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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Dust

As a bloke, I am expected to deny the existence of dust. It is a fiction, a construct created by ‘another gender’ to make us feel guilty.

Alas, as a sufferer of asthma, I am only too aware of the existence of dust as it is one of the things that can (almost literally) bring me to my knees. The irony is that to get rid of the dust that causes me problems, I have to disturb the dust and that act causes me problems. Even the best filtered vacuum cleaner throws out some dust. When I empty the filter chamber, I have to cover my mouth and nose. When I clean the filter, I have to do so outside and even then I will feel the effects and have to use my asthma pump.

Yesterday, after Rufus and I had taken the air on the hills above Pontardawe, I decided to risk all and clean the house. Despite taking my time, vacuuming a room at a time and being ultra careful when depositing the dust in the bin, I quickly felt the tightening of the chest and wheezing and within minutes, I was struggling to breathe and coughing. In all, I used the inhaler three times in the afternoon. The last time I felt like this was the first time I had a serious asthma attack as an adult in 2010.

House dust is dead skin, dust mite faeces and in my house, animal fur. If there is any damp in the house, it can also be formed from spores of mould that you may not even know is there. There is nothing to be done short of living in a smooth plastic bubble. So I resigned myself to a wheezy, coughy afternoon of rugby and dealt with it. It makes me miserable; it stops me from being able to relax but at least sitting quietly on the sofa didn’t disturb any more dust and slowly, far too slowly, my chest untightened until at around 7pm, with the aid of one more sniff of the inhaler, Rufus and I went for a second walk of the day. The fresh air was most welcome and we took it easy walking the streets around the house.

This morning, after a much better night, we went out again onto Cefn Bryn to take advantage of the morning sun. I suspect part of my chesty problem is a bug that is doing the rounds in work. Nevertheless, a call in to the doctor is on the cards next week.

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DIY – shall I compare thee to a summers day?

A summer’s day starts with a warm, empty morning waiting to be filled with nice things.  DIY starts with that dreaded ‘where the <insert preferred expletive> do I start with all this, then?’

A summer’s day has the sweet singing of birds to greet you. DIY has the clatter of dropped tools, the stubbed toe swearing and the agony of the trodden-on nail.

A summer’s day has the distant hum of a bee making it’s way between delicate flowers. DIY has the ‘BRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!’ of power tools on the verge of being out of control.

A summer’s day has the sweet fragrance of grass. DIY has the acrid smell of drill-burnt wood, brick dust and lightly oiled metal.

A summer’s day lets the sun caress your face and hair with warmth and the lightest of breezes. DIY assault your pores with cement dust, which also clings to every bodily hair and threatens to set hard if exposed to moisture.

A summer’s day brings a dew-like glow to the skin. DIY forces sweat out at high pressure, guaranteeing lasting discomfort and rock hard cement hair.

A summer’s day inspires you to write rich prose to celebrate the gloriousness of the day. DIY inspires you to chant swear words over and over and over. And over.

I’m off now to chant some more.

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How to find a comet

Comet Panstarrs is visible low in the north western sky just after sunset. You’ll need a pair of binoculars at the moment as the comet is barely brighter than the sky that surrounds it. Later in the month it will be visible later in the evening but it’s getting dimmer as it heads away from us. Find where the sun set and look to the right.

Yesterday, with a clear western sky promised, I drove down to Broadpool in Gower to try and get some photos of the comet. Alas, I was beaten by the cloud, which formed a dark band just where Panstarrs was due to be. Even the sunset wasn’t spectacular. I drove home disappointed.

This evening, I went back a bit earlier but the same cloud band seemed to be there again. At least the sunset was better and I got a few photos I was pleased with. Imagine my horror, then, to see dark horizontal smudges on all the photos! I’d cleaned the sensor before leaving and the wipe had left smudges. Panic! I’ve just spent half an hour cleaning, checking, re-cleaning and rechecking. At least they weren’t scratches!

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