Life of Geek

When we first moved to Swansea, I started the local school half way through the 3rd year of juniors. These days that has a year number, probably year 5 or year 6 or year (x-b). I don’t know. I was 9-and-a-bit. Being the son of a serviceman, I was used to moving around and new places. I had also developed a reluctance to make really strong friendships, as they would always end after a year or two, when dad was posted to a new base. I’ve heard other with a similar background say the same thing.

So fitting in to the school didn’t pose a problem. I found I was better at English, reading and writing and slightly worse at maths and science. Different schools, different curricula, I suppose. It didn’t affect me much (except fractions – I was first exposed to them in Swansea. I didn’t understand them, despite the attentions of my teacher and my parents. Who needed fractions? two thirds of us, apparently.)

The one thing that I really looked forward to, though, was Friday afternoons when the teacher would read to us.  I arrived half way through ‘The Hobbit’. I didn’t know anything about the story or the author, but I really enjoyed the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves. My parents bought the book so that I could catch up with the first half of the story. I was a good reader, and loved books so it didn’t take long.

Fast forward to the late 70’s. Punk was in, flares were out, prog rock was no longer appreciated. I was scared to go into the Virgin record store in Swansea because it was dark and full of older boys dressed in the black uniform of punks. But I frequented the local library and read as much as I could. usually science fiction from the grown up section, as kids books didn’t capture my imagination. Then I discovered ‘The Lord of the Rings’. And it was by the same author as ‘The Hobbit’. Heaven!

The copy in the library was in three volumes. I read volume one, but volume two was out so I couldn’t go further. I waited ages for volume two to come in, and borrowed 2 and 3 at the same time to make sure I could finish the story. It took a long time – the language was more difficult than I’d come across before but it was worth taking the time to read it properly. I loved the world of Middle Earth and all the things that lived there. I eagerly looked for more fantasy books, but nothing came close to Tolkien. I discovered some of his other books – mainly unfinished stories and legends of Middle Earth which made his fictional world more real. But nothing compared to the Lord of the Rings. So I read it again. And again.

Fast forward to 2001. The movies were due out. I couldn’t wait and went to see them in the cinema as they were released. As I recall, it was around this time of year that each one came out. I drank them in, because unlike many adaptations of books, these actually matched my imagined world of Middle Earth. All the characters and races were just as I pictured them in 1979. Of course I got the extended collectors editions of the boxed DVD sets – why wouldn’t I?

Fast forward again – 2007. I’m in the lodge at Gorak Shep having just returned from climbing Kala Patthar – 5545m above sea level and with the perfect view of Everest. It’s cold, I’m tired and I’m reading ‘The Hobbit’. It was a welcome reminder of home and something that didn’t need a lot of concentration to enjoy.

Two years later I gave that copy of the book to my friend’s little boy for his first birthday – she’d asked that all her friends give him the book that meant the most to them in their childhood. For me there was no question about which book it would be.

One more fast forward. No more after this, I promise. It’s yesterday. I went to see ‘The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of the Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson. I was on my own – it’s the price one pays for geekdom. I wasn’t the only loner in the theatre. Buying the ticket, the person behind the counter glanced behind me to see if I really was alone, and almost asked if I was sure I only wanted one. There may have been the faint look of sadness in her eyes, or it may have been sympathy for my obvious sad, lonely existence.

I sat and watched the movie – nearly 3 hours of it. I was hooked from the opening music. It was great – no disappointment. Once again, my Middle Earth was there on screen. In places I felt it was dragging a bit, but at the same time, I was enjoying every second. I’m biased, of course, but it just felt familiar and.. right.

Shameless plug – if you go to my 1-a-day Flickr site you will see my local library. It’s role in my reading history means it deserves a place there.

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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Everest Base Camp and Llyn y Fan Fawr

The last of the ‘this time last year’ entries, I promise.

5 April is the anniversary of when we reached Base Camp. According to the photos, we got there about 10.30am UK time. It was a great experience and made all the more special by the people I was with.

At 10.30 this morning I was in work then, about to finish for a half day, and couldn’t help mentioning the date to some of my work colleagues.

From work, I went to pick up my walking buddy, Rufus, and we headed off to walk to Llyn y Fan Fawr. As we neared the parking spot, I could see all the hills around were covered in a thick layer of snow. I love snow but it was a surprise to have driven from sunshine at work to winter in around 30 minutes.

Neither of us were daunted, though, and we headed off up the hill towards the lake. The higher we went, the more snow there was until it was about 3 inches deep. Deeper where it had drifted into hollows and across streams.It was windy but not too cold and the going was fairly easy.

Eventually, we got to the lake and Rufus was happy. He went paddling and I started to eat my chicken and lettuce sandwiches. I threw some stones for him and then he realsed I was eating. We ended up sharing the sandwiches. Then I had to throw more stones.

I wasn’t feeling 100% (it turned out to be a cold) so we headed back to the car. I threw snowballs for Rufus which he loved, but he couldn’t figure out where they were going. So I made bigger ones that didn’t come apart and he was happy. He even grabbed them in his mouth until he realised they were cold. Nevertheless, he’d grab the next one just in case.

It was slippery coming down and I kept an eye on where I was putting my feet. I looked up to check on Rufus to see him in the distance charging off towards the river. We followed the water back down to the car.

By the time I got home, the sun was out and it was hot. It was as if I’d been to a different country.

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This time last year…

… I was flying high over Europe on my way to Nepal and the start of  a trek to Everest Base Camp.

I was thinking about it last week when I was backng up image files. I flicked through all the photos I’d taken during the 17 day trip. It brought back a lot of happy memories of the places, people and achievment. And a few unhappy memories of stomach upsets and long drop toilets.

But overwhelmingly it was a trememdnous experience and one I’d jump at the chance of doing again.

I apoloise to all who know me and who over the next fortnight will probably be subject to ‘this time last year…’ comments from me. Please be tolerant.

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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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