Mount Rainier – take 2

July 28th, 2015

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A few months after the failed Kautz route attempt, I got an email from one of the team asking if I would be up another go in 2014. Ummm… sure, why not? We debated whether to go back to the Kautz or try via one of the routes. I was initially wanting to return to the Kautz given the prospect of actually succeeding this time. I’m the sort of person who likes to finish things. My friend had researched the Liberty Ridge – a difficult technical climb but one we were actually qualified to do. We settled on the Emmons glacier. On this route, you encounter fewer people, achieve more vertical gain and travel further on the largest glacier in the contiguous United States than you would via the other routes.

A few weeks before we were due to start came terrible news from Rainier – there had been an accident on the Liberty Ridge and 6 climbers (2 guides, 4 clients) had fallen 3.300 ft to their deaths. And they were climbing with the same guiding company we were using. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we could have been on that very expedition given that the company only offered a couple of dates each year. A similar event had occurred before I went to Mont Blanc, when an avalanche had killed a number of climbers on the same route I was due to go up. Some risks can be mitigated and in my opinion this particular company does everything they can (hence why I continue to use them). It’s a sobering thought but the inherent dangers of alpine climbing have to be accepted.

P1000559Seeing as I was in Seattle before the climb, some friends and I did a short side trip kayaking in the San Juan Islands. Not exactly climbing but it did get me in wilderness-mode as we were camping and dodging killer whales. Amusingly (to us) the kayak company was called Sea-Quest, which to us 30-somethings brought back memories of the fantastic 90s TV series SeaQuest DSV starring Roy Schneider and a talking dolphin.

P1000545As always, the kayak team was an interesting mix. We had Arizona Bob, a dentist who happily let his wife (a younger dental hygienist…) do all the paddling. Our intrepid guide Eric was a SoCal dude who lived in a yurt and couldn’t have been more relaxed about life if he tried. He loved our ‘energy’, which is always good to hear.

And so to the mountain. My friend had arrived at the gear check before me so I was getting text updates of who was showing up – ‘old-ish’, ‘techy’ and so on. We had your typical oil millionaire who has gotten into climbing and thought he was god’s gift to mountaineering and his sidekick who inexplicably came equipped with his own mini oxygen canister. Next was a somewhat more humble dentist from Detroit and a couple of younger finance guys from New York. Most of us had some decent experience so I had no complaints. We had four guides with us.

The route wended its way up a nice forest trail where we encountered lots of day hikers out for nice jaunt. Before long, we were out the trees and onto the scree slope but thankfully no boulder fields to traverse. I don’t remember even putting on crampons on the way to our first camp. The campsite was empty – the Emmons is a much less travelled route than the Muir (aka the “Disappointment Cleaver”).

All in all, day 1 had gone well. The night turned out to be windy but apart from a bit of a tent collapse, we slept ok and were ready for the short move up to camp 2, aka Camp Schurman. We strapped on the crampons and after 3 hours we were at the high camp, from where we would launch our summit attempt the following morning.

This was about as proper a campsite as you can get at 9,500 ft half way up a mountain. It included a bathroom of sorts, meaning no need to use the dreaded blue bags (Google it if you must, I can’t face writing about them). Some rangers are permanently stationed here to maintain the route and assist with search & rescue. During our stay however, they sat around with a  beer listening to reggae music which seemed to me like a pretty sweet gig, bathroom aside.

We had an early dinner (mountains of pasta) and melted snow for the water we needed for the climb. We lay in the tents – so this was it. After one failed attempt and a lot of training, here we were again. The conditions were good, the team seemed up to it but the mountain can always bite back. We woke at midnight and had some oatmeal and coffee. After roping up and triple-checking all the gear, we set off at 1am upwards into the darkness.

P1000623I was in a 3-man rope team with Cori and a guide and we were soon into the rhythm – trudge, trudge <breathe>, trudge, trudge <breathe> for hour after hour. Every 45 minutes we would stop for a 10 minute break. But by the time you’d got your pack off, sat down, eaten and drunk, you would have all of 30 seconds to relax and take in the view before a shout of ‘saddle up ladies’ would come from someone.

During a break after a couple of hours, one of the finance guys starting talking about bailing out. I hadn’t seen him but apparently he had been stumbling a lot. I thought the guides handled it well – they said to him, it’s totally your choice but we’ve got another 4-5 hours of climbing so now would be the time to turn around if you’re not feeling good. He made the right decision and went down. But in doing so, it took one of our 4 guides out of the summit team.  We knew from experience we probably couldn’t have someone else turn around.

By now, we were at about 12,000 ft. Whilst not particularly high, I felt lightheaded straight after the breaks but it wore off quickly and I otherwise felt strong. The rope teams had separated at this point. One team with the dentist was moving slowly, plus Travis the guide had to make a bathroom pitstop, ‘I need a crevasse urgently!’ he yelled. Readers, there is no privacy when you’re roped up 5 meters apart. You just have to get on with the business.

We reached the bergshrund (pictured at the start of this blog), which is where the moving part of the glacier separates from the ice above. It formed a huge crevasse which I stared at for a quite a while. We were close to the summit so I made the mistake of telling Cori that I liked our chances to which I got an unenthusiastic response, something about a fat lady not singing yet.

We rounded the bergschrund and gained the ridge of the huge crater rim. Dropping our packs, we walked up the final slope the summit, Columbia Crest at 14,411 ft. Our Sherpa guide promptly dropped to the ground and knocked out 20 press-ups, which I believe he has also done on the summit of Everest. Feeling a bit weary, the rest of us made do with some high fives. We were elated with finally making it and even though the guides had done it countless times, they seemed to recognize this was a major accomplishment for most of us. After 20 minutes and all that work, we turned around to head downwards.

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P1000639The descent was uneventful save for me almost leading us into a crevasse and a Chinook helicopter nearly landing on top of us (rangers training apparently). Once back at the high camp, we toasted our success. Annoying though he was, I gave credit to Texas Oil Guy for producing a bottle of whisky from his pack. It lasted all of 5 minutes as it got passed around.

 

 

The next morning, we packed up the gear and descended all the way off the mountain, team Texas virtually sprinting off down the trailhead as if to prove how badass they were. I’ll merely point out that one them had needed oxygen on the way up. Personally, I was in no rush and wandered down the trail pondering the expedition. After the previous year, it was satisfying to tag the summit. But exhilaration soon changes to – ok, we’ve reached the top, ticked that one off, now what.

I can empathize with George Mallory when he answered as to why he would want to climb Everest: ‘because it’s there’.

 

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Mount Rainier – July 2013

April 5th, 2015

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Mount Rainier (14,411 ft) according to Wikipedia is the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States. In other words, it’s a huge hill. So big that while I was sat 77 miles away on the Seattle waterfront, I could see its silhouette looming over the city. In July 2013, I set my mind on climbing Rainier by the somewhat technical Kautz route. I felt that after previous adventures in Patagonia and the Alps, I was ready for a tougher alpine route.

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Eldorado (8,868 ft)

To get in the climbing groove, after meeting up with my group in Seattle (who were of mixed ability, of which more later), we made a successful attempt on Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades. A beautiful peak with a Himalayan-esque summit ridge, made tougher by the lengthy approach and 6,800 ft of total vertical gain, we were pretty beaten up by the time we returned to the base of the trailhead. And this was just the prelude to the main event.

 

 

It was during the Eldorado climb that I began to have serious doubts over whether certain members of the team were up to climbing Rainier. The opening day, where we had ascended up the steepest of trails onto the glacier via a boulder field, was undoubtedly a tough introduction. But it wasn’t technical climbing and some were already struggling, cramping up and so on. It seemed to be a lack of fitness and conditioning – one guy claimed that living in Cleveland, he struggled to train for this type of thing. Me living on a tiny island however….

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Kautz route

After a day’s rest in Seattle, we drove out to Rainier early the next morning. The plan: Day 1 rope up and traverse across the Nisqually Glacier to a prominent snow chute known as the “Fan”. After ascending the Fan, follow a ridge along up the west side of the Wilson Glacier to  camp 1 at approximately 8,000 feet. Day 2 a shorter climb to high camp on the Wapowety Cleaver, about 10,000 ft. Day 3 ascend the tongue of the Kautz glacier via some steeper pitches and head for the summit, then back to high camp. Day 4 descend off the mountain.

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I should introduce my team – we had 4 guides, 2 of whom had multiple Everest summits to their name. Amongst the seven clients (pictured left – a motley crew), we had a doctor, a dotcom guy (ubiquitous on climbing expeditions), a couple more IT-type guys and my tentmates an Aussie lawyer and a nurse, and myself.

I could write a huge essay about expedition team dynamics but suffice to say they are important and can make or break a trip, certainly the enjoyment part of it (climbing is usually a suffer-fest whoever you’re with). Climbing with a random group carries its risks, your life is in their hands after all. But seeing as I don’t know 7 other people who are into this kind of thing, there isn’t much option. I’ve been lucky in that one of the group has since become a trusted climbing partner on other expeditions so now at the very least, I know who I’m sharing a tent with.

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Lakpa Rita Sherpa

Day 1 was deceptively easy and we reached the camp in good time. It was interesting chatting with our guide Lakpa, who had something like 17 Everest summits and is the face of Sherpa outdoor gear. Apparently he’s on a massive billboard in Kathmandu. Luckily I knew all this before I started bragging about my epic first ascent of Knapton Hill in Bermuda. Being a Sherpa, he seemed happy to forgo a tent and simply slept amongst the rocks in a sleeping bag.

Day 2 was a short four-hour climb up a steep snow slope known as the Turtle. During the climb, the Kautz Glacier and our route stood before us. We set our High Camp at about 10,000 ft on the Wapowety Cleaver. Appropriately named Camp Hazard, the site was precariously set amongst the rocks but offered the most spectacular views of Mt Baker and Mt St. Helens . The summit bid would start at midnight, climbing 4,000 vertical feet through the night to summit at dawn and then descend back to the high camp.

Conditions were good as we set off at 3am. The temperatures were not exactly balmy but for 10,000 ft, it felt fine. So many climbs get scuppered by bad weather so this variable at least was on our side. Immediately out of camp, we were faced with a traverse across a rock face (the picture below is from the descent). In the pitch black, getting our 11 man team across this took a while.

Then to the crux of the climb – the Kautz ice face. An ice cliff of 35 to 50 degrees for a couple of pitches, it was an exciting prospect. Running belays (leader and follower climbing simultaneously with protection placed in between) were placed in the steepest sections for safety. From afar, we would have looked like a trail of ants going up a wall. As the sun rose, the mountain cast a huge triangular shadow across the horizon.

 

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The ice cliff. Reasonably steep.

And then a member of the team, failing to get his ice ace to stick, slipped and with a loud yelp, dislocated his shoulder. I was further down the slope so couldn’t really tell what was going on, but knew from the delay in proceedings that it wasn’t good.

Our upwards progress ground to a halt for an hour as the guides tended to the injured climber. He obviously couldn’t continue and in fact needed a medical helicopter evacuation. So two of our four guides took him down, an impressive feat in itself. He was safely flown off the mountain later that day and made a full recovery.

I started to feel like Frodo Baggins with our rapidly diminishing fellowship. We were now down to six climbers and just two guides. Normally I would have been ok with this, but given the caliber of some of our team, it wasn’t a good ratio if something were to happen to one of the remaining guides. I could tell this was weighing on the leader and sure enough, when the lead group had a close encounter with a crevasse (I believe the word used was ‘sketchy’), the decision was made: we’re going down. After some half-hearted attempts to persuade the guides, we turned around and descended to the high camp.

Exhausted, we had a rest in the tents and moaned about our luck. We were given the option to head to camp 1 for the night or all the way off the mountain to a proper campsite. Feeling pretty dejected and wanting to simply get down, we took the second option. Some of my rope team were getting on my nerves, one guy’s descending skills in particular. We eventually took to sitting him on his behind while we literally dragged him down Mount Rainier. It all came to a head during a rest stop where all our mutual frustrations were aired and a team mutiny was only narrowly avoided.

On we went, hour after hour. My footwork was increasingly sloppy. Where some of the cracks had taken time to negotiate on the way up, now I was merely striding over them without a second thought. It’s small wonder that most accidents occur on the descent. Some 18 hours after we had set off for the summit, we reached the car park at Paradise, my inept rope buddy appropriately tripping up and decking out on the very last concrete step.

Naturally we were disappointed with not reaching the summit but it was still a great week in the mountains. I often remind myself that climbing should never just be about the summit. I had made friends with the majority of the team and the guides were top notch. My nagging concern was that because conditions were so perfect, I doubted there would have been a better opportunity than this. I don’t typically have the desire to go back to the same place twice but I thought I might have to make an exception with this one (to be continued).

Panama – sailing the Bocas del Toro

January 18th, 2015

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As the Bocas tourist website states, it is difficult to express in a few  words what you can feel when you visit the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Not just because of the natural beauty of the place (it is rather idyllic), but more because of the sheer strangeness of the characters we ran into down there.

 

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Being an island archipelago, my friends and I decided the best way to see Bocas was by boat. Incidentally, nobody we knew (including ourselves) had ever heard of the place. Off to Panama we went.

We arrived in Bocas and met our host for the week, let’s call him Captain Ahab, at a local restaurant. Almost immediately, he asked to borrow $20 to get some fresh fish for the trip. The fisherman was hungover from a 5 day festival bender in Bocas and our captain seemed to be getting quite irate. But he returned with some fish. Then he asked us for $40 to get some more booze, a lot of which he would go on to drink himself but such is the life of a sailor.

 

After a short hop over to the marina in the dinghy, we got our first look at the good ship…let’s call her the Beagle. I don’t want a Google search to harm his business as joking aside, it was a memorable and fun week. An interesting character, Captain Ahab had built the Beagle himself. Before his life in Bocas, amongst other things he had operated a food truck in California and somewhat implausibly (but verified by Wikipedia), represented Peru in the 100m backstroke at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

I wouldn’t describe the Beagle as a luxury vessel but being a trimaran, the deck was spacious. I took to sleeping on the deck as the evenings in Bocas are balmy and it was much more comfortable the sweatbox of a cabin. The ‘bathroom’ consisted of a temperamental toilet, which became a major topic of conversation. This seems to be the norm on adventure-type holidays, where talk tends to focus on what goes in, what goes out, and what goes in and out. There may have been lifevests on board but we never got shown them – besides, according Ahab, the Beagle was ‘unsinkable’. Tamara muttered something about the Titanic but before we knew it, the anchor was raised and we were on our way.

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It was a 3 hour cruise across to the bay to the island of Punta Vieja. We took the opportunity to take a nap in the cabin after a long day of travelling. I was surprised to wake up and find Ahab next to me doing the same. This came as somewhat of a shock given the plethora of reefs and islands in the general vicinity. Apparently the Beagle was equipped with a state-of-the-art navigation system (a rope lashed to the wheel) but even so, I couldn’t really sleep after that.

On arrival, we anchored off the island and went ashore to look around. Ahab had told us his friend lived further along the beach. After stumbling across the now derelict set of the French version of Survivor, we came across Mike’s house and he invited us up for a drink. He regaled us with stories of Bocas, including an update on the serial killer Wild Bill.

Panama – land of the wanted and unwanted

Wanted by Interpol, unwanted by general society. This was how Mike described Bocas, and I was beginning to see why. We would come across Americans living on islands in the middle of nowhere and wonder what are they doing here, I mean why were they really here?

 

We returned to the dock to get in the dinghy and head back to the Beagle. It was fair to say our captain hadn’t been working too hard while we gone. In fact, he was pretty drunk. After joining him for a few beers at the bar on the island, we got in the dinghy. By now, it was pitch black and naturally, the Beagle had no lights on.

To up the excitement factor, the dinghy ran aground on a reef. So we bobbed around for a while, waiting to sink (1 lifejacket between 4 of us). I was just beginning to ponder which was more dangerous – climbing mountains or sailing with Captain Ahab when we cleared the reef. After a lot of squinting in the darkness, we found the Beagle. Relieved, we had some dinner prepared by the captain. We never had complaints about the food – fresh fish every day, sushi, the best cerviche I’ll probably ever eat, seafood pasta – Ahab was a great cook, even while under the influence. Which was fortunate for us because he was under the influence a lot.

 

Our week on the Beagle drifted on, interspersed by lazy days on deck and visits ashore. Many of the islands were populated by indigenous Panamanians, who catered to el turista by selling us $1 cans of beer. We island hopped from place to place – at one point while sailing along, our captain was taking a nap in the large rubber ring that we towed behind the boat. Wouldn’t it be funny if he fell out, we joked to ourselves, because none of us really knew much about sailing. Then he fell out:

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Luckily for us, being an Olympic swimmer came in handy and our intrepid captain managed to clamber back in before we sailed off into the Caribbean.

 

 

 

 

Aside from running outing of booze on the final night, which caused a bit of ruckus amongst the Beagle crew, the remainder of the week passed without incident. If you’re looking for an offbeat destination, I’d recommend checking out Bocas. Best seen from the water.

The Alps – France & Italy, August 2012

February 9th, 2014

The plan was to climb the highest peak in western Europe – Mont Blanc. I arrived in Chamonix with some trepidation. The previous month, 9 climbers had lost their lives in an avalanche on the Cosmiques route, the same route we were set to climb. I am very aware of the inherent risks involved in mountaineering. It’s just that you never expect anything bad to actually happen to you. So I approached this climb in an uneasy mood. Determined to try, but also prepared to bail out if necessary.

As usual, I put my trust in the guides. This time, we had a sprightly Frenchman named Herve. He was incredulous to hear that my vegan companion did not eat cheese. In France, this is considered sacrilegious. We were joined by a couple of Brits and a South African.

  • Day 1 

We set off from Chamonix on a 3 day acclimatization circuit. After catching a cable car, we followed a trail (full of day trippers) up to the Albert Premier refuge at 2,702m.

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After arriving at the refuge (25 climbers to a room ), we went out onto the glacier to practice some ice-climbing . One of the group had a lucky escape falling into a crevasse whilst unroped. We grabbed her just in time.

  • Day 2

The next morning, we ascended from the refuge and climbed Tête Blanche (3,422m). Most people began to feel the altitude. From here, we rappelled down a steep slope, in the process crossing into neighbouring Switzerland. We continued through the Col Supérieur du Tour to reach the Trient refuge, falling chest deep into a few small crevasses. At one stage, 2 of our 3-man rope was half buried which required some quick thinking. The refuge was a much nicer place with proper bathrooms and great Swiss food. I found myself sat next to Catherine Destivelle, one of the most famous female climbers, who was up there for some ‘recreational’ (read: seriously hardcore) climbing.

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  • Day 3

We started the return trip to Chamonix via the Col du Midi des Grands (3,523m). The weather started closing in and we were faced with a tricky traverse around a huge crevasse that had recently opened up. This took at least an hour to negotiate, the last part involving a leap of faith across the crevasse. We then took a short break at the Albert Premier refuge and continued our descent all the way back to the village of Le Tour and then drove back to Chamonix.

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  •   Day 4

The weather forecast for the next few days was not good. We would be unable to climb Mont Blanc. Many things have to align to successfully climb a mountain – the weather, the snow conditions, the state of the team, amongst many others. With the recent avalanche, extra cautiousness was being exercised and no groups would be heading up. As an alternative, we would head across the border to Italy to climb Gran Paradiso (4,061m).

After driving through Mont Blanc via the tunnel under the mountain, we sorted our gear and trekked 3 hours up the trail to the refuge.

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  • Day 4 – the summit

We set off in darkness at 4am. The initial going over scree slopes was easy enough. After a couple of hours we attached crampons. One of the group realized at this point that he had left his harness back at the refuge. What to do? We rigged up a rope harness and sort of threaded it around him. Personally, I wouldn’t have been too comfortable with this set-up but we started climbing.

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After a couple of hours we gained the ridge shown above and took a rest before heading for the summit, the drop-offs on either side looking gnarly. We could see the Virgin Mary statue marking the summit (how they got it up there, I have no idea) and after crossing a ledge about the width of a boot, we were on the top of Italy.

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It was freezing on top and after the photos, we rappelled off the summit and started on the descent.  After a few more hours, we were back at the refuge. We toasted our success and went down the trail the following morning.

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It was a great week of climbing, with a fun group of people. Mt Blanc itself will have to wait for another day but it was good to be able to tag the summit of Gran Paradiso. It had an impressive summit ridge and, whilst easier than Mt Blanc, was certainly a worthy alternative.

Patagonia – Southern Ice Cap, October 2011

October 28th, 2013

 

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Almost as soon as I was done with Kilimanjaro, maybe while I was still on the descent, I began to plot where to go next. Trekking to Everest base camp, the Inca Trail, the Haute Route were all considered. But Patagonia had the ‘end of the world’ remoteness I was looking for. We settled on a partial traverse of the Patagonian southern ice cap, the third largest ice cap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland.

  • Route

We would enter the ice cap via the Marconi Pass, head south towards the Viedma Glacier, then east to our rendez-vu point at Lake Viedma. It was scheduled to take 7 days and cover about 100km.

  • Getting there

Having travelled from Bermuda to Toronto, where I met my erstwhile travel companion Tamara, we flew to Santiago and then to Buenos Aires. At this point we had a tight window in which we had to cross the city to get to another airport, from where we would fly south to El Calafate. Naturally we took an illegal cab and got suitably ripped off. Time to start acting more Argentinian I told myself. We made it to the airport but waiting to board the plane, people were getting pretty worked up about something. With neither of us speaking much Spanish, we tried to figure out what was happening from all the classic South American hands in the air gesturing going on. Cancelled flight was the answer. Tamara worked her magic and before I knew it, we had scored rooms in a fancy hotel in downtown BA and indulged in some good food and wine (thanks Aerolineas!). We got a flight the next morning.

After a slightly hazardous landing (our first encounter with the notorious winds of Patagonia), we were met at El Calafate airport by the driver from our guide company, Fitz Roy Expediciones, who drove us through the increasingly barren landscape to the town of El Chalten. After two days, we had arrived and with all our kit intact. I was amazed.

  • Day 1 – El Chalten

We met the other members of the team. The only other client was Gus, a tax accountant from Buenos Aires, making it a group of 3 accountants. He had travelled by bus from BA, which to me seemed a ridiculously long way to travel on a bus. A couple of weeks later, we would be doing the same thing from Mendoza to Santiago. We were to be led by head guide Juan and his assistant Facundo, or Facu for short. Juan was an experienced mountaineer who had recently summited Mt Fitz Roy, so I trusted him and his skills.

 

We set to work putting our packs together. There would be no porters on this expedition, so we were going to be carrying everything ourselves. The end result was a 50lb pack which almost caused Tamara to topple over before we had even begun. We spent our last night in the hotel eating massive steaks and getting to know Gus in a hybrid language of Spanish/Canadian/Bermudian.

  • Day 2 – Rio Electric Valley

  

We were driven to the bridge over Electrico River, 15km northwest of El Chalten and said goodbye to civilization. We would not encounter anyone for the next 6 days. The first couple of hours we trekked through a well-marked path alongside the Electric River, stopping a few minutes in decrepit campsite before entering the mountains proper. We crossed through boulder fields (I hate boulder fields) before setting up camp alongside Lake Electrico.

  • Day 3 – The Marconi Pass

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The Marconi Pass is the key entrance gate into the Southern Ice Field. The trip notes had promised this to ‘surely be the Expedition’s toughest day’ and they weren’t far wrong. It is an 800m elevation gain up the pass. It had been uncertain as to whether we would go for it. The weather reports had been mixed and once on the ice field, you go out of radio contact. It’s a case of no turning back for the next few days. The previous expedition had been stuck at camp 1 and never got to go up the pass. Fortunately, conditions were forecast to be just about favourable enough.

The climb was fairly non-technical but being roped up and carrying a heavy pack, was suitably tough. The sounds of a nearby avalanche kept us moving. The terrain leveled out on the ice field and we continued south before pitching camp in the shadow of Cerro Torre, in the process, crossing over from Argentina into Chile with no passport control in sight. In hindsight, this was one of the hardest days on an expedition I’ve had. Objective hazard, a relentless incline and, during the afternoon, a fierce sun beating down on us all combined to make it a long day in the saddle.

Video of days 1-2. You get an idea of the wind.

  • Day 4 – Marconi Pass – La Laguna de los Esquies

The plan for day 4 was to head south on the open ice field to a more sheltered spot for camp 3. We had purposefully travelled quite far onto the ice the previous day, because worsening weather had been forecast and we wanted to limit the time we were exposed. Being behind the mountains, the only way to let HQ in El Chalten know our status was via a GPS spot device which would relay our position. Click the green button for ok, red button for send help.

All was well as we set off, flat terrain and easy going with light winds at our backs. The spindrift blowing over the surface of the snow made it an eerily spectacular landscape. Juan often glanced up to our left checking out Cerro Torre, which he was planning on climbing the next season. He had told us of how he cried when he had reached the summit of Fitz Roy, reputedly one of the most technically demanding climbs in world. The sheer granite walls of Torre looked even harder.

The winds continued to gain strength. It was gradual, so wasn’t that noticeable at first until we stopped for a break and found ourselves struggling to stay upright. Over the course of a few hours, conditions evolved into a white-out, and when we discovered the usual route off the ice field was impassable, it quickly hit me just how exposed we were. Juan directed us back up the slope, into the wind, down a ravine and up onto another ridge parallel to the one we were on. I noticed him click the green button, which was only slightly reassuring. I shouted “OK? Is it OK?” He simply pointed the way we had to go, whether we liked it or not.

Tamara was being blown over and, to my growing concern, staying down. She would later tell me it was because she didn’t see the point in getting up only to be immediately blown over again. Juan decided to dump her pack behind a rock and press on. We were in no position to argue. We had to reach camp. By this stage, we were marching across the snow ridge giving little thought to our footwork, just wanting to get to relative safety. An hour later, we reached a massive boulder which provided some shelter: camp 3. Tamara and I shared our customary high five at the end of a pretty brutal day.

Pitching tents in this weather wasn’t easy. We eventually got one up (which soon began to tear), at which point Juan announced he was going back to get Tamara’s pack. This seemed crazy to me but off he went and returned with the pack around 45 minutes later. I guess to him, this weather was pretty balmy. He described a previous expedition which had been holed up in an ice cave for 3 weeks. We didn’t sleep much that night.

  • Day 5/6 – La Laguna de los Esquies – Refuge Paso del Viento

The weather had improved a little overnight and was bitterly cold. This meant we could push on to the next camp, a refuge hut with a tin roof built for climbers back in the days of President Juan Perón in the 1950s. After the ripped tent, this actually sounded like the Ritz to us.

Getting there involved a relatively short trek on the lateral moraine of the Viedma Glacier. Some of it was downhill, allowing us to use the sleds to toboggan. We arrived at the luxury hut and immediately got the mate going round (Argentina’s national drink, an acquired taste). We ended up staying here two nights whilst we recovered from the excitement/stress of the ice cap, doing not much more than drink mate and play cards. We did make an attempt to trek back towards the Paso del Viento (Windy Pass), which true to form was too windy to pass.

  • Day 7 – Huemul Pass

Fully recuperated, we bid farewell to the hut and set off towards the final camp at Paso Huemul. By this point in the expedition, we were beginning to run low on food. Another couple of guides had been due to meet us at the hut with more provisions including red wine (those Argentinians) but hadn’t been able to make it due to the weather.

As we rounded a moraine on a particularly steep section, we suddenly came face to face with Sean and Juan II, experiencing a sort of ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ moment on the side of a cliff. While it was nice to see them, it wasn’t exactly the safest spot to be enjoying a catch-up, as the guides seemed to be doing. We continued on to safer ground and set our camp overlooking the Viedma Glacier. We drank red wine out of our water bottles that night, toasting another relaxing vacation almost in the books.

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  • Day 8 – Lake Viedma

We downclimbed the slope towards Lake Viedma to Cabo de Hornos Bay, our rendez-vu point for the boat back towards El Chalten. The boat arrived a couple of hours later and we climbed aboard. It was a tour boat containing tourists out on a nice day trip to see the glacier. We soon had a corner of the boat all to ourselves as the turistas gave the scary looking climbers a wide berth.

We pondered the expedition. I had known it would be tough but hadn’t appreciated the ferocious Patagonian weather. The remoteness of the ice cap was spectacular and a somewhere that relatively few people have been to. For an ‘out there’ adventure, there are few better places to go to.

Mt Fitz Roy (3,405m), named after Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s famous voyage.

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Kilimanjaro (Shira route) October 2010

August 18th, 2013

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Like many people, my first climbing experience was the classic trek to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest point in Africa at 5,895m (19,341ft). While the route is not technical, the altitude presents a challenge to many people, myself included.

  • Route

There are many ways up the mountain, from all directions. We chose to go the Shira route, a relatively little-used route which approaches the mountain from the Shira Plateau to the west and merges with others towards the summit. At 7 days, it allows a longer acclimatization than the likes of the Marangu, where climbers take just 4 to 5 days and stay in huts. The remoteness of the Shira was appealing to me; for the first couple of days we saw no other groups on the trek across the plateau.

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  •  The climb

After leaving the town of Arusha, we drove to the start line at Morum Barrier Gate at 2,248m, where just strolling around you could already feel the altitude. We were soon left in the dust by our team of porters:

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One of the things that makes Kilimanjaro an easier trek is the porters. Supporting our group of 3 climbers, we had 2 guides (one of whom was named Hallelujah), a chef, a waiter (seriously), 8 guys carrying the gear, and finally 1 guy to carry our very own portable toilet all the way to the high camp. This was by far my most luxurious climb – climbs I’ve done since have really put this in perspective.

We got our first good look at Kilimanjaro from our first camp, Shira 1 at 3,505m:

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The first 3 days were spent travelling east across the plateau seen in the picture above. Following the tried and tested method of climbing at altitude, we would reach a high point during the day and usually descend slightly to camp.

At the end of the day 3, we reached Barranco Camp, a lunar landscape at 3,840m:

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On the morning of day 4, a stiff 800ft hike up the Barranco wall was the first order of the day:

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It looked fairly intimidating from the approach but the footholds were secure. Apart from a few sections which required a bit of clambering around, it wasn’t too bad. If our porter could do it with a table on his head, I figured I could manage.

After scaling the wall, we descended to the Karanga River before another steep climb to the Karanga camp at 4,200m. From here we got good views of Kilimanjaro and Mt Meru in the distance:

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By this time, I had completely lost my appetite due to the altitude. This was despite our slow rate of ascent and drinking around 4L of water each day. But this only lasted for 2 days and my appetite came roaring back. I guess this was my body telling me ok, now you’re ready. I was taking Diamox as well.

Day 5 was a fairly short day to the high camp from where we would head to the summit. The weather turned at this point and it was snowing at our arrival into camp. We had decided to camp higher than the usual final camp at Barafu in order to get a jump start on other groups heading for the summit that night. We set off (wearing 5 layers on top and 3 on bottom) at around midnight.

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The first few hours out of camp, whilst hard, was not exactly the most exciting climbing I’ve experienced. It was pitch black so a long line of headtorches stretching up the mountain was all you could see. Hour after hour of switchbacks…

After 6 hours, we reached Stella Point and in further half hour and we were on the path to the summit at Uhuru Peak.

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Kilimanjaro summit, 5,895m:

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We spent 20 minutes taking in the scene. We were the second group to summit that day so there was no waiting around for the ubiquitous Kilimanjaro summit sign photo.

The descent was tough after a long climb up (I’ve since found this always to be the case on future climbs). It mostly involved sliding down loose scree on legs and knees that were not functioning normally. But there were some great views of Mawenzi to the east:

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We descended all the way to Mweka camp at 3,068m before heading out of the park the following morning.

  • Gear

This being my first climb, I didn’t have much of a clue about gear. Here are a just a few comments:

Merino wool baselayers. I’ve used these on all my other climbs. It is warm, quick-drying and most importantly, when living close quarters in a tent environment, it does not smell even after wearing it day and night for a week.

Camelbak hydration pack (2L). This worked well as it allowed me to drink steadily while on the move. On the summit day, the tube did freeze (as expected) so carrying an extra bottle would have helped. I was getting dehydrated on the descent and there were no refills available until much further down. I would carry 3-4 litres on the summit day instead of the two I had.

Boots: I had some pretty standard North Face boots and they did the job fine. However, I have since had to upgrade twice. I would recommend that you get a decent alpine climbing boot that will work on trekking and technical routes alike, such as the La Sportiva Trango S Evo. This is a great 3 season boot which has served me well in Patagonia and the Alps.

Layering: all climbers know the best way to stay warm but not overheat is to layer your clothing. For most of the trek, I was comfortable in one merino top, a light fleece (softshell would have been better) and a hardshell waterproof jacket. On summit day I doubled up on the baselayer and fleece. For the bottoms, trekking pants (again, softshell) and merino baselayer x2 for the summit day only.