Mountains

My father was an outdoor education teacher, both my parents are avid lovers of the outdoors. I compled a ten day mountaineering course in 2008 and have been getting high ever since.

Homeward bound

grey Homeward boundJust after writing my last post we got word that all the climbing sherpas were going to wait about 4-7 days to finish fixing the mountain. Fixing the mountain involves securing communal safety lines on the tricky bits for all the expeditions to utilise. This wait was due to heavy snow on the Dablam bit of the mountain. Basically it was described as waist deep pellets of snow covered with a thin crust of solid snow – not ideal for climbing (read: deadly). News which, although sad for the boys keen to push on, kind of backed up my decision to bail on a summit attempt.

This delay sadly put our team out of the game and unable to make a summit attempt. On the plus side it meant that I would have some awesome company on the trek back to Lukla! We mooted the idea of making an attempt on Island Peak but everyone was feeling completely worn and ready to go so once the news settled in, we set about organising our retreat back to Kathmandu.

Our retreat involved changing flights from Lukla to Kathmandu and then trying to organise flights home. Some of the lads were thinking about going to Thailand for some rock climbing fun but as I said in my last post, I was ready for home. Flight changes were made extra difficult as Nima, our man on the ground in Kathmandu, had been in hospital for the last ten days (Jinxed-we are trying to figure out which one of our team killed a chinaman before coming here…)

grey Homeward bound

Relaxing at Base

On our third day at base camp, and having read everything in reach, including nutritional info on camp food packets, Dave, Brendan and I made the call to lash out and trek to Pangboche to stay in a nice, civilised tea house. The trek down took about one hour – a trip which on the way up was a high altitude ordeal of headaches, nausea and tirdness -  we were full of red blood cells and ready to demolish the trek towards Lukla. Our decision to spoil ourselves with a night at Pangboche proved a huge succes as we each ate a very tasty hashbrown with egg on top washed down with a Heneken beer.

A tall, thin sherpa with a long ponytail came over saying he remembers us from Ama Dablam Base camp. He went on to say he also left the mountain early as he believes that it cannot be fixed in less than two weeks. He was on the mushroom above camp one and described waist deep snow, sketchy anchoring possibilities and conditions which, again, justified our leaving the hill alone…this time.

Sometime the following day the rest of the boys arrived and we set sail for civilisation.

Four days of uneventful trekking later we arrived at Lukla and were packed into the rattly twin otter plane ready for home. News arrived that teams were still struggling to make any progress on the hill. Silently wishing them luck we flew back to Kathmandu and the promise of a proper hot shower, maybe some Thai food, more beers and an early return home.

To round up my series on this adventure I am currently working on a few video, photo and shorter posts about an average day in the life of an expedition, the joys of acclimitisation and other logistical, but hopefully interesting, things I have learnt along the way.

Please let me know if there is anything that you want to specifically know about.

Blue skies and happy feet.

Ben

grey Homeward bound

Ama Dablam from Pangboche

Ama Dablam – the second big decision

Gosh I have forgotten how hard, and fun, acclimitizing on a big hill can be! We slogged our way up to Yak camp (just below camp one) and left some gear then returned to Base to rest. It took about five hours of hard work, and cruel false ridges, to get to Yak camp, then about two hours return.

The following day we packed more gear and returned to Yak camp. This time our bodies had taken the hint and made more red blood cells to allow us to more efficiently work in the thin air. The going was still tough but we made it to Yak camp, sorted out gear and crashed.

The following day, we wandered up to Camp one. Camp one is, in a word, incredible. It is set on a ridgeline under the imposing peak of Ama Dablam and affords views right down to Pangboche, across to Namche (well the mountain above Namche) and you can see the route to the summit of Ama Dablam. The famous, and fearsome yellow and grey towers loomed above us. Bish and I shared a tent which was set on a built up platform of rock and snow right at the high side of Camp one. The camp is so steep that our tent was mostly on terra firma but around the lower edges was hanging in thin air. It was weird to put a water bottle down only to have it slump like it was in a hammock, hanging in the fabric of the tent floor. With mild altitude headaches and aching bones we ate our dehydrated meals on a ledge outside our tent then crawled into our beds. The plan was to climb up and ‘tag’ camp two, then to descend, rest and ready for a summit bid.

Due to space restrictions, Bish and I were forced to sleep top to tail so my feet were kicking his head and vice verca. Being as cold as it was (minus ten by 6:30pm) we had stored everything inside the tent. My head was between my stinking boots and Bish’s stinking feet. Bish was on the ‘drop-side‘ of the tent so he was rather motivated to stay closer to me than to the edge, no way would I begrudge him this!

Not for the first time on a mountain, I did not sleep a wink that night.

My mind was working overtime, trying to justify being in this unforgiving environment while my awesome wife was at home, alone in Melbourne worrying about my safety. Without wanting to cause the families of the other lads on this exped concern – they are all proving to be great, safe, level headed climbers – I was struggling to justify being here, an environment where one silly mistake could well have serious consequences.

I tossed and turned all night and got out of my tent in the morning knowing that I would have to make a hard decision.

Mal bounded up to our tent full of enthusiasm with a big grin (bloody morning people) to ‘give me a hard pill,’ “C’mon Ben, time to go mate.”

“Sorry Mal, I am not feeling it today, I am going to pass on this one dude…”

“Seriously! All the hard acclimitizing is done though Bro…”

“Yeah mate, I’ll just chill out here, enjoy the view and let the other boys go for it…”

“Fair enough, your call mate.” It is great that Mal gets it, he is not one of those summit or die type dudes but is happy to let each member make their own call without undue stress – this is meant to be fun after all!

Soon I was alone at camp one, chilling out amongst astonishingly beautiful mountains. Clear blue skies all around me and views that would make any self respecting geologist gush, combined with local birds soaring the ridge and that soul filling mountain silence left me in a contemplative mood. I relaxed on my rock thinking of home, wondering if I would regret this decision, but pretty sure I had made the right call. The last thing you want is to go for it half assed, nervous, or distracted – and I was all three. The good thing is that I seriously, seriously enjoy playing on mountains with good dudes – and we have done plenty of that. In no way do I judge the success of an expedition on a summit. To do this means gambling months of hard slog on one or two days of the right conditions (physical, mental and weather), if you just enjoy the process then every trip is a success…like I said, I was in a contemplative mood!

So there I was, sitting on my sleeping mat brewing a coffee when I go up to get something out of my bag. A gust of wind grabbed my mat and whipped it over the ridgleline. My intrepid sleeping mat then soared the ridgeline higher and higher before catching another gust to well above the next ridge. In a rather graceful flight it then flew around and around 200 meters down, to land at the feet of a surprised French climber who rolled it up and bought it up for me… at least my sleeping mat is up for being extreme and pushing limits on big, pointy Himalayan mountains!

Now, as for the other boys…they are currently resting at base camp, nervously watching conflicting weather reports with fingers crossed hoping for a weather window. I will be staying down at base camp with Dave, (who has forgone a summit bid for similar reasons as me) we will be checking the boys’ progress if they do get a summit window, and then it will be a few more days trekking back to Lukla to face that scary flight out to Kathmandu.

I am sure that we will come across more blog-worthy moments before this expedition is though so stay posted.

Blue skies and happy feet,

Ben

Ben – Me Gusta los montanas!

Me Gusta los montanas!

Sorry, I am a bit knackered so this will be a quick what-are-we-doing-next update!

Yesterday we got up to Ama Dablam Base Camp (ADBC) and were reunited with our poons, crabs, axes and other climbing gear.

ADBC is set in an incredible amphitheater of mountains with Ama Dablam holding watch over the whole site, quite an imposing guard! I really wish I could share some photos but they will have to wait.

Today we had a lazy morning in lieu of having an expedition leader… Mal stayed at Pangboche the previous day with a slight case of poolemia (a great way to lose weight). When Mal arrived around lunchtime today he was refreshed and ready to roll. After sorting gear out of barrels, Bish, Shaun and I headed off up a nearby hill for an acclimatisation walk. The air got thinner but the views opened up and allowed us to see right down the Solu Khumbu Valley to Pangboche and beyond. I stopped on a nice flat(-ish) rock and enjoyed the sun, leaving the two boys to go up a bit further. Half an hour later I figured they had decided to go for the summit of Ama Dablam and I was getting cold so I returned to base. The boys only went up to around 5000 meters and were right on my tail on the return climb.

Tomorrow we are going up to tag camp one, leave some gear then return to base.

The following day we plan to sleep at camp one, then maybe push on higher to sleep at camp two – pending acclimatization and how everyone is feeling.

I will try to update as we go, rest assured that we are all having loads of fun, we are getting colder and slower but are working hard toward our goal. It is really great to be finished with the extended trekking part of the expedition and to be gearing up for the climbing part.

Blue skies and happy feet,

Ben

How do you keep on going?

How do you keep on going?

Day four in the Khumbu Valley, our first proper rest day.

The boys are all outside in the sun washing clothes and listening to music while I am huddled inside the teahouse typing away at my computer.

I will resist the urge to wax lyrical about the beauty of the area, if you want that kind of thing just google “Solo-Khumbu” and you will be treated with a million different blogs all trying to capture a unique perspective on this amazing region. Okay, maybe I will wax-on just a little for the sake of good order. Imagine the biggest, sexiest mountains in the world spilling down to fertile valleys holding small towns adorned in cheery Buddhist flags and a shroud of mist. Brown ribbons of trails run all over the place. On those trails are dotted myriad colourful trekkers staggering about with jaws open and a stunned expression on their faces – the sunned expressions are either due to lack of oxygen or wonderment at this big landscape. Here you will find every type of trekker imaginable: The chiseled man with shiny new trekking pants (with black knee and bum pads) smirking at you through his aviator sunnies, the larger retiree-types who slowly trek and chat amiably, the determined Chinese trekker covering every piece of exposed flesh in Hello-kitty scarfs, surly Swedish trekkers who never get out of the way and one homeless-looking guy with a filthy red rucksack, long oily hair and faded cotton clown pants brushing the mud, “Hi!”.

Just recently I asked the boys how they keep on going when they’re feeling tired, dirty, hypoxic and generally sick of it all.

Here is how you keep on pushing through pain barriers on extended high altitude treks:

1. Jokes – you have got to have a sense of humour. If you can laugh despite feeling tired, homesick and ready for a hug you are halfway there.

2. Music – James Brown, Metallica, Beyonce – it does not matter which genre you prefer. Music helps to block out the pathetic sound of your gasping and serves as a distraction from that fact that your knees are about to explode. I have a special motivational playlist for times of crises. It has songs dedicated to important people in my life. I like to think about these people as I trek, sometimes when really desperate, I imagine them cheering me on.

3. People watching – No matter how tired and ready for a break you may be feeling, other people serve as a distraction. What is that lady in the leopard-print tights and flouro pink crop top thinking? Does the bald guy realize that his entire forehead is about to peel off in one single burnt flap?

4. Mountains – Mountains help. At the risk of sounding like the tree-hugging, Gaia-loving hippy that I am, mountains have a certain aura about them, a presence or power which give weary trekkers a boost.

5. Snickers bars, coke, lollys, water – “I will have a small bite at the top of this ridge-line.”

6. Dummy-mode – This is Andrew’s secret weapon. Just switch off your brain, take in the scenery, switch on your legs and go. Step, step, step – dumb feels no pain!

7. Tag the sherpa – trying to keep up with a 4 foot nothing local who is carrying 100kgs of roof beams is fun, for a short while.

8. Guilt – nothing makes you dry your eyes more quickly than being passed by a 12 year old girl running up the hill on her way to school.

9. Motivational quotes/mantras:

“Pain is just weakness leaving your body” – Mal

“Pain is temporary” – Buddhist quote

“We are having fun, we are having fun?” – Me

That is about it for now guys. I now have to find a young priest and an old priest to help perform an exorcism on my trekking socks.

Next update from Ama Dablam Base camp. Things are about to get fun!

Blues skies and happy feet,

Ben

Ben – The Beasting

The Beasting of Ben

It is 5am on Saturday morning. Last time I saw 5am on a Saturday I was staggering around Hobart, a drunken university student in search of a souvlaki. This time I was woken by a rude Israeli man who thought that outside my room would be a great place to hold a loud conversation…I got up to (not so politely) tell him that it wasn’t! The cheeky bugger said, “Shut your door then” I just stared him down with my crazy morning eyes and wild hair, he left shortly afterwards. “Hi my name is Ben and I am most definitely NOT a morning person…”

Being wide awake, I am now downstairs drinking black tea, listening to the planes take off from the airport next door, as in right next door, I could spit on the planes should I so desire. I am tired so please bear with me if this blog is a bit scattered.

Oh look, something shiny…

Blog update…hmm.

Two things you should know about proper mountaineers (which as a non-proper mountaineer, I have only recently learnt):

1) They abbreviate everything: Crampons = Poons, Ama Dablam = AD, Ama Dablam Base Camp = ADBC, Going Overland a lot = GOAL.

2) Words take on a new meaning. To walk along a glacier, sweating like a fat lady in a bakery is not called ‘trekking’, it is called ‘Beasting yourself”. When you have spent a day covered in snow, trudging along slippery, muddy tracks and wishing you were home with a hot chocolate it is not called ‘lousy’ it is called ‘less than ideal’.

I left off last time with skanky, oily shoulder length hair and in desperate need of a shower. Pleased to report that I managed a bucket shower in a small, cold room. This is quite a trick as, in the cold, when you pour water over yourself you get warm, then random parts (think: the extremities) start to get immediately cold. I managed to wash the last few weeks of trekking out of my hair. I am pretty sure that when I pulled all the loose hair out of my brush it ran off under the door, but maybe the poor light was playing tricks on me.

Our retreat (for want of a better word) back to Thamel has been quite enjoyable.

Everyone is now well acclimatised, pack fit and getting used to each others’ potty humour. I remember that Mal once said, and I agree, that it is a good thing to have at least one girl on expeditions to tone down the testosterone. With seven boys the jokes are becoming increasingly, umm, raw…What’s the hardest thing about Rollerblading?

Day one of our return to Lukla was uphill. This is a double edged sword as I have a dodgy right knee that prefers going uphill, but also I have a lazy attitude which prefers going down. The smoo had firmly settled in the valley closing out any views, but also keeping us nicely cool under the effort. Smoo is fog/cloud/drizzle-stuff. Up and up we went, then around, then up. Occasionally the smoo would open up a dummy hole to give us a glimpse down impossibly big valleys which were dotted with terraced farms, short trees and I-don’t-know-how-to-describe-the beauty-of-this-area, views. A dummy hole is when the entire sky is smoo, but then a patch of blue shows, making all the dummys say, “I think it’s clearing.” Read my blog and you will learn actual meteorological facts kids, just wait until I get onto technical climbing terms!

Late in the afternoon, just as the smoo was turning to proper rain, we got to a tiny, shit-ridden teahouse 300 meters below the pass. We had climbed around 1600 meters (for actual information on place names, heights etc, check out Mal’s updates: www.verticalresources.org). Had we done this climb as un-acclimatized people we would be suffering, like that pale looking guy in the corner with his head in his hands, but as we were acclimatized to 5000 meters it was just a big walk.

The teahouse was overrun with nice smelling trekkers just starting from Lukla and the more pungent variety going out to Lukla. Settling in to relax with a snickers Bar and a tea someone, I don’t remember who, went to the toilet and returned with a somewhat haunted look. When people travel in Asia they tend to come back banging on about squat toilets. In the hills of Nepal a decent squatty is a luxury. Mostly toilets are a hole covered with some planks and a hastily built shed. Wobbly floorboards make the experience rushed, non-existent ventilation makes it multi-sensory. Remember the scene in Lord of the rings, where they are at Mount Mordor and one Hobbit slips, the lava can be seen boiling below his legs as a friend pulls him back up onto the ledge? Yeah, that.

Moving away from toilet stories (However, if you want just one more toilet story, check out the first chapter of my book at www.redrucksack.com/book there is a ripper in there, one which I shudder to recall…) The following morning we woke at 5am and readied ourselves for a big push down to Lukla.

Before going down, we had to go up. The pass had, until recently, been closed due to the storm. We slowly glaciated our tired way up 300 meters to crampon point, then traversed a lovely crunchy, grippy slope. Being early, the smoo had yet to close in and the views were expansive (I wonder when I’ll run out of descriptives? When I start describing everything as ‘radical’, you’ll know I have exhausted my vocab). We could see right down huge valleys to little terraces and forests. To our surprise a lot of groups were coming over the pass in trekking boots, with no crampons, and certainly no skill. One large chap at the tail end of a European group nearly knocked me off the hill when he slid past uncontrollably. It was kind of comical, but mostly, “Do not knock me off the hill with your lack of skill, champ.”

Down we went to below the snow line, to the tree line, through farms, past Yaks blowing trails of steam out of their noses, and over big gullys bridged with fallen trees, and finally into Lukla. Back at the same teahouse where we started around 14 days ago (again for actual information see Mal’s updates!). We sat in the courtyard drinking, you guessed it, tea and rubbing our thighs absently. We had descended over 2000meters in a day and were feeling it. A large, fresh looking group arrived and amongst them was Sidi! My old mate Sidi.

Sidi, or Sidi Mamma was our climbing sherpa on Manaslu in 2011. We get along really well and I hold him in huge regard after how he helped me on the summit day. We had summited the bastard (you know that you have ‘properly’ climbed a mountain when you can only refer to it as ‘the bastard’ or ‘that F#%king hill’ for years afterwards). On the way down Mal and the boys were going to stay at camp three but I wanted to go lower as I was feeling a bit off. Long story short, I got a little bit lost, in my tired, hypoxic state I wasn’t thinking straight and was super scared. Sidi got out of bed and came to my rescue, we went to camp two together and spent a cold night spooning under my sleeping bag (Sidi had left his up at 3).

Note: My wife Jette has given me limited permission to spoon other men: when I am cold and scared on a mountain…and as long as I am the big spoon.

Sidi, Mal and I retired to the dining room to drink tea and catch up on the last few years. He was thrilled that I am now married, I am thrilled that he has another baby and is looking happy, fit and prospering. This random catchup had me grinning throughout the night. Sadly we will miss Sidi by one day in Kathmandu so will not have the chance to take him and his family out for a Thai feast this time.

Being that we are now hitting up the Khumbu valley we will be using Yaks to carry our heavy goods so we held a small function for our porters where we filled them up with Ratchi, tipped them generously and sent them off to paint the town red. Mal and the boys went out to play pool but I stayed in and caught up on emails.

Today we are off up the Khumbu, I am really interested to see how the area has changed since I was here last in 2010. I’ll keep you posted.

Blue skies and happy feet (finally),

Ben

PS – For all the parents of members out there reading this, all the boys are doing well and are having fun. I’ll be letting them do an update on my blog after we have packed away the POONS and CRABS at ADBC. A reader has requested more interesting information about Andrew than his size and the state of his beard, but sadly this is still a work in progress.

PPS – if you have any questions, or want me to write about any specific aspect of this adventure please feel free to ask in the comments section below. I have a trusty Admin who can send me details of requests.

Oh and the hardest thing about rollerblading is telling your family that you are gay.

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