Bolivian Climber Day Eight

So today would be the first time on the glacier. Or that would be the case for 8 of our group of 10 at any rate.

At breakfast time, one of the two Johns announced that he was feeling nauseous, and he looked it too, so confined himself to bed. I didn’t feel much better than he looked, despite not too bad a night’s sleep (as in I only woke up about 10 times, which is about normal), but managed to eat breakfast, so I thought I’d soldier on.

So by 9am, with our first very overcast sky, and a pretty strong wind blowing, we set off in mountain boots and down jackets plus carrying full complement of crampons and axes etc ready for the glacier. I felt at best very lethargic, but trundled along hoping that I would feel better on the walk in to the glacier, which would take about 40 minutes. Unfortunately I didn’t feel better at all.

We made it to the snout of the glacier at about 9.45, and as everyone was putting on harnesses and crampons, I just stood there feeling a bit pathetic. I realised that I didn’t have the energy (or moreover the inclination really) to put mine on, and so trying to head up a glacier would have been foolish. I thus told Olan that I was going to bail from today’s activities because of how I was feeling, to which he said that was fine. He asked if I needed help getting back to Base Camp, but I told him no, and that I’d be ok and would just take my time.

Even though it was downhill on the way back it took me longer down than it had up, but I was feeling a bit wobbly and so being by myself I didn’t want to fall on the rocks. Making it back for about 11am, I took off my boots and got straight in my sleeping bag. The wind was howling, but I got an hour or so’s sleep which I think did me good.

The group got back at around 2, and I had a chat with Olan. He suggested I start taking Diamox and see how I felt after that. My head was telling me that I should just forget this mountain malarkey once and for all, but my heart really wanted to try to get mountain 2 done, Huana Potosi, which would be an altitude record for me at 6,088m. But for what?

I parked decisions for a while as I didn’t want to be too hasty, and also hypoxia can cloud your vision sometimes. Plus I had just taken a Diamox, and if that meant that I felt much better by tomorrow, then who knows, maybe I would be flying up all of these mountains within a few days. But then who was I trying to kid?

Meanwhile we all got a bit of a distraction as our meal tent started to rip apart and blow down in the wind. It must have been gusting at 60mph or more, and first a pole snapped, and then despite about 6 people trying to hold it down with rocks it just effectively disintegrated. We would therefore be confined to tents for the next 16 hours or so and would eat in them too, as long as the guides could still manage to cook in theirs. Plenty of thinking time then….

At first it was a case of how many could hold it steady.....

At first it was a case of how many could hold it steady…..

.....and then a case of how many rocks.....

…..and then a case of how many rocks…..

....and then the realisation that there aren't enough rocks....

….and then the realisation that there aren’t enough rocks….

....and that nature usually wins in these situations.

….and that nature usually wins in these situations.

So here was my rationale during those hours:

I’ve had four (now five including this one) high altitude mountain trips. 1. Kilimanjaro – summited, but got AMS along the way. 2. Island Peak – no summit, had to leave trip early and descend due to AMS. 3. Elbrus – summited, but collapsed shortly after summit showing signs of life threatening HACE. 4. Aconcagua – no summit, had to descend due to AMS. 5 – Well here I am lying in a tent at 15,500 feet, considerably short of where I am trying to get to, and guess what? Hello AMS.

The above might be fairly compelling evidence to most people, but I am not most people, and I love what I am doing. Well I love it apart from the AMS thing, and getting up to go in stinky pits of a toilet (or not a toilet at all) in the middle of the night, and eating shit tasteless food whilst wearing two down jackets out of dirty plastic containers, and waking up about 12 times every night, and feeling wrecked every morning, and drinking purified bad tasting water out of a dirty bucket. Oh, and it taking up my entire annual leave for the year, and the fact that I’ve spent about 10 grand (more actually) on it this year just to not get close to the top.

So apart from those things, it is great, and I mean that, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent practically every weekend this year walking 20 miles up and down random hills, streets, or canal paths with weights on my back. But maybe there are other things out there, like smaller mountains for example?

I put all of those thoughts away from me, and huddled inside my sleeping bag. The tent was filthy now and full of debris that had blown in during this afternoon’s continuing storm. We’d just been told that it was going to continue for another 36 hours, and so we were stuck in our tents for that time now anyway. The question is therefore: “what the f*** am I doing here”?!!

By the time dinner was ready, or actually well before it, I think my mind was probably made up, but I resolved to sleep (or try to) on things. Nothing happens quickly up here anyway, and it wasn’t as if I could just go if I wanted to. That would require a guide to get me down, transport back to La Paz, and probably a fair bit of money. Tomorrow would certainly be another day.

Medical Screening on Aconcagua

I haven’t updated my blog for some time now about Aconcagua itself, so it’s about time that I did. Firstly, in case anyone is wondering whether I am still doing it, I can report that I most certainly am. I had a feeling a short while ago that I might not be though, and will explain more below.

West face of Aconcagua
Firstly though I can say that Aconcagua will happen this December. I am probably in terms of overall training more or less where I need to be. There are issues though. I have for example, done a lot less gym work this year than last, so my core strength and upper body strength are way behind where they need to be. This is a problem, because on Aconcagua the climb is not supported past the half way mark, and I therefore will have to carry around 20kg (or more, but basically everything that I need for the trip). Looking then at the picture above of the west face of the mountain fills me with a bit of dread, as it does not exactly look like a walk in the park (who am I kidding, it looks ridiculously hard). On the other hand, my legs are in pretty good shape, at least as far as performace on the flat is concerned, and that is essentially due to running.

Now running is not something that I thought I would ever be talking about on my blog. The simple reason for that is that (until this year) I have never run at all, and never in fact been able to. There were three reasons for this. Firstly, I could never, as far back as I can remember, run distances at all. Even as a kid at school, I was the one who hid behind a building somewhere when they did the cross country. I was just hopeless. Secondly I had asthma for most of my adult life, and when I tried to run I smply got out of breath and had to stop. Thirdly, I just never really tried. I had a sedentary lifestyle, and smoked too, and that’ll put the lid on most activities you ever try. Stopping smoking (about four years ago now) was the best thing I ever did for me. It simply changed my life for the better.

I now in fact find myself in serious training for the Great North Run, a half marathon (the world’s biggest I believe, with 56,000 participants), which takes place later this month. I’ll blog more about that in a later post, but am glad to report that I am now up to running about 50km a week (or should I more aptly say I ran, or jogged, a total of 50km last week for the first time).

Anyway, the reason for me talking about even the possibility of not going to Aconcagua, and indeed the title of this post, is blood pressure, and specifically, high blood pressure. I should explain quickly that I don’t suffer from it, or haven’t in the past, but was recently slightly alarmed by a letter that I received from Jagged Globe, with whom I am making the Aconcagua trip. The letter was titled “Medical Screening on Aconcagua, and went on to say that the Argentinian Park authorities have recently introduced a ‘superficial’ screening programme based upon blood pressure measurements at two of the camps on the mountain. It further explained that if you ‘fail’ the test on the mountain, then you will be refused permission to proceed.

This was a shock it has to be said. It seems it was to Jagged Globe too. The reason the test has been introduced is that the park authorities have ‘decided’ that high blood pressure is a precursor to potential altitude sickness. There seems to be some medical debate on this matter, and indeed a divergence of opinion altogether as to whether hypertension can be linked to altitude sickness at all. Jagged Globe even sent a medical paper along to support what they describe as an over zealous policy. However, regardless of whether they agree with it or not, they rightly point out that it would be rather a good idea to get your blood pressure checked out beforehand. Obviously if you have high blood pressure at sea level and not under the strain of either exercise or high altitude, then you are likely to have the trip end in severe disappointment without even a chance of attempting a summit of the mountain. More is explained in the link to the medical journal below:
I therefore searched online to find someone who could do a full medical exam for me. Going to your GP is hardly going to give you piece of mind either way as far as I am concerned, and Bupa came up trumps. They offer a full fitness assessment, where they test blood pressure, VO2 max, and all manner of other oxygen intake/uptake levels under duress. The tests were pretty rigorous, and involved being on an exercise bike with various tubes in my mouth and electric diodes around my body for an ECG test at the same time.

I’m very happy to say that I passed the tests with flying colours, that my blood pressure was ‘normal’, and that my VO2 max (predicted, not a full test as it turns out) was 46.9. Furthermore, the ECG revealed ‘no irregularities’, even under duress at an anaerobic state. I was pleased with the results, and therefore it means that there are no reasons now why I shouldn’t go to Aconcagua, not that I was looking for one in the first place of course.

So meanwhile my training needs to step up a gear or three. I fly to Argentina in less than 13 weeks from now. It’s going to be the biggest, and hardest by far, adventure of my life. I need to get very seriously into the right zone……

Kilimanjaro – day two (the shocker!), 25/02/10

Day two on the mountain was in some ways my favourite day of all, and in other ways it was the worst. It was a heck of a day, that is for sure. It had so much. We met and took a photograph with all of the the crew for the first time; we got absolutely stunning views of Kibo for the first time; it was our first full day walking on the mountain; and then later on I got to understand what AMS, albeit mild, felt like. So here we go:

So we were woken at about 6am, with tea in our tents – how civilised! We had to be ready to start trekking at 7.30, as we had 12k to walk today, and over 1000m of ascent, so it would be our first proper exertion really.

The views early on were stunning – here was my first proper view of the summit from our camp:

Kibo - so near and yet so far.......

And very shortly after breakfast at about 7am, we get a view of the other peak on Kilimanjaro, which is Mawenzi, at 5,100m. This time we have all of the crew to meet, porters, cooks, assistant guides you name it, they are here all twenty five or so of them:

Mawenzi Peak, and all of our crew.

We are soon walking, and the weather is totally cloudless, and before long we are greeted with outstanding views of the summit (Kibo), and here is a picture of all of us together:

Nice spot to stop for a picture, don't you think?

The summit at times looks tantalisingly close, and at others looks like it is perched in the sky about a million miles away. Either way, it is fixating, magnetic. It is all I can do to to stop myself taking a thousand photographs, but am conscious of the need to preserve batteries – I have three all together, but have no idea how many will last on summit night when the cold hits.

We stop for lunch at a place called Second Cave at about 3,500m. It is so hot and the sun is burning. Without sunblock (I had Factor 50) you would really fry here, as each of Kamal, Tamara and Tayma found out. We were also already above most of the clouds. Lunch was great, although I cannot remember what it was:)

We head off in the afternoon for Kikelewa Camp, at 3,700m, a further 6km or so away. Although not particularly strenuous, the walk is hard. I realise already that I am not drinking enough water. My Camelback has 3 litres in and I have a separate 1 litre bottle – but I drink probably less than half of this. It is not enough, with the sunshine, the walking and especially the altitude, which is already enough to affect you if you are not used to it.

On the way to camp, we are definitely two distinct groups at all times. Kamal, Tamara, Tayma and Ronan are at the front by some margin, but they are all in their twenties. We nickname them “the tweens’. Caroline and Heather take it easy, and I am glad of it. The motto for walking slowly in Swahili is “Pole, Pole” – as far as I am concerned you cannot go  slowly enough, so I ask Deo if we can go “Pole, pole, pole, pole, pole” – I am not sure he sees the joke, but we go even slower anyway, so that works for me.

On the way to camp, Caroline introduces Heather and I to the Shocker (not literally I hasten to add). I think I should just leave it right there, and so I will:). By the time we get to camp it has been a long day already. I am starting to feel a headache coming on. Kikelewa is not pretty, but we do have great views of Mawenzi and also Kibo (seen below) in the distance:

Kikelewa camp, approaching sunset

After getting to camp I feel pretty bad. My head pounds like I have been hit with a cricket bat, and I feel nauseous. The popcorn that I have been looking forward to sounds revolting, and I go and see Deo and tell him what is wrong. He says “take 500mg of Paracetamol”. Although I hate taking tablets of any kind, if he had said “take two kilogrammes of Paracetamol”, I would have done it. I just needed some relief. I went straight to my tent and slept instantly, like I hadn’t slept for a week. I was woken by someone for dinner, and ate it, feeling mildly less nauseous, but stilll headachy. It was all a bit of a blur really – I think we may have played cards (Yuker, which I learn afterwards is spelled “euchre” – thanks Caroline:)), and I think this may have been a picture of Heather after she had done some sort of barn door thing after winning or something:

Hmmmmm, not a card trick that I have seen before....

But I am ready to hit the hay and do so relatively early. I am grateful for a great and long day on the mountain, and hope that the night passes without incident…………..