Mountain Biking

Geoff Harper Wanted to Achieve a World First On His Bike. Instead He Found Himself Fighting for His Life…

"There was no way out. I was scared out of my mind. I started to think of my family..."

Words and pictures by Daniel Wildey

The towns around the Mont Blanc massif are so densely populated with mountain athletes and extreme sports enthusiasts of all stripes that it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could come up with a new ‘world-first’ in the home of alpinism.

That is, until the arrival of fatbikes, and what one man believed could be a new approach to mountaineering.

Geoff Harper, a strength and conditioning coach from Surrey, has spent 16 years living in the US where the fatbike phenomenon is the fastest growing segment of an already-healthy cycling market.

“The first time I rode a Fatbike, I ploughed through fresh snow and it put a huge smile on my face.”

As a lifelong mountain biker, it was Harper’s move to Colorado that converted him to fatbiking. “The first time I saw one I thought it was comical” says Harper. “The first one I rode, I ploughed through fresh snow and it put a huge smile on my face.”

Fatbikes evolved around the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, an arduous endurance race across barren, snow-bound terrain. The early bikes were rudimentary, using two wheels and tyres welded side by side to provide more surface area for riding on snow; a far cry from Harper’s current whip – a ultralight 9:Zero:7 Carbon Whiteout.

The endurance element has always been part of fatbiking, but Harper wanted to remind people that they’re mountain bikes.

From across the pond he came up with the idea of taking fatbiking to Chamonix to attempt the first winter Tour du Mont Blanc on wheels. “I wanted to go somewhere iconic for snowsports. I wanted to get the bike in amongst the hardcore of Chamonix, and showcase the sport” he told me.

The Tour du Mont Blanc (TdMB) is a classic multi-day hike, and would be swarming with people in summer, including mountain bikers. In winter it is deserted. 180km of snow-covered alpine terrain, over high passes totalling 10,000 metres of ascent and descent and covering the three countries that converge on Mont Blanc, is no walk in the park. To Harper it was the ideal place to test his snow-eating mountain-machine.

“I have some background in alpine climbing,” Harper explains “and I’ve always had bikes so this project is a combination of mountaineering and biking. The fatbiking media like to portray their bikes as being able to ride over anything, but let’s be honest, on those big passes I’m off the bike. It’s no different than ski mountaineering in that respect; pushing up and riding down.”

With this in mind Harper had to carry snowshoes on the ride, along with full winter expedition kit; 4-season sleeping bag, bivvy bag and mat, cooking equipment and all the clothing you might need for a multi-day alpine climb.

But his biggest challenge was the weather. He’d always known it would be either an early or late season trip – there is simply too much unconsolidated snow mid-season – but December was a write-off for skiers and fatbikers alike.

“It got towards the last week of ‘winter’” Harper recalls, “and I started to feel the pressure, because I’d touted this as a winter trip. I wanted, at least, to set off before spring but I couldn’t find a five day weather window. It started to suck the energy out of me a bit, because every day was a day I wasn’t doing it. So I found a window of 3 good days and decided to set off.

“From Chamonix I headed to Les Houches and over Col de Voza, about a 600 metre climb, down through Bionnassay and Les Contamines and towards the Col du Bonhomme. I’d set myself a bivvy spot about halfway up to the Col, and I spent the night there.”

So far so good. A year of poring over contour lines, plotting and replotting a route, and hundreds of hours of training with a heavy pack and an empty stomach – which trains the body to operate on excess fat – were paying off.

What Harper couldn’t have prepared for was the way the mountain magnifies every minor problem to the point of desperation.

“I took the fall line into a steep valley that I couldn’t see the end of. It went against everything I’ve ever learned.”

“I woke up in a cold sweat. I didn’t know if my sleeping bag was too warm, but that’s how I sold it to myself. I’d picked up a slight bug a few days before, but out of frustration I’d ignored that basic human message that I shouldn’t be doing anything strenuous.

“I found I couldn’t eat, so I knew it wasn’t going to be the best day, but I’d trained for this scenario. This was the first big hurdle of the trip. Am I going to bail out empty handed or push through? I pushed into a 10 hour day over to the Refuge du Bonhomme and arrived exhausted, feverish and running out of fuel. I still hadn’t eaten.

“And then a storm came in.”

That ‘slight bug’ was nothing in the valley. Training without eating was easy with a fully stocked kitchen waiting at home. But a storm is a storm. And all those small problems were stacked into one unthinkable night ahead. Harper had to retreat, but the day had taken its toll on his meticulous approach.

He had reached the only point on the route where a descent to a bustling ski town was not an option; an inaccessible area between the Col du Bonhomme – over which lay the resort of Les Contamines – and the Col de la Seigne – from which Courmayeur could have offered food and shelter. But descend he must.

“I could see the valley below. I could see a direct line of sight between me and safety. I overruled my trace and took the fall line into a really steep valley that I couldn’t see the end of. It goes against everything I’ve ever learned.”

In the US, Harper had spent time working with Portland Mountain Rescue and had learned the dangers of taking an unknown fall line. Most of their call outs are to hikers following their noses from the summit of Mount Hood.

Harper had also agonised over his route, combining local beta, satellite imagery and traditional mapping, which he was following through a trace on his Suunto watch. What forced this preparation out of his mind – whether it was hunger, sickness, altitude or animal instinct – will be a question he’ll ponder for years to come.

“I got to a point, above a cliff band, where I realised there was no way out,” he remembers. “I was on the side of that mountain, in a gully, completely on my own with a bike and a heavy pack. I was scared out of my mind. I thought about my family.

“When I looked at my phone and there was no service it sent a jolt through me that superseded everything. I wasn’t sick anymore, I wasn’t hungry anymore. I looked around and thought ‘Fuck, no. It’s not the end here.’ I got kind of angry about it. I couldn’t go along with the situation.”

Harper was in a wind-hit gully with deep powdery snow hidden by a crust of shiny ice. Not a place for a bike ride. With no way down, and no ice axes with which to climb out, necessity gave birth to invention.

“There was no way out. I was scared out of my mind. I started to think of my family…”

“I used the bike” says Harper. “I was on my knees with my snowshoes pointed into the snow, moving the bike a foot at a time and shuffling up towards it. I was moving diagonally because it was too steep to go straight up, and I was slamming the handle bar through the ice, the other features of the bike would imprint into the ice and bite enough for me to pull up on the frame.

“I guess it took me at least an hour to climb out, but I wasn’t thinking about anything. I almost don’t remember it.”

With a blank mind and a shattered body, Harper made it out of the gully and followed his trace until it led him to a safer descent. He arrived in the town of Les Chapieux hoping for human contact after his lonely ordeal, only to find the town deserted for winter. But he shivered the night away in a refuge which must have felt like a palace, before descending the next day as far as Bourg St Maurice and safety.

Harper is already planning his next attempt and seems almost grateful that things turned out this way. “There’s a natural law” he tells me “and I submit to that. Something was telling me ‘this is not the time; there’s something here for you but there’s an evolution you need to have,’ and the retrospective nature of ‘failure’ gives you that evolution.

“I’m earning it. These moments of ‘failure’ are actually just part of the story. They’re just steps. If I’d banged it out easily it would’ve simply checked my ego box. But what it’s done is call my bluff.”

Harper found some reserves, down in that gully, that allowed him to climb over a fever, over hunger and out to safety. And he will go again. I don’t think he’s bluffing.

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