The altitudinous snow capped mountain Aiguille de la Grande Sassière is a 3751m peak. It soars high and exposed in the sky over looking the village of Tignes. It has witnessed every adventure and achievement we have accomplished here over the last few years.
“I’m going to stand on top of that mountain one day” I said to my son Ossie while riding a ski lift, a few years ago.
“I would love to stand on top of it too” he replied.
Without thinking I automatically said “Yes, You can when your older”
Later I thought about my quick unthoughtful response. Why does he need to wait until he is older? Does he need to be a fully grown adult to climb it?
I thought to myself, if a child could do it, it would be a child like Ossie. He is fit, healthy, determined, lives at high altitude, believes in himself and has been hiking up mountains and rock climbing since he was tiny.
Earlier in the year he practically ran up Mount Snowdon in North Wales, raising money for victims of the Nepalese earthquake. But the only safe way to find out if it was possible for a nine year old to climb Sassière was to recce the mountain first myself without him.
This summer on July 26th 2015 I set out with friends Simon, Tom and Oscar B at 5am. I was so excited to finally be attempting this peak. It was a cold morning and the first hour was steep and in the dark, our head torches disturbed the sleeping cows as we hiked through the meadows.
As we got higher, scrambling over the rocks, the sun started to rise giving us warmth and an amazing view of the first light touching our beautiful Espace Killy playground.
A few tough hours later we reached the last ridge to the summit, it was very steep and icy. It was a relief to finally reach the top. We were freezing cold even though it was a hot summer’s day down in the town. We couldn’t stay up there too long as our fingers were starting to go numb.
The summit was breathtaking, we were right on the French Italian boarder, with the Aosta Valley on one side and the Vanoise National Park on the other. The day was made even more special for me when I received a call announcing the birth of my first niece Niamh Collins.
The whole way up I was thinking “could Ossie do this?” I figured he could if I supported him with a rope and set out early enough for him to be able to take his time. To attempt it would be an achievement in itself even if he only made it to the first ridge.
When I got home I was drained. I told Ossie the story of my adventure and showed him the pictures of me doing a head stand at 3751m.
I told him It was a very long difficult climb, parts of it we will be climbing close to cliffs and on high ridges and that the last section is very steep and exposed and the altitude makes it hard to breathe.
None the less he still wanted to go! I thought hard about it and couldn’t see any harm in setting out very early with head torches, ropes, and plenty of food and water and just seeing how high he was comfortable to go.
It wouldn’t matter if it took the whole day or if he only made the first ridge, he would still get an amazing view of home.
One week later we had our first clear day with low winds. It was a full moon and we set out early with my friends Jo, Garry and Daniel. It was very early and we were all struggling to wake up properly.
Just twenty minutes into the first hike through the meadows Ossie stopped and sat down. Jo encouraged him to keep going, but we had a stand off situation. “I want to go back home to bed”
He was being very serious, so I suggested the others go on ahead. I tried hard to keep calm, I sat with him, handed him a waffle to eat, put another jacket on him and explained that “in the end we only regret the things we don’t attempt in life. It’s fine if we don’t make it all the way up, but I know you have much more to give before quitting”.
He agreed, and five minutes later the chocolate waffle kicked in (it’s not every day you get one of those for breakfast!) he was happy again and ready to go, then he was the one telling me to keep going!
Relieved that Ossie was happy, we kept climbing for hours, stopping frequently for snacks and encouraging him to drink plenty of water, until we were high above the clouds! We had an amazing view right next to us of the clouds hitting the side of the mountain and floating over it, it was magical!
(I recommend that you watch the video below to see how beautiful this was on You Tube)
As we got higher it got colder and harder to breathe, but Ossie was still in good spirits and keen to continue. It felt so natural being up there with him; climbing through rocks and running over ridges.
When I am up high I feel so peaceful, happy and feel a freedom that is intimate to my soul, it was a pure pleasure to share this with my little boy.
When we got to the last ridge we met our friends who had attempted the summit before us. They had had to turn back because it was too dangerous and icy after the recent snowfall.
Ossie was disappointed when I told him “it is important to know our limits, there is no shame in turning back if it’s not safe”. He was keen to continue as far up it as we safely could; he wanted to place a stone, on which he had written his late Great Grandfather’s name (Robert Millard), as high up as he possibly could. It was his idea and his choice.
We sat down just before the summit and enjoyed the amazing view. We could see right over the top of the normally gigantic Grande Motte glacier, where we ski, and our home looked like a tiny dot in the middle of the huge Alps.
We couldn’t have done this climb without a rope, there were a few places where Ossie slipped and I used it to catch him or he used it to get down and up rocks.
The descent back down was hard on his little legs, he did so well. He was very tired by the end. The last ten minutes I carried him on my shoulders as we reflected on what he had just achieved with his little body.
Jo collected us from the car park and when we got back home Ossie enjoyed an evening on the sofa playing MineCraft like any other nine year old boy.