In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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In High Places 3

“Walk quickly past this boulder, because it may dislodge and fall on you at any time.”

It was a big boulder, and I was on the Khumbu glacier, which is in imperceptible but constant motion. Raj, our guide, was not one to over dramatise and he stood by the rounded lump of Everest that had been pushed and rolled down the Western Cwm to meet us on the way up to Everest Base Camp. Gingerly, I negotiated the narrow gap, trying not to touch the boulder, trying not to even disturb the air around it too much. Immediately beyond it was a short but steep descent on gravel. I would normally have used the boulder to steady myself on the way down. Instead, I went for it and made it without falling. Or being fallen upon. I managed to clear the danger zone and carry on.

This is the third recollection of my trek to Everest Base Camp in 2007. On 20 November 2007 I trekked from Lobuche to Gorak Shep and on to Kala Patthar, which was my goal and motivation. Everest Base camp itself would come tomorrow. From Kala Patthar, there would be a fantastic panorama of Himalayan mountains, including Everest itself, Lhotse and Nuptse. I would be able to look down into the site of Everest Base Camp and the outfall of the Khumbu Icefall. All of these images I had seen on the internet when doing my research, and every time I struggled on a training hill or exercise, I would imagine them and how much I wanted to see the view for myself and take my own photos. This would always give me the extra incentive to get to the top of the hill or complete the number of repetitions of the exercise. It would get me out of bed on cold, dark mornings and keep me going when the rain or snow started falling.

We left Lobuche in the dark. I thought I had experienced cold on the way up but this morning was a new level of chill that battered its way through the layers of fleece and thermals I was wearing and directly into my bones. A dry wind was blowing down the valley, along the glacier and straight into my face. It came from the Everest area and the ice of the glacier sucked every last drop of moisture from it, making it dry as well as cold. Every breath I took in was icy and my body had to work hard to warm it up and moisten it, losing water as it did so. This is why drinking lots of water at altitude is important.

Although I was wearing gloves, my finger tips were feeling numb. Over the last couple of days I had taken part in a drug trial (with the approval of our trek doctor) and at Lobuche they had measured by blood oxygen level at 75%. While I was generally feeling fine, this was manifesting itself as poor circulation and I stopped briefly to pu on a pair of liner gloves as well as the thick insulated ones I had. I looked at my thermometer and it was telling me the temperature was -10c. Infact, it was much colder as the gauge didn’t measure below -10c. The tube of my water bladder froze despite insulation and it running under my armpit. Our trek doctor had measured it as -20c during the night and the sun was yet to make an appearance to warm things up.

Walking helped and I soon got into a rhythm. The first ascent of the day helped and by the time I’d got to the top of what was no more than a pimple, my body temperature had risen and I could feel my fingers again. And I was out of breath for the first of many times today. At over 5000m above sea level, there is around 50% of the air in every breath you inhale. Acclimatisation over the past few days had helped me cope but not completely and I was finding even the simplest climbs hard. But a slow pace and plenty of rest stops would mean getting there. nevertheless, the thought of the climb from Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar was daunting.

We were a slow group and had been all the way. Today was no exception and while about half the group were lagging behind as usual, the rest of us were waiting for them at every stop. As a result, we took four and a half hours to trek to Gorak Shep, the fuel stop before Kala Patthar. It was touch and go whether we had time to do it and to say I was frustrated as we made our way along the undulations of the glacier would be an understatement. But with 15 minutes to spare, we got to the lodge and second breakfast. Without waiting for the others, the ‘front’ group set off towards the slope leading to Kala Patthar.

To say the going was tough is an understatement. Up until summit night on Kilimanjaro in 2014, it remained the toughest thing I had ever done. Towards the end of the climb, I was counting the steps between stops to breath. Our guide was taking it easy but even so I found it difficult to keep up and most of the time my head was down, looking at the path ahead. I didn’t realise until more than half way up that I was in the lead; through no choice or effort but just because others had stopped for more or longer breaks. It gave me a little boost of confidence but I was drawing on every ounce of mental and physical strength to keep plodding on. The guide understood, having done this before, and was taking plenty of stops. Eventually, we stopped and I felt I couldn’t go on. I looked upt o see the grinning face of the young Nepali pointing to the flag pole and prayer flags. We were there.

I had made it to my personal goal. I can’t describe the feeling and to be honest, at first it was just one of ‘thank f**k that’s over’. A few minutes later, when I was breathing a little easier, I started to take notice of the things around me. Most notably, of course, was the absolutely stunning view of so many snow covered mountains. Everest lay ahead, it’s dark peak standing out against the white of the other mountains. A plume of spindrift was blowing from it’s summit as the jetstream scoured the rock of any loose snow. The air was so clear that Everest felt close enough to touch. The sky was a dark blue and the sun was harsh. All around, streams of prayer flags flapped in the string wind. It was cold, and only after a few minutes being stationary did I begin to notice. In photos, I have my rain jacket done up and the hood up, with a fleece hat underneath.

At one point, the wind blew a few of us off our feet and we sought shelter in the lee of some rocks. Our trek doctor, from West Wales, sang the Welsh national anthem and that was quite emotional. I finally remembered to take photos and spent a few minutes snapping away, followed by a few more taking photos of others. Below me, the Khumbu Icefall spilled out of the Western Cwm and turned to head down south the way we had come. The site of base camp was clearly visible; there were no expeditions this late in the season. South, all I could see were more mountains. I could have stayed there all day.

But I couldn’t, because we had to descent before darkness. The path is quite slippery with gravel and buried rocks to trip the unwary. It’s well known that most accidents on the mountain happen on the way down and I didn’t want to end the trek being carried out on a stretcher. It took a knee crunching 90 minutes to descend and we strung out as we each found our own pace. It was certainly easier than the ascent, but it wasn’t easy as I tried to avoid slipping on the gravel and kicking up too much dust. Eventually I walked into the dining room of the lodge where cheers and applause from those who had stayed behind accompanied each person as they entered. A hot drink was most welcome, and an early night was inevitable.

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In High Places 2

I arrived in Kathmandu in the evening of the 11th November 2007. The journey had been long and uncomfortable and I was glad to be out of the plane. As we checked through the customs desk, a jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant played over and over again. And as it took a long time to get our visas issued, the jingle became a torture.  But eventually we were through.

I emerged, with my kitbag, into the chaos of the arrivals hall where hundreds of locals tried to take my baggage from me. Their aim was to get me to use one of their taxis, for which they’d get a commission. Our hotel had sent a bus with several of our trekking group that had arrived before us and they swiftly grabbed our luggage and stowed it safely aboard. Nevertheless, I was accosted by several of the teenage baggage boys trying to get me to give them dollars. Not a good start. Just before I climbed onto the bus, I looked up at the sun setting behind some hills and wondered what I’d let myself in for.

The journey to the hotel was mostly in the dark. I was tired and a bit dazed after around 17 hours of traveling and the comfort of the bus seat was most welcome. Shortly after we left the airport, we entered the built up area of Kathmandu and it was lit up with what looked like thousands of candles. Diwali – the festival of light – was being celebrated and our local guide told us that this was the third day of the festival. It was beautiful, and a magical welcome to the this new world I was entering. Every window had at least one tiny light shining and in the near total darkness it felt like we were being driven through a forest of candles. Only the occasional silhouette of a building or the odd wall lit up by vehicle lights spoiled the effect. Being in that jet lagged state made everything a little surreal.

The bus stopped and we all trooped out. It turned out that we had another 10 minute walk to get to the hotel, which was situated down a narrow street in which the bus wouldn’t fit. The bags went ahead, transported by hotel porters, and we made our way along behind them. Even in the evening, the traffic on these narrow streets was busy and for the whole walk we were assaulted by horns and revving engines as we braved the non-existent pavements. I’m glad it was dark so I couldn’t see exactly how close we were to the traffic.

At the Kathmandu Guest House, we were assigned rooms, and in a blur of activity we unpacked and all met in the restaurant for an evening meal of Dhal Bhat. I don’t remember much of that evening as the jet lag was no longer lagging. But at some point in the early hours I was woken by a number of pigeons all of who wanted to get into my room.

The following day was best described as a pleasant assault on the senses. We had a whole day to explore the city and in the morning we went on a tour of the main religious sites. The place that stands out in my memory was the Pashupatinath temple, a Hindu religious complex of great importance. The Great Hindu god Shiva takes many forms and as Lord Pashupati, he is worshipped here. As non-Hindus we were not allowed in the main temple but as we crossed the sacred Bagmati river we saw a number of cremations taking place on the opposite bank.

The river is sacred because it flows into the Ganges, and the ashes of the dead are scattered in the river so that they may also joint the Ganges. I watched, fascinated, as boys waded and swam in the filthy water to pick through the remains for any valuables. The smell was of sweet incense, as it was in so many parts of the city despite the piles of refuse, mud and water in drain free streets.

Thamel is the busy tourist hotel area of Kathmandu and it’s narrow streets and colourful shop displays were exciting and frantic and brash. I walked back from Durbar square to the hotel, all the while fearing the seemingly inevitable collision with a motorbike or rickshaw. But they are much better than I gave them credit for and they know how to deal with an inexperienced westerner like me. A range of horns and bells warned me if i strayed into the flow of traffic and I soon learnt to walk confidently and make no unpredictable moves into the street.

I managed to avoid the street salesman with a tiny violin and bow for sale with a sharp ‘no thanks’ and avoidance of eye contact, which made him try his luck with the next person. I chatted with a local who just wanted to practice his English. To my shame I assumed he was distracting me so his mates could pick my pockets. Of course that wasn’t the case – too long living in London taught me the wrong assumptions. All through the trip I found the sincerity and friendliness of the locals was so evident that it was almost too good to be true. Cynical western ways were suspended for a couple of weeks.

Power lines and telephone cables were strung haphazardly from telegraph poles and the sides of buildings as if someone had draped them in advance of their being tidied up. The fire risk was unimaginable as most business had cloth or wood signs advertising their wares. And the buildings were so close together that a fire in one would be disastrous for all. The signs themselves were amusing, with almost all of them in English but with bizarre spelling or grammar.

My first day immersed in a new culture was an amazing experience but I think it took a couple of days to realise how different everything was, by which time I was experiencing even more differences on the trail to Everest Base Camp.

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In High Places 1

This time 9 years ago (yeah, tenuous I know), I was getting ready to go on my first trek. I’d signed up to trek to Everest Base camp. I had no real idea of what I was getting myself into, having only started properly walking the hills about 18 months before. I’d never been to a non-western country, never experienced different cultures and hadn’t walked above 900m before I signed the papers and paid the money.

I’d read about Everest itself and the people who climbed it. The books never dwelt on the journey to base camp; it was usually dispatched in a couple of pages which talked about Rhododendron bushes and the unbelievable loads Sherpas carried. The journey became a whistle stop sprint up to the Khumbu Icefall where the real action began. So although there has been a lot of exposure for the area, there was very little detail about where I was going.

The guide book I bought was comprehensive but I had nothing to judge its contents against. A lot of it was about how many ways you could get ill, including some interesting but unappealing ways to die. A mate had been to Nepal in the early 90’s and his stories of cheap accommodation and food stuck with me. But he never went in to much detail.

I knew I had to get fit. The company I was going with gave me a training programme but I wanted to be fitter than that, so I planned my own based on the recommendations. My main training hill was Pen y Fan, which I did several times a month. But I added more challenges and tried to spend longer on the hills. I ended up doing the Brecon Beacons horseshoe several times. Then met up with a couple of others booked onto the trek for a weekend in Snowdonia. We climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path (which starts not much higher than sea level) and the following day, I scaled Glyder Fach in appalling weather (I got lost near the top and stumbled about a bit before finding something that resembles Castell y Gwynt).

Then I went off to do Ben Nevis and once again got lost in a whiteout. Scaling Ben Nevis wasn’t about physical fitness, it was a mental workout and I learned quite quickly that mental fitness counted as much as physical fitness; there were training days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and there were early mornings where the rain or mist was thick and there were good excuses not to go out. But mostly I went out and usually got soaked.

Then, suddenly, the training schedule indicated that I’d peaked and should start winding down. About this time I became paranoid about picking up an injury. Rough ground, steep descents and slippery surfaces all posed a risk. As did walking to the shops or going up or down stairs. I became ultra cautious as the days counted down.

I left Swansea on a cold and dark November morning and spent the night at Heathrow, where there were fireworks going off all night. It was the 9th, and I wondered why they were still celebrating Guy Fawkes night. But it was Diwali that was being remembered, and I was to find out when I got to Nepal exactly what that meant…

 

 

Snowdonia

With Rufus curled up in the back of the car, cosy in a nest of pillows and blankets to give him some protection from my driving, we set off northwards in the drizzle towards Snowdonia. We stopped at Pont ar Daf, our usual starting point for Pen y Fan but to Rufus’ surprise (and probably relief) we ignored the path upwards and just spent a few minutes exercising little paws. Then, back in the car, we set off once more for Capel Curig and the little cottage I’d stayed in last year.

Rufus doesn’t sleep in the car but he was dozing as I checked on him during the trip. We stopped several more times before we finally met Eifion at the cottage. It was just as I remembered it from the outside but inside, there were a few new additions. The sofas had been replaced by a new set, and there was wifi! Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my laptop as last time there was no internet connection at all. While Rufus explored the cottage, I brought all the bags in. There were so many more, just because I’d brought him, or so it seemed. The reality was that I’d also brought a large bag of camera equipment. Nevertheless, there were a lot of blankets and fleeces for covering the furniture, and plenty of food, toys and towels. Did I get a hand bringing them in? No!

We settled in quickly and after food and coffee, we decided to take a stroll along the track at the back of the farm that Eifion had told us about. It wound it’s way up the side of the mountain. We passed plenty of sheep with lambs but none seemed too concerned and I made sure Rufus kept his distance. We were heading into wild country. This was well away from civilisation and I couldn’t help thinking about what it must have been like to be a sheep farmer two or three hundred years ago. Off to the south west, Moel Siabod stuck it’s peak into the clouds.

It was getting dark, not through time of day but because thicker clouds were gathering over the hills. We stopped on a rocky knoll and admired the rugged, barren terrain around. This was not good land for anything other than sheep. We turned back and strolled gently down the track again. We’d had a long day.

The following morning, the sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. After a cooked breakfast, we set off for the Llanberis Pass. As Rufus was recovering from a tummy bug, today was going to be a day of short walks and photography. We wandered down the river, walking in the shadows of Crib Goch and Glyder Fach. Across the road, we scrambled up the scree for a little way and while Rufus chased birds in vain, I took a few snaps of the water tumbling down the mountainside. We disturbed a guy who had camped in the shelter of a large overhanging rock. We squelched through the marsh back to the car.

To take advantage of the gorgeous weather, I decided to head off to the beach. We crossed over to Anglesey and parked up at Porth Trecastell, a small beach near Rhosneigr. With the sound of RAF Hawks taking of from Valley, a few miles up the coast, we walked directly into the strong wind and out to the headland. About 6 years ago, Rufuis and I had posed for photos with Em and Oscar right here. As we reached the Barclodiad Gawres burial chamber, on which we’d set the camera, I had a text message from Em to say that she thought it was Rufus’ 9th birthday. So this holiday became his birthday present. We stood being buffeted by the wind as the camera on self timer took a snap of us in the same place as we had been last time. Then, in addition to the birthday hug I’d been asked to give him by Em, he had an extra biscuit and then I took him down on to the beach for a paddle – still one of his favourite treats.

By now we were both feeling a bit peckish – Rufus always does and I felt like having more than the packet of crisps I’d brought with me. So we headed back tot he cottage. The great think about this place is the central location. It is only a few minutes from the Ogwen valley and a few more minutes from several routes up Snowdon. So After food, we set off again for the mountains.

I love Llyn Ogwen and Cwm Idwal is one of my favourite places in North Wales. So off we went for a walk around Llyn Idwal, nestled in the Cwm and surrounded by the great mountains of Wales – Tryfan, Glyder Fawr, Yr Garn and Pen yr Ole Wen. Sheltered from the wind, the lake was fairly calm and we set of anti clockwise along the lakeside path. It was great; we just walked and stopped whenever we felt like. Rufus led the way (another birthday treat) and as we were in no hurry I let him set the pace. We watched hillwalkers returning from the surrounding peaks, and climbers making their way back to the car park after their assaults of the great rocks and cliffs. Snowdonia was where the early British Everest expeditions trained. We watched a pair of Canada geese swim towards us, curious to see what the black sheep was.

We spent some time on a little stream, where I threw stones for Rufus to catch. He loves this game and when he barked (he always barks as I’m still learning to throw them properly), the sound echoed across the cwm. Next thing we knew, a Heron lifted off from a few yards away and flew lazily across the water.

We ended the day back at the cottage. Tired but content.

Wednesday was another beautiful day. The morning was cold and clear and after a wake-up stroll along the farm track, we set of for today’s goal – the Devil’s Kitchen at the far end of Cwm Idwal. Last year, I used this route to climb to the top of Glyder Fawr but today, with Rufus still recovering from his tummy upset last week, I just wanted to get a bit of height to take some photos. I had in my head some black and white images using the infra red D300. We chose to go clockwise around the lake this time but first we had to pass through a herd of black cows. We dislike cows as they dislike us but this morning, they were content to watch as we walked by.

In the sun it was warming up rapidly, but in the shade the temperature was a little chilly. Unfortunately, the steepest part of the climb was in the sun and it was hot going. Rufus was coping well with the steep parts and I was well aware of my lack of fitness. Around this time last year I climbed Snowdon and Glyder Fawr on consecutive days. Today, I was struggling a bit. The path was made from large flat stones and each step seemed to get higher. Rufus cleared  each one in one bound. I seemed to be stopping a lot to take more photos!

Then the going got even rougher, with the man made path giving way to a more natural, rocky jumble. I was a bit concerned that Rufus might slip and get a paw stuck, or worse. Within a few minutes we came up against a high step of natural rock with barely a toe hold. There was no way Rufus could get up as there were no holds for claws and the stone was smooth. We’d climbed around half the height to the gap between Glyder Fawr and Y Garn and I decided to stop here. The views back down to Llyn Idwal and beyond, to Pen yr Ole Wen and the Carneddau were spectacular. I told Rufus we were stopping (I talk to him all the time when we’re on rough ground like this) and called him back to me. I took a few photos before turning to find Rufus on top of the rock step looking down on me! I have no idea how he got up there but he was clearly more at home than I was.

Not to be outdone, I clambered up after him and we carried on for a few more minutes. But now the jumble of rocks was getting tougher and I called Rufus back. We sat on a rock ledge and enjoyed the view while having a snack and a drink. Sheep bleated above us, more sure footed than we. It was quiet apart from them, and tranquil. I enjoyed these few minutes as they are what hill walking is all about for me. Rufus seemed to be happy too, sniffing about and joining me for the view (although that might have been his attempt at charming me into giving him a bit of Snickers).

We started back down again, and I tried to go ahead of Rufus to guide him down and make sure he didn’t slip. But as usual, I underestimated his ability to cope with the rough conditions and by the time I’d reached the flatter, man made section, he was there waiting for me. The rest of the path was easy and he trotted ahead as I frequently stopped to take more photos of the wonderful views ahead.

As we rejoined the lakeside path, Rufus decided he wanted to paddle again, so he shot off across the heather and marsh towards the water. I let him; it was his birthday week anyway. I hopped and splashed after him and finally caught up with him as he stood with paws in the cooling water. There followed some stone throwing and then we both looked up as we heard a strange barking sound. It was the Canada geese we’d seen yesterday. The pair had been joined by a second pair and they were all paddling towards us. We walked on by the shore of the lake and they swam parallel with us, barking and honking. Then they started squabbling amongst themselves and we were left alone.

We strolled back around the lake, passing through the herd of cows that hadn’t moved and finally got back to the car. It was hot now, and we were both tired so we headed straight back to the cottage. Lunch and a snooze was on the cards, and we both woke up again around the same time. After a reviving coffee, Rufus and I went up and along the farm track again. Walking up, we could hear two cuckoos calling from different trees across the track. But they were soon drowned out by the roaring of jest as planes from Valley carried out mock combat high above us. As we got back to the cottage, swallows were flitting about above our heads. I watched and they entered the barn next to us.  I spent the next 20 minutes of so trying to capture them with the camera, with varying degrees of success.

That night was clear and I’d received a tweet alerting me to the possibility of northern lights being visible in the north. As we were so far away from towns, I thought there might be a chance of seeing them so at around 11.30pm, Rufus and I walked back up the track until we were overlooking the cottage. It was pitch black and the stars were beautiful. While Rufus stood guard (I think he thought I was mad), I took a few long exposure photos but there was no sign of any aurora activity.

The journey home to Swansea was made in the rain. We stopped a few times on the way back to stretch our legs but really all we wanted to do was get home. We managed it in a little over 4 hours.

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Auschwitz

To be honest, most of my posts here are written ‘off the cuff’ – I have an idea and I write with little planning. This one has taken a lot longer to make it into the blog. I considered writing a purely fact based account of my visit to Auschwitz but that would be no better than reading about it in any of the (much better researched and written) books that are available. So this is an imperfect account of my visit. For want of a better term, I refer to anyone in the camps as prisoners, although most were not guilty of any crimes. Inevitably, it’s not pleasant reading but it must be remembered.

I had wanted to visit Auschwitz for a while. It sounds like a ghoulish statement but I strongly believe that history is best experienced in person. I am interested in military history, particularly WW2. I had read a lot about the Nazi death camps, watched documentary films and programmes and I felt I knew a lot about this part of the war. Most of us have seen the grim images of ‘selection’, the iconic gates with the railway track passing through, the cynical ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign above the gate of Auschwitz. The complex called Auschwitz was actually a series of camps. Auschwitz itself was a concentration camp, bringing political and racial ‘undesirables’ together. Several other camps nearby were work camps where the prisoners were forced to toil building factories and industrial complexes. There was a prisoner of war camp in the area but this didn’t form part of the Auschwitz complex and the prisoners, mostly western troops, were treated much better. Finally, there was Birkenau which was the purpose built extermination camp.

Auschwitz

We pulled up outside Auschwitz and I felt nervous and a little apprehensive. There were quite a few people milling about outside and as I neared the entrance I saw that there were a lot of young people in the crowd. I’m glad of that; this is an event and a place that needs to be remembered.

Inside, our group made our way towards the main entrance to the camp. This is the one that prisoners would have been marched into and out of every day. Above the gate, the jauntily designed ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign cast more of a shadow than was apparent in the sunshine. Beyond the double fence of barbed wire – which was electrified during the camp’s use and which was one way a prisoner could, and did, end their misery in the camp – the red bricked barracks didn’t look like I expected at all. This camp was originally a Polish military camp and the barrack blocks were large and well built. As the camp expanded, more blocks were built on the pattern of the original building.

The tour of Auschwitz took two hours, during which time we visited some of the barracks – now mini museums, each with its own theme. For me, the two hours was an ordeal (one which I gladly undertook and I’m not complaining) as we were given the cold statistics of what went on here. There were up to 20,000 people in the camp at any one time. More than 8,000 Russian prisoners of war died here, and 21,000 Gypsies were murdered in the camp. The profit from the sale of Zyklon B pellets to the camp were 300,000 marks. When the camp was liberated by the Russians, they found 7 tons of human hair packed up ready to send back to Germany; that was only the latest grim harvest. Many more tons had gone before.

In one particularly chilling museum the personal possessions brought here were displayed. We walked past huge cabinets full of shoes, shoe, shaving and hair brushes, tins of boot polish and prosthetic limbs. In a cabinet on its own were a number of Jewish prayer shawls – symbols of the faith that brought many of the prisoners here. Newly arrived prisoners and those destined for the gas chambers were told to make sure their possessions were labelled so that after the ‘shower’ they could find them again. It was done to ensure the minimum of fuss when taking prisoners to their deaths. An example of Nazi efficiency. In one room, a collection of suitcases with their owners names printed neatly on them were piled up as they had been left by their owners. It made all the statistics into real people.

We were asked not to take photographs of the cabinet full of human hair out of respect for the victims. I found this display hard to take in but the next one was worse. In a small cabinet on the way out of the room were a few tattered and worn teddy bears and dolls. A child’s shoe lay next to them. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

We moved on through the camp, free to walk about as we wished before being guided to the punishment block, Block 11. This was also known as the Death Block and most of the prisoners who went in didn’t come out alive. Here, the barracks had been left as it was in 1945. I found seeing what the prisoners would have seen gave this particular building even more atmosphere that the others. We passed the dormitory rooms, where those condemned to trial slept their last nights on the floor with only thin mattresses of straw or, in some cases, just the straw. We passed the room where the ‘trial’ was held and made our way back along the corridor to the guard room. At the end of the corridor away from the entrance was a portable gallows used for some executions.

Block 11 was the only one to have a basement and it was here that the punishment cells were located. This was a grim place and it felt oppressive, depressing and unnerving. What it must have felt like for the prisoners, I dread to think. Some of the cells were used to starve prisoners to death. One was used to suffocate them. There were three cells which were only big enough to stand in, and more than one prisoner was kept in there at the same time. It was an awful part of a terrible place and I was glad to get out of the gloom and back to the stark corridor.

Outside was the courtyard where executions were carried out. usually, the guilty prisoner ( they were all ‘guilty’ of course), were taken out immediately after sentencing, and shot. To minimise the effect of gun shots on other prisoners, small calibre pistols held close to the head were used and the windows of the neighbouring barracks were blocked up. As we looked, a Jewish visitor was praying against the execution wall. I felt like an intruder, and I left.

Opposite the Death Block were the camp hospital wards. These were known as the waiting rooms for the gas chambers as many of the patients were rounded up and sent to their deaths from here. Medical experimentation took place here as well. A complete barracks were set aside for sterilisation experiments, for example. You did all you could not to be ill in Auschwitz.

We walked back toward the gate, past the assembly square, where prisoners were paraded and counted, a process often taking hours in all weathers. In front of the square was the mass gallows, where offenders were hung in front of their fellow prisoners. To one side was a small wooden cubicle, where the officer in charge to the roll call sheltered from the weather. It was beautifully made and resembled a grandfather clock case only on a larger scale.

Instead of leaving, we walked to the other side of the camp, where the crematorium was situated. As we stood opposite, it, the guide pointed out the camp commandant’s house – a villa shielded from the camp by some trees. Rudolph Hoess was the first commandant and the one most associated with Auschwitz. Next to the crematorium was the gallows on which he was executed after a proper trial.

Finally, we were led in to the crematorium and as we went, so we were told that the part we were going in to first was the gas chamber. It was dark and silent (out of respect for those murdered here, we were asked not to speak). There was an atmosphere in there that I still can’t adequately describe – a mix of horror and depression and a grim feeling of hopelessness. The guide pointed out the chutes through which the gas pellets were dropped and then we moved on to the room containing the ovens. In another chilling example of efficiency, there was machinery designed to make the loading of the corpses quicker. I was glad to get out of the building.

Birkenau

We were transferred to Birkenau, only a few minutes away. This is probably the place you would be familiar with from film and stills of the Nazi extermination programme. We entered through the ‘Death Gate’ alongside the railway line (purposely built as a spur off the main line to speed up the transfer of prisoners). We walked along the tracks until we got to an open area and I turned around to look back. I saw the image I’d seen in pictures and realised that we were at the point where the prisoners were unloaded from the cattle wagons and the selection process took place. With the aforementioned efficiency, prisoners selected to be murdered were separated from the others; more often than not families were split up here and sent to the one of the four gas chambers. In less than half an hour, prisoners were being gassed.

We were stood next to a cattle wagon and I was surprised at how small it was. It would house at least 40 people but almost always more were crammed in. Our guide explained that in one transport (the name for the train full of prisoners) that took four long, hot summer days to get to Birkenau, only three people survived out of more than 2000 who started out. Heat, thirst and suffocation accounted for the rest.

Birkenau is huge. It covers 425 acres, with more than 300 buildings, and was being expanded in 1944. Most of the wooden huts, which once housed horses before being converted to house the prisoners, were dismantled immediately after liberation to provide building materials for locals. All that remain are a surreal forest of red brick chimneys for the fireplaces in the huts. In the sunshine on the day of my visit, they shone like square red tree trunks.

We made our way past the end of the railway tracks to the giant memorial to the victims of Birkenau. It had been created from the funeral and burial architecture from all the societies and religions represented by prisoners in the camp. It was an impressive sight but in the context of environment I found it hard to really take it in.

Because either side of the memorial were the remains of Crematoria 2 and 3. The four crematoria, with their attached gas chambers, were blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. But despite this, it was quite clear what I was looking at. The crematorium was at the junction of a right angle formed by the underground undressing room and the gas chamber. Prisoners would enter the changing room, usually believing their were going to have a shower, and be moved through to the gas chamber. They were locked in before most of them realised what was happening. After 15-20 minutes, the corpses were transferred to the crematorium, which could cope with around 5000 bodies a day. In a further example of terrible Nazi efficiency, crematoria 3 and 4 were built with their gas chambers level with them to make it easier to transfer the bodies from one to the other.

We passed a water filled pit, in which the ashes of the burnt corpses were deposited. They were also used to fertilise nearby fields and deposited in the woods that surrounded the camp. As we left this part of the camp, a party of Jewish students were singing a haunting song by the side of the ruined crematorium.

We made our way to the Women’s camp and into one of the huts. This was more like what I was expecting to see at Auschwitz. Instead of bunks, there were what can only be described as shelves and 3-5 prisoners slept in each one. Although there were two fireplaces, the terrible cold of Polish winters killed many occupants, and the lack of ventilation meant that many more died in the heat of summer. Our guide explained that the hut ‘kapo’, usually an ‘ordinary’ criminal selected by the camp guards to manage each hut, would live in a small room near the door and could be bribed for favours. A kapo’s favourite was far more likely to survive the camp ordeal.

By now, I was feeling emotionally drained. A lot of what I’d seen and heard was very hard to take in and fully comprehend. 1.3 million people were murdered in Birkenau. I don’t know what that number of people all together looks like. Around 100,000 people would be in Birkenau at any one time – that works out at more than 300 prisoners per hut. I just about know what 300 people look like together and I can’t imagine what conditions in the hut must have been like. The views along the wire to the guard towers was familiar from so many prisoner of war movies, but here it was for real. Even as a visitor, I felt a little unnerved by their presence. So much of this place was familiar from photographs and yet it was so different from what I was expecting.

And suddenly, we were being led to the exit gate. Something the former prisoners could only dream of. Although I was a willing visitor, I felt some relief at being able to get out of the camp. It had an oppressive, depressing atmosphere despite it being a bright sunny and warm day. I’d always imagined visiting here in grey, dreary conditions. And I’d heard that no birds sing in the area. I didn’t hear any while I was there.

I wondered about the guide, too. She was very good – her English was excellent and she had a very clear delivery. But throughout, it was level and business like. I guess she had to protect herself from the horrors she was describing. I’m not sure I would be able to keep the emotion and judgement out of it if I were leading a group around the camps.

More than 6 million Jews were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, or on the streets of their home towns or in their homes. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people were imprisoned in camps or ghettos during the war. It wasn’t just Jews that were sent to these places; Gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s witnesses and Catholic clergy were also routinely sent there.

It’s almost impossible to understand the mentality that created and maintained these places but we must understand that it can never be allowed to happen again.

 

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Nepal

I had a different blog lined up for today and I’ll publish it in the future. But last night and this morning I have been hearing about the devastating earthquake in Nepal and the appalling death toll. I’ve only been there twice but the country and the people left such wonderful memories that I feel very sad at the images I’ve been seeing.

My impression of Kathmandu was of a random jumble of buildings thrown together, with the narrow streets of Thamel seemingly unplanned and impossible to follow on foot. With little room to develop, buildings went upwards and what started off as a single story house or shop would have a floor added as the wealth of the owner increased. Adding storeys was a sign of prosperity. This might not have been the wisest method of expanding but it was the only option. I do not criticise.

My lasting memory of the people, both in Kathmandu and on the winding footpath to Everest Base Camp was one of friendliness. To a westerner, experiencing this for the first time, I looked upon it with suspicion – ‘what does he want?’ came to mind. To my shame. The reality was, they wanted to be friendly and they wanted to know more about this western visitor that had spent not far off their annual income for a flight to Nepal. I learnt to bargain with shop keepers with a smile on my face, and although the actual process was played to a few rules which felt serious at the time, it was worth it for the post sale banter. One woman selling little hand sewn purses sold me five for a little under £2 and as I put them away and walked off she gave me three more for free! The poor rickshaw driver who barely reached my shoulder in height and yet who pedalled my friend and I the two miles to Durbar Square for less that £4 (we gave him more in the end, despite having to get out and push when we reached a small hill).

The guides, porters and other local crew on out treks couldn’t be more helpful. The tea house keepers went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. A great place to visit and I will be going back someday.

But some of the most significant historical places in Kathmandu have been ruined by the earthquake. I saw images of the little temples in Durbar Square that had survived invasion and revolution reduced to little more than piles of bricks. The Monkey temple, Swayambunath, is a complex of little temples and shrines and from shakey footage I’ve seen on Twitter, one of the two large temples has collapsed. It goes without saying that I hope no one was injured there, but since the place was over run by mischievous monkeys, I hope they managed to escape the devastation too.

I’ve heard on the news and in Tweets from a couple of people I’m following at the moment and who were about to climb Everest, that base camp has been partially obliterated by avalanches from nearby Pumori and that up to 17 people have been killed there. I haven’t heard news about the villages through which we trekked. Namche is situated in a natural amphitheatre – in other words, built on terraces on the side of a mountain. Dingboche is similarly situated on the side of a mountain. In the past, bridges and buildings have been swept away by floods caused by collapsing moraine dams releasing melt water from the glaciers further up the valley. I pray these villages have escaped the damage and their inhabitants are safe.

Oxfam and Save the Children have set up appeals to help the victims of this terrible disaster.

My thoughts are with the people affected by this terrible event.