Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Climb

This will be the last post about Nepal - and this justifies a few more mountain pictures! Climbing Island Peak seems like an adventure worth dedicating a whole post to because actually summiting a Himalayan peak, however relatively puny it may be to elite mountaineers (the famous "Into Thin Air" describes it as a '20298-ft subsidiary bump on the Lhotse South Face'), is likely to retain a position on my list of achievements for some time. 

Summit day started at High Camp (5450m) at 2am and finished back at Base Camp at 5000m, some 16 hours later. This doesn't seem like all that much of a big deal, but it turns out that actually being active for that amount of time at those altitudes does take a lot out of you. 

The climb up to High Camp the afternoon before was tough, but manageable. We had established our Base Camp an hour's walk down from everyone else, away from the other expeditions and the dust of the moraines. This made for a pleasant rest day-and-a-half and for a warm-up walk to get used to the full mountaineering backpacks we had to carry ourselves above Base Camp. The mountainside we had to trudge up to get to High Camp, though, was steeper than most terrain we had encountered so far, and the gravelly path switchbacked its way around boulders rather tortuously. 

However, a few hours of huffing and puffing and frequent pausing later we made it to the desolate jumble of rocks where the few Sherpa - a cook, a couple of cook boys and two climbing sherpas - who accompanied us to this point had already set up our tents. Of course, the views were beginning to get absolutely spectacular by this point - I'm starting to run out of superlatives here. 


Steve looking thoroughly bored of the scenery at High Camp

The lower reaches of Island Peak Glacier, with crampon point at its bottom; the way the slope falls away beyond gives some idea of how steep the climb up to here was.

The fun started at 2am, after a few hours of tossing and turning in a freezing tent - this was the closest Steve and I actually got to considering zipping sleeping bags together for warmth. By the fitful light of our headtorches we wolfed down some porridge and struggled into our double-plastic boots (basically ski boots) and our three layers of gloves; all other gear we had slept in for warmth, and for that matter I’d worn my big overmitts over my feet.


What followed was, in hindsight, the most grueling part of the climb, a 2.5-hour scramble up a 50-degree slope of 3-6ft boulders. At the time, my thoughts were mostly along the lines of “what on Earth am I doing here…”, which stands to reason given the extenuating factors:
  • A 10kg pack containing all the gear for later sections;
  • Pitch blackness, pierced only by our headtorches;
  • Most importantly, wearing heavy, completely rigid boots and elbow-length mitts, none of which are made for good footing/grip; 
  • The difficulty of concentrating at 5500m in the first place probably didn’t help, either.
We reached the top of the scrambling section at 5900m around 5am and were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise, which I completely failed to photograph adequately; the need to keep moving and to put on crampons in the biting cold wind that had risen, along with a complete lack of motivation to do anything more than absolutely necessary, conspired to the effect that the following is my sole photo from up there. It hints at the glorious firework of colours this stunning vista was draped in for a few minutes.

It is worth noting at this point that the wind had been so strong for the last two hours at this point that our guides and sherpas were openly debating abandoning the attempt. I could see why, given my fingers were feeling rather numb even under three layers of gloves. Fortunately, though, the wind dropped a little when we reached crampon point. It did pick up later on, but at least the sun had risen by then and made a considerable difference. 

My only photo of sunrise at crampon point. It was a hell of a lot better than this in real life :(
The second thing we saw when we reached this point was the glacier we were about to ascend to reach the summit. As glaciers tend to do, it looked small from afar; up close it looked nothing short of enormous. So, however, did the crevasses which we had to walk around – and occasionally jump across – once we’d fumbled our crampons on and roped up. Island Peak Glacier was a spectacular, undulating affair which my words, as so often, can in no way do justice, so instead I’ll let some photos do the talking. These were taken on Little Camera during our descent later in the day.

Crevasses on Island Peak Glacier, and our path between them... we had to jump the right-hand one, the spot is just about visible in the background here.
More crevasses...no bottom in sight!
And another, for good measure.

The walk up the glacier took us about an hour and brought us to just over 6000m, where the final hurdle awaited. Mountaineers will judge me for this horribly, but the fixed lines up the headwall and the summit ridge – the only “technical“ sections of the mountain – were the big unknown for Steve and I. A fixed rope is, as the name implies, fixed to the slope by a number of 2ft ice anchors, and climbers use devices called jumars to ascend them. A jumar clips onto the rope and slides upwards easily but bites into the rope so it can’t slide back down, thus giving the climber a moving handhold. This sounds like it makes everything rather stupidly easy, and I was certainly a bit scornful of it before trying it at altitude – but jumaring up a fixed line is actually rather hard work. It’s a very odd sensation being unable to summon the strength and energy to take a single step because the last one – 10 seconds previously – left you so out of breath. The less-than-certain footing on metal spikes lashed to the soles of ski boots biting into a 60-degree ice slope probably contributed to our slow going, too...

The glacier, headwall and summit ridge (right) as seen from the summit.

Eventually, though, I’m proud to report that Steve and I both reached the summit of Island Peak, where the persistent wind lowered temperatures to around -35*C. We spent about 20 minutes up there, soaking up the – yet again – indescribable view and taking a few obligatory summit photos before the time came to descent. We were the first team to summit on the day which meant a lovely climb up – but now other groups on their way up were clogging the ropes so there was some faff and lots of sketchy unclipping from and reclipping to the safety rope, particularly on the summit ridge. Spending even just a few seconds on an icy ridge, a few hundred feet dropping away on either side, while buffeted by 50mph winds and trying to manoeuver around another climber without either of us unclipping from the safety rope was a bit of an adrenaline rush to say the least. I did nearly lose my footing when a particularly strong gust hit, but fortunately managed to stay on the ridge. 


The 8500m Lhotse South Face from the summit. I deem being towered over by that not overly embarassing...

And an obligatory summit panorama. Island Peak derives its name from the way it's surrounded by glaciers on three sides, one of which flows past in the bottom of this picture.


Descending was straightforward compared to what we’d done so far, mostly thanks to the light of day. Actually seeing the whole of the slope we’d scrambled up in the dark earlier was a bit of a stomach-lurcher, but apart from that the descent back to Base Camp was mostly tedious, especially due to the double plastic boots we now no longer needed. At this point the desire to eat, eat some more and then crash out overwhelmed everything else. Fortunately, we were met by hot tea, copious amounts of food (mostly egg-based) and the relative comfort of a tent no more than a few degrees below zero, which we happily collapsed into around 7pm…

Next, without further ado…India! 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Thoughts On The Trek

Since it's been a while since I last got the chance to post here, it feels like high time to write a little something about Nepal and our weeks in the mountains. It is safe to say that in the Sagarmatha National Park lie easily the most epic and mind-bogglingly huge bits of scenery I have ever encountered. The eye sweeps in one smooth motion from blue glacial rivers in narrowly incised valleys up through gnarled rhododendron and fragrant pine forests and brown-green juniper shrubs to impossibly tall and jagged peaks rising seemingly out of nowhere. Ama Dablam, Cholatse, Lobuche, Makalu, Cho Oyu - to name but a few peaks - and of course the Nuptse/Lhotse/Everest massif were our constant companions for the best part of 3 weeks. 


Our first glimpse of Ama Dablam's sublime summit pyramid
Cho Oyu's gentle-ish summit ridge - probably still tough at 8200m...
As for life in tents during the first half of our trek, which peaked in our ascent of 6189m Island Peak, the first word that comes to mind (and the second) is "cold". From Namche Bazaar (~3450m) onwards, I wore most of my clothes in my sleeping bag at night - this included lycra, thermal base layers, powershirt and, at Island Peak High Camp (5450m), even my down jacket. Everything left outside the sleeping bag would freeze solid overnight. This includes pee bottles, a less-than-savoury concept which becomes a necessity when it's too cold to leave the tent during the night but extreme hydration levels are required to cope with altitude. They are distinguished from water bottles by a band of gaffa tape to ensure we don't use the wrong bottle in the dark at night. Even solids would be covered in a dusting of frost from the condensation from our breaths. The coldest temperature we measured inside the tent - again at High Camp) was -14C. Needless to say, sleep came increasingly fitfully with altitude, and always riddled with decidedly odd dreams. These ranged from the merely bizarre to ones I will not elaborate on here - the main thing all these dreams had in common was their startling vividness. 

On the whole, Steve coped with the altitude significantly better than I did; I moved very slowly on even the slightest uphill gradients above 4000m or so, and very nearly didn't make it on one of the longest days. A mild bout of food poisoning at Deboche (~3750m) meant that I ate nothing and drank little the next day - one of our biggest hiking days. We descended from Deboche to a river at 3400m before ascending to Ama Dablam Base Camp at 4600m for an acclimatization and climbing practice day. After I started dry-heaving while crossing the river, one of our guides asked Steve to take my day bag; he had offered before but I had obviously refused - this was very much a last resort. From here onwards, my progress is best described as "crawling". I barely stayed on my feet and stopped, gasping for breath, every handful of steps. Fortunately Chris, an experienced mountain guide who has been on a number of eightthousanders, stayed with me and kept me going. He saw that I was not suffering from altitude sickness but was just weakened, which justified his decision - and mine - not to go back down, and I am grateful to him for this. I stumbled into Base Camp a good hour after everyone else and spent a good while just lying on the ground in an attempt to recover. 

It took a good many visits to the Base Camp outhouse - made particularly sketchy by previous users' poor aim and resulting frozen mess on the ground - to restore my health, but fortunately I was good to leave Base Camp for higher ground with the rest of the group. All these misadventures aside, though, Ama Dablam is a mountain of singular beauty: any serious climber wanting to try their hand at a really big mountain would do well to consider this 6856m colossus. Its flanks, ridges and moraines towering over Base Camp dwarfed all my previous concepts of size and scale, while from a distance the very same flanks give the mountain a peaceful look, almost like a mother's embrace. Indeed, it's name translates as "Mother's Necklace". 


The tents at Ama Dablam BC, coated in frost just after breakfast. The route to the summit is via the right-hand ridge. 

Maybe the trickiest thing to get used to, though, were the porters and cookboys who accompanied us. I was a little uncomfortable with the colonial overtones which came to light when these guys worked their way up the mountain in flip-flops with backbreaking loads of up to 100kg while we skipped along (well, trudged laboriously) carrying only day bags with water and cameras. The whole master-servant relationship only got worse when we got served a steaming mug of tea and a bowl of hot wash water at our tent flaps before getting breakfast in the mess tent half an hour later. While the sherpas do earn good wages for what they do, the extent to which we relied on their incredible strength, tenacity and above all humility made the whole experience very humbling. High-mountain expeditions would be all but impossible without these guys, and the number of times foolhardy - or just unlucky - mountaineers have been saved by their sherpas completely fails to be reflected in the plethora of adventure literature surrounding the Himalayas. 

Anyway - more hopefully soon on the actual climb up Island Peak, which I reckon warrants a post of its own, and then on our first days in India! Any feedback/requests for specifics/photos are more than welcome. Below a few more impressions from the trek...

Prayer Stone, Prayer Drum and mountains in the background
At the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park - a small mountain in the backrgound sets the mood for the weeks to come...
The single most incredible sunset I have ever seen, at Island Peak BC...
Same sunset, Island Peak on the right with the Lhotse South Face to its left wreathed in clouds. We would stand on top of that thing in 48 hours' time...
The classic shot from 5545m Kala Patthar: Lhotse (8516m), Everest and Nuptse (7855m) at sunset
Another one from halfway down Kala Patthar - this time including the Khumbu Glacier and the Khumbu Icefall on the left. That's the route up Everest, and the riskiest section on this side of the mountain.

Monday, 5 November 2012

BIG SHINY MOUNTAINS!

Morning,

First post from actually on the road! After an absolutely lovely week in Cambridge, I flew out to Kathmandu via Singapore and Kuala Lumpur - bit of a tortuous route, but it was the cheapest way to do it. Spent an evening in Singapore, took a bus to the city centre as it was already getting late. I missed the stop at the Singapore Flyer (like the London Eye, just bigger) so I got off at a random mall and wandered around it. It was fun being the tallest person in sight by some way, and eventually I found a food court and had a ridiculously spicy/peppery fish soup of some sort which got me excited for Asian food adventures. The night ended on stunning Changi Airport's floor (although I later broke into a Japanese restaurant which had comfy-looking benches...). 

Kathmandu itself is amazing (as is the flight in - so scenic!) - really bustling and restless, but it doesn't feel crowded despite the utter chaos and absence of any traffic rules or control. Cars and motorbikes rush by in a constant stream about 2 inches from you, but what would seem an insane near-miss in London is just normal here as they weave among the pedestrians. The hawkers and touts are less omnipresent than in places like Marrakech, and MUCH less annoying - after a try or two they leave you alone, so it's really pleasant just wandering the streets and trying to make sense of the utter haphazardness of it all. 

Steve and I have had to do a LOT of gear rental and purchases - but we're finally ready to fly out to Lukla tomorrow morning and head off into the mountains! Besides lots of layers and sleeping bags, we got crampons, ice axes and jumars and huge double-plastic boots - all for the one day when we summit Island Peak. The rest of our group are more experienced and are using Island Peak as acclimatisation - they'll be heading to Ama Dablam (6856m) afterwards to climb that; Steve and I will then be wandering around more mountains (and Everest Base Camp) with a Sherpa, and the small-group feeling should be really pleasant (and instructive!). 

Ama Dablam and the camps used to get to the summit

We may well get some chances to run around on some of the huge glaciers around here, not least the Khumbu which flows down from Everest - most of these are debris-covered so will be familiar from my dissertation fieldwork.

 Khumbu Glacier's lower reaches - looks almost surreal!

I will do my best to supply photos asap - I've been a muppet and left the camera cable at home, so will have to try to find one here before we fly out!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The beginning is nigh

As of today, I have 10 days remaining in Europe, 7 of them in Cambridge. And because I dread the moment when I have to actually put the rapidly growing pile of stuff in the middle of my room into my backpack, a little bit of procrastination seemed absolutely necessary. 

So, I thought, why not try to express what I'm about to do in some numbers? Because numbers are fun...





...right?


8: number of countries visited (10, if you count flight transfers)

23: total number of flights taken

31: minimum number of postcards to be sent

64: SD-card storage capacity, in GB

77: Target weight upon return, in kg...

217: number of days on the road

6187: highest altitude reached on foot, in m (20298 ft) - if all goes well, at least...

19031: greatest distance from London attained, in km (11825 miles). Incidentally, this is in New Zealand rather than the Cook Islands which, as it turns out, are closer to the UK via the Americas. I should really have figured this out given the null meridian goes right through London and the flight out there involves crossing the date line...

62123: number of km in the air (38601 miles) 

and finally...

1: life to sort out in London afterwards, as a matter of urgency...! Well, after Mays and May Week, anyway. (On a serious note, if anyone knows of a job starting in June/July, please let me know!)


Monday, 10 September 2012

Woooo, mountains!

Hello again,

The other day, my flights were finally paid for and confirmed. It felt odd to see an overwhelming proportion of my bank account's contents disappear in one fell swoop, but the reality of being away for seven months has suddenly become real and tangible. I thought this might be a good time to provide an outline of what I will actually be doing in all this time, and also provide an incentive for me to figure that very same thing out. Given the high likelihood that I will get completely carried away writing these posts this will happen over several entries - I'll do my best not to be too boring...


The first stop of The Trip will be in Nepal, flying to Kathmandu from London via Singapore and Kuala Lumpur; the company I booked with clearly exploit all possibilities to make these round-the-world trips affordable - probably wouldn't have come up with that particular flight plan myself...

A three-week trek around the Sagarmatha National Park and to Everest Base Camp will take up most of the time in Nepal. This involves climbing some accessible peaks which require no more than scrambling - which is just as well as I have no mountaineering experience. 

There is an upgrade which involves a summit attempt at 6187m Island Peak, one of the most-climbed "trekking peaks" in Nepal which involves some sections of fixed-rope climbing - Steve and I are currently debating doing this, as the risks of altitude sickness rise quickly and are very, very real and nearly inevitable at that kind of altitude.  

Island Peak - pretty imposing. Credit to Alexandre Buisse - more on his site below!

If you're wondering what the attraction in doing this is (and maybe even more so if you're not), look at the photos this guy took on a similar trip. (Seriously, LOOK AT THEM. Not dissimilar to Jimmy Appleton's Photography which a fair few of you may be familiar with, but with much more of a mountaineering/trekking/climbing focus. I've been exploring his galleries for weeks now and would encourage everyone to do the same, some absolutely incredible stuff in there.)

Anyway - our time in Nepal will conclude with a few days in Pokhara, a town west of Kathmandu which has some stunning lakes and opportunities for a cheeky bit of paragliding. Going there by bus takes about half a day but the views (like in most of Nepal, frankly) are supposed to be stunning and it will hopefully be a bit more laid back than Kathmandu. 

I suspect that this is going to be a recurring theme almost everywhere I go, but I have a feeling that I will leave Nepal with a heavy heart, wishing for more time there - to linger, for the most part, and become a bit more immersed in everyday life in such a fascinating country which so many people (including, unfortunately, myself) breeze through for a trekking adventure. One of the advantages to starting travelling early rather than leaving it for later in life, though, is that the possibility of returning...but that's pretty definitely getting ahead of ourselves!




Saturday, 25 August 2012

What's in a Name?

As the days until my departure inexorably grow fewer, the spectre of actually planning a 7-month trip looms ever larger. Somehow, the intention of seeing as much as I can of all the beautiful countries I will be visiting (Nepal, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Japan and China) will have to be reconciled with the desire to drift rather than rush around, to try living and breathing a place rather than stumble from tourist trap to tourist trap, from sight to sight, without really seeing. 

Another difficulty, as the above paragraph highlights, is to attempt to talk or even think about this trip while avoiding all the terribly cliché "gap yah" terminology ("self-discovery", "cultural experience" and the like). This seems like an often a futile wish in a world in which tailor-made trips and tourists overrunning a place like locusts can strip pretty much any location of any heart and soul it may once have had - or even still have. 

Nevertheless, I harbour a little hope that I will be able to avoid the pitfalls of mass tourism, as well as of "booze cruise"-type holidays - both can be fun, but for now that is not what I am looking for. 

With hindsight, the benefits of undertaking a trip like this at the ripe old age of 23, rather than at 18 straight after leaving school, become apparent. The extent to which University and the last 5 years in general have changed me is pretty overwhelming, as anyone who has known me since first year or before would surely agree. Call it growing up, maturing, learning about yourself and others and human interaction - whatever it is, it has left me significantly better prepared to make the most of a trip "around the world". 

And if a few phrases or words have rather stereotypical connotations - well, frankly, so be it. I will do my utmost to avoid living these stereotypes, not for the sake of avoiding doing so but because I would like to get more out of this journey.

Over the next few weeks I will be musing over the various places and regions I would like to explore, and also the numerous bits and bobs that need sorting out, from the mundane to the slightly more random. Any comments, advice, opinions and criticism are more than welcome and will quite possibly contribute to making my journey...so pleas don't be shy!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Time to get back on it...

So after one failed attempt to begin blogging on something resembling a regular basis, this is as good a time as any to give it another shot. Having just finished University in June, I have managed to have a reasonably eventful summer thus far. 

It's odd how even after five years at Cambridge, and despite the feeling that it was very much time to bow out with whatever grace remained to me, I couldn't help but miss the place, along with all its quirks and oddities and most importantly all the incredible people who have shaped my life to such an overwhelming extent, really quite a lot. To an extent I still do, of course, but it turns out that the feeling of loss is strongest only as long as one has nothing else to fill one's days with.

In my case, this was to get a job with LOCOG out at Dorney Lake (which they, for some reason, insist on calling "Eton Dorney") where the Olympic Rowing and Canoe Sprint competitions are held. The transport team doesn't sound like the most glamorous place in the world to be working, but it has turned out to be excellent fun, both in terms of what we actually do and the people you get to work with. Once again, thanks must go to Steve, who got me this job in the first place instead of a volunteering post at the Olympic Village in Stratford. 

As it turns out, Transport actually have some of the best opportunities for contact with the athletes as we're in charge of running their buses between the Village and Dorney. This means that they wait for said buses right where we hang out, and they tend to actually be quite chatty - particularly once their competitions are over. I often found it difficult to talk to people I percieve to be so far superior to me in almost any respect, but they're mostly fairly down-to-Earth people. It probably helps that rowing is the kind of niche sport that only really gets any mainstream exposure during the Olympics, so maybe it's a nice change - rather than an onerous everyday reality - for athletes to be more universally recognised and "in demand". 

It was also nice to see that even during Olympic competition, athletes still like to have a bit of (nice and clean) fun, demonstrated here by a kayaking four/quad (K4): 

video


The one thing I really badly miss is doing sport myself. Obviously seeing Olympic crews paddling in Dorney contributed to this a lot, and it's good to have a job that involves being outside and a fair bit of moving around, but the absence of regular and frequent training is really grating. This may stem partly from a mild body complex(?) developed during my time with CUL (no regrets, mind - in fact, I'm still gutted I didn't trial this year) and partly from the simple fact that training twice a day was pretty normal for the last few months at University. 

Whatever the reasons, I can't wait to have enough free time for regular sport again, and to start rowing seriously again with a Tideway club when I'm back in London (where I may end up staying when I return from travelling).

For now, though, it's time to enjoy the Paralympics which promise more chilled work (shorter days, and quite possibly a more relaxed/convivial atmosphere) - and then, after a few days in London and Cambridge each, it'll be time to head back home to Vienna for a month to see all the lovely people back at home and spend as much time as possible with them before heading off to see the world (there's a great expression in Hungarian - világgá menni - which translates literally as going away world-wards)!