Travel

Who does not love exploring?

Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class4am Saturday morning I roll rather unsteadily into McDonalds Devonport with my friend Mark who has been showing major heat stroke symptoms for some time now…

“What you want Marky-boy?”

“Quarter pounder with cheese and a sprite”

“In France it’s called a Royal with cheese, metric sys…never mind, How you feeling mate”

“Not great”

“Haha, this kind of fun activity will do that to a bloke!”

“You got that right brother”

About 7 hours prior I watched as Mark vomited all sorts of green liquid onto the ground, he was retching away with big dark shadows under his eyes. Shortly after this event I was forcing my red eyes to stay open and focus on a wildlife encrusted road with all the intensity of a fifth year medical student performing his first prostate exam.

By this stage you are probably making assumptions, thinking I am crazy to be drink driving and that we are starring in one of those “mates don’t let mates drink/drive” advertisements, you would be sorely mistaken… The culprit here is bushwalking. To be more precise, bushwalking and underestimating terrain, possibly also overestimating ability.

Since July this year Mark and I have been planning a bush walk together. Over many months of eager anticipation our plans changed from doing the Overland Track with another friend to tackling Frenchman’s Cap in the remote South West to going along the easy Lees Paddocks Track with a few bottles of wine and posh food before finally settling on simply packing super light (I was carrying 16kgs with all my food, clothes, tent and sleeping gear) and cruising about the Central Highlands, making plans day by day.

The first few days are glorious, we enjoy an easy, if somewhat hot trek up the Arm River Track through myrtle and eucalyptus forest, we lunch at the palatial New Pelion Hut amongst tired Overland trekkers before plodding onward and somewhat aimlessly up the Pelion Gap. Mt Pelion East to our left and Ossa to our right greet us like old dolomite friends. Back in an area that is more home to me than the house where I once lived in Devonport I find myself talking to the hills,

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class“Hi Pelion, Ossa, haw have you guys been I missed you guys” (if you have read any of my previous blogs you will know by now I am somewhat weird, and proud of it!)

The only reply is the cawing of black currawongs quickly leaving the scene of their pack raiding crimes. These black crow-like birds can open zippers with their beaks to steal peanuts in the pockets of packs; packs left behind by people sidestepping up nearby peaks. Whipping out the cooker Mark and I watch the water boil as we silently enjoy the amphitheater of mountains that loom stark grey against a bright, hot blue sky. Mark generously lets my talking-to-mountains moment pass without jest, this hardworking father of two feels the same reverence as I do for mountains. Two French men return from Mt Ossa to discover the contents of their packs strewn around the small platform.

“The birds can get into your pack mate”

“Really…”

One does not seem convinced, the tension is evident as they discuss in French whether to confront us about raiding their abandoned packs or to move on. The moods quickly lightens when they spot signage depicting birds opening packs along with explanations of this clever bird’s behaviour. Mark and I finish our drink, pack up and continue climbing.

“Looks like a good spot mate”

“What a view!”

“This will do eh”

We set up our bivvy bags (gore-tek coffins which just pass for tents on light weight missions) on a ridge amongst Tasmania’s finest mountains, eat in almost gospel like silence then watch the sky turn from shimmering blue, to pink, salmon, grey and black, before we maneuver into our respective beds, zip up and try to sleep.

The morning sun brings a complete lack of motivation so we wash a muesli bar down each with a coffee and stroll downhill to enjoy a day of swimming and lazing in the magnificent pool near historic Old Pelion Hut. Old Pelion hut was built in 1895 to house the mine manager when the Mole Creek and Zeehan Mineral company were exploring the area for copper. There are old mines surrounding the hut, the biggest is about 60 metres long and glistens gold in torch light at its deepest, surely great fun to explore. I think it’s brilliant that the area was not rich enough in deposits to be completely raped for profit and that this hut is one of the few remnants of a gun-ho era left in this park, my church. When the miners left in the 1920’s Old Pelion Hut was used by cattle men. When the cattle men left the snarers moved in, they went snaring in the winter to catch possums when their coats were thicker and worth more money, seems a hard way to earn a living. The hut is exactly as it was in bygone days, one can imagine the crackling of eucalyptus branches in the fireplace warming cold trappers, except that the fireplace was removed in the 1970’s to prevent this important piece of heritage being burnt down. Oh and those wankers who think they need to carve their names into the soft King Billy Pine weatherboards, no one cares if you “were ere” feck off, sorry, anyway…

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical classThat night we lean against the hut outside eating dinner and have a conversation which is to completely change to tone of the walk. I put my pasta bowl aside and pull out the map;

“I think we need some off track action mate, what do you reckon?”

“Yeah we have been a bit soft”

“Up Mt Oakley, then along the ridge, then we can either chill at this lake marked just here, or we can go down this creek back to the track”

“Looks fine man, the terrain does not look too hard judging by these contour lines and it is only about eight kays”

“Deal”

“Done”

“Small medicinal whiskey sir?”

“Does the pope shit in the forest!”

We are right about the first bit, the next day we get to the top of Mt Oakley in plenty of time to enjoy a few hours soaking up expansive views (framed by shimmering blue skies) and testing our nerves by standing too close to sheer cliffs. Sadly we are a bit off target with the second bit, the off track section of our walk. I have both compass, map and a GPS which I am learning to use, I know all the mountains surrounding us on a first name basis and am confident in the use of both map and compass, as is Mark. The terrain, however, throws us a curve ball. Prickly, knotty, bastard thigh high scaparia bush is really hard to push through, it is hot and soon we are out of water, the small lakes (or ‘tarns’ in Tasmanian speak) marked are all but dry. Mark is rapidly running out of steam and I am getting grumpy. I kick at the bushes with my leather boots which proves a complete waste of energy. It takes us three hours to cover what we hoped would only take one and arrive at that bloody “lake marked just here” tired, thirsty and ready to get out of the sun. A quick drink and dipping of feet in the cooling water has us deciding to push on down the creek towards the track, a few short kilometers downhill. Again the terrain completely throws us, we should have bought a more ‘zoomed in’ map to get a better idea of the terrain. Familiar mountains abound with which to aline our maps and triangulate our positions, we both agree on our position but seem to not be making very good time at all.

It is getting dark, I am grumpy at our slow progress and decide to leave Mark resting by the creek. Pushing on down to the track alone I leave my red bag top (which doubles as a bum-bag) on a tree then return to get my main bag and Mark. Mark thankfully is still here, he has not panicked at being left alone at dusk beside a black creek in a spooky forest with trees that have reaching fingers right out of some cartoonish Halloween special.

Through teamwork and sheer stubbornness we negotiate the thick foliage surrounding the creek and burst onto the track very relieved to be here. Mark immediately-and thoroughly-throws up and I start worrying about his health. Previously I thought he was just tired and slow but now it is clear that Mark is suffering from a solid dose of heat stroke. Bloody hell…heat stroke, how do you treat that again? I hope he does not start convulsing or fainting in the grey torch light. What would I do then?

He is stumbling a bit, throwing up a lot and apologizing even more.

“God bro, sorry, I had no idea you were so crook”

“Yeah man, I just wanted to get to the track before dark eh, sorry about this, I am soft”

“Bullshit, you are sick man, chill out, sweet tea? Water?”

It is now 10 pm and completely dark. We realize that there is a good chance Mark will feel even worse in the morning so we push on to the car. Concerned, I walk behind my mate who stumbling occasionally like he is drunk, he sips water constantly and soldiers on despite clearly wanting to just sleep and rest. I am impressed by the man’s fortitude against the odds, and on an empty stomach!  We stop a few times for soup and tea. I nearly shout for joy when Mark does a wee, he is starting to get some water into his system! Beauty!

We arrive at the car at 2am, both completely exhausted and ready for civilization. Two hours later McDonalds and a mutual decision that Mark will not drive home an extra hour to Legana sees me showered and tucked into bed at 5am. I quickly fall asleep, but not before Mark pops his head into my room to say;

“Type three fun man, type three…

The Russian drunk

A unique solution to the Russian Drunk issue, administered by a tyrannical government.

“So what do you do for work?”

Here we go, generally my rule is that anyone who starts a conversation with this question is going to be a complete bore. However, this guy looks like a person who has lived an interesting life, maybe it’s something about the tattered old doctors case beside his scuffed brown cowboy style boots, I do not know but I decide to ignore my rule and have a chat.

“Well, that is one loaded question. Would you like the long or the short version?”

“I have four hours to kill, how long is the long version?”

“Ok, well then, the long-abridged-version is not much to be honest, I’m doing a bit of traveling, currently trying to get a book published, climb a few hills. In a past life I was a pharmacist. You?”

“I own a house in Indonesia, just got divorced, ride a Harley”

“Good start”

This is where Rob the pockmarked trauma surgeon gives me a half hour soliloquy in his Texan drawl which fills me in on his fifty something years. I find people terribly interesting. I am waiting for Jette’s 3pm plane to land and, being a tightwad, have caught the last hotel transfer which dropped me at the airport at midday. Rob and I chat for hours over a coffee. I last opened the mental folder titled “Pharmacology” two years ago and it is surprisingly refreshing to dust off the cobwebs and be talking about drugs, debating dosages and indications.

“So what is the most internal ricochets you have seen?”

“Three, I once saw a bullet which went in the hip, bounced up to the scapula and changed course on a rib. Low velocity bullets are worse, high velocity just go straight through”

“Big problem?”

“Everyone is damn well shooting each other in America, it gets tiring. What are the drug laws like in Australia”

“Rather strict….”

(I will skip forward fifty minutes to the interesting bit to spare you the shop talk)

“Did you hear about how the Russians fixed alcohol abuse in their remote villages?”

“Nope, Antabuse, Zyprexa?”

“No, it is crazy what they did, this is something you would never get away with in America…or Australia”

“Go on”

“Well, the Russian government needed an effective and cheap solution to the Russian drunk problem. They took villagers who were killing themselves with cheap moonshine and had doctors put them under anesthesia, they cut a small line in their leg, then stitched it up again”

“OK, what? How is this helping alcohol abuse?”
“Well, when the patients woke up they told them they now have a special microchip inserted in their leg which will kill them if they ever take a sip of alcohol away from immediate medical care”

“Like back at their villages”
“Yup”

“Wouldn’t they just not believe the doctors and try anyway”

“No, so here is the kicker, while the patients were still in hospital and attached to a drip they told them they had to check the chip was active, they gave the patient a shot of whiskey and out of sight injected a whack of a short acting neuromuscular blocker into their drip”

Note: Neuromuscular blockers stop people from being able to use their muscles and to breath for themselves-like Tacrine which was used in the London Subways some time ago-one is completely conscious, with eyes open able to see and think but unable to move or breath, not a pleasant sensation I would imagine. The heart continues beating as, being somewhat important, it has a few safety systems in place. The people in London were conscious but unable to breath and died from asphyxiation.

“You’re making this up Rob, surely”

“No, all true, the patient is lying there unable to move or breath and they bag them”

“Bag them, like with resuscitation with the little bellows breathing for them”

“Correct, the doctors then frantically ran about acting like they were trying to save the patient’s life, they also unplugged the cardiac monitor to give the flatline beeeep warning and injected saline into the drip, pretending it was lifesaving drugs”

“So, after five or so minutes muscle function returned and they were able to breath for themselves”

“Correct and the doctors would casually say to the patient, ‘well the chip is active’ and walk out, apparently it works, 100% abstinence after the procedure”

Sometimes I am glad to be a tightwad, sometimes you get to meet the most interesting people. Rob went on to tell me about his (recently) ex-wife who stole his prescription pads nearly costing him his license and about his love for Harleys and Indonesia. The best story by far was the drunken Russians, I thought I should share it!

British Airways airport horror

This is a horror story that happened to me in Heathrow, my own British Airways airport horror, well, near horror, more of a misdemeanor really.

One would think that after traveling somewhat these last 2 years I would have collated a better swearword vocab but all I can manage now is a mumbled “Fuck…Fuck-fuck-fuck”

Things start to go downhill when we don’t. The plane circles above Bangkok, I’m on the way to Christmas with my family nearby Jakarta, it is already five minutes past our scheduled landing. The two hours I have in Bangkok are slipping through my fingers. When I booked these flights in June my darling travel agent Mel said,

“Two hours is manageable mate, you should be OK, but don’t dawdle”

“Christmas is busy though Mel”

“You can run eh!”

“Yeah but if anything goes wrong future Ben will hate me”

“You should be fine”

“I suppose this is future Ben’s problem!”

I know never to question Mel, or to doubt her expansive knowledge of all things travel. When I ignored her advice about getting a visa early for Carnavale I had to detour to Uruguay for a Brazilian visa and missed three days of Carnavale. Now it turns out that Garuda Airlines do not play well with others. This means that in my two hours in Bangkok I have to exit through immigration, collect my bag, pass customs, go to the desk, check-in, enter through immigration, clear security and find the gate. I know the Suvarnabhumi Airport well-I have passed through it seven times in the last 2 years-they are efficient and quick but still, “Fuck,fuck,fuck” stop circling, land the bloody thing!

My commute to here has been fine. In Denmark I watched an octogenarian women systematically destroy three beers on a train at 11am. I flew over London’s center at night looking down on the big blue eye, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. While we passed I chatted to a very British man who told me about his friend. Gary’s friend wrote the well known “da, da, na, naah” jingle know it? It is played before advertising breaks on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown, the 80’s music show. Gary’s friend is paid six pounds in royalties every time it plays, this sounds like a piddling amount. However, the jingle plays four times a show and to this day repeat episodes are being aired worldwide, meaning that this little “da, da, na, naah” earns the musician around seventy-thousand pounds annually. I make a mental note to pull out the keyboard in Tassie.

On my flight from London to Bangkok there was an Indian guy seated directly in front of me who drunk gin the whole way, the girl to my right slept for ten hours straight. I watched some Art house movie with cello music and grainy pictures, drunk some wine. Fidgeted. Bear Grylles and Top Gear are listed under factual documentaries, which is debatable.

15:20 – 2 hours 0 mins to next takeoff.

Circling above Bangkok, thinking I will miss the first Christmas with my family in two years, I am as tense as a racehorse. The chief cabin crew manager Sam continually repeats what the captain says except with a lisp,

“Ladies and gentlemen we are in a holding pattern but expect to land soon”

Twenty-second pause

“Laideeth and gentlemen, thith is Tham the chief cabin crew manager ath the captain hath said we are in a holding pattern, we hope you have enjoyed the hothpitality of this Britith Airwayth….”

“I’ll show you hothpitality British Airways”

This annoys me more than it should, the man is just trying to do his job

“Laideeth and Gentlemen, ath Ben hath just thought, I am jutht trying to do my job, I hope…”

“Oh pith off Sam”

I have not slept for about forty-one hours, ‘humour level’ warning lights are blinking red on my dash.

15:50 – 1 hour 30 mins to next takeoff.

“Ladies and gentlemen we have landed within 40mins of our expected landing”

“Ladeeth and gentlemen, thith ith…”

I turn to the man in the aisle seat,

“Finally. Hey mate, just to warn you, when the seatbelt light thinks about going out I am running”

“No worries, good luck catching the next one”

“Cheers man, have a great Christmas”

It is taking an unusually long time to couple the skyway with the plane. I am unable to contain myself anymore so before the seatbelt lights go out I jump out of seat 48E-at the very back-grab my bags and make my way down the aisle. This prompts around four hundred other passengers to follow suit. Forcing my way apologetically down the crowded aisle I annoy everyone

“Sorry, about to miss a connection…excuse me, need to get off first…connection soon, sorry”

Midway, an elderly couple don’t let me through

“We also have a connection”

“Yeah, but I reckon I can run faster than you…excuse me, sorry”

They laugh and wish me good luck, I force a smile, wish them luck as well and push onward.

16:18 -1 hour 2 mins to next takeoff.

The plane doors open releasing a cloud of green, stagnant air into Bangkok’s brown atmosphere along with four hundred passengers. Dodging wheelchairs and prams littering the corridor I bolt. Try if you will, sitting still for eleven hours then sprinting 750 meters, this guarantees crippling cramps. I imagine blood clots being loosened from my calves as I run past relaxed holiday makers. Skidding to a halt at the nearest information desk I slam my itinerary down and gasp,

“Can you get me on this plane?”

While I jitter and twitch, the woman takes my itinerary, slowly taps on her keyboard, strokes her chin and casually asks a colleague something in Thai. My eyes bore into the top of her head as I think,

“Information desks are where airlines park slow employees who they don’t know what to do with, like trolley boys and CEOs”

She looks up then tells me,

“Sorry sir, you need to collect bag, immigration and…” I grab the papers and bolt to the crowded immigration area.

16:25 I run up to a suited lady with 55 minutes to go.

“Flight. Soon. Can you help me get through immigration?”

“OK”

She leads me to a priority queue with only a small family being processed. Two young children are having a lovely time having their photos taken while Dad chats with the official.

“C’mon, hurry up, what is this?”

Mum looks at me angrily, I hold her gaze. I have morphed into my alter ego ‘Psycho travel man” Do. Not. Hold. Me. Up!

Laconically the immigration man waves me over. He checks my details carefully. Yes, I am still Ben West, was still born in Devonport…this has not changed since I last entered your country. I do not hang about to make the usual kangaroo smalltalk. With a stamp in my passport I run to baggage collections for rucksack time.

16:40 – 40 mins to takeoff. Still not checked in.

While waiting I mentally practice the move to get my bags on quickly. Small black pack on right shoulder, sling Big Red off conveyor onto left shoulder. Big Red on the back, small black becomes a canvas beer belly. Big Red trundles up the belt and into sight. It takes all my willpower not to run up the conveyor, Crocodile Dundee style, to grab it.

Garuda still do not know that I am here, I need to check in. Now loaded with an extra 30 kilograms I trot towards customs. Trusting that I am sweating from running and not a rectum crammed with heroin, the man accepts my declaration form without breaking my stride. This is where I break travel rule number one, I ‘man-down’ and load a nearby trolley. Running, I weave my trolley around groups of tired looking commuters and drunken toddlers to find level 4 and the check-in counter.

Going up the escalators I figure out why luggage trolley wheels have tread. Every trolley has a comb-like tread which slot into the escalator grip pattern to stop mad buggers in a rush trying to push their way up an incline.

16:50 – 30mins to takeoff, I dump Big Red onto the scales and gasp,

“Time enough, do I have?”

I have turned into Yoda

“Why of course sir”

“Great, thought, missed *breath* flight”

“No, you have just made check-in”

“Brilliant, Garuda not allowing remote check-in. I found out in Copenhagen, had to pass immigration, customs and that, phew”

“Why you no use transit check-in sir?”

“I had to get my bag”

“No, they fix for you”

“The information lady told me…”

“She is wrong”

“Oh well I made it”

“By the way your next flight is delayed about half an hour, Christmas time is busy.”

Climbing philosophy, It does not have to be fun to be fun


I have just been researching future climbs on the Jagged Globe website and stumbled upon the climbing philosophy quote by mountaineer Andy Owen. The quote reminded me of a conversation I had with my mate Mal last October.

Two days before this conversation I crawled – almost in tears – over the 5150 meter high Larkya La pass in snowy, cold conditions. I was suffering rather explosive gastroenteritis, on the way I had a weird conversation with a German chap. He spotted me hiding behind a rock as every drop of liquid was purged from my digestive tract post haste, watching with interest for a while he said;

“Are you OK there?”

I looked up and saw only a silhouette, I forgot to mention that we faced a big day and started walking at around five in the morning.

“Yeah mate, I’ll be OK”

What I really wanted to say was;

“Fucks sake, what does it look like you fucking fool!”

Surprisingly though, throughout the crawl over the pass I never once wished myself out of this experience, sickness is just a natural part of trekking in Nepal, especially for idiots who accept the grubby nailed farmer’s offer to, “Come in for a cup of milk tea”. This is a classic example of type two fun, but I am getting ahead of myself…

I am getting to the conversation with Mal, promise! …two days later I was all but recovered and feeling rather proud of surviving this ordeal. The mood of the expedition had slightly changed, we were on an eight day trek back to civilisation after a very exciting climb, everyone was starting to get slightly reflective, borderline laconic. The adrenaline had all burnt off and we were winding down.

While wandering past the small township of Goa, through fields of wild marijuana, Mal turned to me. Wisdom gained from his years of slogging up icy mountains was showing in his eyes as he said;

“Do you know about the four types of fun Ben?”

“What’s that?”

“The four types of fun, never heard of them bro?”

“No idea mate, something to do with how hard you work to have the fun?”

“Well…”

We strolled along the winding valley and Mal explained his theory to me.

“Well Ben, type one fun is fun at the time and fun afterwards”

A classic example of type one fun is eating a ripe strawberry or dancing in your boxer shorts.

I once lived with a bloke called Simon Turk. Simon and I are great mates and we used to take great delight playing cruel jokes on each other. One time as I walked between the shower and my room with only a towel around my waist I made Simon look up from his breakfast with a cheery “Good morning”

Just as he looked up I dropped the towel, stark naked.

Simon covered his eyes but quickly did a shocked double take. I had done a ‘testie tuck’ or ‘manjina’ Simon’s expression at my apparent Barbie’s Ken-like lack of genitalia had me in fits of mirth, however, Simon took a few hours to fully appreciate this piece of comic genius.

This whole experience for me was definitely type one fun. Fun then and fun afterwards but for Simon it was probably closer to type two…

“Type two fun is not fun at the time but fun shortly afterwards”

Type two fun, like my crawl over the pass involves a relatively quick bounce back. Like rock climbing for the first time, it is certainly not fun as you desperately claw at grips while not trusting the rope to catch you. As soon as feet reach terra-firma again you realise that it actually was fun and want to go again. The more you partake in type two activities the more they resemble type one. Example: I have a terrible fear of public speaking but by actively seeking opportunities to do just this I have managed to make it morph into type one, however,

“Type three fun is not fun at the time but after months, sometimes years, you realise that it truly was fun and begin to consider doing it again”

Type three fun is the most rewarding. It generally means that you have launched yourself completely out of that cable TV watching comfort zone and have seen or done things which you never dreamt possible, or you have just done something plain stupid. Climbing really big mountains or running marathons are both type three activities. Also doing stuff which is just plain stupid…

In April 2011 got chatting to a short-ish, muscly Brazilian chap about his big surfboard bag while waiting to drop my bags off at the Santiago airport.

“Hey mate, how many boards you got stuffed in there?”

“Only two, and all of my clothes for the month”

“You off to Sydney as well?”

“Yeah, to see my sister, then to Bali for some surfing”

“Nice, Bali’s good hear”

“World class, my name’s Ian”

“Ben”

We dropped off our bags and wandered the international airport aimlessly, our journey linked by a six hour layover.

“Hey Ian, did you know you can pay fifteen dollars Australian and hang out in the VIP lounge?

“Really, I am keen”

“Well, free grog, food and wi-fi, let’s do it”

Five and a half hours later we staggered out of the VIP lounge reeking of whiskey to find our gate, we had drunk the best part of a bottle of whiskey and I was ready to collapse in my seat and sleep the flight away. Boarding passed in a blur. Ian swapped seats to be beside me. He relieved a grateful young redheaded girl originally seated by my side from being stuck next to this bearded, whiskey-smelling man who had been in transit for two days (My transit went from Marseille France to Rio to Sao Paolo to Santiago, Sydney then home. A quirk of my flight bookings it was cheaper to go this way than to sneak around the back). Ian all but passed out by my side, not before talking loudly right throughout the safety speech. I stared at the bloody seatbelt sign intently as we took off and made a mad dash for the toilet as it went out.  Waking briefly in New Zealand for our short fuel stop I then slept all the way to Sydney. Finally on home turf after ten months exploring I felt refreshed and in sync with the time zone change, if a bit dehydrated. Ian, however, was in a bad way. Once relieved of the plane he ran to a toilet and relieved his stomach of all its contents. I never did see Ian again, he was a lovely chap though and we occasionally send each the emails and I have a standing invite to visit Ian in Brazil, despite his suffering. I think Ian would agree that this experience was type three fun for him, it was more a type two for me.

“Type four fun is not fun at the time, never fun afterwards”

Anchors failing, paraglider wings collapsing, ending up in a wheelchair, avalanches, bashing your thumb repeatedly with a hammer and so forth. Nothing more to say, I have never experienced this type of fun, thankfully.

For me, fun it is most rewarding when a type is reduced; when something that absolutely terrifies me the first time is not so bad the second time. Personally, fun is best when it pushes me completely out of my comfort zone. This is what drives some people to fly further, climb higher and do what others may consider stupid or irresponsible.

Having said that though, if the fun-type of an activity reduces to the point of complacency many type two activities can quickly become type four. Which is best avoided.

Having shared all this philosophy, however, sometimes it is nice to just eat a juicy, ripe strawberry while dancing in your boxer shorts.

Manaslu expedition – lessons learnt

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntI had many important lessons when on my Manaslu expedition with Mal in October last year, not least of which are the four golden rules of good mountain communication:

1 Thou will not assume knowledge in others.

“The sat phone does not work on the hill babe, but we’ll be right”

2 Thou will always consider the other person on line.

“I’m in some tricky terrain man”

“Can you get back up to camp 2?”

“I’ll try” *Radio silence, Mal exhausted but starts preparing for a rescue*

3 Your voice changes at altitude.

“Is thith Yeh-the?”

“Yes, who is this? What has happened”

“Is thith Yeh-the…”

4 Thou will never assume the worst.

“Melanie, I am in Kathmandu, call me soon”

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntIn October last year I climbed a mountain called Manaslu in the Gorkha region of Nepal. Manaslu is 8162 meters high and quite remote, for me it was an incredible adventure and the fulfillment of a life long dream. I learnt a lot about what to (and what not to) tell loved ones before, during and after such a climb. I climbed with Mal Haskins who is a serial adventurer, world class paragliding pilot, professional mountaineer and (I am proud to say) a good mate. My experience is embryonic compared to Mal. Mal has had his head firmly in the clouds for years since he shelved a promising career as an electrical engineer with the Australian armed forces to, as he says; “Get into the hills Bro” He has guided in Nepal numerous times-most notably on Lhotse which is an imposing 8000 meter high lump of ice and rock very near Mt Everest. Mal has lead climbing trips in Peru and is constantly dragging paid clients around his now native New Zealand. For Mal a climb of New Zealand’s Mt Cook is just a standard day at the office. Me? Well, I have survived a ten day mountaineering course in New Zealand, climbed to just over 6000 meters in Nepal and turned back just below the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador due to bad snow pack conditions. Embryonic.

You are wondering, no doubt, what was I thinking when I signed up to tackle this intimidating beast with a small team of four climbers. Put simply, I love being on mountains, even without the plan of getting to that final pointy bit, I love prancing around in crampons, swinging off ropes and looking at the view from high places. Like many people I find peace in the hills. In big hills I find inner peace flavored with awe and wonderment. My initial goal was to climb to a camp at 7450 meters and to film Mal flying past me. On this mission Mal was planning to not only summit but to also launch from the top with a speed wing and skis. Speedflying is a sport where people use a small version of a paragliding wing and skis to zoom down mountains occasionally kissing their slopes with skis while reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometers an hour. In the thin air above 8000 meters Mal was expecting to go much, much faster than this and no one has attempted such a feat. On the climb I felt strong, conditions were not right for Mal to fly and he didn’t need a cameraman so I pushed on to the top. I would have been really happy to reach my initial goal of 7450 meters so when I found myself enjoying half an hour at the pointy bit gasping for air and snapping self portraits I was beyond ecstatic.

As little as I knew, my girlfriend and emergency contact Jette knew even less. While Mal and I were crunching onwards to the top Jette was frantically chewing her nails back in her native Denmark.

‘Thou will not assume knowledge in others’

When I sent Jette an email casually mentioning that the phone did not work on the hill I assumed that she would figure we had regular scheduled radio contact with base camp (base did have contact with the outside world should we need to order an emergency KFC bucket or even rescue helicopter). However, Jette thought that Mal and I were bumbling about on an 8000 meter high hill without any communications at all, this caused her significant angst.

The second communication law involves use of radios. Mal and I reached camp three fairly late in the afternoon, we were extremely tired after four big summit days, however I decided to continue down to camp two with the understanding that Pemba was planning to follow shortly with a load. I happily set off in the afternoon light and Mal crawled into his tent, comforted that I would soon be in good company. However, Pemba changed his mind and instead of descending with gear he went to bed at camp three, completely exhausted he didn’t tell anyone. This would have only meant a lonely night for me at the abandoned camp two…had I not got off trail. As the sun set I veered too far to the left and what started as ankle deep and supportive snow became soft, thigh deep snow. Each time I broke the thin, icy crust I would lunge, pull myself up, roll onto my belly and stand to take a few more steps. Every few steps the crust gave way and I fell back into thigh deep snow. Now, every time the crust broke and I broke through I was convinced that I would fall into a deep crevasse. After four days going up and one down I was understandably exhausted and very, very scared.

I sat in the snow watching a truly spectacular sunset paint nearby peaks while trying for about half an hour to get Mal, or anyone, on the radio without success. I gave up and prepared for a very lonely and cold night out in the elements alone. Survival is not guaranteed when outside overnight on big hills, even inside our highest camp with four people crammed into one tent we recorded minus twenty-eight degrees. Finally Mal, who unknown to me, had been trying to follow my progress visually without success, turned on the radio and we had a crackly conversation:

“Ben, you there? Do you copy Ben?”

“Mal, when is Phemba coming down? I’m a bit off the track and in some pretty deep snow…”

“Um …. it appears that Phemba is not coming down tonight bro … Can you manage your way back to the track and come back up?”

“%^**….$%^^% – I’ll try man….”

I turned off my radio to save batteries and backtracked, comforted that Mal was now aware of my predicament.

‘Thou will always consider the other person on line’

Mal grew increasingly concerned at my lack of radio contact and decided to send Sidi Mama (our other climbing sherpa) down to get me. In my own little world of pain I did not consider Mal and had not even turned on my headlight in the dusk light. I did not have the presence of mind to realize that a bright light on my head may help both Mal and Sidi to find me. Finally back on the trail I was met by Sidi who aided a very exhausted (emotionally and physically) me down towards camp two.

When Sidi reached me I still had not thought to turn on my headlight or radio and all that Mal could see was a lone headlight (which he knew was Sidi’s) going down to camp two. With the limited knowledge available to him Mal grew concerned that I had fallen into a deep crevasse and was in real trouble so he started quickly preparing his gear for a rescue. Finally down at camp two Sidi thought to radio Mal;

“Mal, this is Sidi – Ben and I are now are C2″

“Whew, thank F#$K, goodnight”

Sidi and I had a very cold, hungry night under a single sleeping bag at camp two. I was more than happy to only be a bit cold but in good company. When Mal came down to the following day he spotted the tracks from my little adventure and commented on how close to the trail I was. This brought home just how easy it is to get confused and scared when at altitude and beyond tired. Next time I’ll just stay at camp and drink a cup of tea. Lesson learnt.

Mal’s finance Sophie was stationed at bast camp where she radioed us weather reports and updated the expedition website (www.speedfly8000.com) with information, she also kindly offered to send Mum, Dad and Jette personal emails of our progress to keep everyone in the loop. During our descent Sophie was kept very busy retrieving useful weather information for us and with monitoring progress so for the two days of our descent she did not have a chance to contact the outside world with an update.

When I did arrive at base camp and despite telling her I would only ever email, the first thing I wanted to do was to call my normally unflappable girlfriend. At the time of my call she had not had any news for two sleepless nights and was at a conference, it is kind of ironic that the conference was about her employer’s safety protocols. Jette sat next to a mountain climber who spent the entire morning gleefully telling her countless stories of missions gone wrong on descent and with ensuring she was fully conversant with the fact that descent is the most dangerous part of a climb. Right before she had to do a role play about the dangers of staplers her phone rang and displayed “Manaslu Emergency Phone” Understandably concerned Jette grabbed her phone and ran into the hallway. This is where I managed to unwittingly upset her further. ‘Your voice changes at altitude’

Standing beside my tent at base camp I had bad reception and my voice was different due to exhaustion, altitude and emotion. Mostly my voice was unrecognizable due to a recalcitrant tongue. Numerous blood noses caused by the thin, very dry air had blocked my nose and forced me to mouth breath while climbing. With UV’s flooding in my mouth my tongue had become sunburnt and was swollen, red and sore. I sounded like a patient after root canal surgery. She did not recognize the voice that repeatedly asked;

“Is this Jette?”

I could not recognize the voice squeaking

“Who is this?”. Finally I managed to convince Jette that it was really me calling with good news of a successful climb. Lesson learnt.

The last communication lesson was not a first hand one. My sister Mel was relying on both our expedition website and on Mum for news. She had noted no updates for a few days during our ascent and had emailed Mum asking for news of her little brother. A day after sending this email Mel received the following message;

“I am at Kathmandu, call me now”

Mel immediately assumed the worst, picturing Mum in Kathmandu weeping over my corpse she found a teaching aide and left her classroom quickly to contact Mum. When Mum picked up she asked Mel,

“What size is your son wearing these days?”

“Why are you in Kathmandu? What has happened! Is Ben OK?”

“What, Yeah, I am just buying your kids some clothes, what size does Ameer take now?”

“Oh…thank F#$K, Kathmandu, the clothing shop, yeah?”

“Yeah, where else?”

‘Thou will never assume the worst’

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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