Shangri La

Last August I trekked in the Himalayan mountains in the Ladakh region of Northern India. You can read about some of it here. We were partially defeated by the unseasonable weather – one of the increasing symptoms of Global Warming – although the whole experience was amazing. To give you a taster (and apologies if I’ve already bored you in person) we crossed 6 passes all around 5000m high, climbed a total of 5889m and walked more than 50 miles. Most of it in water, it seemed. We weren’t ab;e to summit the intended 6000m peak but we scaled the nearby 5700m Konga Ri.

One of the most memorable moments for me, and there were many, was on summit day when our guide spotted three animals in the distance. He was convinced they were wolves but footprints we came across later confirmed that they were Snow Leopards – a mother and two cubs. I have a grainy image of three dots on the snow slope which is my photograph of these rare creatures. I also saw Lammergeier Vultures, a Golden Eagle, Black Kites, Snow Cock, Blue Sheep (which are actually bluish grey mountain goats) and some of our little group were fortunate enough to see marmots in some of the many marmot holes we passed every day. The mountain environment we were immersed in was incredible too.

Inevitably, on the last day of the trek we talked about what was next. After we’d all got over the initial longing for a flushing, sit-down toilet that didn’t overflow in the rain, thoughts turned to what treks we would do next. In my mind I wanted to come back to Ladakh. By the time I’d got home and dumped everything in the washing machine, the new trekking brochure from Exodus was on my doorstep and 18 seconds later, I had found my next trek.

In the early spring, I’m off on a photographic adventure to get some snaps of the wildlife in the Ladakh region, with the aim being to photograph Snow Leopards. We will be accompanied by several wildlife expert guides who will scout ahead and spot for us. We’ll spend a week camping in the mountains at more than 4000m but this time there won’t be high passes or multiple river crossings. Instead we’ll be based in one spot and we’ll take shorter treks and walks to the places the spotters have identified as likely places to find the wildlife. Snow Leopards are incredibly rare – the number thought to be in the Ladakh region is in the low teens and the chance of spotting them will be low. But in our favour is the fact that it will still be winter in the mountains, and the Snow Leopards come down from their high altitude habitats to hunt during the winter months.

And so we come to the two factors that will certainly have an impact on the trek. Ladakh is high in the Himalayan mountains. Leh, the principal town of the region, is at 3500m and well within the zone in which altitude sickness can strike. In August I stepped off the plane at Leh airport and felt as if someone had taken all the air away. Pushing the trolley with 5 kitbags on from the luggage claim to the bus, perhaps 200yards, was exhausting. Climbing the stairs to my second floor room at the hotel (which was another 200m above the airport) with my backpack was exhausting. The local girls carrying my kitbag made it look easy, but when I offered to help, it was all I could do not to grind to a halt as I carried my bag along the corridor. The giggles from the young ladies were polite. The other element that threatens to curtail activities is the temperature. In August it was hot in Leh – 30+C. It was colder in the mountains, with negative numbers at night and during our blizzard day as the cold winds blew down the valleys from the snow covered mountain. But that was summer.

In winter, much of Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world by land. Roads, which all have to cross high passes through the Himalaya, are blocked by snow and ice. Properly blocked; not with a light covering of snow which would bring the UK to a standstill, but with yards of deep snowdrift and frozen snow which no amount of gritting is going to cure. The only way in or out is by plane and the only reason the airport is open is because it’s a military base. I found a website the gives the weather in Ladakh. It offers a historical record as well so I thought I’d look at the weather last March as an indicator of what I can expect. The screenshot is below. But if you can’t wait, the good news is that on the day in question – mid way through the camping phase of our trip – the temperature ranged from -15c to -39c. Yup, those are little minus signs in front of the numbers. And we’ll be in tents.

I’ve been trying on my fleeces, down jacket, thermals and windproof jackets. All of them. At the same time.

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Let’s all do the Konga (Ri)

My bid to climb the 6200m Dzo Jongo in Ladakh was thwarted by climate change in the form of an unusual short but intense rain and snow storm. It was disappointing but that summit was only one of a series of amazing sights, challenge and achievements in the 10 days we trekked through the Stok mountain range. And we did bag a summit, the 5750m Konga Ri. This is my experience of it.

We had trekked from the village of Stok over 6 passes ranging from 4700m to 5300m in height. It had rained for two days and we spent one afternoon walking through a blizzard. On one day as we climbed up to Gongmaru La we followed the river through its gorge, wading across it 14 times as the path weaved and twisted along its banks. The river was in full spate due to the snow and rain on the mountains the fed it. We later found out that we had been cut off from the rest of Ladakh for several days due to floods and landslides.

On the day after the blizzard, we found that our original base camp was under a foot of snow and, more seriously, under the threat of avalanche from an overhanging serac. The summit ridge was heavily corniced and the approach was waist deep in snow. We got the message. So our experienced guide (Valerie has been leading treks in the region for more than 30 years) pointed to a low, rounded summit to the left of Dzo Jongo and said ‘we’ll do that one instead’.

The plan was to ascend to the Lhalung La pass, at 5320m. There we would split with those who had chosen not to attempt Konga Ri, who would drop down towards the camp with the ponies and crew and await our return. Those going on would have to commit to the climb, as the only escape routes were over Konga Ri or back the way we’d come.

We set off around 8am, taking an easy line up the side of the valley. As we reached the snow it made the going that much harder. Feet slipped back with every step forward and as the sun rose it became warm and then hot. The light was bright and reflecting off the snow and I was glad of my sunglasses which dealt with the intense radiation. I’d covered myself in sun cream and was liberally applying lip protection but I could still feel the sun burning my lips.

It took us a couple of slow hours to reach the pass, a flat plateau of thick white snow at 5300m with fantastic views all around. We gathered slowly at a cairn and took a break while the stragglers arrived. In every direction there were snow covered mountains.

We said goodbye to the people that weren’t making the attempt on Konga Ri and set off to the right, ironically heading directly towards Dzo Jongo. The route was flat to start with but the snow and altitude made even that walking more tiring that usual. Before long, the path started to descend slightly as we crossed over to the ridge that would lead up to the summit. I could see that beyond the dip in the ridge there was a steeper pull up the side of the mountain. We walked slowly, pacing ourselves and saving energy for the climb but even so the altitude began to tell.

Tamchos, our guide, suddenly stopped us and I tried to see what he was staring at. He said he’d spotted three wolves in the distance, following the path we would be taking up the side of the mountain. I couldn’t see anything and I stared ahead trying to spot the movement. My sunglasses have prescription lenses but they are so curved that it’s a compromise and my vision isn’t as good with them as with my usual glasses. I aimed my camera in the general direction and snapped away. Later, I found one image where I can see three dots which correspond to the place Tamchos was pointing.

We moved on a little and bumped into two trekkers who had been following our group and staying in the same campsites. We’d got to know Andy and Phil, the latter was a photographer and movie maker who was carrying around a lot of camera kit that had attracted my attention. They and their guide were stationary also watching the dots in the distance through telephoto lenses. They were convinced it was a snow leopard and two cubs. Tamchos didn’t agree but didn’t argue. However a few minutes after we left Phil and Andy, we came across paw prints in the snow. The general opinion was that they were cat like, not dog like as dogs cannot retract their claws and there were no claw marks. We only saw one set, which were adult leopard sized and they followed the route we were taking, leading up to where we’d spotted the dots.

Now we started to climb again and once the excitement of the wildlife spotting had faded, it began to get tough. The snow was deep, the path indistinct and the gradient rapidly became steep. We must have been around 5500m, higher then Everest Base Camp, and the gradient began to take its toll. I tried to maintain Tamchos’ pace as we climbed the side of the mountain but found it increasingly hard to do as my feet were slipping in the snow, dropping me back half a pace for every one I took forward. I expected him to zig zag up the slope but he attacked it full on.

We reached the top of the climb exhausted and panting only to find it was a false summit. We set off again with Tamchos explaining that there were two more such false summits but that it wasn’t far. The next section was very steep and although I overtook a couple of our group (I’m not sure who as I had my head down) I did so very, very slowly and as I recall, they had stopped to rest or to remove a layer. As I reached the top of the second climb I had to stop. It was getting increasingly hot now and I had to remove a layer and take a drink or risk overheating. Tamchos had taken a pause but set off again almost as soon as I reached him. I didn’t dare look up to see how far was left because now I was in a world of my own; my own breathing was the only sound I could hear. My feet were all I could see and my pace was the only pace. In my head, thoughts were racing between the ‘this is do-able’ mantra I had used on all the other passes and ‘I can’t do this’, which I dismissed several times as I was clearly doing it.

Suddenly, in my head, I decided that there was another false summit ahead. At the same time I felt all my energy just draining away, a strange feeling I’ve never come across before. It really was as if a tap had been opened and my energy was spilling onto the floor. I slowed to a crawl, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I took a couple of staggering footsteps and looked up, ready for another slope ahead and the inevitable defeat.

It was flat. The way ahead was a plateau with Tamchos about 10m in front of me. I stopped for a couple of breaths, unable or unwilling to accept that I had done the hard bit. Then I thought I’d better keep going or I might never move again. Each step was an effort but also a reward. I was there and all I had to do was walk about 50m and I could rest. I don’t know how long those 50m took me to walk, but I made it and stopped, only able to stand and grin as Tamchos congratulated me. I had done it and it felt really, really good. Then Tamchos offered me a piece of cherry cake and that felt even better. It was 2.55pm, seven hours after we’d left camp.

The others staggered in over the next few minutes until everyone who had set out to get here was standing or sitting around the cairn. There were congratulations and selfies. I had more cherry cake and some digestive biscuits. I finished the last of my Snickers off, and had a few squares of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut.

By now, I was starting to regain breath, energy and my senses. And I started to look around at the view from the top of this mountain. Everywhere I looked there were snow capped mountains. To the south was the extended ridge of Dzo Jongo. It was clear how the cornice of snow would have halted our progress over the final ridge; we wouldn’t have known whether we were stepping on solid ground or a thin covering of snow over a sheer drop of some 500m. Roped up or not, it would have been extremely dangerous. I don’t think anyone had any doubts that Valerie’s assessment was the wisest and, in reality, the only decision. Other peaks were characterised by long sharp ridges with steep sides and few accessible slopes. In the distance, the horizon was made up of the whole Himalaya and such was the perspective that between our white plateau and the white tops of the distant peaks was a darker strip that could have been placed there just to enhance my photographs.

The brilliant blue sky and intense sunshine that had accompanied us on our climb so far was being threatened by clouds coming in from the south. But we were still in brilliant sunshine and I didn’t want to leave this hard gained summit. We gathered around the cairn, which was adorned with a complete yak skull and horns, and a group photo was taken. Then, after another piece of cherry cake, we prepared to leave. At least it was all downhill from here.

Tamchos set off and soon he was outpacing us and I was finding it hard to walk in the deep snow. In places it was up to my knees and mostly way above my ankles so I was having to lift my legs higher to avoid dragging them through the snow. Under the snow, the ground was rocky and so now and again my foot would slip and twist on a hidden rock or dip, making progress harder. And this was before we’d reached the serious slope.

The downhill gradient started to pick up but rather than it being easier to walk, it was just as hard as coming up, as my feet were slipping, failing to get purchase on the uneven ground beneath the fresh snow. There was a steep drop to my left as we descended and I did consider getting my ice axe out, but it was rocky and it would have been unlikely to do much; I was better off using my walking pole to maintain balance.

We continued down for about 30 minutes until Tamchos stopped to check the route ahead, I welcomed the break and looked back to see that we had outdistanced the others. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only one suffering and my aching legs relished the short rest. But cramp threatened to set in and I was eager to set off again.

We took a slightly different bearing that led through deeper and steeper snow. My feet continued to slip but now I found that occasionally, I could control the slip to ease the impact on my knees by deliberately sliding. Tamchos advised me to pick my own route so that the fresh snow would help prevent more serious slips and falls. We spread out and now some of the others caught me up. We descended the steepest part of the mountain in an extended line, overtaking and being passed as the conditions dictated. We later joked that one of the camp tea trays would have enabled us to slide down far quicker, although everyone admitted later that they hadn’t considered the stopping part.

After about an hour of slipping and sliding and giant steps down, we reached the snow line and shortly afterwards we stopped for a rest. It had been almost as exhausting coming down as the last part of going up, and it had certainly taken its toll on muscles I hadn’t been using until now.

We could see the green valley ahead and Valerie explained that just around the corner behind the rocks on our right were the tents. I half believed her, thinking it might just be a moral booster; the false summits earlier still played on my mind. We set off once more on ground that was much easier to walk on. It was green and rocky and muddy in places but now we could see the hazards and the slip risk was considerably less. Everything ached and the sun was beginning to warm me up again now we had left the cooling breeze of the descent. We kept together as an extended group as we walked over the flood plain and dropped lower until we were crossing the little tributaries that made up the river ahead. The red rocks of the mountain in front of us began to glow with the evening sun and contrasted with the greenery surrounding us.

And then, just as we walked down a particularly steep part of the plain, the white of the cook’s tent came into view ahead. As we rounded the spur of grey rock and scree, more tents became visible. The mess tent looked beautiful and inviting and as we neared we could see that all the tents had been put up. It had taken us 9 hours to complete the summit and return.

We all did the Konga (Ri).

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What now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Climbing Jebel Toubkal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

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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Looking Back II – Looking up.

This time last year I was fast asleep. No big deal, I had an early night. In a tent. Okay, January in a tent isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At 4700m on the western slope of Kilimanjaro.

I can’t believe that it’s a year ago today I started the long and difficult slog up to the summit of Kibo. We were up at 10.30pm (7.30pm GMT as Tanzania is 3hrs ahead of us) for breakfast of porridge and more porridge and lashings of hot sweet coffee. I remember being fairly sharp the adrenaline was pumping at the thought of what was coming next. It was cold, and I’d worn several layers to bed so that the impact of the cold wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t recall it being a factor at the start.

We didn’t hang around. At 11.30pm we set off on a short but steep scramble over the rocks that surrounded the camp site before settling in to a steady plod along zig zags that led up the scree towards Gilman’s Point.

It got colder and colder. I went into a daze in which only the person in front of me existed. I saw a procession of lights coming up on a different route that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The moon sank below the horizon before we’d got half way up but Jupiter kept us company throughout the night. Every time we stopped for a break, I wanted to rest my head on my walking pole and sleep.

And then we got to Gilman’s point around 5.45am. It felt unreal and amazing at the same time. I celebrated with a wee down the drop we’d just walked up as payback for the cold and tiredness (the altitude makes you go much more frequently).

Sunrise was at 6.30am, just as we reached Stella Point. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve experienced – watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak and colouring the cloud layer way below us first a pink colour and then orange. It took me another 50 minutes to get to Uhuru Peak – the summit, at about 4.20am GMT. If I’m awake tomorrow morning at that time, I’ll be thinking about how I felt then. My journal, written about two hours later, lists the following to describe how I felt at the top:

“Rush to the head, relief, elation at achievement, happy, tired, a bit fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen, disorientated, in awe of the sunrise above the clouds, cold, aching limbs, pack weightless.”  I wrote that the effects of altitude seemed to disappear for a while.

Then we were descending and I think that is when the effects of altitude came back because the walk back to Stella Point passed in a blurry flash and suddenly I was charging down the slope trying to keep upright, to keep up with our guide and not to fall over. Equally as suddenly, Barafu camp came in to view and suddenly we were sat down in the sun warming up, fuelling up and staring at the top of Kilimanjaro some 1300m above us. The sudden increase in oxygen available made up for the fatigue and the packed 2nd breakfast (it was 9.20am local time) contained a real sausage! We stayed at Barafu for 90 minutes and then took another 90 minutes to descend another 1000m to Millennium Camp, which we reached at around 12.30.

I was fast asleep in my tent shortly afterwards and slept until they started using dynamite to excavate a toilet block some hours later.

 

Time flies

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s six months since I climbed Kilimanjaro. I was reminded by one of my friends from the trek, and also by a tweet announcing that they’d changed the sign at the top.

All the while I was researching the trek, and during my training, the pictures I saw of Uhuru Point had a dilapidated old sign announcing the summit. But it had been changed to a more modern green one well before I set off. The photo of me in front of it shows its age, with stickers and graffiti partially obscuring the words that tell you where you are (as if you needed reminding after the ordeal you’ve gone through to get there).

Now I understand that the tattered green sign has been replaced by a nice new brown one. I guess I’ll have to go back and have my photo taken by it again!

 

Climbing Kilimanjaro 5: Up the hill

At 10.30pm on 24 January, I was awake and lying wrapped up against the cold in my sleeping bag. I’d gone to bed about 4 hours before wearing thermal long johns, lined trousers, socks, thermal base layer and a fleece. I’d managed a nervous 3 hours of sleep but had woken early. I was resting, and thinking about the climb to come. Reluctantly, I got out of the warm cocoon and donned another fleece, my duvet jacket and boots.

We were greeted in the mess tent with hot, sweet tea and porridge. I was getting fed up of porridge but there was no doubting it’s energy giving properties. I put a large spoonful of sugar in and downed the contents of the bowl. I took my last diamox tablet, drank another cup of tea and was ready.

Withe little fuss, we gathered outside, little pools of torchlight in a sea of darkness. Passian led us off towards the gap in the rocks that formed the first, steep climb out of School hut camp.  The scramble over, we started off on the path which climbed steeply right from the start. It was the beginning of a mindless, endless trudging that went on with little to show for the effort. The darkness hid any landmarks that could have shown the progress we were making, and that was probably a good thing.

We stopped for a short break after about an hour and I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 100m. As we set off again, and aching limbs protested, I started to do the calculations. If we’d only done 100m in an hour, it would take us 12hrs to get to the top. It was a depressing thought and only after a few more minutes did I realise that I hadn’t recalibrated the altimeter at School Hut camp. I guessed the readings were wrong, and resolved not to look at the altimeter again.

We carried on along a series of zig zags, climbing steadily but with no idea of how far we’d come. I longed for each break, but when they came, they merely served to make me feel the cold and for my limbs to develop cramp. Starting off again was harder as a result.

Suddenly, ahead, I saw a line of tiny lights stretching down to my left and up to my right. We had reached the junction with the path from Kibo huts, another popular summit route and the lights were the head torches of the other climbers heading towards Uhuru Peak. We turned sharply right and joined the line. Behind, one group was singing but this soon petered out and there was a strange silence despite the number of people on the path. We stood to oe side to allow faster groups to pass, and we passed slower groups including some people clearly in trouble and being tended to by their guides.

We stopped briefly at Hans Meyer Cave, which I knew to be around 5300m. I had no idea how log it had taken and knowing we were about half way didn’t help either. After the cave, the zig zag legs got shorter and steeper. Lights high above gave an indication of the steepness. A chill wind picked up and blew across the face of the slope. This part of the climb was the hardest as by now I was digging deep for reserves of mental strength. The climb was never ending. Although the pace was very good, I began to have some doubts about whether I could get to the top.

But I started to think of the people who had supported me; my friend’s little boy who had drawn a good luck card which I had with me, and friends and colleagues who had helped me get ready. I also had in my head a song that I used to listen to when doing the harder parts of the training on the Brecon Beacons. All of that gave me an extra boost of determination, and I carried on placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed higher.

All of a sudden, the slope got steeper and we climbed over a series of rocks to a flat area and our guides stopped. They pulled out flasks and gave us all a welcome mug of hot sweet tea. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy brain that we had reached Gillman’s Point; the place where the steep path upwards crests the crater rim. Gradually, as the tea warmed me, I remembered that this was the end of the steep section and from now on the going would be much easier. To the North East, a faint glow was in the sky.

We set off from Gillman’s Point around the rim of the volcano towards Stella Point. By the time we reached the large sign, the sun was just below the horizon and the colour in the sky was deep and beautiful. We stopped to watch the sunrise from just beyond Stella Point, and the peak of Mawenzi was silhouetted against the sky and the layer of cloud hundreds of metres below.

Although the path was far less steep, there was still an incline and the altitude meant that it was still hard going. I passed a number of people sat by the side of the path, head in hands. None were alone so I wasn’t worried about leaving them. There were a number of false summits before I finally spotted the big sign that marked the highest point. I reached it at 7.15am local time.

The feeling of actually getting there after all the time spent preparing, the delays caused by injury and the last 8 days trekking, was amazing. It’s hard to put it into words even now. I’d read about this place but until recently I’d never dreamed I’d actually get here. The 45 minutes I spent on the summit went by in a blur and looking back, many of the memories are through the photos I took. Not because I didn’t stop to see with my own eyes, but because I was tired and my mind was trying to take everything in.

The crater of Kibo is still largely intact and had I been able to spend more time on the top, I would have loved to have descended into it to explore. But our time on top was limited, mainly because of the cold and the tiredness. Instead, I was able to look out onto the remains of the glaciers, and the snow lying on the path I’d just walked. The views from the top were magnificent. Beyond the Northern icefields was Mt Meru. Down to the south was our next goal, Barafu Camp.

All too soon Passian was motioning for us to leave and reluctantly, I followed him back down the pathway. We passed more people coming up and many were struggling in the thin air. We reached Stella Point and dropped over the side of the crate rim to begin the descent.

Passian set a fast pace down across the scree. The alternative was a three hour trudge down which would have played hell with my knees. Nevertheless, I was reluctant at first to follow him as I was conscious of the potential erosion. I compromised and sought a firm path down, occasionally skipping past the longer bits with a diversion across the scree. Passian and the others all but disappeared ahead of me but I could see where  we were heading and wasn’t too concerned. In no time we were down at Barafu camp, having descended 1300m in around 85 minutes. After a brief brunch stop, we descended further to Millennium camp, our overnight stop.

As we registered at the camp site, we were told that they were blasting to clear a site for a new toilet block. But my tired brain misheard and I thought the ranger said they were blasting to clear the toilet. I thought of an explosion in a cess pit and didn’t want to think any further. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull thud and we were allowed to go to the tents. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and after about an hour, I was woken by someone shaking the tent. It turned out they were blasting again. I staggered over to the ranger hut just in time to hear a much louder bang. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rose high in the air and over our part of the camp site. Back at the tents, we saw that one of them had been hit by debris which had torn through the fabric.

The following morning, after we’d distributed the tips and said good by to the crew, I took a last look at Kilimanjaro in the morning light, and then we headed of to begin the 2200m descent to the waiting minibus. By that afternoon, we were back at the poolside of the Ilboru Safari Lodge, showered and rested.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

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