Summit Fever

Ahead was a wall of broken rock, covered in ice. To my left, a drop steep enough to give my acrophobia a phobia of its own. To my right, the scrambling route was covered in ice like a glass waterfall. The wind was gusting unpredictably and had just tried to push me off the path. I took a moment to recall why I liked walking in the hills and mountains. I looked back along the way I’d come and found the answer. In a 180 degree panorama were a range of snow topped hills and mountains stretching away into the distance. Immediately below me was a beautiful valley with the remains of slate quarries and the associated ruins covered in snow and ice. The sky was blue and despite the wind, the sun was warm.

The wind, taking offence at my ‘despiting’ it, nudged me closer to the drop.

Rewind a few days. The long term forecast looked good, so I booked a few days at a cheap hotel near Bangor and settle down with some maps and my planning head on. More mountains, more training – I knew I had to get some longer walks in with more serious climbs to prepare for trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

They day before I set off the forecast suddenly started talking about snow and more importantly, heavy drifting snow along the route I’d use to drive to North Wales. Although the days I was due to spend there were going to be cloud free, I knew that conditions might be more difficult that first thought. But on the other hand, it would give me some experience of winter walking in challenging conditions, which was what I could expect in Morocco. So with some trepidation about the driving conditions, I set off early in the morning to head north. The road conditions weren’t as bad as I was expecting but there was a lot of snow, and I could see it beginning to form drifts in the wind. Nevertheless, I managed to get to Snowdonia earlier than anticipated and with time to spare before I could check in, I parked in the Ogwen Valley and strolled up to Cwm Idwal to get some photos of the snowy conditions. A cold wind blew along the valley and in the cwm, but I was wrapped up warm and enjoyed the short walk to the lake. By now the snow had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break up. The waters of Llyn Idwal were a cold grey and very choppy. Ice formed on the grass and reeds at the water’s edge. Ahead, the Devil’s Kitchen looked decidedly frozen.

The hotel was warm and comfortable and, coffee in hand, I settled back to plan the next few days. Tomorrow, I would climb Snowdon on the Watkin Path. This I had first done 11 years ago when I met up with two fellow trekkers to train for my first Everest Base Camp trip. We’d set off along this route, one of the longest paths and one with the greatest height gain, full of confidence. We were all well into our training routines and very fit. At first it was clear but as we neared the top the mist descended and the last 100m or so was a steep, slippery and pathless scramble in near zero visibility. Similarly, on the way down we struggled with the steepness and the lack of firm footholds. Only later did we find out that we’d missed the path and scrambled up a near vertical face with ridiculous drops beneath us.

This time, I knew the route I was going to take and it definitely didn’t involved scrambling. The correct path went off to the left and I was determined to follow it, not being good with heights. I set off in cold sunshine and followed the lower part of the path through an ancient woodland to a valley and waterfall, before reaching a gateway which featured in the film ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’. Much of the film was shot in and around the area. Beyond this, the path rose steadily into slate mining country and I passed a number of ruined buildings, inclines down which the slate bearing trucks dropped, and water mill workings. A large rock bears a memorial to commemorate the opening of the path in 1892 by William Gladstone, who was 82 when he addressed the crowd here. He didn’t go on. I, being younger, did.

Now the snow began to make a difference. Until this point, it had merely been a coating on the mountains, making them even more photogenic than usual. Soon, I found the going underfoot was slippery and as the depth of snow increased, it became tiring too. I found myself wading through knee deep snow for large parts of the ever steepening pathway. I was the first person up this way since the snow and while it was great to be walking in no one’s footsteps, it made route finding difficult as the snow was deep enough to obscure the twisting route. In places, ice had formed beneath the snow and while the deep snow prevented me from slipping too far, it was like walking in sand with every step forward resulting an a slip backwards. This became tiring very quickly and I found I was out of breath far quicker than I would normally expect.

On one of my rest stops, I was passed by another walker who, without pack or poles, was making light work of the conditions. His foot falls were confident and I guessed he was very familiar with the route. Although I couldn’t keep up with him, his foot prints were a useful guide to the route. I was careful not to follow blindly (after all, he could have walked off the edge of a drop) but it gave me some clues as to which way to go.

It was getting warmer now and eventually, the gradient dropped off as I reached the saddle between Snowdon and Y Lliwedd. I remembered this from the first time I came this way, and also from the time I walked the Snowdon Horseshoe, when at this point I found I’d run out of water. Now I stopped for a rest and a snack, and to enjoy the views East down towards Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw. Ahead, the bulk of Snowdon disappeared into low cloud and I spent a few minutes identifying the route up the steep scree slope to the top. It was difficult to make out the path as it disappeared amongst the loose rock and snow. I could see a diagonal line of snow leading up before fading out. Then there seemed to be an outcrop of rock before another, fainter diagonal heading into the cloud. There was no sign of the walker that had passed me.

As I set off from my rest stop, the wind hit me from the east. Cold and blustery, it nearly knocked me off my feet. The next gust overbalanced me and I only stayed upright by grabbing onto a nearby outcrop of rock. The wind, mist and the lack of obvious path made me feel a bit nervous. I’ve walked in these conditions before but only once with such a drop to one side, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Carefully, I set foot on the scree slope and made my way up. It was steeper than it looked and the wind was now gusting in the opposite direction – towards me. Now I was battling against the wind steeply uphill and at any moment, the wind direction could change again and I’d be left leaning in the wrong direction. And then the scree slope stopped abruptly against a wall of broken rock covered in ice.

As I stood and looked at the vista before me, I was thinking about what move to make next. Although I had crampons and an ice axe with me, I was not experienced in using them. The ice axe wouldn’t help as it would probably be torn from my hands if I fell down the scree slope. With my inexperience, the crampons were more likely to cause a fall than prevent one as I would probably catch the spikes clumsily and take the express elevator down. The mist made finding the route after the first few hand holds nearly impossible and without visibility it would be difficult to plan a safe line. Finally, I was very tired after ploughing through the deep snow. So reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, I decided to turn around and make my way down. As if to confirm my decision, the wind gusted once again and pushed me down the first few feet of the scree path. Then it tried to push me over the edge.

At the saddle, I turned to look back to see if I could spot the path again but I still couldn’t see a clear route and, disappointed, I made my way back down the path. By now the snow as melting and beyond the deepest drifts of snow, the path was becoming more and more defined. I passed another walker who had turned back before me and another who was heading up. I stopped and chatted to him and he said he was having doubts about the final part of the climb. I left him heading up and made my way down the the quarry ruins. By now the wind had dropped and it was beginning to feel like a summer’s afternoon. The countryside was beautiful and the views down the valley magnificent. But I was feeling deflated after the turn around and some of the magic was gone as I finally made it back to the car, tired and hungry.

Back at the hotel, I went through everything again in my head, and came to the same conclusion. It had been the right choice to turn around. But I also decided to try again the next day, using a different path.

This time, following the Llanberis path, I made it to the top of Snowdon with the aid of crampons. The conditions just past the Clogwyn station were extremely wintry and ice on a difficult slope threatened to let me slip down and over the Clogwyn Dur Arddu cliffs. I used my crampons and while they did give me the ability and confidence to manage the ice, I was clumsy in them as I got used to the front spikes catching in the ground, and I was glad I hadn’t tried using them the previous day. I made my way down in a much better mood, only briefly stopping to wonder at the people making their way up, having ridden half way on the train, and totally unprepared for the conditions ahead.

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Second snow

On the odd occasion that I looked out of the office window last week, all I could see was the white capped hills finally visible after weeks of rain, low cloud and darkness. Last week Rufus and I headed up to one of those hills and although we got snowed on, we had a great walk. I found some waterfalls I wanted to photograph and so we planned a return visit. With the weather forecast showing fine weather today, we set off before dawn to get to Foel Fawr before the crowds – it’s very popular with people sledging when there’s snow about.

I watched the temperature drop as we climbed along the hill road until it read -2 centigrade. Fortunately the road was clear of ice, although sheep and ponies had decided to stand on it rather than the snow either side. Eventually, we got to the quarry and a few yards later, the car park. The car park was frozen but as it had been churned up the previous day, there was plenty of grip for the tyres. We set off, carefully at first, but then more confident as the going underfoot became less slippery. Off the car park surface, the snow was thick and we left deep foot prints as we went. With no paths visible, we struck off towards the rocks of the quarry and hoped for the best. Rufus four paw drive meant he sailed over the snow but I found myself boot deep in unfrozen mud and at one point I nearly lost my balance as the marshy ground tried to stop me.

I was finding the going quite tough with the snow and I kept an eye on Rufus to see how he was coping. Better than me! He was bounding and sprinting all over the place, then stopping to sniff at some unmissable aroma. We were following a fox’s track at one point and he stopped so often that I left him behind. It was great to watch him run, bounce, and hop to catch up, with no sign of problems with his knee.

At the waterfall, there was a short but steep climb down and I kept a hand on Rufus’ collar to make sure he didn’t go too fast to stop at the edge. I stopped for 10 minutes at the waterfall but it was a little disappointing, and the treacherous conditions meant I didn’t fancy scrambling down any further to change the view point. Instead, after a few snapshots, we set off back up the hill, much steeper now and harder with the deep and slippery snow. The path we took last week was covered in snow and hidden but I set off in the general direction to climb up to one of the levels of the quarry. The route I took led along the slope and I had to dig the sides of my boots into the snow to stop me slipping down again. Rufus, making the most of his 4 paw drive, saw no problem as he kept level with me but several yards lower on the slope. Then he tried to get up to me.

The snow was so deep between us that every time he took a step, Rufus sank to his tummy in it. He was struggling to make any headway, so I dropped down and gave him a hand. Together we managed to get out of the deepest snow and Rufus was able to follow my footsteps until we got on firm ground again. Then he was off as if nothing had happened. It didn’t take us long to get back the car.

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Rufus and Dave’s Fortnight of Fun part 9: Frustration on the mountain

The plan for today was to climb up onto Fan Hir and walk along the ridge above the Cerrig Duon valley. As I’ve mentioned before, I love ridge walks as they give you a sense of space and freedom. Both Rufus and I were rested after Tuesday’s trek, so we were ready to go. The weather forecast said rain coming in around midday but we had a few hours before we were due to get wet.

We parked up and set off, walking under the trees along the river. I keep expecting to see kingfishers along this stretch of the Tawe, but I guess the combination of me and Rufus put paid tot hat. Instead, we threaded our way between two fields full of sheep, with drystone walls either side, and up onto the hillside. The first part of this route is very steep. The height gain is fast but over relatively quickly and that’s why I like this. You climb about 300m in around 30 minutes and then the slope slackens and the rest of the walk can be enjoyed at leisure. I used this route a lot during my training for the trek and much prefer this route to Fan Brechieniog.

We trudged up, taking a lot more than 30 minutes to get the ascent out of the way. All around, the hilltops normally visible each had caps of low cloud on them. Suddenly, we popped over the last steep bit and ahead lay the path up on to Fan Hir. But Fan Hir was under more low cloud and as we walked further, so I felt the first faint sensations of drizzle on my face. Over to the west, the clouds were coming in quite quickly. We marched on but it was clear that we were going to get wet very soon. So reluctantly, I decided to turn around. It was frustrating as we’d done the hard bit and I was looking forward to the reward.

As I gave Rufus some water and a snack, I heard a faint rumbling, not of thunder thank goodness, but a number of wild horses galloping along the track. As I watched, two started fighting while the others looked on as if fascinated. Sheep also looked up to watch the spectacle. We set off back down the track, negotiating the steep slope which was now becoming slippery with the rain. Under the tress we had some shelter, and I let Rufus have a paddle while I took some photos. We were watched by a sheep dog in the field next tot eh river. We’ve come across him before and he is very friendly. As Rufus and the sheepdog exchanged sniffs, I checked to see if the farmer was watching and then gave our new fried one of Rufus’ snacks. The sheepdog took it away, placed it on the ground and then started to roll around next to it.

Back home, Rufus had a quick shower to remove the smell of a dead sheep he’d found, and then dried himself off on my lap. Having completed the hard part of the walk, we were both tired and we both dozed on the sofa.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

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