Onwards and Upwards

Since I wrote about the plans for my next adventure, a lot has happened. Most of it high up on the hills around my home, or on the mountains for North Wales, as you’d expect perhaps. But some of it has happened behind the scenes at base camp, also known as my house.

Some of the major happenings have been to do with getting to India in the first place, always key to a trek like this. I was due to fly on Jet Airways, as I have done with my adventures in Nepal. But earlier this year the trekking company changed flights, risking my bus plans as we migrated to Virgin. Now I know why, as recently Jet Airways has ceased to trade. The next hurdle was the Indian Visa. Unlike Nepal, it has to be obtained in advance so I headed off for the website and began.

If you’ve ever taken part in a pub quiz, you know that sometimes they can go on a bit. Just when you thought it was time to hand your answers in, round 17 comes along and it’s about countries of the world. It was a very similar feeling and although none of the questions were hard (spoiler alert – I passed), there were a lot of them. And round 17 was, indeed, about countries of the world that I had visited. I had to list everywhere I had been in the last 10 years. And I was surprised to find when I compiled the list that I’d been to a lot of places, even after I’d discounted England and Scotland as separate countries. I just hoped that none of them would preclude my entry into India.

I always try and book travel to and from the airport in advance to take advantage of cheaper fares, but I have to balance this with the likelihood of last minute changes. Fortunately, the change in airlines came just before I booked the coach tickets. Not only were the flight times altered, but the departure and arrival terminals changed too. Alas, cheap fares were now out of the question as I had to buy two separate tickets top accommodate the different start and finish points. At least my hotel room remained the same. I always stay overnight on returning to the UK as it saves having to deal with delayed flights and missed connections. And in my experience, the last thing I want to after spending 12hrs plus travelling is to battle my way with a heavy kit bag and back pack to a distant bus stop in the inevitable cold and rain of a British summer.

And while all of this paperwork and administration is going on (I left work to get away from that kind of thing), I still had to bring my fitness levels up to a high standard. So the last thing I would want to get would be, say, shingles.

I got shingles. By the time I realised there was something amiss and went to the doctor, it was too late to take any medication (which, apparently is pretty horrendous and not very effective) and so I had to let it take it’s course. Which wasn’t pleasant (although I think I may have had a mild form) and kept me off the hills and away from the exercise bike during some reasonably nice weather. But at the beginning of April, I was starting to feel ‘normal’ again and the hills started in earnest.

I wanted to test my level of fitness to see what I needed to work on and so a trip to Snowdonia was called for. My plan was to climb Snowdon via the Llanberis path – a long but steady route – carrying a backpack weighing a little more than it would on the trek itself. I’d decided 7kg would be the pack weight on average so I loaded up with about 8kg (a little more to start with in the form of water) and managed the route in about 4.5 hours – an hour quicker than I’ve done before. But the measure of fitness isn’t just speed – it’s recovery time and so the following day I chose a harder route up to Glyder Fach via Capel Curig. It promised to be challenging underfoot, with steep climbs but with long sections of more enjoyable high level walking. Despite the steep bits (which were really steep), boggy marsh and my heavy backpack, I made it to the top of Glyder Fach (which translates rather disappointingly as ‘small pile of rocks’) still able to breathe and move. More importantly, I had done two major peaks in two consecutive days and I felt my fitness was pretty good.

As a further test, on my way home the next day I climbed Crimpiau, a hill at the end of the Ogwen Valley with stunning views back to Tryfan and the Glyders. Although it was half the height of the mountains I’d been on, it was still a good test of fitness and I felt energised and ready for the long journey home.

Back at base camp, I decided to have another go at packing. One of the problems with trekking in general is the varying luggage weight limits and the inevitable bulk and mass of technical kit. My flight weight limit is 22kg plus 7kg hand luggage. My internal flight weight limit is 15kg plus 7kg but the weight limit for porters is 12kg. My first test pack of the kitbag was 18kg. Even allowing for leaving some travelling clothes at the hotel, I’d probably be 2kg over the internal flight limit and a full 5kg over the porter limit.

The main weight came from four essential items – the sleeping bag (rated to a necessary -23C), ice axe, crampons and harness. Nothing to save there, so I set about paring back the base layers, socks and toiletries to a minimum. By the time I’d finished, I was down to 15kg but I couldn’t see where I was going to gain the extra 3kg for the trek itself. I re-read the luggage guidance and there was a paragraph I’d missed before. It said that the technical kit for climbing Dzo Jongo would be carried directly to base camp while we trekked a longer route to acclimatise. I re-packed, leaving out the offending items and suddenly the bag was only 11kg. Relief all round.

More training awaits and I expect I’ll be out on the Brecon Beacons quite a lot over the next few months.

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What now?

Five years ago, I wrote about a plan to climb a trekking peak in the Himalaya. At the time I knew of only two – Mera Peak and Island Peak, both in the Nepal Himalaya. I’d met a guide on the flight out to Everest Base Camp who was climbing Island Peak, and our guide, a mountaineer from the UK, was talking about running an expedition to the same mountain. Nothing came of that, but I was interested.  I did some research to see what was involved. Not surprisingly, money was involved. An expedition to Island Peak (on the way to base camp) or Mera Peak (off to the east) was a 20 day + trek with acclimatisation days and bad weather days built in. While neither mountain required technical climbing skills, both required technical kit (ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and helmet) and the ability to use them. I couldn’t afford everything in one go, and I’d need time to prepare, so I decided to collect bits of kit in sales and using special offers to keep the costs down.

I saw this as a long term challenge because I would have to get much fitter than I had for Everest Base Camp, and would be reaching 7-800m higher than base camp, around 6200m. It gave me something to aim for. My decision to climb Kilimanjaro was mostly to see how I got on at those kinds of altitudes, and whether I could reach the level of fitness needed to consider going higher. I got to the top of Kili, and it was hard going. But I got there, the effects of altitude were manageable, and I enjoyed (most of) it.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. Except that circumstances changed and I inherited a Rufus. As part of welcoming him in as a permanent member of my life, I promised not to leave him for any length of time (and after a few days where he stayed at a kennel and was thoroughly miserable the whole time, not to leave him at all). I knew that the day would come when he wouldn’t be with me any more and I wanted us to have a great time together. We had four amazing, adventurous years together which I wouldn’t have exchanged for anything.

After he left me, and thanks to the fitness which I had maintained thanks to a demanding hound keeping me honest, I was able at short notice to climb Jebel Toubkal in Morocco. One of the big attractions of this mountain was that I would get two days of ice axe and crampon training and experience, which brought me back on track with my plan to summit a 6000m peak. One day of sliding down mountains practicing ice axe arrests (“Is this your ice axe, sir? I’m afraid I shall have to take it into custody”) and stomping about jamming crampon spikes into 45 degree ice and another of putting it all into practice climbing the mountain itself. I found it harder than expected because we didn’t have much chance to acclimatise (1700m to 3200m in one day and 3200m to 4160m the next when the recommended safe ascent is 300m per day). But it was (mostly) as enjoyable as Kili.

I started to look at trekking peak again and found that there were more than two, and they weren’t all in Nepal. In Morocco, I had been talking to a fellow trekker who was thinking about climbing Stok Kangri in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Then I found out that the company I trek with (Exodus) were offering a new trek this year to the same region as Stok Kangri, but to a peak called Dzo Jongo. I liked the idea of a new trek (I’ll be on the first commercial running of it) and that it is generally a much quieter mountain than the more famous ones.

Dzo Jongo (not the best name for a mountain – Crag Hard, Ben Nochance and Mount Doom are all better) is 6180m high. Or 6280m according to some websites. Hopefully it’ll be sorted by the time I go. It requires no mountaineering skills but I will probably be roped up to the others during the final summit traverse along a snowy ridge. At the time of year I’m going, the plastic, highly insulated high altitude boots that would normally be needed to cope with the temperatures are not required. Since they cost between £500-800, a significant fraction of the cost of the trip, that’s good news. I’ve still had to invest in a climbing helmet (the risk of rockfall is present) and a climbing harness (which looks like a prop left over from one of the ’50 Shades’ movies) but both were discounted in New Year sales so I saved quite a bit. I have my ice axe and crampons, so the expensive stuff is already out of the way.

Getting all this stuff to Ladakh in Northern India will be fun. As a friend pointed out this week, ‘you’re carrying a sharp pick axe, spikes and bondage equipment to a remote part of India – good luck with that’. Having learnt from previous treks (particularly Kili), I know that I will initially over pack. Bearing in mind this is a high altitude trek (average altitude for the 16 days is  4500m), bacteria doesn’t grow in the low oxygen environment and so it’s perfectly hygienic to wear underwear and clothes for several days at a time. It’s a camping trek, so the important things are a good sleeping bag and a working inflatable mattress – the former I have and can confirm is so warm even in -10c conditions that it is almost impossible to leave for a wee break in the early hours. The latter I have now, my previous one refusing to inflate during the Kili trek and allowing me to feel every pebble of the mountainside.

So all that’s really left now is getting fit. Really fit. There are many hills and mountains to come. I’m sure you’ll hear about some of them.

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Sahara

All scarved up, we went out to meet the camels. Six camels knelt in the sand near our Auberge. They were restless and our guide, Abdul, explained that they would all be male. Then he offered an explanation for why they might be restless. ‘It’s the mating season,’ he said with a grin. We were warned not to approach too closely until the camel driver called us over. The lead camel was already working up a great gob of spit which was leaking from its mouth. ‘If they don’t like you or your camera,’ said Abdul, ‘they’ll spit at you or it’. I used the telephoto end of my lens to snap the camels.

The driver chose which camels we would ride based on size. I was second from last on the second smallest camel, which I promptly named Herbie for no reason other than I couldn’t think of anything else to call him. I just about managed to get my leg high enough to clear Herbie’s back and managed to shuffle awkwardly on top. To Herbie’s credit, he let me shuffle and didn’t try to get up. I had been warned by friends that when they get up, there is a rapid and potentially disastrous movement up and forward, which if you are not ready for it will tip you over the camel’s head. Abdul said hang on, and the driver let go of Herbie, who promptly got up back end first and tried to throw me over his head. But I was leaning back and gripping the T bar attached to the saddle in front of me tightly and after an equally violent backward motion as Herbie rose up fully, I was 6 feet off the ground and could relax a little.

They guy in front was next and he struggled to get on to the camel having shorter legs than mine. His camel didn’t know what was going on and became nervous. This, in turn, made Herbie and the last camel in line nervous and they both paced back and forth as much as the rope tether would let them. I continued to grip the T bar just in case.

Eventually, we were all mounted and ready to go. The camel driver led us off at a slow pace away from the Auberge. It was much cooler than I was expecting now as the sun was on its way down again. Once I’d got the hang of the motion of the camel, a gentle swaying forward and back, I started to enjoy the experience and a few minutes later, I felt confident enough to let go of the T bar with one hand and take some photos. Abdul was walking along side us and every now and then he’d take a snap shot with his phone. The gentle motion of the camel was soothing and all the nerves I’d had before starting off were soon gone. And then we started to go down a gently sloping dune! Ciaran’s camel (the one behind me) wanted to go faster than my camel, which meant it started to overtake me. Herbie was having none of it and it felt as if he was digging his hooves into the sand to hold the other camel back. This meant I was being jerked forward with every step. Both hands gripped the T bar again and I lent back, just in case. And then I felt a gentle caress on my left leg and looked down to find Ciaran’s camel nudging it with its lips. A brief recall of Abdul’s ‘it’s the mating season’ flashed through my head.

We ambled on with the occasional love tap on my leg to assure me that Ciaran’s camel was keeping up. Every time we went down a slope I’d be jerked forward and my new friend would appear alongside me. I wanted to tickle it behind the ears but given the season, I thought that might end badly for all concerned.

Then I started noticing that I was slipping off ever so slightly to the right, so I shuffled back towards the left. I had to do this a couple of times but Herbie didn’t seem to mind. I was concentrating on this and so didn’t notice Abdul slipping away to the top of a nearby dune. The first I knew was the sound of some traditional Arabic music playing in the distance. I looked up to see Abdul filming us as we walked along in line. He later sent me the video, and the music has come out on the sound track. I look ungainly and Ciaran’s camel is clearly interested in my left leg.

When the music stopped I noticed the sound Herbie was making as he plodded along. It was a gentle swishing noise and when I looked, all the camels were lightly dragging their feet through the sand rather than picking their feet up with each step. Every now and again, a camel would utter a deep, rumbling sound as if their bellies were full of wind. And then there’d be a loud, extended farting as the wind escaped. They also made very high pitched, bird-like noises, which was completely unexpected. And they spluttered a bit, which I was expecting. There was no spitting though so I guess they must have been content,

After just under an hour, we reached our camp for the night. It was hidden in the lee of a large dune and we stopped about 30 yards from it on a flat stretch of sand. Now came the adventure of getting off. I waited for the driver, who took my bag, and I somehow managed to half climb, half stagger off Herbie without kicking him or the camel behind us. There was some spluttering and rumbling but no farting or spitting, so I guess it was okay. I half expected my legs to collapse as they’d been aching a bit as we went, but all was fine. Everyone got off without incident and as the camels were led away, we were shown around the camp site.

The night at the camp was memorable mainly because of the absolutely stunning night sky. From horizon to horizon were the brightest stars I had ever seen. And I’ve been to dark sky sites in Britain. There was no comparison, with no stray light, cloud or pollution to dim the brightness or to interfere with the delicate colours of the Milky Way. I spent a lot of time just looking at the sky; I had expected it to be spectacular and it far exceeded those expectations.

At 7.20 the following morning we all gathered in the pre-dawn light to make our way to where the camels would be waiting. Although the sun was still half an hour below the horizon, it was light enough to see the way clearly. High above us a crescent moon shone down. The sand was a dull pink colour as we left the camp and climbed up to the flat area of sand where our camels knelt in anticipation of the antics to come.

Ciaran and I managed to mount our camels – the same ones as yesterday – and I survived Herbie’s attempts to hurl me off over his head again as he got up. But the guy in front was having difficulty getting on and after the first attempt, his camel thought it was okay to get up. When the driver pushed it back down again, Herbie decided to kneel too and I was thrown violently forward once more. Fortunately, I’d managed to anticipate the move a split second before it happened and I hung on. There followed five minutes of skittish behaviour from Herbie and Ciaran’s camel, while the chap ahead struggled to get on. In the end the driver pushed him on and shortly afterwards, we were all loaded and ready to set off.

By now the sand was turning a deeper pink colour as the dawn approached. The plan was to walk for about 15 minutes and then dismount, climb a nearby dune and watch the sunrise. With all the games that had just taken place, part of me thought it would be nice to watch the sunrise from Herbie’s back. We set off at a faster pace that the journey out yesterday but the camels were up to it and so were we.

With the sand and sky brightening every minute, we stopped at the dune and the camels behaved well enough to allow us to dismount and make the short climb. With the dunes glowing a deep reddish pink, the sun appeared over the dunes in the distance and we all watched in silence as it rose until the whole disc was visible. It was immediately noticeably warmer and for a few minutes we enjoyed the spectacle, watching the sand fade from a deep red to brown before we headed back down to the camels, waiting patiently at the bottom of the dune. Remounting was a little easier and we were soon on our way again, keeping the pace up.

Around the next dune I spotted two camels on their own and as I watched, I noticed one move awkwardly forward. They had both been hobbled by tying the left leg up with a piece of rope. It didn’t seem to bother them as they stood but it prevented them from moving any distance. I later found out that they belonged to our camel driver and as they weren’t needed for our group, they had been left there.

Unfortunately, they spotted their fellow camels and decided they wanted to join in. As they began to slowly lollop over Herbie and the camel behind us became quite agitated and without warning decided to run away. As they were tied to the rest of the camels in our train, they didn’t get far but instead at the end of the rope, they did a kind of tail skid, twisting around to the left and doing their best to throw us in the process. Anticipating a forward throw, I wasn’t prepared for the sideways motion and quick reflexes were the only thing that saved me from flying off to the left. Ciaran also managed to stay on as both camels tried to get away from the two individuals, who by this time had given up trying to get to us. The camel driver was quickly alongside us and calmed Herbie and his mate down enough so that he could go and see to the two hobbled camels. Abdul led us away and the camel driver made sure his two individuals stayed where they were.

Our driver finally met up with us just before we got to the Auberge and we dismounted with no trouble. There was a lot of huffing and spluttering and that high pitched whining from the camels, which I took to mean that they were happy we weren’t on their backs anymore, but no spitting, so we hadn’t been awful. With a couple of group photos taken, we said goodbye to the camel driver and I waved to Herbie, who was eyeing up the greenery near the oasis.

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Marrakech Express

“Give me back my debit card!”

“Non!”

“S’il vous plait?”

“Non!”

My schoolboy French negotiating vocabulary exhausted, my conversation with the cash machine just up the road from the hotel in Marrakech ended in defeat. I wasn’t quite penniless, thanks to the friends I’d met on the trek who all offered to lend me local currency. But I was afraid to use my credit card lest it go the same way, and I wondered what would happen to the debit card now it was in the bowels of some machine in Morocco. For the sake of literary tension, and to encourage reading the whole blog, I shall now time travel back six days to my arrival in Marrakech before telling you the outcome.

I hate the actual, mundane physical travel part of ‘travelling’. If you read a recent blog ‘Travel Fun’ you’ll get a few of the stories. Getting to Marrakech was no different. I flew from Gatwick and I have to say I preferred the experience to that at Heathrow, thanks largely to it being a smaller airport and having better transport links to the local hotels. A slight delay due to armed police confronting and arresting a man on the outskirts of the airport aside, the journey to my seat on the plane was straight forward.

The plane set off for the runway, and 5 minutes later was still taxiing. I decided that we were clearly going to drive to Morocco and I wondered who we’d get through the Channel Tunnel. But eventually, the plane found the right bit of the airport and, in an effort to put aside any more fears of hesitancy, the pilot swung on the the runway and accelerated without first pausing. We were off. There is always a moment as I’m pushed back into my seat that I wonder what on earth I’m doing subjecting myself to man made flight. But it soon goes as I look out of the window seconds later to see a live version of Google Earth below me. Today was slightly different, in that someone had painted the ground a slightly grey white colour, similar to the colour of clouds but no matter. I was soon chatting to my neighbour, a geography teacher from London, and we quickly found a common interest in trekking when I explained where I was going.

The flight was relatively short, about 3 hours plus taxiing time, and Marrakech was warm and sunny when I arrived. The following extract from ‘Travel Fun’ sums up the airport transfer:

“After a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.”

The mix up involved a second group of people, a group of Cypriot cyclists on a biking tour of this part of Morocco, and the transfer bus. It sounds like the start of a complicated joke that inevitably won’t live up to the promise. It was, in a roundabout way, as the group were in the same hotel as my group, and we had our briefing immediately after them. It turned out they were not a happy bunch as they were expecting a better hotel (there was nothing wrong with the hotel), and they let their guide know in no uncertain terms. When we saw him after their briefing, he was clearly stressed. “They are definitely not from Britain,” was his cryptic remark to our guide as he left, probably for a mint tea and a lie down.

Marrakech is a beautiful place. It’s called ‘The Red City’ because most of the buildings are painted with an ochre wash, which glows pinky red in the sunrise and sunset. The French, in an act of wisdom, developed a new city around the old town and left the ancient settlement alone, preserving the style and culture of Marrakech in the process. The old town, or Medina as it is known, is surrounded by a mud brick wall and a number of towers. Within, the narrow streets are lined with little shops, restaurants and pavement cafes. On our last day there, we had a tour of the southern part of the town in the morning and I explored the northern part of the town walls in the afternoon. Our morning tour, led by Mustapha, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Interesting because he took us to all the right places to get a flavour of the old town in the limited time we had. I would not have know to go to half the places he led us, and we managed to avoid the crowds (it was a local school holiday) because of his timing. Frustrating because his English was poor and heavily accented and it was hard to understand what he was telling us. It was a shame because he clearly knew his stuff. But by concentrating hard to understand what he was saying, we risked missing the sights, and sadly we concentrated on the sights and not his narrative.

In the afternoon, I walked around the outside of the town walls and at one point ventured in to a decidedly untouristy area, which I immediately sought to leave. I had a feeling of unease and while nothing happened (other than the classic scam of someone telling me the main square was ‘that way’ when I knew it wasn’t), I was glad to be away from that bit of the town.

All roads lead to Jemaa el Fna, which translates variously as the ‘place of the lost’ or ‘the place of the dead’. The latter is most appropriate as it was hear that the heads of criminals and conquered foes were displayed many centuries ago. Now the only victims here during the day are the may tourists who are hassled for money when stopping to watch the snake charmers or Barbary Ape owners. Both are cheap tourist traps and when I was there they looked tacky and, to be honest, fake. The animals were real enough, and clearly unhappy and I wasn’t happy even being in the square with them around. I read later that the apes are an endangered species and people like those in the square only make the situation worse. Anyone who gives them money is funding the problem. There was little else to hold my interest but I knew that come sundown, the place changed it’s vibe to one more like the descriptions in the guidebooks. The previous night, as we’d waited for a bus following our celebratory meal, the exotic drumming and music, the lights and smoke bearing the delicious aroma of freshly cooked tagines all combined to make me want to return.

We made our way back to the square the following night. In the dark, it was exciting, definitely exotic and a little scary, particularly when the girls in the group were accosted by a large woman offering henna tattoos. It was quite a persistent sales pitch and when the woman finally got the message, she left saying “if you change your mind, remember Fat Mamma”. We stifled giggles, because she was quite a large lady. We did laugh, however, when one of our group pointed out that she had probably said “remember Fatima”.

There was no sign of the cheap tourist acts. Here were little groups of talented musicians playing tradition music on traditional instruments for the gathered crowd. There were dancing and whirling performers, singers, drummers and story tellers. This was what I had expected and it hadn’t disappointed. I quickly overcame my initial nervousness at the large crowds, mostly locals, and relaxed to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells. In a long line at the centre of the square tables radiated out from large stalls on which tagines were simmering enticingly. The touts for each stall were very enthusiastic but as we had eaten we didn’t partake. One waiter even told us that his prices were “cheaper that Aldi”.

We wandered around, taking in the atmosphere. On the periphery of the square were carts selling figs, prunes and other fresh fruit. Stalls sold mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice and for 4dh (about 30p) we each had a glass. It was gorgeous. We must have spent over an hour in the square altogether and it was late enough that some of the traders were starting to pack up. While one of our group haggled over a couple of decorative metal candle holders, I took a few photos and then we left.

As we reached the edge of the square, I was suddenly surrounded by six or seven little boys, all clutching glow sticks in their hands and hassling me to buy one. In the past, I’ve usually dealt with this kind of thing by a curt ‘no thanks’ followed by completely ignoring them but it didn’t work this time, so I took a side step to try and break out of the ring of kids. By now I was isolated from the rest of the group by the kids and before I knew it, I could feel a hand dragging the zip of my left hand jacket pocket down. I slapped it out of the way and shouted “this kid is trying to pick my pockets” loud enough that the others could hear me. I pointed at the kid and he looked scared, unsure of what I was going to do. And then I felt the zip of my right hand coat pocket being undone, so I turned and pointed at that kid, shouting the same thing again. As I did so, a local man cuffed him on the head, and the kids all disappeared. My camera, in the left pocket, was safe. My phone, in the right pocket, was almost completely out and in another second or so it would have gone.

I was a little shaken for a few minutes but soon overcame the shock. And I refused to let it taint the impression of Marrakech that I had got to that point. I don’t know what drove the kids to picking pockets. It’s simplistic to say they steal for personal gain. That may be so but its more likely that there was some threat to them if they didn’t bring back a certain amount of goods or money each night.

And the card? I phoned the bank straight away and despite having to provide details that were only on the card, I managed to get it cancelled within 10 minutes of losing it. And two days after I got back, the replacement arrived. One of my friends changed £20 into local currency and I ended up changing £30 of local currency back to sterling at the airport, which saw me through the journey home.

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Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

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Everest Anywhere

Last year, I took part in Trail magazine’s ‘Everest Anywhere’ challenge. The idea was to log ascents on every walk and try and get to the height of Mount Everest, 8848 metres. With Rufus driving my efforts, we easily achieved the height in about 14 weeks. We did it again in another 14 weeks. We even got our photos in Trail Magazine after they got in touch. I started it again this year and Rufus did the first hill of the challenge with me. After Rufus passed away, I decided to continue anyway as it would get me out during the difficult weeks after he’d gone.

It’s not long now until I embark on a trek in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. I’ve been doing a lot of training over the last few weeks and the two weekends I spent in North Wales really made a difference. I trained with a heavy backpack and even got to use crampons on Snowdon – a valuable if brief experience which taught me not to try and walk normally or the front points dig in and you trip up! I also learnt how to properly strap them on. The instruction sheet wasn’t very clear and my first efforts had the crampons slipping off on a steep part of the icy path. As usual, once you know the trick, it’s easy and so much more secure! I’ll be using crampons on Jebel Toubkal as we ascend a glacier to get to the snow covered summit.

In the last two weeks I climbed Pen y Fan twice, both in grim, snowy and misty conditions but as I explained to the National Trust volunteer on the way down, although I don’t like the walk up I love being at the top. I’ve used Pen y Fan as a training mountain, and a measure of fitness, since I started trekking way back in 2007 and I’ve now been to the top 55 times. I can usually tell by the time it takes to get to the top, and the state I’m in when I get there, the level of fitness I’ve reached. I was pleased with both efforts and there was a noticeable improvement over the previous climbs in December.

Yesterday, I went for a walk on Carreg Goch. It’s a lovely hill above Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley. The initial climb is fairly steep and about half way up there is a side path that leads down to the Afon Haffes. This was a favourite stopping off point for Rufus, who would charge off down the short spur and wait for me in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to properly paddle but stones were required to be thrown and after a brief paw cooling splash, we’d carry on to the top of the path. I made the detour myself this time, and stood for a few minutes to remember Rufus. It was easy to picture him standing in the water waiting for a stone and it made me smile.

Once the steep bit is over, it’s a constant but gentle climb to about 550m. At the top, I had passed my Everest Anywhere goal of 8848m. The landscape is high moorland with broken limestone tops and sink holes. The mountain contains the National Showcaves at Dan yr Ogof and you can often find cavers accessing passages from seemingly impossibly narrow access holes on the top of the mountain. The shallow valley of Waun Fignen Felen was once a lake and the remains of prehistoric man’s efforts to hunt here have been found by archaeologists. This place was once home plenty of wildlife which attracted the hunter gatherers, who probably also had a hand in erecting the many standing stones and stone circles in the area.

The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed the stroll, which was less of a training walk and more of a morning out in the sun. The last time I came this way was in February, when the whole landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow which anonymised the hills and made route finding difficult. That day I turned around because I didn’t like the look of the approaching clouds. As I got back to the car, they deposited a heavy load of snow. Yesterday couldn’t have been more different. The visibility was superb, crisp and clear. There were barely any clouds in the sky, only a few over the Bristol Channel. I had the mountain to myself on the way up and it was nice just to sit on the limestone outcrop and enjoy the view down across to the hills north of Swansea, and the sea beyond.

On the way back, I met a group of walkers who were out looking for one of the many aircraft crash sites in the area. They asked directions to the site of an RAF Vampire jet crash and I was able to point out the direction as I had been there myself a few years ago. They were in very good humour and we had a laugh before they carried on along the side of the dried up lake bed.

On the way down the steep bit is usually very slippery, either with snow and ice or, as yesterday, with thick, oozing mud. Nevertheless, I managed to get down without slipping over and with only a mild twinge in the knees. Another 7 miles added to my trek preparation.

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At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!