Gasping Thin Air (Part 4)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Aug 20, 2021

Professor Jo Bradwell, one of the founding members of the Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES), has recently written a fascinating book about the group's many adventures. Further details can be found here. Jo has very kindly allowed us to reproduce a series of extracts. Here's the third and shows the risks and benefits of just going for it...

For a variety of reasons, there was a gap of many years before we had another really big summer walk: age was taking its toll; the long overnight bus journeys were not appealing; we had climbed the best mountains in Britain; and we had been drenched too many times in Scotland. You name it, we came up with an excuse. We certainly had summer walks but they were in Wales, the northern Pennines or the Lake District and were of modest intensity. What we needed was more imagination. This came about in midsummer 2010. We took on the challenge of a mountain in the Pyrenees, over a weekend. I was approaching 65 and had plans to retire. I fancied a memorable day out to celebrate. Unpredictable weather excluded Scotland, wonderful though it might be on a sunny day, and we had climbed all notable peaks in England and Wales. What about France? The Alps could obviously supply any number of great walks or climbs but if we wanted reliable weather the Pyrenees would be preferable. I knew them reasonably well since I had spent several weeks climbing there 40 years earlier. I had even taken Barbara up to the top of Monte Perdido, the lost mountain, in the Central Pyrenees (its name derives from the fact that it is largely hidden by neighbouring peaks). It is the third highest peak in the Pyrenees (3,355 m) and at the head of the beautiful Ordesa Valley on the Spanish side. It has even been dubbed ‘the Grand Canyon of Europe’. I thought this would be a wonderful objective.

Ordesa Valley

To have a reasonable chance of climbing Monte Perdido, we would have to fly to Zaragoza in Spain, take a bus to the entrance of the Ordesa valley and start at dawn – 5 am. It would take 2–3 hours to walk the 12 km from the road head above the village of Torla to the top end of the valley, an hour of steep ascent to reach the refuge at Góriz and, from there, four hours to the summit and back. It was just possible during daylight hours if the weather was favourable and we ran down some of the way. We could recover the following morning and be back home for Sunday night. It was an ambitious plan but just within our capabilities if the mountain gods were on our side.

Friday 18 June at 5 pm saw 24 of us boarding a chartered plane in Birmingham bound for Zaragoza. Susie, my daughter, had an A-level exam in the afternoon and was then delayed by rush-hour traffic, so we were frustratingly late departing. Nevertheless by 6 pm we were in the air. Inevitably, there were lots of discussions about the likely outcome of the exploit. Among the group, it was clear that only a few would be successful because of its sheer scale. We would have to contend with high altitude, probably quite a lot of snow and maybe high winds. There was also the vexing question of what to take. There were the usual polarised schools of thought: to go light or to take full climbing equipment. Chris Imray, who had recently ascended Mt Everest, favoured the safe approach, as did Kyle Pattinson, while I preferred, as always, the lightweight ‘dash for the summit’. This meant shorts, T-shirt and trainers. Neville, Graham Mead, Barry Smith and my son Edward followed my lead, trusting in my knowledge of the mountain. The debate went to and fro during the flight without resolution. Each must make their own decision. BMRES is a society of individuals. There are no leaders and there are no rules. However, half the group, particularly wives and girlfriends, realised the task was beyond them. Instead, they would take a serious walk along the lower levels of the canyon. 

Refugio de Goriz

It was a three hour flight and, with an additional one hour time change, we landed at 10 pm. We had eaten on the plane so we tried to snatch some sleep on the three hour bus journey to the beautiful Monastery Hotel at Boltaña. At 1 am, we piled into reception, where thankfully they had been warned of our late arrival. Nevertheless, it took an hour to organise all the rooms so I didn’t get to bed until 2 am, my head still full of indecision as to what to take. The alarm went off at 4 am and I packed the minimal amount, hoping for good weather. I emptied the food contents of the mini-bar into my day sack and added sunglasses, a hat and a cagoule. Ice axe, crampons and big boots would be too heavy but I took them anyway so the decision could be delayed until the last minute on the bus. At breakfast, a dozen of us wearily ate as much and as quickly as we could and stuffed items into our packs. The bus departed at 4.30 am in the dark and a light drizzle. The portents were not good. The one hour journey past Torla to the end of the road allowed occasional views of big mountains blanketed in snow. While the summit of Monte Perdido was not visible, its lower slopes were white. The last time I had climbed it, which had been in August, there was hardly any snow. I left my climbing gear in the bus.

We were quickly off the bus and the race began – a race against time and among ourselves. It started as a beautiful woodland walk with the rush of water from the Rio Arazas alongside us. Above, pine forests led up to huge walls of limestone, tier upon tier, with snow at the very top. The valley curved to the left, ascending in a series of steps, each marked with a large waterfall, full from the summer snow-melt. But there was no time to admire the views. The group thinned to 11 of us. Tim and Maggie dropped back, as did the mountaineers, Chris and Kyle. We crossed the bridge under the valley-end cliff and scrambled up a chain webbing to gain the first of several rock ledges. Alex Wright looked on in horror as we scaled the near vertical wall. He had no head for heights. It took an hour for him to follow the mule track so he was out of the hunt. We now saw the true scale of the task ahead. The snow line was just above the Refugio de Góriz (2,170 m). This was much lower than we had expected. There would be over 1,000 m of ascent in trainers on snow or ice. At least they were waterproof, I mused, as if that would make a difference. 

 Routes from the Refugio de Goriz - the route to Monte Perdido (140) takes the right fork at Ciudad de Piedra 

We stopped briefly at Góriz for Ian and Barry to catch up but there was no sign of Chris and Kyle. That left six for the summit attempt. There were dozens of climbers all around us, huddling in the rain and sleet, recovering in the hut from their ascents. All were wearing full winter clothing, and those coming off the mountain carried ice axes and crampons. We were somewhat taken aback by their equipment. We had just walked up in trainers wearing only shorts and T-shirts. They were horrified by our lack of gear, especially when we told them we were going to climb Monte Perdido. I was not quite sure of the route but there were lines of boot-prints across the rising snow fields. It was now 10 am, with the temperature slowly increasing as the summer sun burnt off the clouds. We were advised by the climbers hanging around the hut that we were crazy to attempt the mountain. They had experienced hard ice on the summit that would be dangerously steep without ice axes and crampons. Our planned attempt sent waves of consternation through the Spanish and French climbers. They feared for our safety but also wanted us to climb the mountain properly. They thought it should be taken seriously. It was a serious mountain and they were serious people.

Half an hour was enough stoppage time to allow us to cool off so we headed upwards. Ian was now weakening and by the time we reached the snow line he had dropped well behind. The snow was softened by the warming day while the sky had few clouds. The sun god was on our side. The route was cairned up to the small frozen Lake Helado at around 3,000 m. Descending climbers warned of the dangers higher up as they clanked past in their crampons. “It’s hard ice and impossible in trainers. Very dangerous,” many stated. 

Graham and Edward who had climbed ahead paused with this serious news and wanted to turn back. “The snow is soft here,” I retorted. “We should climb until it becomes dangerous, and it looks as though there are huge bucket steps on the steepest parts". The five of us trudged slowly up the softening snow. There was only 350 m ascent remaining but the altitude was beginning to tell. None of us were remotely acclimatised, nor on acetazolamide. It was a long slow plod. As we ascended, the bright sun softened the hard snow from its overnight freeze. Bucket-sized steps, kicked by other climbers, were yielding with a firm base. Ideal for lightweight boots or even trainers. An hour earlier, it had been ice-hard but under the mid-summer sun it had softened rapidly. It was not surprising that the climbers we met at Góriz had experienced very different early morning conditions.

The final approach to the summit

We climbed steeply south-east up an open couloir leading to a saddle. I looked up to see Edward and Graham already on the summit. I panted desperately alongside Neville as we ascended the final ridge to the broad mountain top. The view was magnificent – an immense panorama down the Ordesa Valley, across to the Posets Massif and the Breche de Roland in the north-west. But to the south a huge black cloud was bearing down on us, with an accompanying crack of thunder. The hot midday sun had brewed up a thunderstorm on the south face of the mountain. We fled. Down the summit ridge, down the broad saddle and into the steep couloir with its bucket steps of snow and ice. It started to hail as lightning crackled repeatedly around us with elemental ferocity. The temperature plummeted and the snow froze. The soft bucket steps hardened, making the upper part of the couloir dangerously slippery. Then, who should we see coming up in full climbing gear, but Chris and Kyle, a full hour behind us. Of the five of us who had already summited, four had a ski pole or stick; I was the only one without any manual support. I looked at Chris with all his gear and wondered if he would lend me an ice axe. “My kingdom for an axe,” I pleaded. He generously offered it and I accepted with great relief. I had been much slower than the others on the descent without a pole so they were now near Lake Helado. Moving away from the snow steps, I glissaded and slid on my back for 200 metres to reach the others who had descended in similar fashion. We looked anxiously back at the two black dots of Kyle and Chris ascending the final ridge. There were no others on the summit pyramid. The black thunder cloud descended to hide their progress and roared around them. There was no point in waiting – we would miss the 6 pm bus from the car park unless we moved fast. We ran, slithered, slipped and skidded down the snow slopes in light drizzle and bright sun, clouds growing ever larger on the summits. It was going to be a wet afternoon. 

By 1.30pm we were at the Góriz Hut for refreshments and admiration from those who had seen us earlier. But it had been close, a fine judgement call. Half an hour earlier it would have been too icy and half an hour later there was a dangerous storm. We had been lucky. We left the hut at 2.30 pm, tired but in high spirits: down narrow ledges to the chain covered wall, down the face to the river, now in full fury from melting snow, for the long slog back to the bus. Our weary legs prevented us from running far and the distance seemed interminable; on the way up, it had seemed so easy. Finally, with five minutes remaining before the 6 pm departure, we saw our friends, the non-climbers, in a restaurant next to the car park. We told our tale, they told theirs. All had had a great day and all were safely back apart from Chris and Kyle.

The departure was set strictly for 6 pm and since we estimated that they were an hour behind it was sensible to leave. They would have to wait for the bus at 8 pm, but it was a mistake. They were only a few minutes behind because they had not stopped at Góriz on the descent whereas we had stopped for an hour. They just missed the bus. The driver dropped us at the hotel an hour later only to realise he would exceed his tachograph limit if he returned within the next two hours. They were eventually collected at 9 pm.

I sat next to Chris at our delayed dinner as he described the storm. He had never been so frightened, even above 8,000 m on Mt Everest and Cho Oyo. As they climbed towards the summit, the electric charges in the storm reached down to them, raising hair on their heads and arms. It then crashed down with a great shock wave. They had reached the summit at a dangerous time. Like us, they had fled down in the gathering gloom and hail but once off the summit pyramid it was safe and uneventful. Hungry, exhausted and slightly tipsy, I reflected on the best day of the year and a great birthday treat. Welcome to retirement!


The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.

Further details can be found here.

Have something to say? Comment on this post