Happy memories

This time two years ago I was celebrating my birthday at 4,400m in Dingboche. We had arrived the day before after a long trek along the valley of the Imja Khola river. This day was a ‘rest day’. In reality, an acclimatisation day during which we would climb at least 300m above the village and return to help with the body’s adjustment to altitude. It was a beautiful day, with strong sunshine and blue skies.

We headed off up the side of the valley and quickly gained 200m or so to look down on the little huts and bigger lodges that lined the valley floor. The stone walls dividing plots of farm land were visible as lines against the brown earth, and small, dark dots indicated where the potato crop had been planted. Colourful prayer flags fluttered from the gompa overlooking the village, and from flag poles and stones on the path.

We carried on at an easy pace for another 100m of height gain before stopping and listening to our trek leader say a few words about loved ones who couldn’t be with us. It was a very moving speech, made more so by the location and the efforts we’d all made this far. There were few dry eyes in the group.

Then some of the group carried on a bit further while others made their way back to the village. I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the sun and took advantage of the warmth to wash and dry my hair – a luxury that had been impractical until now.

Later, we made our way through the village to the recently opened bakery where I had a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie. After dinner that night, a chocolate cake was brought out to celebrate my birthday and everyone in the lodge had a piece.

It was a special birthday.

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In 213 days time…

…I’ll be flying from London on my way to climb Kilimanjaro.

Over a year ago, I wrote about tackling Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. For various reasons, some mentioned in previous posts, I was unable to go ahead. So sitting back and thinking about things this week, I’ve decided to do it. Mount Kenya is out – too much risk and there was no interest in the trip proposed in 2011. So this time it’s just Kilimanjaro.

A lot of the people I trekked with before had done it. They all said it was fantastic. Some hadn’t got to the top. I used to think it was too much of a trophy challenge but I’ve come to change my mind.

It will also be a useful test to see how I fare at close to 6000m. One of my dreams is to climb a trekking peak in the Himalayas – Island Peak or Mera. At over 6km high, they are a serious challenge and I need to get that high altitude experience.

Keep an eye out for details of how you can sponsor me – I’ll be collecting for charity again.

So Kilimanjaro, here I come.

Dingboche

Of all the places we visited and trekked through, my favourite village was Dingboche. It was our second acclimatisation stop, and our rest day co-incided with my birthday. Surrounded by steep sided hills, Dingboche sits in the Imja Khola valley under the shadow of Ama Dablam at 4410m above sea level. It is the highest permanently settled village on the trail to Everest Base Camp and the last place that crops can be grown. Here, the crops are potatoes and barley and so important is the harvest that the use of any smoky fuels during the growing season is banned to make sure the crop yields are good.

It was a long day’s trek as we arrived at the lower end of the village, and there was still 15 minutes of steady plodding until we reached our lodge – the Peak 38 View – at the far end. The fields and lodges were bordered by drystone walls which were extensive and well maintained. We passed farms and lodges, each proclaiming a slightly different altitude. There were two lodges opposite each other, one asserting that it was 30m higher than the other. I passed between two without having to climb more than a metre and I wondered whether there was some altitude envy that lodge owners suffered from. The ground was hard and dusty but the farmers wives were out digging and planting the potatoes in small mounds of earth.

We were worn out and glad to have reached our next stop. In the dining room, the usual hot drinks were complimented by platefuls of biscuits which went down very well, and very quickly. Outside as we ate and drank, a beige yak calmly watched us through the windows. ‘Kaur’ was the lodge owner’s yak and was very docile and friendly. She had worked for most of her life and was now being rewarded with a home and regular food. She would turn up morning and evening and wait for her meals.

The acclimatisation day allowed us a leisurely climb to the hill behind the lodge the following morning. The afternoon was for us to rest, recuperate and do any housekeeping and laundry and it was the perfect place for me to spend my birthday. After washing my hair, a rare luxury despite the freezing water, I sat in the sun and enjoyed watching the clouds slowly make their way up the valley. I felt I could have stayed here for several days as it was so tranquil and relaxing.

Later some of us walked down the the bakery and I indulged myself with some apple pie and a mug of hot chocolate. It was delicious and so out of place that it felt like cheating. A local woman came in to the bakery and ordered a coffee. We were told later that there was a different pricing structure for the locals, which was fair enough. On offer (although none of us took it up) were several varieties of  roast dinner. It was so out of place to see ‘Roast Chicken, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy’ for R670 (about £6.00) at 4400m.

We had fried egg and chips for dinner and I was surprised that after food came a cake covered in chocolate, with some candles and a little sign saying ‘Happy birthday, Dave’. It was very touching and after the groups had sung happy birthday, we shared the cake out amongst everyone in the lodge, including some Swiss trekkers on the next table.

That night I was woken by a sharp cracking sound and I automatically thought of an avalanche on Ama Dablam. But the flashes of light told me it was thunder and lightning. The following morning, we woke up to a thick covering of snow and a beautiful, clear and crisp day with stong sunlight and deep blue skies. We set off in these glorious conditions for Lobuche but the clouds soon started gathering and we spent most fo the day walking in falling snow.

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Twin Peaks

In 2007 I trekked to Everest Base Camp and climbed to the top of Kala Patthar, some 5,500m above sea level. I spent 15 days in Nepal, a beautiful country with incredibly friendly people, stunning scenery and the most incredible mountains I have ever seen. It was an experience of a lifetime and one I will never forget. The last 10 minutes of the climb to Kala Patthar was the hardest thing I have ever done and was worth every heaving breath and aching muscle.

It was such a fantastic experience that I went again earlier this year. At the risk of running out of superlatives, this time was even better than the last. We had a fantastic group of people, a great leader and we had a mix of weather that made the trek into a real adventure. Another trip of a lifetime. I am so fortunate to have been able to do them.

Now I have the trekking bug. I have some regrets that I didn’t start trekking sooner – what a waste. But now I am lucky enough to be able to see these wonderful places. On the last trek, the leader said ‘There are those who dream of such adventure, and there are those, like you, who go and do them.’

So in that spirit, and taking advantage of my health, I’m planning my next trek. It’s a double – Mount Kenya and then Mount Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro – the highest free standing mountain in the world – is a very popular destination for trekkers and fund raisers. Chances are you know, or know of, someone who has done it. Because it’s so popular, many people see it as an easy challenge. If you know people who have done it, they will tell you it most certainly is not easy. Some groups have a success rate of as low as 30%. Much of this is down to lack of preparation but a significant proportion fail due to poor acclimatisation.

The key to acclimatising properly is to limit the ascent each day and take the pace slowly. Unfortunately, tight schedules mean that an ascent that should really take 9 or 10 days takes only 5 or 6. We took 9 days to reach Kala Patthar and that was 400m lower than Kilimanjaro’s summit – and more than half our group didn’t get to the top.

The beauty of the twin peaks version of this trek is that climbing mount Kenya first acclimatises us to 5,000m before tackling Kilimanjaro. Clever.

My plan is to complete this trek in September 2012, although as I write there is some doubt as the Mount Kenya part of the trek isn’t as popular and there is a minimum number needed to run the trip. I’m really hoping that some of my Base Camp trek colleagues will be able to join me, as their company was a great moral booster last time. There’s a lot of preparation to undertake as the total ascent will be about twice that of the Base Camp trek. I’ve even joined the gym at work (I don’t really like gyms as I find it hard to motivate myself, but needs must and the instructor is a Kilimanjaro veteran, so he can help me with some specific preparation).

Watch this space, as they say, for further updates.

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