damien and Nick for their seamless work in making the trek so fantastic for everyone involved. We have been working with Chamonix Hardcross for three years now and the event continues to improve year on year, largely due to their leadership, expertise and sense of fun. Sincere thanks also go to the brilliant Ursula Fairlie and Beth Wright at Restart Rugby who have worked tirelessly on making this event the best yet.
The biggest thanks inevitably goes to every one of our trekkers who gave up their precious time to support Restart Rugby and went above and beyond to dig deep and summit Mount Buet at over 10,000 feet after two gruelling days on the mountain, not to mention one unforgettable night in a refuge..
And last and never least is the one individual who inspired us every step of the way throughout the trek. When Ed said he wanted to do the challenge earlier this year, there was some trepidation as to whether that was achievable. To then see him in action, listen to him speak with the maturity of someone way beyond his years and then see the inner fight is something beyond all comprehension.
At the risk of indulging myself (sorry Denners), if you had told me 20 years ago when I founded the Rugby Players’ Association that I would be spending time up a mountain with former rugby players, RPA partners and individuals raising money for our charity that was set up to support players and their families who have suffered injury, illness or hardship, I would have thought you should get help. To witness this last event and see someone who has been helped by Restart Rugby and is re-paying the charity back as both a Trustee and a fundraiser is incredibly humbling. Ed had no right to be able to walk again, but his sheer grit and spirit got him active and when he got up Snowdon in April, he immediately set his sights on a new challenge. He conquered Mont Buet where many able bodied people would or could not.
We can’t begin to thank you enough Ed for everything you are and everything you have done for Restart Rugby and also the game that we all love so much. It really was so very special to be with you and watch you achieve what you set out to with such good, humour and determination.
If you would like to donate towards Restart Rugby and the climb please follow link below, and Thank You!:
Ok so there we have it, challenge 2 comes to a close and what an unbelievable few days it was. After these climbs i’m always amazed by the emotional high i stay on for days, weeks, even months after. But where does it come from? What’s driving the background buzz of positivity, happiness and hope thats currently following me around? It could be the sense of accomplishment from overcoming the odds, or just relief from achieving something that has been planned for months. It might even be the strenuous exercise in the clear mountain air or the rafts of guilt free sugar i gorged on whilst climbing… You know what, i’m sure those factors all play their part but i think the chief culprit for my contentment is down to something else. I had a feeling i knew what it was after Snowdon but now, after this trip, I know for sure.
The true magic of these challenges is the bonds you make with each other. The bonds brought about by people coming together to achieve something good, something special. After just 72 hours we had walked together, climbed together, ate, drank and even slept together. There had been blood, sweat, tears. Hugs, high fives and hand shakes. And after just three crazy days in the mountains, I’ve come away with friends and memories for life. That’s what is special about these trips, its the shared moments; the laughing, the crying, even the snoring, without that we’re just climbing up a massive hill.
Have new experiences, meet new people, get out of your comfort zone but never forget how lucky you are to be able to do that in the first place.
Hoppers has been too kind in his blog. Without the support i have received from the RPA and Restart Rugby, organisations that he championed, I simply would not have been stood on top of that mountain. The truth is, i love doing things to pay them back, its not just about the money, i feel part of something bigger. By helping these charities i can make a difference for others and the more good that can come from my accident the better.
Everyone is dealt a hand, some easy, some hard, but theres no point complaining to the dealer. All you can do is make the most of the hand you’re dealt and remember; just because you’ve got tricky cards doesn’t mean you can’t win!
On to Nepal!!