The Heavy Legs Project

So… Summit to summit in 11 days 5 hours and 41 minutes. We did it and are really happy with ourselves. The whole thing zoomed past and is already a bit of a blur in my memory but I’m going to write an account of what I can remember for anyone who’s interested.

Things went as well as we could have dreamed of and we were very lucky with all the help we had and also the weather which could have made things much harder. The one thing that occasionally threatened to thwart our attempts was our lack of organisation and tendency to assume ‘it’ll be reet.’

The 1st major organisational hiccough was the setting off from the summit of ‘The Ben’. We had forgotten about the 6 hours of driving required to get up to Fort William and the 3 hours required to walk up to the summit. As a result we decided to begin our mountain to mountain 1200 mile journey without any sleep. We arrived on the summit at around 11pm and waited for an hour before we could set off. I had envisaged a beautiful moonlit evening where we could see for miles and would bound down to the car park with head torches left in the top of our bags. Instead of course the summit was in a freezing cold, thick cloud. Visibility was down to about a metre and there was a steady chill breeze making the damp creep into our bones.

There were people wrapped in sleeping bags crammed into the little summit shelter so Jack and I just crouched near the cairn and did occasional star jumps to try and keep the cold at bay.

Crouched up on the summit of Ben Nevis

I had taken my bike light which we nicknamed ‘the sun’ so that we would be able to get some pictures in the cloud and we had fun flailing around in its beam looking quite alien.

Me looking pretty cool in the cloud.

Eventually midnight came around and we shivered a little as we did a little video count down before setting off at a trot down from the summit. Running proved not to be on the cards and stumbling blindly between cairns, unable to decide whether we could see further with or without the head torches was the preferred method of descent. The cairns would be invisible until they loomed ominously out of the dark a foot in front of us. Gradually the going got easier, we dropped out of the thickest part of the cloud, warmed up as we increased our speed and soon settled into a power walk chatting about the task ahead of us.

We got to the van at roughly 2am, woke Mac up and began to cook up some porridge whist getting into our cycling things and munching on some cereal bars. Porridge eaten, cycle shorts, shoes and jerseys on we had no excuses left and we set off bravely into the night. After 250 yards I turned back to the van complaining that it was ‘bloody freezing.’ Mac giggled as I put a thermal under my biking top which I found out has millions of clever little holes in to increase ‘airflow’. Off we went again. This time we made it past 250 yards and into Fort William where the smooth roads and street lights gave us high spirits and made us speed our way South towards the silhouettes of some large Scottish mountains. For at least half an hour we were chatting about the unbelievable fact that we were actually ‘doing it’ and how we didn’t think it would be too bad. Then we agreed that as we still had at least 8 days of cycling left we should probably slip stream each other to conserve energy. Shortly after that we rode in silence regretting not sleeping and feeling slightly gutted that the foreseeable future was to be spent in the saddle. As we left sea level and cycled up through Glen Coe the sky began to lighten revealing the clouded tops of the familiar mountains. I’d never noticed in the car but Glen Coe is actually a very long gradually sloping hill which is quite tedious on a bike. We came across midge rain which was a first for me. A good, plentiful source of protein I’m sure as with each glance forward I would swallow several, take a few in each eye and usually snort a couple for good measure.

After we’d left Glen Coe and the midge rain behind we found ourselves gliding down hill for ages towards the flat lands of Loch Lomond. As relieved as we were to not be pedalling slowly uphill we did encounter a new issue. Both Jack and I were napping whilst gliding down hill occasionally being rudely awakened by a motorist or lump in the road. The Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum couldn’t come soon enough. We met Mac there shortly after 6 and decided we should grab a power nap seen as there was still 130 miles to do that day and it wouldn’t be good to fall asleep in Glasgow. Mac was tired too so we chained the bikes to a post and slept 3 in a bed. All I can say is it’s a good job I was tired. 45 minutes sleep saw us right and we were positively raring to go when we climbed back out of the van. A bit of food, a brush of the teeth and we were off again cycling the endless length of Loch Lomond to meet up with the van in Dumbarton.

Green Welly Stop car park after a quick snooze

The weather brightened up considerably and we were almost enjoying ourselves by the time we arrived at Dumbarton to join Mac for some scram and a bit of a stretch. Mac joined us on his bike for a few miles to boost our moral and make us look a bit more professional with his Team Sky top on. Mac turned back and we tackled Glasgow hoping to meet the van on the other side. Glasgow turned out to be a nightmare as the cycle paths were a little bumpy and riding along the canal was a little scary. Once we were suitably lost we consulted the smart phone which responded to rain drops as well as Jack’s finger meaning it wasn’t much use. Eventually we found our way out of the city and on to where Mac was waiting in the van. More food and drink and then we forced ourselves back out into the uncertain weather to face the final 65 miles which would get us to Lockerbie.

We arrived in Lockerbie around 9:15pm and found the van but Mac wasn’t in it which caused a temporary panic. Fortunately he was just in the pub and hadn’t been abducted so the panic didn’t have to last long. We bedded down (3 to a bed) in Lockerbie train station and felt relieved that the biggest day of the challenge was out of the way. Both of us were fairly impressed with our 186 miles on 45 mins of sleep after a swift visit to highest point in the British Isles.

At 5am next morning we were up and about enjoying small amounts of burnt porridge and looking for suitable places to relieve ourselves. We got back on the bikes gingerly and rode off, hoping to meet Mac in Penrith for second Breakfast. After a while we both managed to sit fully back in the saddle and found quite a rhythm. We had left Scotland by 8:30am and were steadily crunching the miles in Northern England. Once we’d left Scotland the enormous distance we’d travelled began to sink in a bit and helped us feel good about what we were doing.

From Penrith after some more scoffed food and jovial banter with Mac we braved the A66 as far as Brough where we were to meet Mac for the last time as he had to nip off to work that evening. Ta very much Mac xx. He cooked us up a storm and we said our goodbyes before we headed off up a big hill. After 1/4 mile however our brains warmed up sufficiently to realise it was in the wrong direction and we headed back down to Brough and then aimed South.

Mac, Jack and I having a munch at Brough

Shortly after Brough we came to realise another fairly huge organisational error in our plans. We reached a junction which offered the Tan Hill Pub on the left or Westwards to the right. We knew we didn’t want to go West and we knew we didn’t really want to visit the highest pub in England given that it’s fairly… high. Some chaps who looked like they knew their stuff (they had panniers and everything) came riding up the steep hill from the West and suggested we would have to take the Tan Hill road to get to where we wanted to be. They said rather importantly ‘we’ve come from Kendal this morning and are heading to Whitby but obviously not this evening. You lads just out for the day?’ We told them we set out from Lockerbie that morning and Fort William the day before and were heading for Chamonix but not that evening. They thought we were either full of it or completely bonkers so feeling suitably crazy we headed over the Pennines via the Tan Hill Pub. The moral of the story is don’t plan a ride like this one on a map with no contours. In hindsight I think crossing over to the East in Southern Scotland may have added a few miles but would have avoided a large amount of uphill which considerably slowed us down.

Wise to our mistake with the contours, we decided to head to Richmond rather than continue scaling the dales and we made fairly good time back to Topcliffe where the van was waiting at my house.

It was a bit surreal nipping home mid challenge but short-lived as we just grabbed a few bits from the van and headed on to York to meet Howard. I now had a bag with a few bits in it and Jack had put more things in the saddle bag he borrowed from Mary Poppins and we rode the last 20 miles to York. Howard led us along the fantastic cycle paths into York where dog walkers and joggers greet cyclists with ‘where’s your bell’ and cyclists respond ‘on it’s end.’

Howard put us up in style. He and Nat fed us with a lovely meal, allowed us to have possibly the best shower in the entire world and gave us a comfy bed. In the morning we got spoilt with a top-notch breakfast a real coffee and to top it off we went on our way with a box full of Nat’s amazing rocky road. Cheers guys.

We made ultra slow progress due to our excruciating arse’s preventing us from sitting down and finding a rhythm. Jack’s bike and knees had a meltdown which almost spelt disaster as we rode through Grantham. We visited a bike shop which kindly dropped what they were doing to fix Jack’s bike whilst Jack necked a few pain killers from the pharmacy to relieve his knees. We left the bike shop just after 5 with 75 miles still to go to reach my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Newport Pagnell near Milton Keynes. Fortunately the bike seemed to be fixed and Jack’s knees weren’t bothering him so we made speedy progress until it got dark. A bit of nasty riding in the dark without lights saw us arrive at our destination just after 10:30pm. Ursula and Graham kindly still fed us dinner and breakfast despite our late arrival and we are super grateful for their hospitality.

Next day we headed towards Dover via London and it was the hottest day yet. London proved to be awful and it took ages as we stopped at endless traffic lights bringing our average speed down to almost nothing. Sprinting between lights whilst breathing copious amounts of smog was not ideal after over 500 miles of riding in 3 and a half days. Once we eventually got over Tower Bridge and through the olympic traffic we found ourselves struggling to navigate our way to Dover without using motorways which generally terrified us. It became apparent that we were going to be riding in the dark and neither of us had any phone battery left so we started trying pay phones. On our third attempt we got through to Kristina who said Spike and Carey were at Dover with the van which was welcome news. She asked them to find us on the A2 with some bike lights and we carried on with a new wave of energy. I have never been so happy to see Spike, Carey or the Green Van in my life. We dumped my bag, ate some food and popped some lights on. Encouraging words from Spike and Carey made us realise that we were going to make the ferry and thus have managed to ride from Fort William to Dover in 4 days. A couple of hours later and we were chatting elated in the van whilst queueing for the ferry. England was finished and it felt like we were going on holiday with mates.

I took a camp bed on the ferry and slept for the whole crossing. When I woke up I appeared to have had an allergic reaction to something and my eyes and lips were swollen to abnormal proportions. Spike has an amusing photo somewhere. When we arrived in France, Spike drove us to the Calais stadium where we slept until 8 the next morning.

For some reason France felt more relaxed already. Perhaps it was the lack of plans, or ferries to catch but I felt a hundred times better just to be in France. We milled around in the growing heat and set off at about 11am with a vague notion of where to go. So vague in fact we actually did a 4 mile loop ending up back at the stadium before getting a bit more serious and actually heading South. The roads seemed far better in France and for much of the time there were cycle paths which were even smoother than the roads. Our bottoms appreciated this a lot and so we were pretty quick all day. We had a dip in the sea in Berck and managed 100 miles despite the late start. We met the boys in the party van in a lay-by just South of Abbeville, had a great meal and settled down for the night.

A breakfast stop in Northern France, check out my helmet hair!

Jack and I kipped in the van and Spike and Carey kipped on camp beds by the side of the van. In the middle of the night about 6 French police officers paid us a visit. Jack and I were sparko and so Carey leapt off his camp bed and went to attack them with his lightweight camera pole. Meanwhile Spike set the van alarm off and gave them our passports whilst the pair of them tried to get me to speak French. I managed a groggy ‘Bonjour’, Jack let out a loud snore and I went back to sleep.

The next day we got up at 5 and set off around 6 in the direction of Troyes. The landscape became more and more rolling and the weather got warmer and warmer. We began to enjoy the van stops more and more and really had to try hard to set off again. The second night in France was spent in a beautiful field off the road which was nice and quiet and we were uninterrupted.

Another of the many idyllic van stops. I could have stayed here for days.

Gradually Jack and I were getting more and more tired and the time we seemed to be able to last in the saddle was getting shorter and shorter. We found ourselves hoping desperately for the van to be around the corner waiting for us. Meeting up with Spike and Carey who were generally relaxed and easy-going was exactly what we needed to break up the days. We spent a lot of time talking crap and lounging around. Carey would try to film Jack or I applying creme to our nether regions, Spike was usually horizontal, topless or thinking about being that way. It was always a good feeling to arrive at the van or see the van drive past.

On the third night in France we ended up in the middle of Dijon quite late at night and Spike reported that they couldn’t find anywhere suitable to kip within 20 miles of the city so we ended up summoning the van back into Dijon and we snuck into a gated car park of a rugby stadium to spend a peaceful night in the city.

From Dijon we covered about 60 miles before things started get more and more hilly. The plan was to get within easy striking distance of Chamonix meaning we should have an easy last day of cycling the following day. We covered our 1000th mile roughly half way through the day making us part of the 1000 miles in a week club which can’t be a club with that many members. Some of the hills we had to ride that afternoon went on for ages but then in reward we would have sections of roughly 15 miles where we wouldn’t have to pedal and the scenery became spectacular. Sunrises and sunsets were always a pleasure to ride in both because of the beautiful colours but also due to the nice riding temperature.

Early morning on the bikes

For the last day on our bikes we had around 65 miles to ride and probably well over 1000m of height to gain once all the down hills had been taken into account. It was the hottest day yet with temperatures hovering around 33 degrees. The scenery became breath-taking and that combined with the feeling that the cycling would soon be over spurred us on. A slight lapse of concentration meant that I had my first and only crash about 40 miles from the finish line. A car in front broke sharply and as a result I decided to frontflip my bike into the back of it denting the poor car and my helmet in the process. Fortunately my bike was fine, the car drove off without stopping and Jack laughed from there all the way to the last bit of road up towards Les Houches and Chamonix.

We were just cruising the last bit of main road up to Chamonix which goes through those tunnels when a road maintenance truck pulled us over and explained that we were being illegal and could get fined 90 euros. Being a kindly french man he gave us directions which were more suited to bikes. So we zig zagged for ever up a steep and uneven road until we were way above Les Houches and then descended back down until we found ourselves back at the main road. Thinking it would be unlikely to get caught twice we thought we’d ride the last couple of miles on the main road and it would all be over. About one minute onto the road and we found ourselves pulled over and being told by the same guy that we really shouldn’t be on the road still and that there was a much more suitable way for bikes. This time however his directions were less severe and we arrived at Chamonix a short time later. It had taken us 8 days and 12 hours to ride from the Ben Nevis car park to Chamonix and that was quite a good feeling.

Relief. We finally arrive in Chamonix

We met the boys and the party van and headed for a meltwater river to jump in for a much-needed wash. It’s hard to explain but pretty much everything in the van and all the cycling clothes felt as if it had a thick layer of grease on it and it was the nicest feeling in the world to bag all the cycling clothes knowing that I wouldn’t have to slither back into any of it. Once we’d washed in the freezing river and fed a little bit we headed to the guides office to purchase some mountain insurance and check on the conditions. We’d arrived on the Tuesday and by the looks of the report the 1st ideal summiting conditions would be Friday morning which meant we could relax and spend a while getting up the mountain. As we were in no rush, Spike and Carey said they would come as far as the Tete Rousse with us which is where we planned to summit from.

What a team!

We slept the night under the stars and then spent the next morning lazily packing our bags before wandering up to around 2300m to camp near the Nid Aigle train station. We shared a nice sheltered spot with some curious goats, got rained on during the night and early morning as promised and continued up to the Tete Rousse Glacier in the clouds the next day. The clouds burnt off during the afternoon and Spike and Carey wondered about taking in the views and enjoying the buzz of ‘base camp’ style atmosphere. Jack and I tried to sleep all afternoon as we decided to head off for the summit at around half 11. We heard some funny things whilst laid in our tent. One girl was explaining to another that ‘if it’s clear it’ll be -5 degrees and if it’s cloudy it’ll be -14 degrees.’ We giggled and hoped that it would be clear. I got more and more excited and as usual couldn’t really sleep so I just kind of laid still hoping that would count as sufficient rest.

The 1st camp site near Nid Aigle

At 11pm our alarms went off, we got out the tent had a warm boil in the bag meal and at 11:40 set off by head torch into the darkness. We went a little too far up the left hand ridge of the grande couloir meaning we had to cross it a little higher up than normal. This was a bit hairy but we soon got back on track and didn’t lose too much time. It was good there was no one out below us as we did manage to send a few bits hurtling down. By 1:45 we were at the Gouter hut boiling a bit of snow and putting on our crampons, an extra layer and roping up. From here we slogged at a steady plod as far as the Vallot hut where we stopped for 10 mins to warm up and neck some energy gel. From here we continued to plod to the top arriving at 5:41 slightly before the proper sunrise but also ahead of the crowds who were being dragged along and presumably summited in the following few hours. The feeling on the top was one of immense achievement. Despite the well beaten path, the crowds of numpties and the angry guides Mont Blanc is a beautiful mountain and it’s summit is definitely a special place. We sat and watched the sun get brighter over behind the Swiss Valais Alps on the horizon until we were suitably frozen and then set off back down to share our success with boys and the rest of the world.

The summit from the GoPro on my axe.

When we arrived back at the tents the boys were still asleep and that entire side of the mountain was still in shade. We continued all the way back to the valley on foot, Carey suffered the worst blisters I have ever seen which was no doubt not helped by the outrageous 36 degree heat. We all had a Poco Loco Special that evening and spent the whole of the next day lounging around by the side of a stream occasionally dipping in and out. I’m not sure if it was due to the 4000m descent on foot or just a combination of the whole thing but my legs ached badly for the following 4 days.

Spike and I half freezing, half burning

I’d like to say a special thanks to our drivers Mac, Spike and Carey and those who put us up Howard and Nat, Ursula and Graham. Without you all it would have been a whole lot harder.

Apologies to everyone who reads this far for writing such an essay.

To summarise we descended Ben Nevis, rode 1248 miles (2008km) and then ascended Mont Blanc in 11 days 5 hours and 41 minutes. The cycling took 8.5 days and we had to wait for one bad weather day on Mont Blanc.

I don’t think it’s ever been done before but I hope it gets done again. It was definitely a heavy legs project. Andy x

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One Response to The Heavy Legs Project

  1. That’s a very audacious little expedition! Great job, and know that it’s a bit inspiring to this duffer who needs to do something large scale. Hopefully you will have new adventures to write about.

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