The Restart Rugby Alpine Challenge 2016 – The Only Way Is Up

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By RPA Group CEO, Damian Hopley – @damianhopley

Sunday 11th September

Before commencing this blog, I have an important confession to make.

I have never really understood why anyone in their right mind would go hiking. End of. Mentioning the very word conjures up visions of ageing sinewy yompers with flasks, compasses, cagoules, torrential rain and abject misery all round. I honestly couldn’t think of anything I would less like to do. Give me an hour long walk around Richmond Park finishing with a hearty pub lunch washed down with a decent bottle of wine and I’m all over it. I’ll jump on a spinning bike, hit a yoga or Pilates practise in no time, but hiking? Not today thank you. WHAT IS THE POINT?!

Given that insight, it is with mixed emotions that I find myself at Heathrow Airport heading off for a four day charity trek supporting Restart Rugby, the official charity of the Rugby Players’ Association. Approximately 11 months ago I met up with an old friend, Damien Stork, co-owner of Chamonix Hard Cross, to explore how we could launch a challenge event to support Restart Rugby and create a truly special adventure for the participants.

Damien’s enthusiasm is utterly infectious and, after much convincing and cajoling, we put together the 2016 Restart Rugby Alpine Challenge where we would tackle 3 mountains in 3 countries in 3 days. Good grief.

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Damien and Damian

The good news is that, having had no previous experience of climbing mountains and with just under a year to get organised for the Grand Depart, my inimitable powers of preparation came to the fore again when I purchased my walking boots and wet weather gear a whopping 48 hours before I flew out (thanks @ellis_brigham, first class service, as ever).

I have several misgivings about taking on this trip, some physical (I had not done an endurance challenge event since booking myself into the Priory after the inaugural Dallaglio Cycle Slam in 2010: for the uninitiated, it is a Stag Do on two wheels); some mental (I am terrified of heights, so climbing over 2500m every day was hardly enticing) and some sartorial; as my friends know, I am a keen follower of fashion, and whilst it is undoubtedly extremely practical, hiking clobber isn’t the most flattering.

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All these fears subside however as I arrive at the stunning Chalet de Dru in Chamonix and meet with our hosts, the fabulous Ali and Damien Stork, as well as my rugby brethren, Ben Clarke (Bath, England & Lions), Lee Mears (Bath, England & Lions) and Charlie Hodgson (Saracens, England & Lions) each of whom have very generously agreed to give up their precious time to support this Alpine Challenge and Restart Rugby by stepping boldly into the unknown.

The accommodation is sensational and as I check out the indoor pool, the hot tub and the spectacular views up to the mountains and down the valley, I realise that, regardless of the tough days ahead, the evenings will be spent recovering in the luxurious chalet being spoilt by Phil Jones, the Chamonix Chef, and his culinary masterpieces. I think I may have seriously misjudged this hiking lark..

The first evening meal is a great opportunity to welcome the other members of the party; Gareth, Jon and Kelly as well as two of the players’ partners, the fantastic Amanda Johnson and Daisy Hodgson. Numbers are deliberately small for this inaugural event and the first meal is great fun as the group bond over wonderful food and wine and a shared dread of what is to come over the next three days.

Our guide for the Alpine Challenge is Emilie leComte, a world record ultra-trail champion, and as she explains the itinerary for the three climbs ahead the room falls eerily silent as glasses are filled and refilled as, conversely, the blood drains from most of our faces.

Talk of training programmes swirls around the dinner table as Ben and Amanda reveal they have spent some wonderful days walking in the Swiss Alps, Jon has completed the Yorkshire 3 Peaks, Gareth recently completed the 3 Peaks in the UK as part of an astonishing training programme that has seen him drop an incredible five stones in five months. Kelly has been training very hard all summer long, which leaves Mearsy, Charlie, Daisy and myself..

Daisy and Charlie have been on one long walk since signing up (“..to Tesco’s”), Mearsy has been extremely busy with work and I have been tapering since mid-July, so we are setting expectations suitably low.

A (relatively) early night beckoned as the anticipation of the first climb kicked in aided by an unhealthy torrent of red wine.

Monday 12th September  

A restless night ahead of our first climb over in Italy to the top of Testa Bernarda. After a hearty breakfast (we are burning over 6,000 calories per day, so no excuses for not having that extra croissant), I go to my room to put my hiking kit on. Despite several costume changes and nervous glances in the mirror, it dawns upon me that, regardless of what combinations I go with, there is no getting away with it, I look like an absolute twat.

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We are joined on day one by our official photographer and old friend, Adam Johnston and he has brought several kg’s of camera equipment to lug up the mountain in order to get some stunning footage. The more chivalrous men in the party offer to help Adam carry his additional accoutrements, but it is our amazing guide, Emilie, who shows us the way by carrying the drone box for the entire 6 hour climb.

Having crossed over into Italy, spirits are high as we set off and even Lee Mears (no relation to Ray) is upbeat about the climb despite having to walk three steps to everyone else’s one given his diminishing stature. Fortunately his go faster hair cut adds inches to his programme height and his indomitable spirit is a much needed tonic to the group as we start at break neck speed on the first ascent. Clarkey and I are sweating out last night’s Dolcetta D’Alba by the litre and we are all very grateful for the walking poles provided by our hosts which prove to be lifesavers throughout the trip.

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Mearsy, Damian and Clarkey

What quickly becomes apparent is that the surrounds are quite literally breathtaking. Stunning views down the Aosta valley over to Courmayeur as we rise up to the top of the 2500m Testa Bernarda. The pace of the group is very steady as we collectively climb, talk, laugh and ascend all the while taking in the amazing scenery around us. A theme throughout the trip is that the backdrop of all the mountains we climb and those around is other worldly and like being on a film set. The colours, the scale and splendour of the mountains is awe inspiring as we rise one step at a time encouraging each other to press on. As ever in team sports, there is always a key bond, a unifying factor that helps pull people through.

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Adam Johnston our official photographer

On this morning, that factor is watching our poor old photographer, Adam humping his tripod and kit up the mountain. His commitment to the cause is unstinting and we muse if he is going to break a world record for weight loss in one day. No doubt spurred on by his pending visit to Ibiza, Adam does not break stride all day and is reminiscent of a Labrador as he sprints up and down the mountain looking for some stunning pictures.

We finally reach the summit of Testa Bernarda and the sense of achievement is palpable as we take in the magnificent 360 degree landscape. Tired and ever so slightly dazed, we regroup at the top of the mountain and everyone gets a congratulatory hug before opening up the fabulous packed lunches prepared by chef Phil.

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Some of the group are clearly overcome and Charlie Hodgson, a quiet man of few words but remarkable endeavour and achievement (the record points scorer and number of appearances in Aviva Premiership history) takes some time away from the group to be at one with his surroundings..

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Adam shoots some tremendous footage with the drone Emilie has carried up the mountain (without hardly breaking into a sweat) and the promotional shots for next year’s challenge are locked in. WATCH VIDEO HERE

After lunch we pack ourselves up in the overcast conditions and start the journey back to the cars and our well-deserved dinner. Unfortunately the organisers have omitted telling us is that walking down is twice as hard as ascending. Between the group we have at least five knee reconstructions due to ACL ruptures (Charlie and myself two and Amanda one, only a few months ago), so the poles come in very handy to aid our descent. My confidence is slightly knocked when Daisy has hysterical fits of laughter watching me descend. Apparently my pole technique resembles an ungainly combination of part Charlie Chaplin, part Thunderbird puppet and part Douglas Bader, and my knees are screaming by the time we finally get back, some 6.5 hours after we put our best foot forward.

The journey back to Chamonix from Italy is quiet as the fatigue kicks in and we all have a new found respect for hikers after a tough opening day in the mountains.

The swimming pool and hot tub are welcome sights as we get home from a day one in the Big Brother House and photographer Adam’s post walk stretching routine is truly a sight to behold. Our warm down is helped by the endless chilled bottles of 1664 in the jumbo fridge as we all look to rehydrate in time honoured mountain fashion.

Dinner is another triumph as we all share our experiences and Gareth even joins us in a glass of red wine, his first drink in five months, as Mearsy has the table in stitches entertaining us all with some brilliant stories from his equally brilliant career that was stopped suddenly when he was forced to retire at the age of 34 with a heart condition. One of over 20 players who had to retire that year due to injury or illness.

Even after the first day of the challenge, there is a fantastic Esprit de Corps as the group have bonded so well in such a short space of time.

This hiking lark could take off you know..

Tuesday 13th September

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An early start as we shift our focus to the French Alps and a climb up to the top of Le Brevant. The sun pierces the bright blue skies over the mountains as we head into the great wide open for day two with sore legs and high spirits.

On every day of the climbs we start ascending quickly or, to paraphrase our guide Emilie, “hup, hup, hup!” Emilie is in training for the Grand to Grand race in the US next week having only recently returned from injury.

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Emilie leComte our fantastic guide

Indeed after each of the first two days walking, she heads out for a two hour run in preparation for her event. As you will discover later, she is an incredible athlete. Emilie is also a fascinating person to talk to and she speaks excellent English but there have been a couple of moments that the policemen, Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo! Allo! would have enjoyed. She frequently asks if our ‘pools’ are working and when we eat chilli for dinner at the end of climb two, she asks if it is ‘spacey’ enough for us. The deal-breaker is trying to explain the difference between ‘honey’ and ‘horny’ and I, for one, can’t wait for breakfast the next morning..

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The climb on day two is even more exhilarating as we face opposite the splendour of Mont Blanc and its surrounding mountains. The heat from the sun is sapping us all but with Emilie, Damien and Ali’s assistance we have plenty of water breaks to keep us going.

Again the day gives us plenty of time to chat (breath permitting) and forge stronger bonds whilst climbing up the mountain and it is great to hear Mearsy, Charlie and Ben all sharing stories of their retirement and the challenges they have faced in making the transition from rugby player to their next careers.

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The most scary aspect of any career in professional sport is the moment you hang up your boots. As the NBA All Star and New York Knicks basketball legend Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe once famously said: “Sport is the only career in the world that when you retire, you have to get a job”. The fear of the unknown and the great wide world after years of institutional living in the rugby club bubble is an ever present sword of Damocles hanging over ever players head and this is where the Rugby Players’ Association and Restart Rugby come in.

It is widely acknowledged that the first two years post retirement are the most difficult for athletes to adjust to not being part of a team and all that goes with an elite high performance environment. In trying to make that transition easier we now have eight Personal Development Managers working across the Aviva Premiership to provide career guidance and support to the 650 current male and female professional rugby players in England as well as our 380 + Alumni members. This programme is supported by the RFU and Aviva Premiership Rugby, both of whom recognise the enormous need to provide significant off-field support to the players who give their all for both club and country.

To date, Restart Rugby has provided over £1.1m to help not only those players and their families who have suffered injury, illness or hardship but also to help players educate themselves, retrain for their careers post rugby and to provide a confidential counselling service to address the inevitable mental health issues that are so prevalent in professional sport, but so rarely discussed.

It is therefore events such as this Alpine Challenge and through the generous donations of the rugby public and our corporate supporters that we can continue to provide support and help for the very people that give so many so much joy by playing the game that we all love.

But I digress..

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Gareth Stapleton, Clarkey, Damien, Amanda Johnson and Charlie

We reach the summit of Brevant to be met by what can only be described as one of the more bizarre alpine sights I have ever encountered. Summer in Chamonix is, surprisingly, busier than winter as there are thousands of Asian tourists who come in for the day to experience the Alps. The lift from Chamonix to the top of Brevant brings a vast amount of these tourists up every day and so, after three hours of climbing we are met by hundreds of Asian day trippers dressed like they are off to a shopping mall. Gareth sums it up beautifully as he suggests it’s more like being at Bicester Village than Le Brevant. Clarkey declares walking boot envy as one of the tourists stumbles past in shiny silver three inch heel sandals. Good luck with that sweetie.

As this is Mearsy’s final day, we bid him a very fond farewell, in a short space of time he has been an outstanding member of the party and will be sorely missed. Mearsy is an excellent example of a player who has spent his playing career developing himself and his interests away from rugby and it is fantastic to see him flourishing in his new career as a Partner at Preston Associates.

It has been brilliant spending time with Mearsy but, on the upside, we will get up and down the mountains quicker and there will be plenty more food at dinner. Tough love.

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Mearsy on top of the world

The descent passes without incident and we reward ourselves with a richly deserved beer at the Elevation Bar in Chamonix, mildly delirious that we are 2/3rd’s of the way there.

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The ‘spacey’ chilli washed down with the excellent Italian red works wonders as indeed does the massage I booked with the lovely Iona who was the masseur for the Scottish Rugby Team in the mid noughties. Between you and me I am convinced she digs her elbow slightly deeper into my aching calves and glutes when I accidentally reveal my heritage..

An early start means an early crawl into bed and the owner of the local vintners sobs gently as Clarkey and I bypass our nightly two wine bottle restorative rations. Fear not reader, there’s always tomorrow to make up for it.

Wednesday 14th September 

The final ascent. A horrendously early reveille and breakfast sees us setting off to Switzerland and the final climb of the trip to Pointe Ronde, 2700m “hup, hup, hup”. Deep joy.

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Again the views over to Martigny, Verbier and beyond are absolutely stunning. For someone who three days ago couldn’t even see the point of hiking, I have had a Damascus moment about just how amazing this experience is. Given the hectic lives that we all lead, the intrusion and distraction/destruction of our phones into those lives and the day to day hustle and bustle that we all impose on ourselves, then I couldn’t think of anything more inspiring, invigorating and hugely enjoyable than walking up a mountain in beautiful weather, with even more amazing surrounds, and having the time to think clearly, chat to old friends and make new friends. It really is as simple as that.

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Without doubt, this is the hardest climb we have done all week; our legs are exhausted, the accumulation effect of vertical climbing nearly 4000m in three days has taken its toll. What hasn’t diminished one bit is the energy within the group which has grown stronger with every stride we take. Special mention goes to Gareth who has undoubtedly been our strongest team member. He has led from the front every day and you could not meet a better bloke. No wonder he is the pin up boy of Embody gyms. His steely determination and excellent tempo has taken him up every mountain and he made them all look remarkably easy. A great effort all round from our resident mountain goat.

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Gareth and Clarkey

The other mention for me goes to Ben Clarke. At 6’6 and tipping in at 110kg he has dragged his giant frame up the mountains every day and, just as when he starred for England and the Lions, not a hint of a whinge, he just got on with the job in his no nonsense style with his mischievous humour and remarkable ability to sink a glass/bottle or two. Great minerals all round fella. There’s no school like the old school.

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Amanda and Clarkey

The sense of achievement on reaching the top is overwhelming and, call me old fashioned, a tad emotional. The group have come together so quickly and worked so hard for each other that we all are stoked at the final summit. Photos are shared on social media and huge hugs all round as none of us thought we had this in us just three days ago. Chapeau and Bon Courage all round mes amies!

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The après hike in the local hostelry is a fitting celebration of a job well done as all the hikers are counted back in by Gareth, Damien and the lead group. After 6 + hours up a mountain the beer tastes like mother’s milk. Unfortunately the news is not all great as Emilie has misplaced her keys somewhere on the mountain and she sets off at a rare pace to go and retrace her steps to find them.

75 minutes later she messages us to say she has found them AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN. I told you she’s a machine. Crikey.

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Emilie finds her keys

The Last Supper

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Chamonix Chef, Phil Jones

As we gather round the dinner table for the last hurrah, chef Phil has cooked up a storm on the BBQ and we all wonder what life will be like without mountains as our backdrop tomorrow. The good news for Daisy and Charlie is that they are returning home to their five (and I repeat five) children, so their hands will be full from the get go. At the risk of upsetting the other team members, I have to say Daisy and Charlie have been awesome company this week. They are such a brilliant couple and have thrown themselves head first into this challenge. It is no surprise that Damien and Ali have picked out Daisy as an award recipient for her energy, drive and killer laugh all trip.

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Daisy and Charlie

Charlie rightly collects the sartorial ‘best in class’ award for his home made hat (as you can see it’s a combination of Pike from Dad’s Army and a Tamil Tiger). It’s reassuring to know that if the scouting job at Sarries doesn’t work out then a career in millinery awaits..

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Charlie and his hat

We do a quick round table asking everyone for their personal highlight of the trip and the sentiment is extraordinary. I say a few words about the charity and discuss just a few of the 200+ players and their families we have helped over the years through Restart Rugby. It is such a fantastic cause and, in raising a glass to absent friends (Mearsy and Emilie) there is a cast iron commitment that we will all return next year to make this event bigger and better and raise even more for this special cause whilst exploring more of the Alps and cementing friendships. The Restart Rugby Alpine Challenge is here to stay! Dates for 2017 to follow. Book early folks!

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Thanks 

My sincere thanks go to all the group, especially the players who have been phenomenal on this trip. The stories, camaraderie and fun have been great and the setting and location couldn’t be bettered. A huge thanks to Ali, Damien, Emilie and Phil for looking after us so well and to Adam for capturing the essence of the challenge so beautifully for us all to remember. As echoed by everyone at dinner last night, this truly has been the trip of a lifetime. Special mention as well to my team back at the RPA base camp for all their help in making this work, great job, as ever.

Epilogue

As I sit on the flight home penning this blog, there are far too many memories to take in. Even though we have only been away for four days, it feels like a lifetime away from our busy lives back home. As I tell anyone who cares to listen, I have been incredibly blessed with my life and I have done some incredible things through rugby as both a player (albeit a few years ago) and latterly through the incredible job I am privileged enough to carry out on behalf of the players at the RPA. The defining moment for me came at the end of day two as we sat enjoying a cold beer in Chamonix town centre looking back up at Le Brevant which we had duly conquered that day; I started eyeing up a nearby hiker’s boots, kit and poles thinking they would really suit me. At that moment it dawns upon me that in just two days I have actually become one of THEM. And it feels pretty bloody good.

Now where did I put that cagoule and compass..?

For more information about Restart Rugby and to donate to this cause that is so close to our hearts please visit www.restartrugby.org.uk 

Places are limited for the 2017 Restart Rugby Alpine Challenge so please register your interest by contacting Sam Baring on 020 3053 6670 or sbaring@theRPA.co.uk