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.

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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.

 

Tipi

It was a grim and grey morning as we left base camp on our latest adventure. We were heading East to the Welsh Marches and the River Wye. Our aim was to spend the night in a Tipi. A tent in the rain can be cosy, or unbearable. Which would it be?

Over the last year or so we’ve had a loose plan to try out new places and activities. This has resulted in 4×4 off-road driving, a short break to Iceland, zip wires in West Wales, a brief raid on York and the North Yorkshire Moors and the relaxing Caer Beris hotel amongst others. The point is to experience a wide range of things. We can then choose to go back for a more in depth visit if we like them.

The Tipi sounded like a great idea. Originally a Native American dwelling, the modern ones differ very little in design from those recorded in the 19th Century. Why change a proven design? It is solid and yet portable; easy to set up and break down for the nomadic lifestyle of some of the Plains Indians. I was looking forward to it.

We reached the site early so we headed off to Hereford, only a few minutes away, and had a wander round the town. It was a mix of old and new but was spoilt in my opinion by the presence of a large and sprawling modern fun fair. The garish colours and lights and the booming 70s and 80s pop music detracted from the history and grandeur of the nearby Cathedral. Fortunately, inside it was tranquil and we were in a different world. We’ve visited a few of these buildings now and it’s interesting to compare them all. Hereford Cathedral was similar to other English ones but scaled down; not quite so tall, not quite so big inside etc. Brass memorial plaques on the wall commemorated notable folk from the area. On in particular stood out for me as very telling of the times. A large plate was dedicated to the officers and senior NCOs of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry who died in India between 1863 and 1875. There were about 30 names on it. At the bottom, as an afterthought was written ‘also dedicated to the 346 NCOs and other ranks who also died during this time’.

After coffee and lunch in ‘The Imperial’, we drove back tot he Tipi site in time to meet Mike, who explained the situation and then drove us in his 4×4 across very muddy fields to the Tipi itself. Apparently, the week before one of the fields had been flooded. There was no sign of that in our field and Mike said it never flooded. Then we were left to our own devices.

The Tipi was about 20 feet high and around 15 feet in diameter. 15 tall wooden stakes formed the frame and canvass was wrapped around. A second inner skin rose about 4 feet to provide some insulation. There were several futons placed around the edge of the inside and there was a central open fireplace with a frame to support the essential kettle. It looked fantastic. The setting was gorgeous too. We were on the inside of a bend in the Wye. The river was a few yards away at it’s closest point so we went to have a look. Two swans were sheltering at the bank as the river was flowing quickly and quite high. Looking back on the site I could see that the Tipi was between the river and the flood dyke protecting the farmland beyond.

Back in the tent, we got the fire going to get a brew on. We’d been shown how to use the smoke flaps, which were intended to allow smoke to chimney out of the top of the Tipi without causing drafts in the tent itself. But the wind was blowing from the wrong direction and the flaps were blowing open and closed randomly. The fire caught and burnt quickly and the heating effect was almost instant, but as the wood heated up and before it started to burn, it smouldered, sending thick curls of smoke upwards to the vent. Some of that smoke was blown back and our eyes started to sting as it swirled back down again. It took a while to get the flaps open and working effectively but part of the trick was to get the wood burning quickly rather than smouldering away.

The kettle took a while to boil and in the meantime we got settled in. Once we’d had a coffee, we set off on a stroll along the river bank. It was clear there had been a lot of water in the river recently; across on the opposite bank there had been a lot of landslip and one massive tree was clinging precariously to the top of the bank, half it’s roots exposed to the air. It wouldn’t last long.

We planned on barbecueing our food so being a barbecue virgin, I set about getting the fire started early, to learn the ropes. I tried to use common sense and logic and sure enough, we had hot charcoal before long. The weather was clearing and although there was a wind blowing, it wasn’t too chilling. We guessed the cooking times and were pretty much spot on. Food over, it was out with the beer and some good old fashioned TV free entertainment (well, a game or three of Trivial Pursuit) until it got too dark to see, Then it was out with the portable DVD player for our piece de resistance – ‘The Blair Witch Project’. 80 minutes of being lost in the outdoors and camping, hearing unidentified sounds from the surrounding trees and woods in the distance. So atmospheric in the tent. If we hadn’t been so tired from the full day, we’d have been awake all night listening to the various unidentified sounds from the surrounding trees and woods in the distance.

I woke early the following morning. It was daylight, just. My watch said 5.15am. I was desperate to go to the loo in a way that reminded me of my first trek in Nepal. Lying in my sleeping bag, bursting to go but reluctant to venture out into the sub zero temperature. There I learned that if you turn on your side, you gain an extra five minutes before you have to go. I don’t understand human biology, I just know it works. I tried it again here and sure enough, it worked again. But eventually I had to go. Outside it was a glorious morning. Blue sky, golden sunrise, huge half moon and the sounds of the birds waking up. I stayed out after my loo break as the sun was warm and there was no cooling breeze. I wandered over to the river. creatures were stirring and a few fields over the farmer was spraying his crops and it wasn’t 6am!

Reluctantly I went back into the tent and climbed into the sleeping bag. I needed another hour or so of sleep as I was tired. But for a while I lay dozing and listening to the dawn chorus. It was so relaxing and reminded me of camping trips I’d done in the past.

Eventually I fell asleep, to wake an hour later ready for coffee and breakfast. We got up, freshened up, cleared up and decided to have breakfast in Hay. We left the site early and drove through rolling countryside until we reached Hay and the big car park. Delicious coffee and a sausage bap was procured at the sign of the Blue Boar and then we went book shopping.I love Hay and could spend days and hundreds of pounds there. But we were fairly restrained (you can’t see the pile of books by the sofa as I type) and after some lunch, we set off for home. It was such a lovely day that we took a break at the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre near Libanus. I had a coffee and a scone and we were very soon joined by a number of sparrows, on the table, on the arm of the chair and all around on the low walls surrounding the patio. One even pecked a few crumbs from my outstretched hand. After I’d finished, another one climbed on to the plate to peck it clean.

All too soon we were heading home. I’m not sure I could do the Tipi again because of the smoke. It was comfy and warm and had the wind not been so strong I think it would have been better. Nevertheless, it was a great experience and one I wouldn’t have missed.

(I would have been happy to miss out on the clinging smell of smoke that attached itself to everything in the tent, including the notebook I write my journal in!)

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