At the end of our first day climbing Mont Blanc for the Virgin Strive Challenge we found ourselves trapped on the side of the mountain as a huge rock fall caused boulders the size of small cars to fall on us.
We are lucky to be alive. Three seconds earlier we would all certainly have been killed. Throughout all of our challenges I have never come so terrifyingly close to losing myself, my son and other team mates and it all happened in a matter of seconds.
We’d enjoyed a great day’s climb and were approaching our final hurdle before reaching our base for the night – the dangerous 100 yard crossing that is the Gouter Couloir. It is known to some as the ‘Gully of Death’ – as we found out for a good reason - but at this time of year our guides were confident that we’d be safe to cross it.
Climbing in teams, myself, Sam, Susie Ma and James Benamore and guides were the last group to traverse the crossing. Within seconds of getting across we heard the most horrible sound. A side of a cliff had broken away from the mountain further up and seconds later huge boulders the size of small cars were bouncing towards us. Rocks rained down on us from every angle. I am not exaggerating when I say four of our team were seconds away from certain death. In an attempt to get to safety, Sam, Susie, James, our two guides and I dived behind a small boulder and pressed ourselves against it, failing to get our heads completely below it with rocks bouncing over our heads and with one small one loudly clipping Sam’s helmet.
Sam had been filming on his camera as we crossed the Gouter Couloir and although you don’t see the boulders falling, you get a sense of the drama that unfolded.
Although this isn’t our footage, this gives you a good idea of what someone else experience at the same crossing.
My nephew Noah was five minutes ahead and had watched with horror the side of the mountain giving way and although he heard our shouts of “take cover” – he was too far away to see what was happening. For a horrifying moment, when Noah turned to find us, all he saw was a gigantic rock where we should have been. He thought we were dead and broke down completely. Horrible. For a few minutes he thought he’d lost us. But by some miracle we all survived. When we were finally able to struggle to our hut for the night – the tears of relief flowed and there were hugs all round. For a month we had spent every day together. My son Sam and nephew Noah, who are the drivers behind these incredible challenges, made me unbelievably proud every day. They motivated and helped their fellow Strivers to complete every stage we faced, no matter the difficulty. Sam and Noah were determined that Mont Blanc would not defeat us. The next morning, as a team, we set off to conquer that summit.
As we reached the summit, we felt so elated to have made and to be able to announce that the Virgin Strive Challenge has raised well over £1 million for our Big Change partners and projects. The money will go towards projects that help support young people to thrive in life. Previous challenges have raised more than £2.4m in total and we have supported projects such as teacher wellbeing, early years learning and kids who have been excluded from school.
It’s been a fantastic challenge that has seen us cycle, sea kayak, hike and climb 2000km across Europe, to the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. We’ve experienced every human emotion at their extremes, but every time we’ve heard that little tempting voice in the back of our heads saying ‘why not call it a day’, we’ve pushed through together and reminded ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place.