Would you stand on this ridge? Gabrielle Giffords did
By Denis Balibouse
Would you stand on this ridge?
(Excuse the uneven horizon, it is due to my legs shaking when I took the picture)
A few weeks ago I received an invitation for two conferences from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva from the six astronauts who flew the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s last mission in May 2011, which delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. According to CERN’s website this is “an experiment to search in space for dark matter, missing matter and antimatter on the international space station.”
Sometimes the hardest part of a job is to find the news hook, so for this invitation I turned to my journalist colleagues in Geneva. Tom Miles, our Chief Correspondent in Geneva helpfully pointed out that the mission commander was Mark Kelly and that his wife, former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an attempted assassination in Tucson, Arizona on 8 January 2011, was coming along.
So, I had an angle but the two conferences at the University of Geneva and at CERN would not provide much in the way of photo-worthy opportunities. A few days later I received a third invitation from CERN, this time to Chamonix (France), with a mention of outdoor activities. Chamonix, a well-known Mecca for mountaineering has many peaks over 4000m (13123 feet), the highest being Mt Blanc at 4810m (15780 feet). I could feel the fresh air and almost picture the story.
The communication department at CERN informed me that three astronauts and family members, plus CERN staff would walk from Aiguille du Midi to the Refuge des Cosmiques to unveil a plaque commemorating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of cosmic rays by Victor Hess in 1912, as this spot was used for the first research. And they told me that Ms Giffords, who had suffered severe injuries during the shooting in Arizona, would attempt to walk a few meters on the ridge of the Aiguille du Midi, one of the mountains in the Mt Blanc massif.
The Aiguille du Midi cable car station is at 3842m (12604 feet). When you ascend to it, you can really feel the altitude: your breath is shorter and shallower and almost everything is covered in snow. The station is a complex web of tunnels, terraces and bridges built in and around the rocks. Alpinists leave by a short platform dug in snow, where a ridge takes you down to the glacier.
On the day I decided, in consultation with my mountain guide, to take a cable car up the mountain before the group to find a better position on the Aiguille du Midi ridge. My memories of the ridge date back to more than 20 years ago when I skied down the Vallée Blanche with friends. The ridge was like a 200m-long staircase secured by ropes. But in summer the ropes are gone and the track is only wide enough for your two feet. On your left is a 1,800m (yards) drop down to Chamonix and on your right “only” a drop of a couple of hundred meters. The first groups of roped astronauts left for the walk to the refuge but we (the people from CERN and the other journalists) were all waiting for her.
She came out of the tunnel (she had spikes put on her shoes to walk on the ice) and approached the sliding gate on the platform to start walking on the ridge. She was helped by her husband Mark Kelly, who offered his hand and they were supervised by mountain guide Vincent Lameyre. Some were concerned about her balance in the strong winds but she made it clear that she wanted to do this.
And she did it with the widest smile. I could feel the very real pleasure and determination in her to go and stand on this ridge. She seemed to truly enjoy the moment. Considering how far she has come in the last 18 months it is obvious that she is a true survivor. I didn’t talk to her, and I could feel that the moment was only going to last a minute or two, so I needed to concentrate on my pictures but I can tell you that I was truly impressed by her spirit and strength.