Clouds circulate over the top of Mont Blanc, the sun occasionally peeking through and briefly revealing the vista of France’s highest peak. Running off the northern slopes is Mer de Glace, the country’s largest glacier, a seven-kilometre long, 200-metre deep natural wonder of snow and ice. With the seasons in transition and the temperature rising, avalanches regularly fall either side of the ravine, emanating a thunderous and unnerving roar as they tumble visibly at a safe distance.
Standing on the middle of the ice, bedecked in crampons and climbing gear, is Britain’s fastest man, Dwain Chambers. The setting is an unlikely one for the former sprinter, once vilified for his doping past but now back in the fold of British athletics, just days before his first race of the British outdoor season over 150 metres in Manchester on Saturday.
The 34-year-old has based himself at altitude in the ski resort of Chamonix to prepare for his onslaught on the 2013 athletics calendar, and he admittedly causes heads to turn as he tears down the home straight at the town’s athletics track amid children and weekend amateur running enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, his slower, more tentative steps on the ice are all part of his preparations to climb the 4,800m Mont Blanc at the end of the season for cancer charity Teens Unite with British climber and Dream Guides founder Kenton Cool, who last week climbed Mount Everest for the 11th time. It is a charity that has helped him find peace with his own darkened past, his doping indiscretions with Victor Conte at Balco Laboratories and his well-documented effort to return to the top of the sport.
“Looking and talking to these youngsters, what they’ve gone through and what they’re going through, I’ve got nothing to complain about,” he says when we meet up at his chalet in the town where he is staying for his final pre-season preparations.
Chambers has talked openly to those children about doping, the decisions he made, the pills he popped, likewise to schools ranging from Eton College to some rougher establishments in inner-city London.
“I want people to know what I did,” he says. “If it stops one person from turning to drugs then that’s a good thing.”
This year marks 10 years since Chambers tested positive for banned substances following an out-of-competition test. The road back has been a tough one and he readily accepts the blame, although admits for a time that he did not.
“I didn’t help myself with my actions,” he says. “It took me a long time to identify that. I didn’t take responsibility for my actions, I pointed the finger at other people. That was where I was going wrong. It took time. Having kids [he has three] helped – that changes you as a person – but it was all down to me. I burnt a lot of bridges, a lot, and I had to build those back again.”
He points to London 2012 as the moment when the acceptance that he so craved was achieved, when he was finally allowed to compete after the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the British Olympic Association’s lifetime Olympic ban for athletes previously found guilty of doping indiscretions.
It did not quite seem to be the fairytale ending, Chambers failing to make the final, but a big beaming smile comes across his face as he casts his mind back to events of the summer.
“I’ve no regrets about the Olympics,” he says. “Just being there was enough. I didn’t think I would be there. I got goosebumps when they read out my name for my heat and the noise that followed. Nothing can ever improve that – it was worth the fight to get there for that moment. It was the highlight of my career. It showed I could have a life after my mistakes. I’d suffered the consequences but come through it.”
During the Games, he shared an apartment with the young sprinter Adam Gemili, the older athlete passing on advice to the young pretender. Chambers admits their conversations have not yet turned to the subject of doping but he has discussed that with other British athletes in order to warn them of the perils.
It is not that Chambers is suddenly a paragon of virtue but he has undergone a sizeable reformation in the intervening years. The remorse is genuine, the under-the-radar work with his various talks a credit to him. He talks candidly about what he has done wrong and readily admits there are times he would turn back the clock.
“There’s been quite a few thoughts and times of wishing I’d not done it,” he says. “It wasn’t an easy choice to dope but it’s one I took. People won’t ever forget that but I do think a lot have at least forgiven. It finally feels like I have the public’s support and for that I’m very grateful.”
On Saturday, he lines up on the streets of Manchester at the BT GreatCity Games against France’s Christophe Lemaitre among others, a chance to translate his winter training into competitive success.
He is brimming with confidence as any macho sprinter does but, in his mind, it is with good reason. Following the CAS ruling, he is no longer a pariah, in the sense that he can compete in more events, particularly on home soil. In addition, he now has a coach in Rana Reider, who guided Christian Taylor to London Olympic triple jump gold.
“Before I was having to do the job for myself but having a team around me was the missing key,” he explains. “It’s great to listen to him but the other athletes in the group as well. You feed off that.”
The other plus point is no requirement to scrap around for race invitations. “It makes it easier to plan your life and your future,” he says. “My performances will be better this year with less distractions. I’ve had distractions throughout my career and this will be the first season going in without distractions.”
He believes he has the form and fitness to beat his personal best of 9.97sec, dating back 14 years, despite being in the twilight years of his career.
“Age is nothing but a number,” he said. “I’m now enjoying what I do more than ever and I’ll keep on doing it until the wheels fall off. I think I can get there, I want to be consistently running 9.9 and then you start looking to 9.8. Why not?”
His goals in 2013 are quite simple. Number one is “to get to the World Championships in one piece” when they take place in Moscow in August. Other than that, he has not set anything much more ambitious for himself except keeping the likes of Gemili behind him in the British sprinting hierarchy.
He talks with an older brother’s fondness of the teenager, in fact for all budding athletes, although it has taken some time to get to that point.
“You have a responsibility that kids are looking up to you,” he says. “I didn’t originally grasp that. All I’d say to kids in whatever sport is to just stay on the straight and narrow. Otherwise things go wrong, the volcano starts bubbling and then erupts. It then gets out of control. I should know, I let it get out of control. I’ve learnt to stay in my lane and run in a straight line. It’s what I do best.”
More than that, he is finally happy in his own skin. “I enjoy what I have,” he says. “I love what I have, the opportunities, and I try to take all of them. I feel I’ve changed, I needed to. Part of that is becoming a parent. You care more, you become more emotional – actually, I well up at anything. I’ve been given a second chance to do what I love.”
To find out more about Dwain’s charity climb and to sponsor him, go to www.justgiving.com/dwainchambers