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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Looking Back II – Looking up.

This time last year I was fast asleep. No big deal, I had an early night. In a tent. Okay, January in a tent isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At 4700m on the western slope of Kilimanjaro.

I can’t believe that it’s a year ago today I started the long and difficult slog up to the summit of Kibo. We were up at 10.30pm (7.30pm GMT as Tanzania is 3hrs ahead of us) for breakfast of porridge and more porridge and lashings of hot sweet coffee. I remember being fairly sharp the adrenaline was pumping at the thought of what was coming next. It was cold, and I’d worn several layers to bed so that the impact of the cold wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t recall it being a factor at the start.

We didn’t hang around. At 11.30pm we set off on a short but steep scramble over the rocks that surrounded the camp site before settling in to a steady plod along zig zags that led up the scree towards Gilman’s Point.

It got colder and colder. I went into a daze in which only the person in front of me existed. I saw a procession of lights coming up on a different route that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The moon sank below the horizon before we’d got half way up but Jupiter kept us company throughout the night. Every time we stopped for a break, I wanted to rest my head on my walking pole and sleep.

And then we got to Gilman’s point around 5.45am. It felt unreal and amazing at the same time. I celebrated with a wee down the drop we’d just walked up as payback for the cold and tiredness (the altitude makes you go much more frequently).

Sunrise was at 6.30am, just as we reached Stella Point. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve experienced – watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak and colouring the cloud layer way below us first a pink colour and then orange. It took me another 50 minutes to get to Uhuru Peak – the summit, at about 4.20am GMT. If I’m awake tomorrow morning at that time, I’ll be thinking about how I felt then. My journal, written about two hours later, lists the following to describe how I felt at the top:

“Rush to the head, relief, elation at achievement, happy, tired, a bit fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen, disorientated, in awe of the sunrise above the clouds, cold, aching limbs, pack weightless.”  I wrote that the effects of altitude seemed to disappear for a while.

Then we were descending and I think that is when the effects of altitude came back because the walk back to Stella Point passed in a blurry flash and suddenly I was charging down the slope trying to keep upright, to keep up with our guide and not to fall over. Equally as suddenly, Barafu camp came in to view and suddenly we were sat down in the sun warming up, fuelling up and staring at the top of Kilimanjaro some 1300m above us. The sudden increase in oxygen available made up for the fatigue and the packed 2nd breakfast (it was 9.20am local time) contained a real sausage! We stayed at Barafu for 90 minutes and then took another 90 minutes to descend another 1000m to Millennium Camp, which we reached at around 12.30.

I was fast asleep in my tent shortly afterwards and slept until they started using dynamite to excavate a toilet block some hours later.