Photographers' Blog

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.

In this together: A recipe for survival

In the weeks after the mass shooting in Arizona in early January, the question in newsrooms and kitchens alike was: How long would it take Gabrielle Giffords to recover and could she ever hope to return to work in the U.S. Congress?

Never mind that she had survived a gunshot to her head at point blank range, we still wanted to know: How long? Six to nine months? Eight to 10 weeks? Years?

These were the same questions asked during my own medical crisis some 20 years earlier. I remember waking up in an emergency room and hearing talk of seizures (seven) and a brain tumor. Subsequent MRI & CT scans would confirm a tennis ball-sized mass.