It’s back!

Greetings – after a long time away from doing this, I left one of my last blog posts before this with the following quote: “20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain

That was in January 2020 and of course an awful lot of things have happened to the world since then. An aborted trip to Nepal was the last ‘disappointment’ personally, and in line with the above quote it still smarts a bit, but I shouldn’t (and won’t) dwell on that one bit. It also got ‘replaced’ that same summer with a great adventure on the Coast to Coast walk, which I loved and would love to actually do again sometime. But apart from one (wonderful and so enjoyable) trip skiing last month, I literally haven’t travelled anywhere since then, as of course has been the case for most people.

Life is of course what you make of it from one day to the next, and so looking over your shoulder has never been my thing. What matters is what you make of the cards that you have in your hand, at any time. Sometimes they are good ones, and sometimes they aren’t.

You only have to look at the (sub)title of my blog to know my philosophy on life. And I now speak (some two years after that last mission statement) in a somewhat different place for several reasons. The most fundamental of these are that in only 32 days time I will retire from work, maybe forever (!). That final decision will ultimately be made by the passage of time and events, but for now it will take the form of a break at least. I also find myself living, very fortunately, in the place of my childhood (and indeed lifelong) dreams, the Lake District, of which more in a later blog post. Suffice to say that in terms of fulfilling ambitions it is up there with the very best of them.

I’ve decided to start up my blog again now for several reasons. One, I love doing it, and over the last 10 or more years it has seen me in places and adventures that I couldn’t have even imagined or written the script for. Secondly it becomes for me both prophetic and self-fulfilling. Thirdly I’m about to (per the above!) about to have a lot more time on my hands. And fourthly (and ultimately now for me most importantly), I’m about to embark on some more adventures!

The first (not adventure but challenge) thing I have booked is the Berlin Marathon later this year. I want to say so much more about this, and so will do so in a subsequent blog post, but for now I know that I can’t wait to do it, and hope moreover that my body allows me to do so. I need to get properly fit to do that, and I know am not in the best shape I can be right now.

Why Berlin? Well, amongst other things it is such an incredible city, with the history of Brandenburg, the Prussian Empire, the Weimar Republic, The fall of World War 2, and of course the Wall and the Cold War, to name but a few. It also happens to be one of the six World Marathon majors, and is a flat course where Eliot Kipchoge set the (still current) world record. So if it is good enough for him…….. 😃.

The marathon is in September, two weeks after my favourite running event of them all, the Great North Run. I’ve paid for a place through an international travel operator, who buy and sell places on at a premium, so at least I know I’m in, if at a price. And already, even if this decision was taken only last week, I am bursting with excitement at the thought of just being on the starting line, and running through the Brandenburg Gate at the end. There are surely not many places of such combined majestic prominence and historical significance than that. I also know that the operator, Sports Tours International, who I used for my one and only marathon to date (New York in 2019) are a good company to go with.

I know from experience just how hard marathon training is. It’s simply a massive commitment in terms of time, effort, money and the impact on other things you might want to do. But I don’t want that disappointment of never having tried. My bowlines are thrown off, and safe harbors are not for me. Unfurl those sails and explore, that’s where I most surely am right now. 

More soon……… 😊

From the finish line in New York in 2019 – hopefully I get to be celebrating again in September.

Week 12 – the fine margins on which we sometimes hang….and some more adventures ahead!

Two things have occupied my thoughts as much as anything this week (except one other quite big thing, more of that at the end….), and both relate to just how fine margins are in running. The first relates to timings of runs, and the second to injuries, of which I am now suffering a bit…

This weeks programme called for 43 miles of running. The second last week of really big mileage before we start tapering in Week 14. The midweek runs were 6, 9 and 7 miles, and the weekend was 4 and 17, so a reduction from last week, which is good! It’s funny how all of a sudden 17 miles doesn’t seem too far any more!

The Tuesday run was a random Fartlek job of four miles, with a mile warm up and warm down. I got almost as wet as I did the Tuesday before and it simply lashed down the whole way. I didn’t really mind too much though, as it was almost a distraction from my leg pain, which is almost constant now, if still manageable.

On the Wednesday it was a tempo run of 9 miles. Despite the cold (3 or 4 degrees at 6am) I was really looking forward to it. It’s more or less the longest tempo run yet, and there will be quite a few more of these to come in the next few weeks. So the idea is to run at the pace we will run at in New York for the whole of the 26.2 miles. The run went well, and was followed on Thursday by more quicker paced running. This time it was 18 lots of 200m sprints (well, all things are relative as they say!) followed by 18 x 200m slow, as part of a 7 mile run. The weather was this time down to just 1 degree, and it felt colder still. I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold on a run, and was glad to get finished.

I also had more physiotherapy on Thursday. The physiotherapist is really good (from a local firm called Progressive Physiotherapy) and I have been now officially diagnosed as having a strain of the medial head of the gastrocnemius muscle, or gastroc. And in case you want to know more about the calf and muscles in it here you go, you’re welcome…….https://www.physio-pedia.com/Calf_Strain . I hadn’t even heard of the gastroc muscle until this week, but now thanks to the internet I’m an expert of the worst kind 🙂 The injury I have is also referred to as ‘tennis leg’ apparently. It’s manageable and that’s the main thing right now, so whilst it hurts when I’m running, it’s not terrible pain, and with lots of rollering, stretching and tlc, I believe I can (with help) nurse it all the way to New York. Time will tell! I’ve also been told that it has been caused by my anterior glute on my right side being weaker than the left (who knew?) and so I have to strengthen it. That I’ll do too.

The Saturday and Sunday runs were in Cambridge with Melanie. Saturday’s was the usual gentle affair of just four miles. It is funny how four miles now feels like it is not even worth breaking a sweat for. Yet when I started this programme I was averaging 14 miles a week – in September I ran 188 miles, averaging 43 a week – no wonder I feel crocked!

Sunday was a bit of a wet and windy affair, but I’m glad to say that our 17 miles passed without incident. No lost keys, no other injuries, no dramas of any kind in fact. Just the way we like it! The leg was achy and sore, but no worse than it has been, so I just keep ticking these runs off now. There are a mere 19 runs to go until New York, and four of them are just gentle jogs in the week of the run itself. One more big week this week (21 miles next Sunday, gulp!) and then we start to taper….but no taking anything for granted yet. I’m still giving this everything and more. I’m even going to start eating avocados and almonds this week – what has this turned me into!!!

And so, I alluded at the top to the things that occupied my mind. The running is (still) fun, despite my protestations and my injury niggles, and the finishing line IF I make it in just four weeks time, will be simply one of the absolute highlights of my life. It is wonderful though to also have adventures (other than the one you are on!) to look forward to.

I thus asked Melanie this week if she’d like to share a little adventure to Nepal with me next year. She said she’d love to, and so that is amazing and wonderful at the same time. I’ve been to Nepal and the Himalayas/Everest Base Camp three times now, and anyone who knows me knows how much I love it there. It just gets into your soul, your whole being. Each time though I’ve travelled on my own, and this will be the first time I get to share it with someone special. Roll on next April therefore! Meantime, we have a bit more running to do……:)

Room for more than one person in this photo next year…….:)

Week 2 done – in the Alps!

Today is 28th July and it consisted of an 11 mile run this morning in what started out as pretty wet conditions and a temperature of 8 degrees, although it never felt that cold. To be fair, I could be running in -3 degrees or + 35 degrees and I may not notice the difference. Chamonix is that beautiful, that dramatic, that amazing.

So here we are in the Alps, or more particularly Chamonix, one of my favourite places on planet earth. And I’ve, or we’ve (Melanie and I), just completed week two of our New York Marathon training. What a place to do it!

Looking towards Chamonix and Mont Blanc from Le Tour

The week has consisted of 5 runs, as is the case of every week in the training programme. Tuesday was 5 miles, with 3 miles @ 8:15 pace. Wednesday was 5 miles at marathon pace, which for me is around 9 minutes a mile ( we are aiming all being well to finish in a time of approximately 3 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds!).

Mentioning temperature above, this last week (prior to arriving in Chamonix) has been a real challenge as far as weather is concerned. The records will show that the UK recorded its all time highest temperature of Thursday, of 38.7 degrees, which in my book is very much not very conducive to any sort of running. Much less when on this day you’ve been at a Strategy Day from work in a hotel without air conditioning! Thus all of the runs have taken place at around 6 am in the morning, a time not usually known to me, least of all me being out pounding the pavements.

So having arrived on Saturday morning in Chamonix, after a very early start, it was almost straight out to complete the week’s running. Chamonix sits at 1,030m ( or 3,400 feet) above sea level, so whilst this isn’t exactly high altitude, it does take a day or so to adjust to very slightly thinner air.

The town square in Chamonix with its stunning backdrop of Mont Blanc.

This also being (obviously!) very much a mountain resort, each side of the valley slopes extremely steeply, and so there is fairly limited scope for running, unless you are a trail runner, in which case this is your nirvana! The road up and down the valley connecting the various ski areas slopes not too steeply though, and we discovered that running by the river is both stunningly beautiful, and also not too taxing. Frankly, despite the slight inclines, if you can’t run here and enjoy it you really should give up – consider that a week ago I was running on the outskirts of Slough!!

So the week finished with the earlier mentioned 11 mile run on a slightly wet start to the day, but the weather was otherwise quite cool and perfectly suited to what we were doing. I absolutely loved it, and just wish I could run here every day, or just live here in fact. I could never ever tire of this scenery, it is mesmerising.

Week two then finished with a total exactly on schedule with 31 miles completed for the week. That’s a new weekly high for me – and so far so good. Next week ramps up to 34 miles with a half marathon to finish on the Sunday, but every one of those runs will also be in Chamonix, so I have no doubt that every one will be cherished and the distance won’t be a problem. The only problem will be having to leave at the end of it all!

Bring on week 3…….

Marathon Training – Week One Done!

So finally week one is done! The tale of the tape for the week is 27 miles, which by my reckoning is the furthest I think I’ve ever run in a single week in my life. And maybe that’s a good thing in itself, but on the other end of the scale, and in the context of what is ahead, it is practically nothing.

Week One, in fact, is the shortest week of the entire programme. Yesterday’s so called ‘long run’, done every Sunday, was 9 miles, and that is the shortest run that we will do between now and the middle of November, or more precisely speaking until after the marathon is finished! So in other words, I’d better get used to this, and a lot more!

I also started last week’s blog post by saying that I was going to follow this programme to the absolute letter, but I inevitably didn’t! For starters, work got in the way (but only slightly), and so I swapped over Thursday’s 5 miler with Wednesday’s four miler (but otherwise did the same runs as the programme said, one a tempo run and the other hill repeats.

But secondly I also had a trip this weekend for a reunion. The reunion was with very special friends, whom I met around 5 years ago when climbing Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus in Russia. It was a monumental trip in so many ways, defined by awful weather when trying to summit, and a bout of pretty bad altitude sickness for yours truly, commemorated in this blog post below:

https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/aquavista.me/2853

The group of us try to have at least one reunion every year, and this year it was in The Lakes and had been organised for quite some time, so there was no way I was missing it. We had a totally amazing time as we always do, and went on some great walks and generally just enjoyed each other’s company in and around Ambleside over three days. It did however involve a 600 mile drive, three walks (one of around 14 miles), and a day off work just to get there, plus (I’m very happy to say!) copious amounts of socialising. I also had then to try to fit in a 5 mile run on the Saturday and a 9 mile one on the Sunday, so something had to give!

In the end I left the rest of the gang to it on the Sunday morning to climb Helvellyn, and came back to do my Sunday run in my home town. Melanie came over from Cambridge to meet me and do it with me too, and we will all being well be able to do all of our long runs together. That’s tremendously motivational for me, especially as she is the reason I’m doing New York in the first place :).

Here are a few pictures from the weekend in the Lakes, the first one of us on the last morning before I left. A finer and more lovely group of people I will never ever meet :).

Me getting a friendly look (or I hope it was friendly!) from one of the local residents
The view over Lake Windermere from Ambleside YHA.

So onwards into week 2, and 31 miles of what looks like some very hot conditions with the forecast to hit 36 degrees C on Thursday. That’s too hot for practically anything in my book, other than a nice gin and tonic or three! Wish me luck………..

Zermatt Day 2

So waking on day two (of two) in Zermatt itself, at about 1,750m, in a hotel, and not in a mountain hut some 1,000m higher up has its advantages. One, you get a nice shower; two, you get a nice comfy bed; three, you don’t get woken up about twenty times in the night by other climbers in your dormitory shuffling and snoring; and four, you get, if you are really really lucky, a view like this from your own balcony:

How stunning is that for a sight to wake up to? I didn't want to leave the hotel!

How stunning is that for a sight to wake up to? I didn’t want to leave the hotel!

So today we had planned a much easier trek than the one the day before, which had seen us do about 22km in total, including a climb to about 3,260m on the north-east ridge of the Matterhorn. Today we’d take in a couple of the tourist paths on the other side of Zermatt, the Marmot Trail and the ‘5-Seenweg’, literally the ‘5 lakes trail’.

From the top end of the town (the south, geographically) we walked through town, grabbing breakfast on the way, to the north eastern side, and the rothorn funicular railway. This takes you up entirely inside the mountain in about three minutes to the Sunegga area at about 2,300m. This can be seen in the left middle of the map link below: http://www.matterhornparadise.ch/pdf/panoramakarten/panoramakarte_sommer.pdf

Blessed again by absolutely cloudless skies like the day before, and even warmer conditions, we set off firstly up the Marmot Trail, (we didn’t see any today unfortunately, but we had the day before) which is numbered 8 on the map.

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The Marmot Trail – a different and lovely side of Zermatt.

Then from the Blauherd cable car station at 2,571m we began on the 5-seenweg trail. The first lake, the Stellisee, is absolutely stunning, as you can see from the picture below: We stayed there for a while just to take it all in, as did many other people, it seems to be a bit of a tourist trap, and quite frankly why shoudn’t it be? It’s a natural lake, and just beautiful.

The Stellisee, at 2,537m. I can see why it is so incredibly popular!

The Stellisee, at 2,537m. I can see why it is so incredibly popular!

Upon leaving the Stellisee towards the next lake, the Grindjisee, the path takes a pretty sharp descent. At this point Verena decided that her knee, which had been giving her problems on the latter half of yesterday’s walk, was too painful to continue with the rest of the walk. She therefore suggested that I carry on with the rest of the lakes, and she made her way back to the Sunnega cable car, only about 20 minutes away. After checking she was ok and could make it on her own, I took her up on her offer, and carried on.

The Grindjisee is at about 2,350m, and is a small and very tranquil place. You’d probably never come across it if you weren’t looking for it in fact. It was in a really pretty area though, and of course you could see a reflection of the Matterhorn in the surface of the lake, what more do you need!

The Grinjisee, tranquil and stunningly beautiful in equal measures.

The Grindjisee, tranquil and stunningly beautiful in equal measures.

From the Grindjisee the walk is mostly flat for about three miles until you get to the Grünsee, which doesn’t have reflections of the Matterhorn, but you can still see it :).

 

The Grünsee - three down, tow to go!

The Grünsee – three down, two to go!

There was then a pretty steep and narrow trail through the woods towards the Moosjisee, a seemingly man made affair, but stunningly green in colour:

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The Moosjisee – and there’s that mountain again!

The Moosjisee is the lowest of the five lakes, and from there after another brief descent with stunning views back towards Zermatt itself, there is a bit of a climb back up to the Leisee, which I unfortunately didn’t photograph.

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The walk towards the Leisee, with some very pretty hillside hamlets en route.

Having got back to the Sunegga cablecar station, Verena was thankfully there waiting for me and her knee was fine. There would be no more walking for her though, and so we decided to have lunch at the very lovely mountain restaurant by the Sunegga, it would have been rude not to really! So a beer, a rösti, and some very pleasant views were the order of the day:

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Now that’s the way to end a walk!

The 5-Seenweg walk is about two and a half to three hours overall, and well worth it if you are visiting in summer.

After lunch we took the funicular railway back down to Zermatt before a bit of shopping before heading back to Bern, where I would be lucky enough to get to watch Stage 16 of the Tour de France the next day. We’d had a great weekend, and literally didn’t see a cloud in 48 hours.

I’ll leave off with a view more photographs of Zermatt itself. A great little car free town, with lovely shops, and just an idyllic place to be summer or winter. It’s my fifth time here all in all, and it won’t be the last.

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Zermatt!

So it’s obviously been way way too long since I last put up a blog post. That’s because about 11 months ago I took the decision to stop my apparently futile attempts at high altitude success. I had three or four goes at getting above 6,000m, and they all seemed to end in one thing – me heading downwards feeling like shit. So in the meantime I’ve done some nice sensible things, like change job, move house, and do some cycling.

Lots of cycling in fact, culminating in a fabulous 160-odd mile ride doing the coast to coast in a day. Details of that here of that ride, less the last 6 or so miles as my Garmin battery decided it didn’t want to go for over 12 hours! See Strava section here: https://www.strava.com/activities/623638383

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The Coast to Coast was at the end of June, and it was great, but (as is the way with me :)) I finished it and needed a new thing to aim for. And so after a bit of an impromptu flight purchasing, I was off to Switzerland at the end of July for a bit of ‘hill practice’ as they say!

I originally intended to head to Grindelwald, and trek around the North Face of the Eiger, something that has been ‘on the list’ for a little while. But after contacting my friend Verena, who lives in nearby Bern, she suggested that the Eiger and surrounds would be stupidly busy that weekend. She suggested Zermatt instead, as she hadn’t been there before, and would come along too!

And so off to Zermatt it was, for what proved to be an amazingly beautiful weekend in what is such a fabulous part of the world. For those who don’t know me, I have a bit (ok a lot!) of a fixation with The Matterhorn – I just find it a staggeringly beautiful and transfixing mountain. Spellbinding in fact. I also put my only ever Youtube video online with the mountain in it – I could still watch it every day! Skiing down towards Zermatt in 2013:

After a flight to Zurich and a train ride to Bern to meet Verena, we departed at the crack of dawn on the Saturday morning for the drive to Zermatt, about two and a half hours away. After a great drive which went under part of the Alps near to the Eiger in a car train, we arrived in the car free resort of Zermatt and headed up the mountain via cablecar to the Trockener Steg area of the resort. Cable cars aren’t cheap in Zermatt (nothing is cheap in Zermatt in fact!) at about £40 per single ride, but at least it got us up to 2,900m very quickly.

The great thing about the Zermatt area is that from practically anywhere you are, you can see The Matterhorn! It just dominates the place like the outrageous behemoth that it is, towering to 4,478m (14,700 feet), looking all Toblerone-shaped (the Toblerone logo is modelled on it for those who don’t know) and pointy, and just incredible.

The Matterhorn rearing up above Zermatt

The Matterhorn rearing up above Zermatt

We had chosen a trail which took us from Trockener Steg down to the Schwarzsee, and then around the west face of the Matterhorn and up to a mountain hut called the Schonbielhutte. I managed to persuade Verena though that en route we should try a tricky path up to the Hornlihutte, which is perched somewhat precariously on the North east ridge of the mountain at 3,260m. Thankfully she didn’t take too much convincing, and after trekking down to about 2,400m initially on what was a fairly uneventful route, we began the very eventful path up.

Approaching the Matterhorn - the Hornlihutte is on the tip of snow at about 3pm on the picture.

Approaching the Matterhorn – the Hornlihutte is on the tip of snow middle right of the picture.

It was slow going, as a.) we were up at 3,000m and unacclimatised, and also b.) the path has several places where in simple terms a missed footing could be your last ever step on earth. To add to the perils of point b.) the path was still snowy and icy in places, and without crampons (which I have to say weren’t required at this time of year, but a month earlier and you wouldn’t venture up any of this without them) it added to the general feeling of precariousness. Thankfully at the most tricky parts there was a metal rope in place to cling onto, which I gladly took advantage of.

The path starts easily with a footpath and metal railing

The path starts easily with a footpath and metal railing

The path starts to wend its way up quite steeply....

The path starts to wend its way up quite steeply….

...and there are parts where you have something to hold on to....

…and there are parts where you have something to hold on to….

...and finally the hut comes into view just in the snowline.

…and finally the hut comes into view just in the snowline.

It was a really great climb, requiring the use of hands as well in places to add to the mind’s focus. We reached the hut at about 1.45pm, and sat at the terrace for lunch (it would have been rude not to really) and it became apparent as soon as we stopped moving that the temperature when stopped was considerably colder than it had felt whilst climbing up, so jackets and hoods were quickly donned. The views were majestic – including the view directly upwards of the top of the mountain, which whilst still over 1,100 vertical metres above us, seemed much closer. I vowed looking upwards at the near vertical face to never, ever feel brave or stupid enough to try to climb it :).

This is the closest to the top I am ever going to get, promise!

This is the closest to the top I am ever going to get, promise!

Just to prove I made it there!

Just to prove I made it there!

The area around Zermatt is also home to around 25 4,000m+ mountains, including the Dufourspitze and the Dom, at 4,630m and 4,550m respectively the second and third highest mountains in the Alps, and the highest points in Switzerland.

Starting the descent, Zermatt a long way down the valley in the distance and lots of 4,000m peaks up above.

Starting the descent, Zermatt a long way down the valley in the distance and lots of 4,000m peaks up above.

From the Hornlihutte we took trail 27 and then a black-marked steep track down the mountain (see attached map) to Stafel, where we intended to begin the trek back up to Schonbielhutte.  http://www.matterhornparadise.ch/pdf/panoramakarten/panoramakarte_sommer.pdf

However on getting down near to Stafel at about 4.30pm, Verena was struggling with a twisted and sore knee, and so the climb up to the hut at about 2,700m and about three miles distant all of a sudden looked a bit of a long way. This was more relevant given the fact that the hut needed us there by 6.30pm latest (the cut off point for evening meals) and also there was no alternative should we not make it as the hut is at the end of a long and isolated valley.

Near Stafel - the Schonbielhutte in the far distance.

Near Stafel – the Schonbielhutte in the far distance.

We thus phoned the hut and said we would not be able to make it, and then tried to find alternatives continuing steadily down the mountain towards Furi. Cutting a very long story short (about which I could write not just another blog post, but actually a fairly lengthy novel) we ended up all the way back in Zermatt itself at about 8pm. This at least left us best-placed for the next day, when we intended to head up to the other side of the resort, the Rothorn area.

The Matterhorn looking quite different from Stafel, this it's western face.

The Matterhorn looking quite different from Stafel, this it’s western face.

One of the very pretty hamlets we passed on our way back down towards Zermatt. This is Zmutt, I think.

One of the very pretty hamlets we passed on our way back down towards Zermatt. This is Zmutt, I think.

Our route is in the attached Strava link – it was a fabulous walk of around 22km, showcasing some fabulous views of much of the Matterhorn area, and a lot of ascent and descent  https://www.strava.com/activities/643124049

After a very long day, sleep would come very easily, and at the thought of seeing the ‘5 Lakes Trail’ the next morning, where each lake held a different reflection of the Matterhorn, I was very very much looking forward to day 2!

 

Bolivian Climber Day Ten

Note this is a repeat of a post that I put on Facebook, but it is from my blog entries from my tenth day of my Bolivian trip, and so is repeated here for that reason…….:)

I am now back in La Paz, having come down from the Cordillera Réal range to recuperate, whilst the rest of the group that I was with carry on with their attempts on various mountains therein. I got to 5,340 metres at the top of Pico Austria two days ago, and all felt fine, but since then I haven’t been feeling the full ticket.

So today I took a decision to end my high altitude endeavours. I’ve been above 5,000m five times now, and each time I got varying forms of altitude sickness. My last three trips ended with just one summit, which was itself eclipsed by my getting high altitude cerebral edema (which could have been fatal), and the last two I have had to descend without summitting. My attempts this time to get to 6,500m (21,500 feet) have been futile, and maybe I should have known that before I came out here, but I wanted to give it one last go. I tried, but I haven’t failed. 

Over the last five or so years since I got to the top of Kilimanjaro, I’ve had a brilliant time. I started this episode of my life at age 45, and I don’t regret one single minute, in fact the total opposite. I’ve met some absolutely fabulous people, some of which I hope will be lifelong friends; I’ve seen countries, people and cultures that I would never have been close to had it not been for my pursuit of this; I’m healthier and fitter than I have ever been in my life; I’ve accomplished things and learned a lot more about life, and me, than I ever would have done otherwise.

The roof of Africa.......

The roof of Africa…….

Stood in the shadow of the highest place on planet earth..

Stood in the shadow of the highest place on planet earth..

...to the highest point in all of Europe....

…to the highest point in all of Europe….

..to nearly the roof of South America....

..to nearly the roof of South America….

...and my latest adventure in the Bolivian Andes....

…and my latest adventure in the Bolivian Andes….

...and some very special places inbetween. What a journey!

…and some very special places inbetween. What a journey!

I fly back in a couple of days time, and will think about things in the meantime, but I’m not going to stop going to the top of (much smaller) mountains, or walking in the hills and fells, or travelling, or doing things outdoors that I love. I’m just not doing any more high altitude trips, ever. I’m done, and I’m good with that. The good thing too is that I have a million things to look forward to, and my life is richer because of what I’ve done. I’m very proud and happy about that.

Meantime, to those great people I’ve met along the way, and probably more importantly to those who have worried about me while I’ve been away, I’ll just say thank you, for everything, and for being part of this adventure. If you look forward on life now with as much enthusiasm as I do, then your life will be a fabulous and fulfilling one. Embrace life, we all only get one of them after all.

 

The Fan Dance!

So a very quick update from me here. This coming Saturday I will be taking part in what is variously described as “the toughest endurance challenge yet”:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/10944512/Is-the-Fan-Dance-the-toughest-endurance-challenge-yet.html

or alternatively is just known as the SAS training course which ‘beasts’ the nation’s fittest special forces soldiers:

http://outsidetimes.com/adventures/the-fan-dance-a-run-through-a-slice-of-british-military-history-2387/#sriuMHYS4Av88Twq.97

Basically the Fan Dance has been used since WW2 as the physical and mental determinant of whether special forces troops (SAS and the like) and parachute regiment troops are up to task. Fail this and you’re out, in short. It is about 24km in length, has about 5 or 6 thousand feet of ascent, and covers the highest mountain in south Wales, Pen Y Fan, twice.

The Fan Dance has received notoriety in recent years as a few members of the armed forces died on this particular course for being ‘yomped’ a bit too hard. It has now been opened up to the public as an event for people who think that Tough Mudder is a bit easy. I’m not one of those, I have to say, and having done Tough Mudder last weekend, I presently think I am a bit mad, but hey ho, as they say!

Pen Y Fan from Cribyn

Pen Y Fan from Cribyn

The challenge is further ‘complicated’ by the fact that you need to carry between 35lbs and 45lbs of weight on your back, PLUS your food and water. There is also a cut off time of four hours. I have calculated that the two and a half litres of water than I plan to carry (two litres is mandatory, and they weigh everything before you start), plus food, will weigh about another 7 pounds, so I am looking at potentially 50 lbs on my back.

Like I said, maybe I am a bit mad 🙂

I’ll update this on Sunday all being well, and let you know how I get on. I’m not aiming for the cutoff time, just to get through it. I’m thinking 7 hours will be good, but maybe that is ambitious too, especially as the weather is supposed to be hot, at 20 degrees much too hot for this sort of thing for me.

Wish me the best of British…………..:)

Elbrus Day 8 – Summit (Attempt) Day! (23rd August)

Day 8, Sunday 23rd August, saw us all wake up at High Camp at 3,730m for the fourth day, and it could (with a lot of luck) be the last day we would wake up here.

This evening would see our summit attempt on Elbrus, at 5,642m the highest point in all of Europe, leaving at around midnight. Before then it was a case of resting up as much as possible, getting kit ready, and trying to pass the time. The day was generally calm, although a bit cooler and windier than it had been, which left people wondering how conditions would be up on top. Yesterday’s acclimatisation walk had been in perfect conditions, but everyone knew that there would be no way we could expect things to be that benign all the way, even if the only forecast we had was a pretty good one.

In fact the weather forecast dominated pretty much everyone’s thoughts for most of the day. It was frustrating (and probably my only real criticism of Jagged Globe the whole trip) that even our expedition leader Adele Pennington didn’t have access to any sort of weather forecast. In fact the only way she could get access to anything substantive was to ring her partner via Sat Phone back home in Fort William, Scotland, to look things up on the internet for us. Sadly he was out, and so couldn’t oblige. The reason we needed it was to try to predict wind speeds at the top of the mountain, and they didn’t look good.

Our in country guide, Viktor, who had summited the mountain over 100 times, spent a fair bit of the time looking at the top of the mountain over the afternoon. He said “it doesn’t look good, wind may be too high”.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

Viktor ponders what to do whilst the clouds begin to gather at pace over the summit.

For the rest of us, we had no phone signal, no internet, no access to anything whatsoever, and it is at times like this that you realize just how much you miss those things. We did eventually manage to get one text message (thanks Hui Ling) away between us, which gave a response of 25 kph winds, clear, and -10 degrees. So on the basis of this, it looked like we were going for it. Whilst nervous, that was just what everyone wanted to hear.

By mid afternoon therefore, most people were basically ready with their equipment, and most (me included) chose to spend time resting or sleeping. We would after all not be going to sleep at all tonight, and would have (if successful) a 17 or so hour slog taking us through from midnight until late Sunday afternoon. The ascent would take a predicted 12 hours (we had over 2 vertical kilometers to climb), and then about 5 coming down all being well.

Viktor by teatime was again looking at the mountain somewhat nervously (or that’s how it looked). He however just pondered and said that we would decide at 11 O Clock when we all woke up. Everyone therefore went back to bed after dinner at about 8pm and tried to sleep. I didn’t sleep a wink, nervously waiting for the opportunity to hopefully get going.

When we got up again at 11pm, all was fairly calm, and a breakfast was duly prepared for us. We got porridge (proper version this time, not the buckwheat variety) and somewhat bizarrely, caviar. I didn’t really feel like eating anything at all, let alone caviar, but took some chocolate off the table for sustenance (there was always plenty of chocolate sweets around, and biscuits, which were considerably better than the bread, and softer too).

At midnight it was into our our harnesses, and this was it – it was happening! It was happening for all of us bar Dave that is – he decided after a day of deliberations (and a bit of a dicky tummy too) that he wasn’t going to make it, so decided to stay in camp.

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

Headtorches on, crampons tightened, we are off!

So in calm but cold conditions, we set off into the night to conquer this big monster of a mountain, all 2km of further height to go. We were prepared, or so we thought.

Within an hour, and moving well on three ropes (two fours and a two), we were confronted by what was initially just a squally headwind, which although it began to burn spindrift into our faces, was entirely manageable. Within an hour and a half however, and with probably only four hundred metres or so gained, it was battering us with every step.

Within two hours it was actually hard to stand up, with the spindrift sheeting into our faces.  There were other head torches around us on the mountain, but it was very difficult to tell at times which way was up and which was down. All you could really do was look at the boots in front of you, and hope they were heading in the right direction. The wind was deafening to the point that you couldn’t have heard yourself scream, and without goggles there wouldn’t have been any way of seeing through what was now basically a whiteout. It couldn’t last, and something simply had to give, either the weather or us.

By about 3am or so we had reached Lenz rocks, and I am not sure even how, but it was good at least to have some definition and know where we were on the mountain. This was about 4,650m. I have no camera shots of this, as I didn’t dare even try to get it out of my bag. There was another group in front of ours, and they were sheltering at the rocks. They seemed to do so for all of about 5 seconds, before about turning and heading straight back down the mountain. Their decision to go down I suppose made it easier for us to reconcile, and with no thought at all from any of us we very happily and unspeakingly followed Adele and Viktor’s lead and got the hell out of there.

There was no dissention in the ranks at all. It would have been at best dangerous to go on, and each step as it was was getting harder and harder.

We headed down the mountain in one straight shot without a break, and got down to High Camp a little after 5am, totally spent. It had been so much effort just making forward momentum at times that no-one probably could have gone on for much longer anyway, even if the weather had miraculously abated. No-one from anywhere summited the mountain that night – and when I look back now at the forecast wind speed of 25kph well I think you could have trebled that and been nearer the mark. What conditions would have been like further up I dread to think.

Safely down, it was straight into bed for a sleep and a rest. No-one cared at this point what the next day would bring, we just needed to get into sleeping bags and crash. I cannot remember ever sleeping so easily or well, and that is coming from someone who sleeps like a log every night of his life.

So maybe the next day we could try again, as we had a spare day and a half built into the itinerary for such contingencies. That was if we still had the legs. But tomorrow, even though we were already into it, just seemed for now like an awfully long way off.

Mont Blanc 2014 Day 4 – Saturday 19th July

It was quite a pleasant experience to wake up at 6.45am on Saturday morning after the 3.45am start the day before. Today we would just be returning down the valley to our minibus parked at about 1,800m at the top of the mountain road from our second night in the Chabon hut. We had returned to the hut having submitted Gran Paradiso (4,061m) the day before.

It was then almost surreal to have breakfast at 7am in a practically deserted hut. Everyone else who had stayed the night was well on their way up the glacier to the summit, and a glance out of the front door of the hut showed a snake of roped-up climbers up at about 3,500m, appearing ant-like in the distance against the whiteness of the snow.

Looking one last time up the glacier - various teams of roped-up climbers can be seen in the far distance.

Looking one last time up the glacier – various teams of roped-up climbers can be seen in the far distance in the middle of the picture.

Following a remarkably similar breakfast to the day before of dried bread and cereal, we were on our way out at about 7.45. The rucksacks this time were bursting again with the things that we had either used yesterday (crampons, harnesses, ice-axes, helmets etc), or had carried up to the hut in the first place and left there on the climb, like toiletries, any spare clothes etc.

The trek down from our base at 2,700m would take only about two hours, and would go via a different valley to the one we came up, so that Neil (our main guide) could take us on some bouldering practice. The bouldering would be useful practice for Mont Blanc, as we would have quite a technical section to overcome when we reached the Grand Couloir area there. Our abilities to do this would be assessed to make sure that we were competent enough for the main climb, just as we had been assessed the day before for our “bottle” at the top of Gran Paradiso.

I hadn’t realised at the time, but that final summit ridge of Gran Paradiso (see yesterday’s blog post) was actually a test. If not technically difficult, it was still technical, and also a vertigo-inducing test of mettle, requiring clipping in via-ferrata style to a wall below which a very thin (probably 10cm wide) ledge separated you from about 1,000m of nothing but a free fall to what would have been instant death. The ledge was probably only 3 or 4m in length, but the expression “heart in mouth” doesn’t do it justice. When I first got to the ledge, having almost crawled along a narrow rock band on crampons to get there in the first place, I had suggested initally to our guide Marco that this was “far enough for me”.

Upon saying this, (and not knowing that this was effectively being assessed), I then quickly realised that I was making a decision that would affect not only me, but all four of us (Marco the guide, plus Jonas and Katya), as we were roped up. The precariousness of our position, perched on the narrow rock ledge meant that unroping one member (i.e. me) would have been at best extremely unwise. Katya had then (very nobly) said “ok, we will all stay here as Chris won’t go”. I think this had made me realise that in my moment of fear, I was denying other people their summit, and so I decided there and then (for them) to go ahead and make the leap of faith. I was very glad afterwards that I had, for a whole host of reasons, but it just shows you that sometimes you have to think not just for yourself, but as to how your decisions can affect others too.

It would be only later today, back in Chamonix, when I was talking to the owner of Mont Blanc Guides, that he told me that the summit ridge was in fact a test for Mont Blanc itself. He said that it represented something ‘scarier’ than anything to be found on Mont Blanc, and so if clients could meet this challenge then they would be allowed to go ahead to face the (far greater in many other ways) tests of Western Europe’s highest mountain!

So back to the bouldering in the here and now, we were led by Neil through a short loop of scrambling over large boulders, both ascent and descent. It was not terribly difficult, but did have at times some moments when a fall would have meant a bit of an injury, which of course gets the old heart pumping a little more quickly than it otherwise would.

When out from the (short, but fun) bouldering test, and having successfully all come through it, we could begin our descent. The valley we would come down was simply staggeringly beautiful. From majestic views to the snow capped mountains in the distance, to stunning waterfalls, to ibex and chamois running past us close at hand, to majestic growths of wild rhododendron and then a sublime forest with overhanging views of rivers far below, it really had it all. I could have walked there forever. And all this in warm and glorious sunshine too. It was also very noticeable that as we were now descending, the air became noticeably more oxygen rich as we went, inducing a quite noticeable feeling of increased energy, and also appetite. Colin in fact burst into an inspired run mid descent, and a la Forrest Gump (but not really, sorry Colin :)) just kept on running all the way to the bottom, and we didn’t see him until the minibus 🙂

Leaving the Chabon hut for the last time, Sunday morning.

Leaving the Chabon hut for the last time, Sunday morning.

And about to head down the beautiful valley, bouldering complete.

And about to head down the beautiful valley, bouldering complete.

There are about 10 ibex in this picture somewhere. honest :)

There are about 10 ibex in this picture somewhere. honest 🙂

And the beauty of the valley kept on giving....

And the beauty of the valley kept on giving….

....and giving :)

….and giving 🙂

Having got back to the minibus mid-morning, we returned back to France, a journey of about two hours via Courmayeur and the very impressive Mont Blanc tunnel. I cannot also not mention a stop half way in the Italian village of Mongex, where we stopped briefly for a gelato and coffee. I can only begin to describe here how good both were. My black cherry and Amaretto cone, plus espresso, were both probably the most delicious things I believe I have ever put into my mouth. ‘Nuff said, as they say!

Back at base in Chamonix at lunchtime, Neil checked the weather forecast before dismissing us for a ‘free’ afternoon, where we could do as we please, shower (very badly needed after three days away I can tell you), and unwind before the forthcoming three day journey up to the main event beginning the next morning. He had actually checked the initial forecast the previous evening, and had warned us that the weather didn’t look good for Monday and Tuesday, and had said that if so, then we may not be able to summit.

Everyone understood this of course, but no-one I think was really ready for the definitive news which we now got: Mont Blanc wouldn’t be happening. A weather front was coming in, the wind would be changing direction, and there would be snow (65cm was forecast that night in fact) and high winds.

As Neil had taken time to explain to us the previous evening in the hut, Mont Blanc is not a mountain you take chances on. You should never go if you don’t think the conditions are just right, i.e. good visibility and low wind. Safety is and always should be the most important factor in the mountains, and especially on a 15,800 feet peak which has killed over 8,800 people, many of these in perfectly benign conditions. Everyone upon getting the news both accepted and fully respected the decision that Neil took. It didn’t stop any of us being disappointed however. It was what we had all come for after all.

It was the first time I have received a setback like this. I have read a hundred or more examples of people being turned back from Everest and the like due to weather conditions, and when it happens to someone else you think “that’s ok, they must surely realise that it is for the best” etc.  When it happens to you, you think a mixture of three things simultaneously:

One, you feel a bit sorry for yourself. You’ve just paid x thousand pounds and taken holiday from work to be told you cannot so what you came for. It’s hard, if only a bit. Secondly you do absolutely respect the decision, and realise that someone is making it rationally and so your safety in mind. Thirdly you realise your vulnerability and mortality. This is not a walk in the Lake District or Wales where you might get wet when the weather turns bad. This is a place where wrong decisions cost lives, and in this case the life being decided upon is your own.

Following the announcement Neil suggested that the next few days we would either be able to go ice climbing, or do some via ferrata, depending upon the local conditions in the Chamonix valley. Quite a bit of rain (40mm) was forecast lower down, so this would be weather dependent too. The forecast for Monday and Tuesday over the border into Italy was possibly a little better than that for Mont Blanc, and so it “might” be possible to attempt a summit of Monte Rosa, at 4,280m a mighty summit on the Italian/French border. The forecast was still gloomy though, so it would be all taken on a day by day basis. I made a decision there and then – I was coming home early.

It was a hard decision, and as I write this only the next day on the return flight home, I still don’t know if it is the right one. I do know that when I am sat at my desk at work tomorrow morning, having reclaimed three days of holiday that I would otherwise have (of course extremely happily) used, I will feel a tad miserable. I’d rather be sat in Chamonix in the rain any day of the week than being at work pondering the ifs and buts and might have beens. But at the end of the day, it all came down to either doing some things like ice-climbing that aren’t really ultimately “my bag”, and which I wasn’t really there for in the first place, or getting those three days holiday back which I could use at a later date to do more things of my own choosing. So having made it, as I do with all of my decisions, I stick by it and try to have no regrets, which in fact I don’t.

I’d like to thank Mont Blanc Guides for being an outstanding company. If I go back to do Mont Blanc again, which I surely will, they’ll be first choice.

So although I didn’t get to summit Mont Blanc, I look back now on my trip and am delighted that I was there. I got to summit the highest mountain in Italy, and my first 4,000m peak in Europe, and in doing so pushed the boundaries of my own fears at the summit ridge. I got to meet some really great people. Some I may see again in fact, and I hope I do. I had a fabulous adventure. I got to go up to the Aguille du Midi, and look from 3,840m up at a cloudless summit of the highest mountain in Western Europe. And it gave me the appetite to go back for more.

And, in the words of for me the most respected climber ever, one Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, I got to travel, to experience and learn. And I got to live.