Onwards and Upwards

Since I wrote about the plans for my next adventure, a lot has happened. Most of it high up on the hills around my home, or on the mountains for North Wales, as you’d expect perhaps. But some of it has happened behind the scenes at base camp, also known as my house.

Some of the major happenings have been to do with getting to India in the first place, always key to a trek like this. I was due to fly on Jet Airways, as I have done with my adventures in Nepal. But earlier this year the trekking company changed flights, risking my bus plans as we migrated to Virgin. Now I know why, as recently Jet Airways has ceased to trade. The next hurdle was the Indian Visa. Unlike Nepal, it has to be obtained in advance so I headed off for the website and began.

If you’ve ever taken part in a pub quiz, you know that sometimes they can go on a bit. Just when you thought it was time to hand your answers in, round 17 comes along and it’s about countries of the world. It was a very similar feeling and although none of the questions were hard (spoiler alert – I passed), there were a lot of them. And round 17 was, indeed, about countries of the world that I had visited. I had to list everywhere I had been in the last 10 years. And I was surprised to find when I compiled the list that I’d been to a lot of places, even after I’d discounted England and Scotland as separate countries. I just hoped that none of them would preclude my entry into India.

I always try and book travel to and from the airport in advance to take advantage of cheaper fares, but I have to balance this with the likelihood of last minute changes. Fortunately, the change in airlines came just before I booked the coach tickets. Not only were the flight times altered, but the departure and arrival terminals changed too. Alas, cheap fares were now out of the question as I had to buy two separate tickets top accommodate the different start and finish points. At least my hotel room remained the same. I always stay overnight on returning to the UK as it saves having to deal with delayed flights and missed connections. And in my experience, the last thing I want to after spending 12hrs plus travelling is to battle my way with a heavy kit bag and back pack to a distant bus stop in the inevitable cold and rain of a British summer.

And while all of this paperwork and administration is going on (I left work to get away from that kind of thing), I still had to bring my fitness levels up to a high standard. So the last thing I would want to get would be, say, shingles.

I got shingles. By the time I realised there was something amiss and went to the doctor, it was too late to take any medication (which, apparently is pretty horrendous and not very effective) and so I had to let it take it’s course. Which wasn’t pleasant (although I think I may have had a mild form) and kept me off the hills and away from the exercise bike during some reasonably nice weather. But at the beginning of April, I was starting to feel ‘normal’ again and the hills started in earnest.

I wanted to test my level of fitness to see what I needed to work on and so a trip to Snowdonia was called for. My plan was to climb Snowdon via the Llanberis path – a long but steady route – carrying a backpack weighing a little more than it would on the trek itself. I’d decided 7kg would be the pack weight on average so I loaded up with about 8kg (a little more to start with in the form of water) and managed the route in about 4.5 hours – an hour quicker than I’ve done before. But the measure of fitness isn’t just speed – it’s recovery time and so the following day I chose a harder route up to Glyder Fach via Capel Curig. It promised to be challenging underfoot, with steep climbs but with long sections of more enjoyable high level walking. Despite the steep bits (which were really steep), boggy marsh and my heavy backpack, I made it to the top of Glyder Fach (which translates rather disappointingly as ‘small pile of rocks’) still able to breathe and move. More importantly, I had done two major peaks in two consecutive days and I felt my fitness was pretty good.

As a further test, on my way home the next day I climbed Crimpiau, a hill at the end of the Ogwen Valley with stunning views back to Tryfan and the Glyders. Although it was half the height of the mountains I’d been on, it was still a good test of fitness and I felt energised and ready for the long journey home.

Back at base camp, I decided to have another go at packing. One of the problems with trekking in general is the varying luggage weight limits and the inevitable bulk and mass of technical kit. My flight weight limit is 22kg plus 7kg hand luggage. My internal flight weight limit is 15kg plus 7kg but the weight limit for porters is 12kg. My first test pack of the kitbag was 18kg. Even allowing for leaving some travelling clothes at the hotel, I’d probably be 2kg over the internal flight limit and a full 5kg over the porter limit.

The main weight came from four essential items – the sleeping bag (rated to a necessary -23C), ice axe, crampons and harness. Nothing to save there, so I set about paring back the base layers, socks and toiletries to a minimum. By the time I’d finished, I was down to 15kg but I couldn’t see where I was going to gain the extra 3kg for the trek itself. I re-read the luggage guidance and there was a paragraph I’d missed before. It said that the technical kit for climbing Dzo Jongo would be carried directly to base camp while we trekked a longer route to acclimatise. I re-packed, leaving out the offending items and suddenly the bag was only 11kg. Relief all round.

More training awaits and I expect I’ll be out on the Brecon Beacons quite a lot over the next few months.

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Glyder Fawr

The first time I climbed Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia, it was raining, misty, cold and miserable. The day before I’d climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path with friends I would later trek to Everest Base Camp with, and we’d done it as a training exercise and to get to know each other better. I got to the top of the Glyders twice more between 2007 and 2014. It was about time I went again.

The weather forecast was for clear, cold weather and I knew there would be some snow on the tops of the Snowdonia peaks. I was staying in Bangor and I reached the area in darkness the day before so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I wasn’t to be disappointed. I set off from the car in a bitterly cold wind and walked along the A5 in the Ogwen Valley until I turned off at the visitor centre to make my way to Cwm Idwal. The last time I was here I was with Rufus, and we’d circumnavigated the lake with one of us paddling and splashing his way along the water’s edge and the other one, knowing his role, throwing stones. At one point Rufus had set off up the steep and winding steps that led into the Devil’s Kitchen route to Glyder Fawr. I’d had to stop him in the end as he was still recovering from a bout of Pancreatitis and I didn’t want him to over do things.

Today, I set off along the same route up into the narrow cleft in the sheer mountainside. From the lake, it’s very difficult to see the route and it looks as if ropes and climbing gear will be required. But close up there is a path amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders that have fallen from the cliffs, albeit one that fades in and out of clarity even as you are walking it. The steps from boulder to boulder are high and it makes for hard going as it’s difficult to get into a rhythm. This morning it was made harder by the ice that had formed where water was seeping onto the path and the verglas on the rocks , which was impossible to see. I only knew it was there when my boots failed to grip and I went flying. The first of three slips due to difficult conditions.

Behind me, Cwm Idwal and the lake slowly lit up and behind them, Pen yr Ole Wen shone brightly in the morning sun. Ahead, the shadows made spotting slippery rocks even harder. I plodded on slowly, straining to reach the next rock step and holding on it case it was icy. Around me, trickles of ice clung to rock faces and icicles threatened to drop as the sun began to melt them. Far below, I could hear the voices of walkers and climbers, mostly hidden by the twisting and confused path.

After what seemed like hours, but was just under and hour, I reached the first proper patch of snow. It was frost hardened and the steps of yesterday’s climbers provided good foot holds. Although I’d brought crampons with me, I hadn’t felt the need to use them as from the start point there seemed to be little snow on the mountain tops, and they were in the car. I carefully made my way across the snow and up to the dry stone wall that marks the end of the big steps and the transition to less steep inclines. Here there was more snow, which was easy to navigate and I was soon in the little cwm with the lake where I had planned to take a break and plan my route up onto the summit.

I sat and stocked up on calories, and the sun kept me warm as I scanned the side of the mountain looking for the path I’d used last time. I spotted a steep gully filled with scree and snow, which seemed the obvious path upwards and it was this that I made for to start the final ascent. The sun disappeared as I started and it went a little chilly. It was much steeper than I first thought and walking on scree was tiring. Some of it was frozen solid and this made progress a little better but every now and then, I’d step on a patch that had thawed and my footing would go. This section of the climb was just hard work without the rewards of new views and I found it very tough. It was difficult to find a stable spot to rest and so I tried to keep going to get it over and done with. As the slope began to ease, and as the sun popped back into view, I came across a large expanse of snow. It was too steep to walk safely on and I wished I’d brought the crampons. But I traversed to the right to an outcrop of rock and made my way along a snow free section until the slope eased off completely. Now all that was left was a short scrabble over rocky ground and the summit was mine.

These rocks, shattered by the repeated freezing and thawing of water in cracks, define the top of the Gylders. It’s an alien landscape of sharp, pointed crags in between which is a carpet of weathered stones. There was a thick frost of the rocks which made them treacherous but at least I could see the slippery patches and I was able to avoid them. To my right, Snowdon and Crib Goch stood out from the haze and to my left, beyond Glyder Fawr’s summit was Tryfan and Glyder Fach. I still had to be careful where I stepped but the summit is flat and it was pleasant walking in the bright, warm sunshine. Every now and then a wind would pick up but just as quickly it would drop again. I took my time walking between the towering crags, which all had snow piled up against them in deep drifts. Ahead, overlooking the Nameless Cwm, a long crescent of corniched snow overhung the vertical drop and I made sure to avoid going anywhere near it.

Without warning, a strong, cold Easterly wind started to blow and the top became much harsher. It was time to go back down. I followed roughly the route I’d taken up but avoided the steep gully by using the path I should have taken, which was longer but less steep and better underfoot. I managed to reach the cwm quickly and stopped to have a flask of soup to prepare me for the drop down through the Devil’s Kitchen again. By now there wwere lots of people making their way up and my descent was slowed by stopping to talk to people, to share the conditions on top and to generally chat about how fine a day it was. By the time I reached the path around the lake I was tired and aching but the worst of the descent was over. While I still had to be careful as the icy paths hadn’t thawed, I could spend more time enjoying the surroundings and appreciating how wonderful this place really is.

Just before I reached the main road, an RAF Hawk jet screamed over head as it negotiated the tight turn around Pen yr Ole Wen and headed off down the Nant Ffrancon valley towards Angelsey and its home. I trudged wearily back along the road and slumped into the car. It had been a long day. I’d been walking for more than 6 hours, covering 7.5 miles and climbing to just under 1000m.

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In High Places 1

This time 9 years ago (yeah, tenuous I know), I was getting ready to go on my first trek. I’d signed up to trek to Everest Base camp. I had no real idea of what I was getting myself into, having only started properly walking the hills about 18 months before. I’d never been to a non-western country, never experienced different cultures and hadn’t walked above 900m before I signed the papers and paid the money.

I’d read about Everest itself and the people who climbed it. The books never dwelt on the journey to base camp; it was usually dispatched in a couple of pages which talked about Rhododendron bushes and the unbelievable loads Sherpas carried. The journey became a whistle stop sprint up to the Khumbu Icefall where the real action began. So although there has been a lot of exposure for the area, there was very little detail about where I was going.

The guide book I bought was comprehensive but I had nothing to judge its contents against. A lot of it was about how many ways you could get ill, including some interesting but unappealing ways to die. A mate had been to Nepal in the early 90’s and his stories of cheap accommodation and food stuck with me. But he never went in to much detail.

I knew I had to get fit. The company I was going with gave me a training programme but I wanted to be fitter than that, so I planned my own based on the recommendations. My main training hill was Pen y Fan, which I did several times a month. But I added more challenges and tried to spend longer on the hills. I ended up doing the Brecon Beacons horseshoe several times. Then met up with a couple of others booked onto the trek for a weekend in Snowdonia. We climbed Snowdon via the Watkin path (which starts not much higher than sea level) and the following day, I scaled Glyder Fach in appalling weather (I got lost near the top and stumbled about a bit before finding something that resembles Castell y Gwynt).

Then I went off to do Ben Nevis and once again got lost in a whiteout. Scaling Ben Nevis wasn’t about physical fitness, it was a mental workout and I learned quite quickly that mental fitness counted as much as physical fitness; there were training days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and there were early mornings where the rain or mist was thick and there were good excuses not to go out. But mostly I went out and usually got soaked.

Then, suddenly, the training schedule indicated that I’d peaked and should start winding down. About this time I became paranoid about picking up an injury. Rough ground, steep descents and slippery surfaces all posed a risk. As did walking to the shops or going up or down stairs. I became ultra cautious as the days counted down.

I left Swansea on a cold and dark November morning and spent the night at Heathrow, where there were fireworks going off all night. It was the 9th, and I wondered why they were still celebrating Guy Fawkes night. But it was Diwali that was being remembered, and I was to find out when I got to Nepal exactly what that meant…