Not content with his recent successful summiting of Mount Everest, Singapore-based Kiwi adventurer Grant “Axe” Rawlinson finds a new adventure in a different part of the world. Here’s his account of a human-powered expedition between the highest mountains in the UK and France.
The digital numerals flickered on my computer screen as I sat in my office, contemplating the balance of my annual leave entitlement. I should have been happy. I had a wife I loved, a steady job, and a body that was fit and healthy. Life in Singapore was great – ambitious and exotic, filled with good friends and even better food. But the problem I suffered made all that irrelevant.
I was bored; really bored.
I yearned to wake up to a sense of discovery, and fall asleep to memories that would survive a lifetime. Not another office day that blended into thousands of others spent sitting before a blinking screen of “important” tasks – tasks that seemed to consume all my time and attention, only to prove impossible to recall even an hour after completion.
I turned my attention to my yearly planner lying on my table. “Management meeting, Aberdeen” was scrawled in blue ink in the first week of August. I shuddered at the thought of the 20 hours of travelling time, days of meetings, late nights, and jetlag followed by the return journey at the end of the week.
A flicker of an idea sprang into my mind. Turning to my PC and opening up Google Earth, I scanned the brown and green pixels representing Scotland. My eyes came to rest on the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis. My gaze wandered south. Scafell Pyke, the highest mountain in England. Further down: Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.
Hmmm, “Too easy!” I thought. Continuing lower, I crossed the English Channel, finally arriving at Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in France and Western Europe. That was it! That was the one. I was going on an adventure. After my Aberdeen meetings, I would climb Ben Nevis in Scotland then travel all the way to the summit of Mont Blanc in France, completely by my own human power: a journey of 2,000km, cycling through four countries, sea-kayaking across the English Channel, and scaling both mountains from the base up.
I had made a similar journey in New Zealand in December 2013, between the summit of the North Island and the summit of the South Island. I had called that trip “Peak to Peak”. It seemed a logical follow-up to make a second “Peak to Peak” on the opposite side of the world.
The challenges were many: I had to squeeze the trip into my 18 days’ annual leave; I didn’t own a bicycle or a suitable kayak; and I didn’t have any support vehicle to carry my gear. But one thing I have learnt over the years is never to let the small details get in the way of a great adventure. So with a shrug of my shoulders I made the decision: Peak to Peak 2014, Ben to the Blanc, was underway!
Fast-forward three months and there we were. My trusty climbing partner Alan Silva from Australia and I, standing on the summit of Ben Nevis, freezing our crown jewels off in the rain and the cloud at the beginning of August. Alan has the patience of a saint and I must be one of the luckiest people on earth to have a mate like him: someone who listens to my bizarre idea of potential “holidays” and agrees to join me on them!
After descending from the summit, we celebrated our successful start to our journey in good Scottish fashion with three pints of beer and a meal of fish and chips. Suitably rehydrated, we awoke the next morning to a wet and windy day. We didn’t have the luxury of time to wait out bad weather, so I loaded my wife’s bicycles with my gear (she had kindly loaned it to me for the adventure) and set off.
For two days, we battled our way south, the rain and wind soaking and chilling us to the bone as we peddled through the Glencoe Valley and around the shoreline of mighty Loch Lomond. We’d been warned how dangerous this section of the road was, with heavy traffic and not much in the way of a shoulder to ride on. It made for interesting riding in the stormy weather until we reached Glasgow city, where thankfully the rain abated.
Continuing south, we crossed the border into England and the sun reappeared. We soon settled into the daily routine of cycling for eight hours, covering around 100 to 140km a day, depending on the number of hills, how many pints we’d had the night before, and whether the weather was blowing us along or creating heart-breaking headwinds.
Passing through the Pennine Range in the Yorkshire Dales was both the hardest and the most rewarding section of the entire cycle journey. The rolling hills made my legs scream after eight hours in the saddle, but the beautiful quaint villages and lovely countryside more than made up for it.
Not all places we rode through were nice. One evening we found ourselves in the city of Doncaster. My mother always told me that if I have nothing nice to say about anything then don’t say it. Enough said. We stayed another night in Brentwood just outside London. Interestingly, we discovered that it not only rained moisture from the skies during our night in the cheapest hotel we could find, but also used condoms. They littered the skylights of the small restaurant where we ate our breakfast.
On Day 11 we reached London and rode through the Woolwich Underpass, which took us under the mighty Thames. Following a painful 11-hour cycle in the pouring rain over the rolling hills of Kent, we gratefully eased into Rye Harbour on England’s south coast. It was dark and we were wet and cold but happy to be over 1,100km through our journey.
The following day, the rain continued as we cycled further to reach the most barren windswept beach I have ever visited – Dungeness. The only thing that seemed to prosper here were two huge nuclear power stations. Dungeness was the point we would leave from, to kayak across the English Channel to Boulogne in France.
Day 13 saw us swap our bicycles for a rented green plastic kayak. The wind was whipping the sea into a frothy choppy mess as we paddled away from the coast of England. After 45 minutes we could no longer see land in any direction. We were in the English Channel, famous for being one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. We were expecting to be playing dodgems with 300-metre-long oil tankers steaming past at 20 knots; the reality was that we never got more than one or two kilometres from any large ships.
We would paddle for one hour then stop for a three to five minute break, when we would eat and drink, and I would have to pee. (I have a bladder the size of a Scotsman’s wallet.) Peeing from a kayak in the middle of the bobbing ocean is a delicate task involving balancing a bottle as you sit upright. It’s not easy unless you are very well endowed; sadly for me, it wasn’t easy.
At the halfway point, we were forced to exit the kayaks and get into a support boat, to motor five miles across the French shipping lane. This was very disappointing as we had aimed to do the complete journey by human power; admittedly, though, I had written to the French coastguard for permission and they warned us that we could not paddle across this small portion of the channel for safety reasons.
Once across the French shipping channel we were back in the kayak and, just over six hours after leaving England, we touched down on the beach in Boulogne harbour. Alan had his first ever bottle of Lucozade that evening, just before bed. This consequently saw him jumping off the walls all night as the caffeine raced through his system. He periodically woke me to ask how my sleep was, to which I replied (in no uncertain terms), “Very nice, until you interrupted, you twat!’
Our first day cycling in France was miserable. By this stage I was getting sick of the rain. But we had no time to wait it out, so we simply peddled on. We were both fatigued from the paddle and 14 days of non-stop effort, so we only managed a measly 70km before calling it a day. Neither of us spoke much French; Alan could count to two and because I could count to four, I was nominated as the official translator. Meal times became comical and I soon gave up my bungled attempts at ordering and instead pointed my finger to anything on the menu that looked within our budget. The biggest disappointment in France was the breakfasts, or lack of them. A measly piece of greasy pastry and a cup of coffee left our stomachs rumbling with hunger as we set-off on the bikes every morning.
We rode south through the Somme, through beautiful cities, villages and countryside, cranking our daily average back up to 120km per day. On Day 17, we reached a small village called Provins. Our visit coincided with the city harvest festival and all accommodation was booked. We ended up camping in the garden of a friendly Frenchman called Max who worked at the local tourist office. Max also kept chickens and a rooster in a pen beside our tent. At 5am the rooster woke us with its crowing. Max apologised and told us in all seriousness it was an “English rooster” because it liked to talk a lot; he promised to “murder it” the following week on our behalf.
After five more days we had crossed over the French Alps, and glided down to beautiful Lake Geneva. Finally, on Day 20, we cycled the last 100km to the pretty mountain village of Chamonix, located at the base of Mont Blanc. Nicknamed the “death sports capital of the world”, Chamonix is an adventurer’s paradise. It would have been lovely to rest our tired legs here but my flight back to Singapore was looming. So the next morning we swapped our cycles for our climbing gear and set-off for our ascent of Mont Blanc.
We decided to attempt a complete traverse of the mountain. Chamonix is only 1,000m elevation and the summit of Mont Blanc is 4,820m, and this is a huge height gain to lump all our gear up and over. Our first day’s climbing was a tough slog as we fought our way up the Mer de Glace glacier, over and around huge gaping crevasses. And then it started to pour with rain. Wet, half-frozen and a little scared, we finally found an abandoned mountain hut as darkness fell and gratefully fell asleep.
The next morning, the sun came out and we had the opposite problem. We got sunburnt and dehydrated as we worked our way up through the Vallée Blanche to reach the Cosmiques hut at 3,600m. We were both completely knackered by this stage. But after only three hours of sleep we once again dragged ourselves up, setting off at 4am for our climb to the summit of Mont Blanc.
For hour after hour we climbed higher and higher as the wind raged around us. Most teams turned back due to the cold, but we had come too far to stop now. After eight hours’ climbing, we finally reached the top. Magically, as if God was watching our progress, the wind stopped. We spent 10 minutes on the summit, savouring the feeling that only comes after you have worked extremely hard for something, before heading off down the opposite side for a two-day descent back to Chamonix.
We completed Peak to Peak – Ben to Blanc in 23 days and 19 hours. Apart from the five miles of the English Channel, we had used completely our own human power and no support vehicles. We’d tackled a unique challenge on a shoestring budget, and it had also been an environmentally friendly adventure. We had made new friends, experienced different cultures and made memories to last a lifetime.
Day 1: Climb Ben Nevis (Scotland)
Days 2–12: Cycle 1,100km through Scotland and England to the south coast of England
Day 13: Paddle 35km across the English Channel to reach France
Days 14–20: Cycle 900km through France and Switzerland to reach Chamonix
Days 21–24: Climb Mont Blanc