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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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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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…

 

 

Proper Mountains 1: Yr Wyddfa

This week, in a break with tradition, I set off not for work but for Snowdonia. The last time I was here was in 2010, as part of my preparation for the second Everest Base Camp trek. I wanted to go back partly to climb the Glyders and partly to get some decent photographs of the area. I prayed for fine weather.

On the journey up, I stopped off at Bwlch Oerddrws, where from the car park and the mountains above you can get dramatic photographs of military planes as they fly up the valley and overhead at about 200ft. The noise and the speed are exhilarating. I always aim to get here in time to have a coffee and a break and I usually build in at least an hour  here to catch a few fly bys. I managed to photograph a C130 and a Tornado during my stop over.

The cottage I stayed in was at the top of a narrow and rough farm track winding up from a similarly narrow and rough side road just outside Capel Curig. It had everything I needed as a base for walking except internet access and a mobile phone signal!

The plan was to climb mountains – as many as I could fit in depending on the weather. I was unfit, not having climbed a proper mountain in the UK since last year. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get or whether I’d only manage one before collapsing in a heap. At least the cottage had a bath that I could soak in if necessary. I watched the local weather forecast and made a loose plan based on the prediction that Tuesday would be the best day. Snowdon it was, then!

I decided against doing Crib Goch this time; if I was unfit, that would be a tough route to find out about it. So I set off on the Pyg Track around 8am. The weather was gorgeous, so much better than I had expected. It was warm going up alongside the Llanberis Pass before reaching Bwlch y Moch. I stopped to drink in the magnificent views down into the cwm with it’s lakes and river and was passed by several walkers heading up to Crib Goch. We joked (last one to the cafe buys the drinks, etc) and left them to their airy stroll. I set off along the Pyg track. It was like a familiar fried; the last time I’d come this way was during the preparation for my first trek to Nepal in 2007. In fact, I’d climbed it twice that year, in mist and then in sunshine. Today was like the latter.

A number of improvements had been made to the path. All of them were in keeping with the surroundings, but where erosion had threatened to make the route impassable, it had been repaired. It hadn’t made the path any easier though and I was soon feeling the strain in my leg muscles. But it wasn’t too bad and I carried on. The last stretch before reaching the railway line was easier than I remembered and the pull up to the summit was straight forward. After a few minutes sharing the summit with four mountain bikers (and their bikes) I headed off to the cafe for a well earned cream scone and a drink. As I tucked in, the train disgorged a load of passengers and they hobbled and shuffled through the cafe towards the summit cairn. I felt smug and finished my scone.

Coming down was straight forward. I detoured to take the Miner’s track on the way back and the walk along Glaslyn and Llyn Llydaw was peaceful and a nice way to end the route. Apart from the 10 minutes when a military helicopter was buzzing me during a training exercise as it flew in and around the cwm.

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Crib Goch

Crib Goch (The Red Comb or Ridge) is the first difficult section of the Snowdon Horseshoe, when that route is tackled in an anti-clockwise direction. It’s a narrow ridge with significant drops on either side. If you stand by Llyn Llydaw looking up at Snowdon, it’s the big ridge on your right. For someone without a head for heights (like me), it’s a real challenge. Every time I climbed Snowdon, I looked across to Crib Goch and wondered if I could.

On 4 October 2010, I did. At about 7.30 am I stood at the foot of Crib Goch where the path from Bwlch y Moch and the Pyg track stops and the scramble begins. Looking up, it seemed like a chaos of jagged rocks with no clear line to the peak. I stared up, trying to see where others had made a start but nothing stood out and I knew I would have to make my own. I reached for the first hand and foot hold and started the climb.

After a few moves I got into the stride and found the initial stages deceptively simple. Hand holds were firm and plentiful. In fact, it was hard to decide which ones to use at first. I wanted to stay over to the right of centre to avoid the exposure to a long drop into Cwm Dyli, which would bring me to a petrified halt. 20 minutes of climbing later, I stopped to take a break and looked back and down to where I’d started. Early morning mist filled the valleys between the mountain tops so that they appeared to be islands in a white sea. Far below, two walkers were making their way along the Pyg track. It felt good to be here.

After checking the line again, I set off on the next stage. Hand holds weren’t so obvious now and the route became much steeper. Occasionally I could see where others had been by the loose gravel and polished rocks, where thousands of hands and feet had worn the rock smooth. At other times, perhaps because I’d strayed off line, it was impossible to spot a popular way and I had to find my own. This was scary but quite exciting and very satisfying.

I started to find the going tough as I’m not a natural or frequent climber and I’d done no particular preparation for this climb. I stopped a few times to get my breath back and I was able to enjoy the views across Cwm Dyli and Llyn Llydaw and beyond to Llynnau Mymbyr and Capel Curig. The mist was beginning to lift and the views were getting hazy as the sun rose.

The going was getting steeper the higher I went. I found that some of the handholds were loose when I tested them and some of the vertical steps were higher, too.  Then the slope lessened and I found I was able to walk without using my hands for parts of the way. Then another steep but short section led to the start of the ridge itself, which popped in to view all of a sudden.

I paused before starting this part of the route. Without dwelling too much on the drops either side I set off on the extremely narrow crest towards Garnedd Ugain and Snowdon. For the next half a mile or so, I concentrated on keeping my balance and not falling over. I alternated between walking on the top and walking on the southern side and I found the going straightforward, if not easy. Every now and then, the dizzying drop on the north side popped into my peripheral vision.

After what seemed like 30 minutes but was probably a lot less, I descended into Bwlch Coch for a rest and a chance to look back over the route I’d just covered. It didn’t look like the same place I’d just been, towering much higher than the bwlch and looking more like an Alpine wall than I remembered.

The next stages of the traverse was across Crib y Ddysgl to Garnedd Ugain. The Crib y Ddysgl ridge is a little wider and the drops either side are not so precipitous but I found the going harder as I was getting tired. The final climb to Garnedd Ugain involved scaling a near vertical wall, with a drop below before finally reaching the summit plateau and the trig point. The gentle slope to the trig point was a welcome end to the hard part of the climb.

From here it was a simple descent to the Snowdon Mountain railway and a final half mile pull up to Snowdon’s summit, following the railway track for most of the way. The weather was warm and clear and the visibility was excellent as I got to the cairn at the top.  I was pleasantly surprised that there were few people there despite the recent arrival of a train to the top station. I called in to the café for a coffee and a rest before heading back down the Miner’s track back to my starting point.

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