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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

If at first you don’t succeed…

…wait two weeks and try again.

Yesterday I set out once more to try and catch the sunrise from the top of Pen y Fan. ‘You fool’, I hear you cry. Yes, well I hear that a lot and I’ve got used to it by now.

If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t really like climbing Pen y Fan. I love the feeling of getting to the top, but there are other hills and mountains that I prefer climbing as the routes are more interesting. I’m not training at the moment, so I climb for pleasure and for the opportunity to take photographs. Carreg Goch has become a favourite as the surrounding hills and valleys make wonderful subjects. Fan Brecheiniog remains my all time favourite; Llyn y Fan Fawr nestled beneath it is my happy place and the route up from Tafern y Garreg along Fan Hir is one of the best ridge walks I know.

So back to yesterday. I wasn’t climbing for pleasure as such. The goal was to reach Bwlch Duwynt by 8am for the sunrise. I trusted the weather forecast which told me that, unlike last time, the tops would be clear of cloud. I also anticipated some snow at the top which always makes for a classic winter mountain photograph. The journey to the car park was better than last time; I was the only one on the road and the conditions were much better. The temperature only dropped below zero as I dropped down onto the A470. I had the car park to myself and immediately I could see in the near darkness that there was plenty of snow on the hillside and some on the path.

Snow is easy to walk in. Unfortunately, this snow had thawed during the previous day and refrozen over night. As I picked my way carefully up the first part of the path I quickly found out that the patches of snow on the path were treacherously slippery. On went the head torch and I started to tread more carefully. It was darker than last time because there was high cloud overhead, hiding the pre-dawn sky. I wasn’t worried about the cloud ruining the day, but the icy snow was making the first part of the climb energy sapping. I couldn’t get a rhythm going and had to stop, side step and take longer strides to avoid the worst of it.

As the darkness slowly faded, and as my eyes got used to it, I saw that further up the path there snow was continuous on the path. Ideally, I’d be using crampons on this kind of ground. I don;t have crampons. It was going to be interesting.

I hit the thicker snow and found that while it was frozen, it hadn’t turned to ice. My feet broke through the icy crust and found grip underneath. Apart from the odd patch where ice had formed the walking got much safer, although the sensation of walking on a sand dune where your foot goes backwards as you push forwards still remained.

I lost all sense of time as I trudged on. Several times I looked behind, across to Fan Fawr the the hills beyond. Each time they were brighter and all the time I expected to see the first pink light of dawn highlighting their summits, letting me know that I had been too slow. But suddenly, the wind picked up and I knew I was nearing the bwlch. Sure enough, a few weary minutes later, I got to the shoulder of Corn Du and saw the whole of the Gwaun Taf in front. Apart from the bit where the sun would come up, which was obscured by a cloud. And Pen y Fan was missing!

A bitterly cold wind was blowing from behind so I made sure I had my back pack between me and the chill and I stood to see if I could judge when the sun would rise. I quickly realised there was little point in standing there as I’d only succeed in getting colder, and the cloud wasn’t going anywhere. So I turned to my left to make my way around the foot of Corn Du to Pen y Fan, which was slowly appearing from the mist. The rocks beneath my feet were clear of snow but thick with clear ice and this was by far the most dangerous bit of the climb so far. The wind threatened to catch the back pakc and unbalance me, the ice would stop me getting a grip and the steep drop ahead would ensure a swift descent.

Gingerly I made my way to where the route to Pen y Fan started. The path that is normally so clear and flat was nowhere to be seen beneath a featureless blanket of thick snow which sloped down the Corn Du and dropped steeply to Gwaun Taf on my right. Untouched snow, no footsteps. It was beautiful. I made sure I took photos before I spoiled the snow, then set off to try and follow the path.

I have an ice axe. I bought it when it was on sale, and after recommendations from a magazine review. I hope to use it winter climbing in Scotland or Nepal but I’ve never considered it necessary in the Brecon Beacons. And while I still wouldn’t take it with me, I felt at that point that it would have been useful in case I slipped. The snow here was deep and deeply frozen. Although not as slippery now, it was still difficult to walk on and not knowing where the slope started beneath made my first few steps quite tentative. But soon I figured out where the path lay and found myself on the more gentle slope leading to the summit of Pen y Fan. At this point I could see behind me the snow of the Craig Fan Ddu ridge turning pink as the new sun lit it. It was worth every chilly, slippery step.

On the summit, I was alone and at first enveloped in mist. This soon blew off and the views north and west were magnificent. This is always worth the effort of the climb and I spent a few minutes just enjoying. But it was too cold to linger and so after taking the photos I wanted, I set off back down to the snow covered path, passing another walker on the way. We chatted about the conditions and joked about the over crowding and then parted – two lone dots on a white landscape.

Coming down the same way I went up was easy to start with. The deeper snow provided better traction coming down and absorbed some of the impact so my knees didn’t hurt so much. But inevitably, just as I was passing another walker coming up, I slipped into a deep gully at the side of the path right up to my knee. I managed to struggle out and we both laughed as I told him not to come over as this was the deep end. I had hoped that the icy snow near the beginning of the path might have melted as the sun rose but it was as slippery as ever and I had to work hard to avoid the ice. Even parts of the path that weren’t covered in snow had frozen where the melt water had flowed. But I reached the car park unscathed and relatively intact. There were very few people there even 9.30.

This was my 53rd Pen y Fan ascent.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Iceland

I’ve just got back from a short break in Iceland. What a fantastic country, with friendly people and a lovely Christmassy atmosphere.

We flew in on Tuesday and went straight to the Blue Lagoon – a geothermal bathing spa with waters full of minerals good the the skin. In the freezing temperatures of the Icelandic night, the pool was as warm as a hot bath. It was a great way to unwind after the stresses of getting to Heathrow (more than an hour of traffic delays) and the flight (held on the runway for 20 minutes while BA and American Airlines flights pushed in).

The hotel, the Leifur Ericsson, was right next to the famous Hallgrimkirkja, an ultra modern church named after the 17th Century religious poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Its size and prominence made finding our way back from anywhere in Reykjavik easy. When we arrived at the hotel, it was lit up against the night sky with the moon and Jupiter shining to one side of the spire.

Breakfast each morning included pickled herring and cucumber and the coffee appeared to have been concentrated but it certainly gave me a kick start to the mornings. I stuck with the toast and ham and boiled egg.

On Wednesday, we spent the morning walking around Reykjavik. For a large part of the time, it was dark as the sun didn’t rise until around 10.30am. The Christmas lights and candles in the shop windows made it a magical place and the snow and ice meant that it was never truly dark. We ended up walking along the sea front, past the grand Harpa concert hall, which was open and warm, a welcome break from the freezing temperatures outside.

In the afternoon, we went whale watching in the Faxafloi bay to the north of Reykjavik. Although the sea looked smooth it was deceptive and once out of the shelter of the harbour moles, some large waves made it hard to stand up. The trip lasted over 3 hours and the constant random motion of the boat made me feel queasy. It ws bitterly cold too and standing on the bow trying to spot whale blows and dolphin fins was an ordeal. In the end, for whatever reason, we saw no whales and only a few dolphins, who seemed to play around the boat and tease us by popping up all over the place.

In the evening, we went on a northern lights tour. The bus left at 9pm and we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 12.30 but the cloud was thick the whole time and we saw nothing of the sky, let alone auroae. The landscape, faintly visible in the glow as we passed through villages, was mysterious and inviting but the outside temperature was -9C and the stop we made was to have a coffee in a local service station.

On Thursday, we did the Golden Circle tour. We took a roughly circular route to visit a number of geological and historical sites to the north and east of Reykjavik. First on the list was Kerio, an extinct volcanic crater. It last erupted 6,500 years ago and now a frozen lake sits at the bottom of it. From there we visited a wide, gushing waterfall just up the road. The water here was from the mountains and clear. After a few minutes in the cold wind for a photo stop, we set off for Geysir.

The Geysir geothermal area is the home to the one that gave all geysers their name – Geysir – which means ‘gusher’ in Icelandic. For hundreds of years Geysir has erupted regularly but in the last century, thanks to changes in the local geology it has become a rare gusher. In the last century, locals attempted to stimulate the geyser by throwing stones into it. It worked for a while but eventually the stones blocked the funnel up. Soap can induce a geyser, but these days it is left alone. Instead, Strokkur, its smaller neighbour, now attracts all the attention. As we walked past the bubbling pools it was an amazing sight to see all the steam rising from fissures in the ground. We struggled over thick ice to get to a good viewpoint for Strokkur and were rewarded a few minutes later with a massive spout preceded by a brilliant blue bubble of boiling water.

After food, we headed off to Gullfoss, a massive and spectacular waterfall on the Hvita river, white with the mineral deposits from a glacier further up the valley. When we arrived, a bitter wind was blowing along the river and even though were were a hundred yards away from the waterfalls, we were stung in the face by frozen water droplets. A large part of the waterfall was frozen solid. The wind was so cold that I was reluctant to head off down the path to the viewing platform nearer the waterfalls. For one thing, the spray would have soaked me and I would have frozen. I was happy where I was.

Our last stop of the day was at the Thingvellir national park. Thingvellir (the spelling is partly phonetic as I don’t have the correct character to replace ‘th’) is the site of the first Icelandic Parliament, held in 930AD when settlement of the island was complete. It was held there for tow weeks every summer until 1798 and in the 19th century, the parliament was moved to Reykjavik. The site is still important and used for key celebrations and gatherings. We walked through the area (it’s not clear exactly where the parliament gathered as any structures used were temporary for the two weeks only).

The area is also a rift valley between the American and European tectonic plates, which drift apart at the rate of about 15mm per year. The level of the land has dropped over the centuries and a large lake now occupies the bottom of the valley. Either side of the valley, the plates are marked by rock walls rising vertically. Within the valley, fissures hold pools of water. The area is an active earthquake zone too.

Back in Reykjavik, we enjoyed a lovely meal in a local restaurant before getting an early night. The pick up for the flight in the morning was at 5.50am.

The flight home was uneventful, as was the journey back by car.

Three days wasn’t enough to make the most of the country although it provided a fantastic taster and ensured that I will be going back as soon as I can.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.