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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Climbing Jebel Toubkal

As usual, the riskiest part of any climb is the descent. You’ve concentrated hard to get to the top, expended all your energy, sweated all your sweat and all the training, planning and mental preparation has been to get you to the summit. At the top, you’re cold or dehydrated or tired, or all three. Coming down is an afterthought (although quite an important one). Anyway, it’s all downhill from here, right?

We had three nights booked in the Atlas Mountain Refuge des Mouflons. Mouflons, I hear you ask? It’s a kind of mountain goat local to those parts. So yes, I was in a mountain goat refuge. Get the jokes over with now so I can continue.

The plan was to quickly get to the refuge on day 1, climb Toubkal on day 2, climb Ouanoukrim (another 4000m peak) on day three and combine a swift ascent of Tizi n Ouanoums with the descent back to Marrakech on the fourth day. The trek started well – we got to our start point, where the technical kit was handed out. I’d picked this particular trek because of the winter skills training and experience and so I was expecting the crampons and ice axes. I wasn’t expecting the avalanche transceiver, which we all had and were told had to be worn at all times while we were in the mountains. The transceiver would enable members of the group to find other members of the group in the event some were buried by an avalanche. Or it would enable the trekking company to recover their ice axe and crampons. Either way, the concept that we were at risk of an avalanche was sobering.

We walked for 7 hours in the increasing heat of a North African day to get to the mountain goat refuge. It was tough going – climbing around 1300m in total. The accepted norm once you get to the mountain sickness altitudes is to climb no more than 300m per day. But the idea was that we would be at altitude for no more than three days and it shouldn’t be a problem. And apart from exhaustion, it wasn’t. Almost immediately after we got to the refuge, we started our technical training with the ‘ice axe arrest’. Rather than some local constabulary technique for apprehending villains, this was a skill that would (hopefully) stop us from sliding too far down a snow or ice covered slope while climbing. The basic drill is this: Once you find yourself sliding towards a horrible and drawn out end, you twist and roll and dig the sharp bit of the ice axe into the snow/ice. The skill is in the twist, in the grasp of the ice axe and in not skewering yourself with the sharp bits of the axe. Our instructor picked a gentle slope, created a slippery channel in the snow and demonstrated a perfect ice axe arrest. Then it was our turn.

The risk was minimal – if we got it wrong on this bit there would be laughter which would probably continue as the unfortunate soul trudged back up the slope to have another go but no drawn out slide as the refuge was in the way. One by one we shot down the slope, twisting like it was last summer and rolling like it was the 1950s. Eventually, we got it and we took the opportunity to keep practising because it was important to do it without thinking and not because it was great fun. Then we tried it left handed.

They all laughed as I lost control of the ice axe and ended up sliding head first for a few yards until the slope tailed off. I did too. And I laughed as other people got it wrong. But in the end we were pretty good at the ice axe arrest, as we found out the following day when one of the group slipped for real on a properly steep section of ice and executed a perfect arrest. We all clapped. And we all gripped our ice axes a little tighter.

The morning after our training we were due to climb Toubkal. But we woke up to a howling gale, sleet and mist. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go up and indeed we saw the group that had left the refuge early to catch the sunrise returning a few hours later, having turned back before the top. The weather cleared up in the late morning but it was too late safely climb and descend the mountain, so we went on an acclimatisation walk up the valley for a couple of hours and practiced more crampon techniques. It was here that our real ice axe arrest took place.

On the second full day with the mountain goats, the weather was perfect for an attempt on the mountain so we set off just after dawn. Despite being only a few miles north of the Sahara desert, there were great sheets of frozen snow for most of the climb up and the technical kit was most definitely needed; the first 2 hours would have been impossible without crampons, and the next hour extremely difficult. Unusually, the higher we got the less snow there was an the final hour of climbing was on relatively snow free scree and rock. Our crampons had been left at the snow line. The wind picked up at around 4000m and despite the strong sun and cloud free sky, it was bitterly cold. The summit marker, a large pyramid frame, was invisible on the way up until we were only a few tens of yards away. It was a welcome sight as we had climbed another 1000m in 4 hours. Our guide later told us it was -8c on the top but I didn’t feel any of that.

The views from the top were fantastic. As the highest peak in the High Atlas, there was a 360 degree panorama of North Africa, with the Sahara just visible as a hazy patch to the south and the village we’d set off from three days before to the north. East and west, the High Atlas mountains stretched as far as I could see. The guide pointed out a squirrel, slightly smaller than the UK native brown ones, and with stripes running the length of its back and tail. It was checking out the latest batch of visitors to see what scraps we’d leave behind. Rock thrushes and Alpine Chough also waited patiently for tidbits. We had the top to ourselves and after the inevitable summit photos, there was a chance to just stop and take in the beauty of the place, and the achievement we’d managed.

All too soon it was time to descend. Our guide pointed out clouds edging in from the north, from where the wind was blowing. We set off down and for the first time I realised how steep it really was. The loose rock and gravel was extremely treacherous and we all slipped and slid on the way down. The danger with descent is that any fall forward is usually a fall down the slope and far worse that falling on the way up, where the fall is usually uphill. At some points we were negotiation narrow sections with steeper drops either side and while we were on the scree, there would be no ice axe or crampons to help.

Eventually, with aching knees, we got to the snow line and a chance for a rest and a mini picnic. The wind was cold here, at 4000m, and as I tied the straps of my crampons on I could feel my fingers aching and stiffening with the chill. It was important to get the straps as tight as possible as any slippage would translate to difficult walking and possibly a demonstration of exactly how good I was with the ice axe.

It took about two hours to walk down the snow slope. It was steep and hard going on the knees and thighs and by the time I’d zigged and zagged down, all the while stomping to make sure the spikes dug in and gripped, I was shattered. But I remained upright. Just.

There was a subdued celebration as we were all tired, and an early night with the prediction of bad weather for tomorrow. It’s the nature of the High Atlas that the weather changes completely from day to day. A few year ago, heavy rainfall combined with melting snow to cause flash floods in the foothill villages that killed 60 people and destroyed vital farmland Only now are they restoring the land to production.

Sure enough, the following morning was grim with high winds and driving snow coming up the valley, and temperatures well below zero. There was no question of us doing the short walk tot he mountain pass. Instead we delayed departing for Marrakech as long as possible in case the weather improved. It didn’t, and we set off in a blizzard that had deposited more than 18″ of snow overnight. The path down, so obvious in the sunny weather when we’d come up, was hidden, as were the valley sides. We trudged along, bent forward against the wind and with faces covered, in the footsteps of our guide. Here was the sense in paying that little extra fro a professional, experienced trek leader. Cheaper guides were available in the foothills but as we were to find out, they didn’t care about the people they were guiding, just about getting their money.

Very soon after leaving the refuge, our guide stopped us and pointed out a large shoulder of fresh snow. “Avalanche”, he said. “It’s just happened.” All hands dived inside jackets to ensure the transceivers were switched on. We made our way quickly over the snow, which was hard going as it was soft and deep. It had come down from the left but I couldn’t see where because of the poor visibility. We carried on as fast as the conditions would allow. Little rocks and stones hidden by the snow threatened to turn ankles and I was grateful for decent walking boots, which saved me a couple of times.

On a flatter section we stopped for a few minutes to regroup and take a breather. We were still at altitude and it was below freezing. I could feel snow and ice on my beard and my sunglasses (despite the cloud and mist it was too bright not to have sunglasses on at this altitude). There was a layer of ice on the glasses and in my beard. It was the only positive I’d felt so far – I’ve always wanted a photograph of me with ice in my beard.

It took us another 7 hours to get back to the little hotel where our bus was waiting to take us to Marrakech. For most of that time we were walking in blizzard conditions with the wind directly in our faces. For the last hour, the wind abated and we walked in decreasing mist but on slushy ground which was equally slippery as the snow and ice further up.

The steaming glass of mint tea, known as Berber Whiskey in these parts, that was waiting for us in the hotel was delicious.

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At last, Atlas!

This is not a sad, reflective post.

Since I lost my walking buddy last month, I’ve been at a bit of a loss. The house is empty and silent, my walks have been enjoyable but half hearted and generally I’ve been struggling a little to find something to focus on.  Friends have been really great (thank you all) but inevitably there were moments I had to deal with myself.

I had committed to spending all my spare time with Rufus while he was with me and I never regretted a second. We had some great adventures side by side. We walked all of the Brecon Beacons together. Rufus swam, paddled or splashed about in every muddy puddle in South Wales along with a few rivers and a couple of lakes. I had to stop him climbing up the Devil’s Kitchen in Snowdonia as it was only a few weeks after he had Pancreatitis and he was still recovering. We got about half way up before I managed to persuade him that Llyn Idwal was an ideal paddling pool! If peeing on lamposts is a territorial marker, his kingdom stretched from Sketty Park to Uplands and from Cockett to Oystermouth road (for non-Swansea folk, that’s quite a patch). Squirrels in that acreage were very, very scared!

Everywhere I walk now has some kind of memory of Rufus for me, almost always one that makes me smile. Last week I walked down to Tor Bay and on the beach, I remembered Rufus triumphantly running up to me with a giant piece of rotting seaweed in his mouth. I was meant to throw it for him. I declined. On Fan Gyhirych, I remembered him feigning a limp when he thought we were heading back to the car, only for it to disappear as he leapt over a stile, and instantly reappear again after he’d eaten the treat he knew he’d get for such a feat. It came and went according to the adventure he was having and at one point he got stuck up to his belly in thick mud, which I had to rescue him from. The limp went completely after that! I like these memories, they genuinely make me smile. If you see some grinning idiot on a mountain, it’s probably me.

But I always knew that one day Rufus would head off to the hills without me and I would be left to fill the time with something new different. And I always wondered how I would feel about that. I have a long term plan, with no dates because I couldn’t predict the future, to climb a so-called trekking peak in the Himalayas. A trekking peak is a mountain that can be summited with limited technical skills. There would be no mountaineering but there might be some ice axe and crampon sections, and the need to rope up to protect against falling into hidden crevasses. I knew the first stage of that plan would be learning to use crampon and ice axe. My previous blog was about getting boots that would take crampons but was written well before I had made a decision about when to start. I was merely taking advantage of sales prices.

On Monday, I found a short trek that would combine ice axe and crampon experience for beginners with two summits. Although it was very soon after losing Rufus, it was also an ideal opportunity to start to focus on ‘the next thing’. And here was my dilemma, because no matter how I thought about it, I felt guilty about moving on this quickly. Irrational, I know, but a real issue for me. So, (and bear with me here), I had a little chat with Rufus about it and he ended up calling me names for being so silly to think that way.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve signed up to trek in the Atlas Mountains in Western Morocco later this year. The trek includes a section of walking on ice and frozen snow and offers the opportunity to summit Jebel Toubkal, at 4190m the highest in North Africa, and Jebel Ouanoukrim, which is only a few metres lower. I have heard good things about these mountains from fellow trekkers and one of the great things is that start point in Marrakesh is only 4 hours from the UK – nearly a third of the travel time of the longer treks I’ve been on.

My aimless wanderings will very quickly become focused training sessions. I have Rufus to thank for making me maintain a decent level of fitness, which has meant I can take advantage of last minute offers and a shorter build up. While I won’t say exactly when I’m going (this is the internet after all, and the last thing I want is unwelcome visitors while I’m away), it is relatively soon.

Expect some more posts about the build up, and eventually some long and boring account of the trek itself (from which you are only excused if you have a valid excuse).

Finally, below is what most of weekends will end up with…

Soaking feet

Aahhhh!

 

Boots

I’ve been looking for new walking boots. The problem with being a walker is that boots wear out. Whether it’s through normal, but constant, use or whether it’s because of damage they will one day give up. And it’s always just as they become as comfy as they will ever be.

My first pair of boots that I went walking in weren’t intended to be full on, hill-bashers. They were thin, canvass trainers with a higher ankle for more support. They were great for general walking but as soon as I discovered more challenging terrain, they showed themselves to be sadly lacking in most of the key areas – grip, waterproofness, comfort and ability to survive. So I went and bought a pair of what I thought were ‘proper’ mountain boots. They weren’t, although to be fair they looked the part to my inexperienced eye. They were big, heavy and clumsy and more like work boots for navvys. They were only comfortable if I cushioned my feet in two pairs of thick socks. I hardly wore them, apart from a couple of times on the Isle of Skye in the snow and once near Glen Coe.

The last I saw of them was after a marathon walking day along the relatively easy Bridge of Orchy section of the West Highland Way. I’d been taking photos and wandering along the rough track near the railway station for most of the day and my feet were aching and hot. So off came the boots to dry in the sun, on went some old trainers and I sat in the car, drinking from a flask of coffee and feeling smug.

Later, in the B&B, I realised I’d left my boots behind in the car park. It was raining and cold, so I didn’t go back to get them that evening. I thought back to what had happened. I’d forgotten to put them in the boot and, given where I’d put them, I must have reversed over them when leaving. I decided that I would abandon them as lost, and invest in a decent, purpose made pair of hill walking boots. I was staying in Fort William and the local outdoor clothing shop was nearby. So in I went, and out I came with a pair of Brasher Hillmasters, recommended by one of the staff.

What a revelation! They were comfy like warm slippers are comfy, straight from the box. I didn’t have to walk them in. I didn’t have to layer sock upon sock to cushion my feet. Walking in them felt like rolling along with little effort. I felt I could take on Ben Nevis. Over the next couple of years, I wore these boots every time I went on the hills. They got a proper bashing when I trained for my first Everest Base Camp trek in 2007, including Ben Nevis, and they got me to the top of Kala Patthar and to Base Camp itself in supreme comfort and warmth. In the end, the soles wore smooth and they became my gardening boots. I only got rid of them last year.

I replaced them with a second pair of the same make, which were just as comfortable. These took more of a hammering as by now I had the mountain bug. I managed to do all of the Brecon Beacons in them, and plenty of other hills and mountains, including Crib Goch and Snowdon, several times. These boots got me back to Everest Base Camp in 2011 before finally giving up the ghost the following year when something snapped inside and they began to click loudly!

I bought a third pair of Brashers straight away. But I also invested in a cheaper pair of boots for training, to give the Brashers a chance to rest now and again as a lot of my preparation was on the streets, which tended to wear out the tread more quickly than mountain paths. These boots got me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2014 and are still my main walking boots today. They have the scars of walking on sharp, volcanic rock. The leather uppers are scuffed and scratched but they remain great boots.

But this weekend, I decided that I would buy another pair of boots. Not to replace my Brashers, but to add the ability to use crampons. The Brashers are designed for all conditions bar deep, slippery snow and ice in winter. As my long term plans include the possibility of walking in deep, slippery snow and ice in winter, I needed different boots.

The website of the specialist outdoor clothing shop I went to said they had the boots in stock, in my size. The sales assistant didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying and told me they hadn’t had any crampon compatible boots in for more than a year. So in the end I went to my local discount outlet, ‘Go Outdoors’, where I bought most of my trekking kit over the years. I hadn’t tried it first simply because they usually cater for the more popular end of outdoor activity. Careful to get the right size (as they will be used in colder conditions, I need to have a boot that fits when I’m wearing two pairs of socks). Not only did they have the exact boot I was looking for but it was nearly £50 cheaper.

As I type, they are sat in the front room. They are comfy but in a different way. They are stiffer and heavier than normal walking boots, as they are designed to cope with harsher conditions and to hold crampons stable and securely. Now all I have to do is find some deep slippery snow and ice in winter.

 

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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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 3: The northern route

Today would be the start of our northern route diversion. Most groups would be heading up towards the Lava Towers and on to Barranco hut. We were turning off to begin the two day traverse of the northern circuit. This was one of the features of the trek that had attracted me; We would get an extra two days at altitude to aid acclimatisation, but also to enjoy being on an unspoilt and largely deserted stretch of the mountain.

Our route today followed the walk we’d completed yesterday afternoon and we soon reached the 4000m marker stone. Shortly after this our path split off to the left and we said good by to the standard trails. Now we were climbing steadily towards our goal for the day, Moir Hut camp. And as we crested the ridge we could make out the pyramid shaped hut, it’s wood bleached white in the strong sunshine. It was a surprise as we expected to be walking for several more hours but in a little over 2.5 hours, we strolled into camp.

We were in a deep and steep sided valley, bordered on three sides by tall cliffs of solidified lava. Where weathering had worn away the scree, flat sheets of lava could be seen edge on. Above the ruined pyramid hut, the three dramatic humps of the Lent Hills could be seen. This afternoon, we’d be climbing the closest, Little Lent Hill, as part of our acclimatisation programme. For now, we were content to be in camp and to have some time to rest.

After lunch and a sustained assault on the crumbs we’d dropped by bold little Seed Eater birds, we set off to scale the nearby Little Lent Hill. We started off with a scramble over a steep section of smooth lava, followed by a long tramp up the side of the valley, Underfoot, the scree was slippery and in parts it was like climbing up a sand dune, with feet slipping backwards.  But before too long we were on the ridge top and then it was a short but difficult walk over loose stones that clinked like china when they knocked together to the foot of the hill.

The route up to the top of the hill was over steep, sharp and grippy rocks and as we started up, we were passed by another group of trekkers. One woman was using supplementary oxygen, At this relatively low level (4300m) it suggested that she was struggling already. the danger would be if her supply ran out on the final climb, She’d be in trouble and would leave her group with a dilemma on whether to help or go on.

We scrambled to the top and were rewarded by magnificent views over the camp, and up to Kilimanjaro. The top of the hill was covered in delicately balanced stone piles; we’d been seeing them all along the trails so far and would continue to see them right to the top.  Coming back down again was much easier than going up apart from the constant slipping of feet on scree.

The following day, we retraced our steps up to the ridge before bearing left to avoid Little Lent Hill. We were now well on the seldom used northern circuit route and we welcomed the break and the solitude. We walked in near silence in single file. The pacing was good and the grounds, while undulating, was manageable. By late morning the mist and cloud descended and brought the temperature down., This made the walking a little easier but made the rocky, barren landscape an eerie place to be. It felt as if it would be so easy to get lost here and, according to a guidebook, someone had done just that and they were still looking for him!

We crossed several dried river channels which would carry meltwater off the mountain during the rainy seasons. They were bone dry and full of rounded boulders. The vegetation had retreated to a few hardy plants sheltering beside rocks, and lichen. We reached a high point of 4370m before dropping back down again until we arrived at Buffalo Camp site around 5.5 hours after we’d started walking.

This camp site was small and cramped. Fortunately we were the only ones there. Three tents were lined up together on a slop – next to the entrances was a drop of nearly 12 inches. This doesn’t sound like much but in the cold and dark of a midnight toilet break, this could potentially cause chaos. Our toilet tent was several vertical metres above the tents and we joked that we would need climbing rope and a belay to safely use the toilet. Inside my tent, I found that there was a large boulder for a pillow – luckily I’m short enough that I was able to avoid it. The slope, which made bothy of us slide down the tent during the night, helped as well. Nevertheless, we survived the night and were rewarded in the morning with a beautiful site of the sunrise over a layer of clouds onto which we were looking.

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Packing it in

A day off. And after a stroll into Swansea this morning, and a load of housework this afternoon, I decided that I should have a preliminary trial pack of my kit bag for Kilimanjaro. Although the trek is shorter than Everest Base Camp, some of the stuff I’m taking is bulkier. It’s colder on the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro and after the trek leader laughed at my sleeping bag at Lobuche (5100m), I thought I ought to get a warmer one. Warmer = bigger. I’ve also decided to take my duvet jacket for the same reason and I’ve been told to take an inflatable sleeping mat as the ground can be cold and uneven. As I figured out early on, to inflate it, I won’t have enough breath at high altitude, so there’s also a foot pump in there.

With everything laid out on the floor, I was wondering where to start. Last time, I started off with everything and ended up removing loads of things until I had only what I really needed. That’s the benefit of practice packs. By the third time I’ve done this, I may even get down to one of everything. But today, that wasn’t to be.

My carry on bag will take some of the bulk – after running out of clean clothes in Kathmandu, there’s be a change in there, along with my camera and various other essentials. If my main luggage is lost, I should be able to make a valiant attempt on the mountain with a couple of hired items and a lot of smelly clothes. Hmm!

Bit by bit, things went in the kit bag. Small stuff first, packing out the sides. Then the bigger bits and finally the sleeping bag. And then the fun began, because the kit bag wouldn’t close. And I’d already left out a load of things. Some repositioning of fleeces and adjusting of socks ensued to no avail. The sleeping bag was so big, even squeezed into its stuff sac, that the zips just wouldn’t meet.

It’s all very well squeezing and squashing it all in today, but I have to think about doing that each morning in a tent, tired, cold and eager to set off. So out came some more bits, in went the sleeping bag again, and then more shifting and squeezing. As I type, it’s closed and it’s not bursting at the seams.  One good thing is that the weight is just about 13kg – under the 15kg limit for the porters. And it will be lighter still on the trek, as I’ll be carrying around 5kg of stuff on my back.

I might have another go at packing tonight.

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Namche Hill

The one question I was asked more than any other when my fellow trekkers found out I’d done the Everest Base Camp trek before was ‘what about Namche Hill’? From those that didn’t know I’d been before, I heard all sorts of stories; it’s eight hours of climbing, it’s really steep, some people fail on the way up.  I always gave the same answer: It’s not as bad as you think, don’t let it get to you. I was very careful not to make too much of it as it seemed to preoccupy the thoughts of a lot of people.

I don’t remember knowing that much about Namche hill before the first trek. I’d read the itinerary and could see that it was potentially the hardest day, with a minimum of 850m of ascent from our start point to Namche itself. That didn’t take into account the undulating route that probably added another 300m of climbing to the day. But I had been doing 600 – 1000m climbs in a day as part for my training. Of course, I forgot to take into account the altitude. On Namche Hill, we’d be breaking through the 3,000m barrier and could expect the first real signs of altitude sickness.

On the day, we suffered a bit from being a very slow group. I was helping one of the group to make a video diary and he had asked me to film him crossing the high level bridge just before the hill began. I went ahead and had to wait in the chill wind while the bridge cleared so he could lead the rest of the group across. By the time I’d finished, I was at the back and that threw my pacing out completely. I was going slower than I liked and strangely, that made it harder.

From the bridge, the path drops slightly on steep concrete steps before heading up in a relentless dry and dusty slog. Right from the start, our guides wrapped scarves around their faces to combat the dust. We couldn’t help but kick up clouds of the stuff and everything was quickly coated in a gritty, light brown film. A breeze helped to cool me down, and took the worst of the dust swirling away into the trees. As I struggled with the pace, we passed trekkers and sherpas coming down having completed their quest. They seemed excited and talkative and full of energy. I realised later how good it felt to be going home. For now, with few exceptions, they were annoyingly patronising with their ‘not far to go now’ chants.

I stopped to talk to two guys from Wales and that was a welcome break. But then immediately afterwards, an American told me ‘only another 90 minutes to go’ and for some reason that made me feel very angry towards him. Not long afterwards, we reached a halfway halt and spirits were raised when we caught our first glimpse of Everest through the trees.

The rest of the tramp up the hill went easier for me because I was back in the front group, which suited my pace. Nevertheless, as a group we were very slow and by the time we reached the village of Namche, it was dusk. We nearly got lost after our guide disappeared in the gloom and we were left wondering which guest house we were in.

On my second trek, I was careful to be more prepared for the hill. I took advantage of all the rests tops on the way and I’d brought a buff along to use to filter out the dust. I made sure I had plenty of water and that I was in the right place in the group so that I could go along at my natural pace. It was warmer second time around, and there was no breeze. Despite the buff, I could feel and taste grit in my mouth. This time we were having to stray from the path to avoid frisky yaks who, being free of their loads, were enjoying the easy downhill path. There was an almost constant deep jangle of bells from around the necks of the yak, with a higher pitched tinkle of bells around the ponies’ necks.

I drank frequently, avoided eye contact with the people coming down so they wouldn’t tell me how far was left (I know it was with the best of intentions, but it didn’t help me) and kept going. After the first 50m of climb, the views of the river we’d just crossed disappeared through the trees and I kept my head down and concentrated on the slow plod that was working for me. There was little to indicate how far we’d come.

Before long, we reached the halfway stop, and it was packed with trekkers going in both directions. You could immediately spot the ones going up and the ones coming down by the looks on their faces and the noise. The climbers were quiet and red faced. I looked for the view of Everest, but cloud and trees masked it.

We set off once more and before long were nearing the top, where the slope flattened out. In the distance, thought he trees, I heard a sharp crack followed by a deep rumble, like thunder. It was an avalanche on the mountains opposite and I watched as tons of ice and water cascaded down the rock face. Then, literally around the corner, Namche appeared.

As we walked into the village, we came upon two young yak who were fighting in the street. Our group scattered and I headed for a gap in the wall, below which was a fast flowing stream heading steeply downhill. Unfortunately, both yaks also headed for the gap, horns locked and pre-occupied with their own issues. I stepped behind the wall and they brushed me as they went past. It was a great end to the day.

It certainly felt easier the second time I did it, perhaps because I knew what to expect.

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This time last year…

… I was flying high over Europe on my way to Nepal and the start of  a trek to Everest Base Camp.

I was thinking about it last week when I was backng up image files. I flicked through all the photos I’d taken during the 17 day trip. It brought back a lot of happy memories of the places, people and achievment. And a few unhappy memories of stomach upsets and long drop toilets.

But overwhelmingly it was a trememdnous experience and one I’d jump at the chance of doing again.

I apoloise to all who know me and who over the next fortnight will probably be subject to ‘this time last year…’ comments from me. Please be tolerant.

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