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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Travel Fun

I’ve just been travelling. I love visiting new places, seeing new things and particularly experiencing new cultures that challenge my way of thinking. I have been fortunate to visit Nepal, Tanzania and Morocco and each one brought new adventures and challenges and a completely different attitude and approach to doing things. I’ve been to various places in Europe and America and while the culture is general familiar, there are always little characteristics that make a place special. I love that. But there was one common element to each of those trips that I hated. Getting there.

We can fly across the world. It is now possible to fly non-stop to Australia thanks to technology. I can check the weather in the High Atlas, chat to friends over the internet from the top of Kilimanjaro and send electronic postcards almost instantly from Everest Base Camp. But it still takes 6 hours to get to Gatwick, via a bus and I still have to walk several hundred yards to get me and my baggage from bus to check-in. And at the other end, I have to walk the same amount again to get my bag and drag it out of the airport. And lets not talk about airport transfers.

In Nepal, the airport at Kathmandu was an experience I wasn’t keen on repeating. I had to queue for a visa and for the 30 minutes I was there, I was subjecting to the same repeating jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant. It had an annoying jingle followed the the statement “There are two steps – one leads to Everest, the other leads to Rum Doodle”. By the time I had my visa, I had been subtly brainwashed, as had all the trekkers on my trip. We successfully got to base camp, and on our return to Kathmandu, we ate at Rum Doodle.

Outside the airport, we were assaulted by a chaos of Nepali boys and young men all trying to carry our baggage. Fortunately, we were being met by the hotel transfer bus but in the few minutes it took to identify and make contact with the bus driver, several boys had tried to pick my bag up (it was very heavy, so they couldn’t whisk it away) and I’d managed to grab it back from all of them. I loaded my bag and helped load others and still they asked me for tips and money for carrying my bag. And all the while, A Nepalese policeman with a rifle on his back almost as long as he was blew a whistle to try and regain order.

To get to the start of our trek, we had to take an internal flight to Lukla. Google ‘Worlds most dangerous airport’. It’s usually Lukla. The flight was an event in itself and while I wouldn’t quite lump it in with the nightmare of ‘getting there’, it is definitely not for those who dislike flight. The little plane climbs constantly to lift itself over the mountains that surround Kathmandu, and then continues to climb in amongst the lower Himalayan mountains until, weaving through a narrow valley, the pilots line up with an elongated postage stamp of a runway for which there is no ‘go-around’ procedure and land. If the clouds swirl up, obscuring the runway at the last minute, it’s tough. And in many cases, its tough and fiery.

On the way back, if the weather is good, the take-off is only marginally less challenging. As the air heats up during the day, it gets thinner and less able to support aeroplanes, particularly ones loaded with trekkers and heavy trekking gear. At the end of the runway is a steep drop of some 2000 feet. I watched one aircraft, late in the morning, drop off the end of the runway and only reappear 20 seconds later as it struggled to gain height to clear the mountains beyond. And the next flight out was ours.

Flying to Tanzania was via Nairobi airport. Nairobi had been bombed the year before and although security was tight, more than half the airport was closed due tot he damage caused by the bomb and subsequent fire. So transferring, we were crammed into a dark and dingy semi circular corridor that looked as if it had been built in the 70’s and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered when they need ed the space. “What’s behind this door?” “No idea, lets see…”

The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International airport was via a large twin prop passenger plane. It looked modern and inside the cabin was clean and spacious. But then I watched them loading the luggage – by hand through a door in the side between us and the pilot. The bags were stacked haphazardly behind a curtain in the front bulkhead. I didn’t see my bag being loaded but when I picked it up at the end of the flight, it had been ripped at the seams and was unusable.

The transfer from Kili airport to Arusha was an exciting hour along the main road, fairly busy with slow buses and lorries and our minibus, only slightly faster. But the driver insisted on overtaking everything, even if it took 5 minutes. We stopped looking in the end as oncoming traffic got closer and closer. We passed overturned lorries and buses and this should have been enough to warn the driver. But we survived, and turned off the main road to get to the hotel. It was along a track that had never seem any form of tarmac and was, instead, created entirely from potholes creatively linked by ruts.

The transfer from the hotel to the start of the trek was equally adventurous. After leaving the main road, we drove on rough tracks for a while before leaving roads completely and driving along what I could only describe as a muddy river bed. The ruts in the mud, enlarged by flood water which had mercifully drained since, were deep enough the the bus grounded several times on the drive up to the park gate. At one pint, we passed another bus coming the other way and only just avoided rolling down a bank into a field.

In Morocco, I flew in to Marrakech airport and 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.

You could argue that these experiences are just part of the fun of travel, and I guess you’d be right. But sometimes, after a long flight crammed in to the seat, dehydrated and tired, arms aching from carrying bags and brain frazzled from trying to understand what the passport checking police man has just asked you, you just want a gentle transfer and to wake up in a comfy bed ready for the adventure. We’ll get there one day.

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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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