The Cuillin Ridge Greater Traverse: 20-22 April 2015

The ridge

We are both tired and the decision to head to Skye and attempt the Cuillin Ridge could not have been made with less enthusiasm. However, we cannot ignore the perfect weather window and tell ourselves that we’ll feel better once we get there. Sure enough, our reticent malaise fades with every mile of glorious Scottish Highlands that glides by. As the scenery amps up, so too does our psyche. The people become fewer and the mountains bigger. By the time we cross the bridge to Skye we have well and truly succumbed to an infection of carefree vigour and Andy has broached the subject of the Greater Traverse, something I have never even heard of.

Reaching Portree in the early afternoon we make a beeline for the Arriba Café, lay out maps and guide book and devise a cunning plan. Andy elaborates on The Greater Traverse – which I have to admit, sounds absurd. According to the guidebook:

‘Unlikely as it may seem, the pleb’s version (of the Cuillin Traverse) isn’t hard enough for some people. Including outlying Garbh-bheinn, Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn adds a huge distance and an additional 1000m of ascent to an already excessive total. This one’s strictly for masochistic whippets.’

It’s suggested to begin with the standard traverse, then cross to the outlying peaks, finally descending Bla Bheinn to Camasunary where a route march up the central valley takes you north to finish at the Sligachan Hotel. We quickly agree that this is contrived and disingenuous, aesthetically and logistically flawed: it’s neither the aesthetic line, nor does it create a loop.

A better option would start and finish at the Sligachan Hotel, taking in the eastern ridgeline first, before following the coastline round to the foot of the main ridge.

Having eaten well and made a plan we conduct a shambolic sweep of the local Co-op – expedition catering on the cuff – and drive back to Sligachan. By five we have completed our hasty packing and are heading off up the wide Sligachan valley. By quarter past I am running back to the van to get toothpaste and brush and Andy, not wishing to sit idle, is struggling on up the valley humping both bags. Something about less haste, more speed ….

The sky is a monotone grey, the scene void of greenery. Heather and tufty grass alone survives here. The mountains themselves are bare rock. It feels oppressive. Running back up the valley clutching dental supplies I break into a fierce sweat and pull off my shirt to avoid soaking it. It feels good – and slightly crazy – to be running bare-chested into this wilderness.

1 - Walk in to Gars Bhein Bealach

Andy surveying the main ridge

Andy has made better progress than I’d have thought and I’ve made a pact with myself not to stop running ‘til I catch him. As I crest each rise I expect to see him, only to be disappointed. I start to wonder if he hasn’t broken track, and let me run on by.

But sure enough, I eventually catch him, triumphantly brandish the toothpaste and joke that in case this wasn’t going to be hard enough I thought I’d give myself a half hour boot run by way of warm up.

It feels good to be back together again and isn’t long before we break away from the wide central valley and start our climb to the 429m bealach (Gaelic for ‘saddle’). Before climbing away from the stream we take a good drink and fill our bottles – 5 litres between us. There’s little pleasure in the climb: where it isn’t boggy, off camber and slippery, it’s steep, gravelly and loose. But soon we reach the bealach: the start of the first ridge. With an hour or so left of daylight we fight the temptation to stop and bivvy here and instead, set to on our first peak: Ghars Bheinn. It feels very committing and quite odd to start climbing a mountain at this time of day but with so much ahead of us it’s the right thing to do. It’s gone nine, yet still just about light, by the time we reach the bealach on the other side and lay out our respective sleeping arrangements.

The descent of Ghars Bheinn has afforded us a good look at what lies ahead. And having not been in the mountains for some time, I have to admit, it looks intimidating. Clas Glach, otherwise known as the Matterhorn of Skye, is a fine pinnacle of rock and will certainly give us our first taste of exposure come morning.

In the fading light we boil water and set about our rehydrated meals.
Darkness covers us like a veil and it’s not long before we are asleep.

I wake in a cloud just ahead of my 0515 alarm and rouse Andy who’s still gently snoring. Within minutes the cloud is breaking up and by the time coffee is ready we are sitting above one of the most beautiful cloud inversions I have ever seen. To the West the only thing visible above the cloud are the black peaks of the entire Cuillin Ridge, rising like the spikes of a crown from a bed of soft velvet.

4-Cuillin Ridge Inversion

The Cuillin Ridge 

By 0630 we are on the move, fuelled by coffee and porridge and inspired by everything around us. In fact, the morning is so beautiful that any sense of the enormity of what’s ahead is blurred and we simply delight in the moment. It takes a conscious decision, verbally reinforced, to get over being mind-smacked by our surroundings and concentrate on the serious business of not falling off.

 

Day 2 - Dawn above the clouds

Dawn over the mainland (from Clas Glach)

We make surprisingly light work of Clas Glach and enjoy the view and some food for a few minutes at the putting green – the grassy bealach between Clas Glach and Bla Bhein. It feels good to have Clas Glach behind us and be reacquainted with alpine-style climbing. Pushing on, we follow the route as it zigzags through the mountain’s formidable northern walls before arriving at the foot of a Diff corner. This we solo to reach the smooth eastern flank and a rapid yomp in the already warm sun to the summit – our first Munro.

9- B&W MB on Bla Bhein

A clown on Bla Bhein

We rest again, drinking in the panorama before crossing a snowy bealach to the Southern summit, from which we descend eastwards. The first phase seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Although we are already starting to believe that the Greater Traverse will go, I shut that line of thought down, reminding myself of the considerable distance that lies between us and even the start of the main ridge, let alone its finish.

An unpleasant descent on scree brings us to Slat Bheinn, a wide topped spur running all the way to the sea. We hold its western edge, picking an untracked line across a sparse landscape of tufty grass and bog. After the scree, the spongy ground feels good on the joints and we make a swift descent towards Camasunary Bay.

10-Day 2 - AC desends to Camasunary

Andy descending to Camasunary Bay

Towards the end of the descent Andy spots something on the ground and calls me over. There, coiled up in the grass is a snake, enjoying the warm morning sun. Switching to Gerald Durrell mode, I drop my pack, extract my camera and proceed to see how close I can get before it either attacks me or slithers away. As I edge nearer it rises up, looking really pissed off – its morning sunbath has after all been rudely interrupted. As it slithers away I follow it, mesmerized by the grace of its movement. It stops and hisses at me as again I get closer. I can see every individual scale – a shifting mosaic of green and black – as its body expands and deflates with the effort of hissing.

10-Snake

Adder baiting

Entertaining and beautiful as this is, time is sliding by and these My Family And Other Animals antics are not getting us any closer to completing the Greater Traverse. Though Andy appears to patiently tolerate my behaviour, I suspect that he is silently vowing to keep future interesting fauna spots to himself.

That said, we are hardly rushing and soon stop again. This time it’s for the purposes of admin. I bathe my feet in the delicious chill water of a gently babbling stream. Our shirts and sleeping bags are laid across the heather to dry and we’re eating … again. We have prepared ourselves for a torrid and hurty experience on the Greater Traverse, yet so far it has been disconcertingly pleasant. Dare we now suppose that it won’t be so bad after all?

Suitably revived we stride out across the bay, passing the Camasunary bothy before heading out around the Rubha Ban headland. The bay is millpond calm and the water laps and sloshes gently in the clefts of rock just below us. To be in the process of climbing Britain’s biggest mountaineering route yet be enjoying a pristine coastal walk is both weird and wonderful.

During our Arriba Café planning session we had discussed the important matter of ethics and style and were in easy agreement that we would take in all of the named peaks and technical difficulties – a philosophy of total completion. We also decided to swim in the sea.

We round the headland into the next bay, just inland of which lies Loch Coriusk, joined to the sea by surely one of the shortest rivers in the world. Between us and it lies The Bad Step. Presumably, judging by the contours, this is a point at which the path is squeezed between rock and sea. How bad would it be?

Of course, the badness is purely subjective. As a hiker it probably feels quite sketchy. As a climber, it’s more like fun. Having passed it we descend to the water’s edge, dispense of our packs and our clothes and solo in our baby suits back to the crux, from which we plunge into the clear, cold waters below. The immersion shock is intense and wonderful. Whooping with joy and exhilaration we swim back round to our gear, air dry in the sunshine and ponder alternative names for the Bad Step: various permutations of expletive + Awesome + Step.

12- Bad Step Mid Air

The Awesome Step

Moving along this eastern shore we take the opportunity to look at what lies ahead. The terrain on the other side of the bay looks complex and will have to be negotiated in order to reach the main ridge. There’s no obvious trail and abundant rock bands promise challenging route finding.

As we cross on stepping-stones over the Coriusk river we are surprised to find we are not alone. A boat load of day trippers have been dropped off in this remote spot and are bimbling around. There’s a striking contrast between their slow, happy meanderings and the intensity of our on-a-mission trajectory and I wonder if we appear as curious to them as they to us.

13- Washed Up Plastic

A sad reminder of the volume of plastic and other waste floating in our oceans. Even in this wild place …

At the base of a waterfall we drink deeply and fill our bottles. This will be the last opportunity for many hours. Then begins the climb: sea level to the ridge, a test of grit; the hard yards that we knew would come. Our scoping of the mountainside from across the bay pays dividends and we successfully pick a good line, traversing upwards through the rock bands. Having gained over 200m we stop on a slight plateau. Our actions have become automatic: packs are dropped, shirts are pulled off and laid over rocks to dry. We stretch, eat, drink and chat. It’s already become very apparent (at least to me) that we are going to run tight on food and I am rationing myself accordingly. I try not to stress about it: stressing will only sap my energy, so why do it? I can’t magic up more food. Actually, it had crossed my mind to beg some food from the day-trippers but I hadn’t been ready to sacrifice our self-supported style. Would I live to regret this? Time would surely tell.

It feels good to have regained a bird’s eye view of things and having reached the shoulder, to feel the cooling caresses of a sea breeze. Below us a single yacht enters the bay. The water is turquoise and calm. In the shallows the seabed of white sand is a striking contrast to the dark blue of the deeper waters. What little breeze there is lightly ruffles the surface, which sparkles silver in the afternoon sun.

Day 2 - Yacht in Loch Scavaig

We toil upwards another 200 vertical metres and exit the upward traverse and the rock bands. We break again, careful not to push too hard and weakening with the exertion and the pouring out of sweat. Above us the terrain changes. A direct climb up steep scree will bring us to 686m: the southern end of the main ridge; the start of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse.

About to reach this next goal, and quite out of the blue, Andy proclaims his love of mountaineering. Certainly it takes you deep within yourself. Physically you toil and struggle; mentally you joust with the voices of weakness and fear. If you can back yourself even when these voices grow stronger and your physical state weakens, the rewards can be great.

In this instance, our reward is the Cuillin Ridge. Having toiled from sea level up its great flanks, melting under the sun, we are finally on it. It’s taken us nearly 24 hours to get this far. We have eyed the ridge from afar like shy teenagers looking across the dance floor at an impossibly beautiful girl. Somehow we’ve plucked up the courage to be here, face to face with her, and now she is right in front of our eyes, every detail of her beauty ours to behold and she is saying “Yes, you may dance with me”.

Wonderful though this is, dancing does require energy. Fearing our possible shortfall in this valuable resource, I share my concerns with Andy and we take a full stock check. Not for nothing is Andy’s mountaineering nom de guerre ‘Captain Chow’ – he has been consuming calories with gay abandon. He’s now just tipped his entire bag out on the ridge and, judging from the look on his face, it hasn’t spewed out as much fuel as he’d been hoping for. Between us ‘low but do-able’ is the consensus. Without further hesitation, we commit to the ridge.

15-Andy's Pain Face - Gars Bheinn

How much food do I have left?

45 minutes later we are on our first Munro of the main ridge, Sgurr nan Eag. Even though by the standards of the ridge the ground to here has been straightforward, it has nonetheless felt imposing and serious. We are on our own on Britain’s biggest ridgeline. For company we have just one another, rock, sea, cloud and open sky. Every step is serious. I am weak legged and suffering from the sustained exertion and the heat. I tell myself to just get through the next few hours. Once it cools down, things will improve.

From Sgurr nan Eag we cross to Sgurr Dubh an da Bheinn where we drop our bags and detour off the main ridge to climb Sgurr Dubh Mor, a classic in its own right which for some reason is generally omitted from the main traverse. Fortunately it turns out not to be as severe as it looks. We take the rope but don’t use it.

From here the peridotite boulder field heading towards the TD Gap makes for hard going. Most of the route is to the West side of the ridge which means full sunshine. The peridotite is warm to touch and radiates heat. It feels like being cooked. It’s with relief that we wriggle through a hole in the ridge and rest in the shade on the other side.

Beyond here the ridge suddenly narrows and we are both caught off guard by a section of hideously exposed rock climbing. Andy, having pulled ahead of me is up it by the time I arrive at its foot. It’s steep and there’s a lot of air to fall into so when Andy’s voice calls down offering me a rope, I don’t hesitate. Simple climbing it may be but in this environment pride and ego are laid firmly to one side.

Beyond this, a steep abseil brings us into the TD Gap. It’s a formidable breach in the ridge and an unavoidable obstacle. A rubbly, steep couloir points the way down to our water refill. Andy descends with a bottle in each hand. I am so tired that though it registers that he may have trouble climbing back up, I can’t see a solution to this and so don’t say anything. Instead, I sort myself out, clipping my Nalgene to my harness and stuffing my empty, rolled up Platypus bladder between my harness and body. I slither awkwardly down the horrible choss, kicking some down on Andy, which fortunately he avoids. A couple of rock steps are down-climbed and the gulley gives way to a scree field at the base of which are boulders and a trickle of water. I am two-thirds of the way down this when I realise that my Platypus is missing.

As I retrace my steps I have time to ponder the implications of not finding it. A reduction to 3 litres between the two of us might even jeopardise our ability to complete the ridge. And the Platypus could very possibly have disappeared for good down the deep dark crack between the bottom of the rock gulley and the bank of snow at its base. I can only hope it hasn’t.

I don’t find it on the scree, nor is it visible anywhere around the snow bank. I re-climb into the gulley, scanning every which way. Et voila! It lies unfurled, the reinforced loop that allows it to be clipped to things now clearly visible. Oops.

I pass Andy in the scree field and descend among the boulders, my ears guiding me toward the trickle. Filling is a slow process. As I squat on my haunches, the trickling water the only sound and the ridge towering above me, I enjoy a private moment – a connection perhaps to our primordial past. I have escaped the noise of our modern lives: the clutter, the technology, the things we own – and which own us. The only thing that matters now is water – that essential lifeblood. And right now, in this moment, I have it, and that is all I need.

Thirst well slaked I leave this tranquil rest spot and head back up. Andy is already a couple of easy moves up the steep climb out of this infamous notch. Losing no further time I put him on belay and watch him disappear around the corner and into the well-polished groove. Graded Severe, this is the technical crux of the day and indeed, of the whole ridge.

We are in shadow. It’s quiet and still. Our whole worlds have shrunk to this microcosm and the air is heavy with a strangely tangible feeling of concentration. This is crux time.

After the constant pressure to keep moving, it seems incongruous to have to be still. It gives me time to feel vulnerable and lonely. I can see only rock, sky and the rope that ties me to Andy, who somewhere out of sight is scrabbling and squirming, fighting his way up the awkward groove of pitiless grey rock. I can hear the occasional mutter and the sound of his pack grating on the walls of the groove.

It’s a relief when the pull on the rope becomes more fluid and sustained. The crux is passed.

“OK Mark, I’m safe”

My turn. Nothing in me actually wants to climb this pitch but it’s the only way out of here that ends with a successful Greater Traverse. Even the first couple of moves seem a bit tricky. Now I am at the foot of the groove. It looks horribly steep, smooth and awkward. I want to jam my left arm into the depths of the recess and torque it but I broke my elbow less than 11 weeks ago and this isn’t the gentle, controlled reintegration I had promised it. In fact, it’s way more than I’d bargained for. What to do? It crosses my mind to ask Andy for a hoist but some stubborn part of me crushes that impulse and instead, I focus yet more deeply on the grey cleft.

Though void of any mark of grace or finesse I start to progress upwards. Andy is worried that the sounds coming from below are those of pain but they are not. They are the base sounds of fear and struggle.

I climb through Andy’s stance and on to a slabby top. We have escaped the claustrophobic confines of the TD Gap and our eyes once more stretch to far horizons. In no time we are at the bealach just below Sgurr Alasdair. It’s 8 o’clock and we are exhausted. The ground ahead is technical and although there’s another hour of light, recent experiences have shown us that we’re getting sloppy. The progress we‘d stand to gain weighed against the increased likelihood of a costly mistake doesn’t seem worth it. That – and the fact that the highest bivvy on the Cuillin ridge is at our feet – and it’s a peach – makes it a no-brainer. This realisation and the speed of transition between the absorbing crux and the relief of stopping, creates a wave of elation. We drop our packs and hug.

Being here is hard-earned and totally worth it. The summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak on Skye is literally a stone’s throw away. We climb it and enjoy the scene, instinctively turning our gazes West towards the setting sun. Beyond the dark valley of Glenbrittle, far below us, banks of cloud sit over the ocean. They are lit orange in the evening glow and broken only by the peaks of the Outer Hebrides, poking through like shark fins towards the far distant horizon.

Day 2 - Sunset from Sgurr Alasdair

View from Sgurr Alasdair

As the sun finally goes down, so too do we. Dew is already descending on our high bivouac. We have hot food and hot chocolate and fall asleep under a star filled sky.

The simplicity of our situation is beautiful. Tomorrow is the only thing that matters. And tomorrow the only thing that matters, is climbing. The metric for success, so often complex and blurry, is instead binary and clear: complete the Greater Traverse: do not complete the Greater Traverse. As the latter does not even bear consideration, success seems strangely assured.

Today the alarm sounds at 0415. It’s a kind of grey darkness. The night was calm and still. No cloud on us this morning; just a God’s eye view down onto banks of the stuff, which seem not to have moved from where we left them as darkness fell, quilting the open ocean to our West. I sit up – still in my sleeping bag – set the stove down between us and fire it up. It burbles away, boiling water for our frothy brew. We take turns to cup our hands around it, not that we’re cold; more just that it’s soothing. And it protects the flame from the pre-dawn flutters of wind.

Frothy coffee made, we pass this vessel of heat, hydration and energy between us as though it were the most precious object in the world – which, at this place and point in time, it pretty much is. Porridge follows and all too soon the lazy pleasures of the day are already memories. From this point on, it’s hustle. And more hustle.

At 0515, in a grey half-light, we cross the ridge of scree that separates Alasdair from the main ridge. It brings us to a short steep wall, graded Diff. I spot Andy and then follow him up. He’s stood gazing East at a view of alpine perfection. The sun is lighting pink wisps and swirls of cloud towards the horizon. Below us the inversion is punctuated by yesterday’s peaks; dark whale humps breaching a sea of cloud.

17-Dawn

This incredible gift of nature has momentarily popped our hustle-bubble. And we’ve only been going 5 minutes! But I am glad it has. It would be a waste not to stand and simply appreciate this for a minute or two.

Beauty acknowledged, hustle-bubble re-inflated, we turn North and hightail along the ridge until our path is blocked by Sgurr Mich Choinnich which we climb via The Kings Chimney (V Diff). As we descend into the Rotten Gulley the clouds, which for the last 2 days have sat over the sea to our West, engulf us.

Crossing the scree which surely earned the gulley its name, the flanks of the In Pinn tower above us and disappear into the gloom. As we draw along side it a slab of gabbro leads us upwards. As the slab is wet with snowmelt we suck at the rock, taking on valuable fluids.

DCIM101GOPRO

I don’t mind if I do – sucking water off Cuillin Gabbro

As the In Pinn has the reputation of being the only Munro requiring a rope, we duly tie in and move alpine style along its impeccable, airy spine. Cloud swirls around us giving things an other-worldly impression. Peering down I can just make out our tracks across a bank of snow far below but otherwise, bar the rock we are climbing on, it’s a featureless scene. We are two flecks of ink; tiny intrusions in the middle of a vast and otherwise unmarked canvas of grey.

19- In Pinn

The In Pinn

At a windy notch beyond the In Pinn we don jackets, do some eating and check map, compass and guidebook. The ridge jags about a bit and is joined by various significant spurs. With the cloud down we’re taking no chances: to go astray at this point is unthinkable.

20- Post-In Pinn Break

Layering up post In Pinn

Between here and the Bastair Tooth lie five Munros and several lesser peaks. We’re into our fortieth hour on the Greater Traverse and things are breaking down: not our teamwork, psyche or humour but simply our mental capacity. Making a short video journal at the top of each peak has been part of our process. Our succinct entries, full of useful reference information (names, timings and so forth) have given way to incoherent and repetitive babbling; case studies in mental deterioration. We ask one another for the name of the current peak but neither of us remembers it. It’s as much as I can do to tell the time, let alone calculate how many hours we’ve been going. In one brief piece to camera Andy states how tired he is, pauses thinking of something else to say but manages only to restate his tiredness.

And thus the next several hours merge into a melée of rock, cloud, climb, descend, abseil, route find, nav check: guide book, map, compass, continue. Being the faster of the pair, Andy picks up the bulk of route finding duties. I wonder if he minds. It seems to work. Where there are technical difficulties we move closer together. Where there are plodding climbs or straightforward scrambles he pulls ahead. We convene on the tops, figure out the next section, conduct morale checks on one another and then crack on.

21- Andy's Nav Face - Sgurr Thormaid?

Sgurr na Banachdich and Sgurr a Greadaidhe are straightforward and unremarkable. In the snowy notch of An Dorus we skip the opportunity to descend and refill water and decide we can push on through to Bealach na Lice, now only a mere four Munros away. The four tops of Sgurr a Mhadaidh present some route finding difficulties and sap our morale: one name but four distinct peaks. It’s as much as we can do to remember which number top we are on. Following a good riddance to these, we cross the wide, open Bealach na Glaich Moire. This is striking in so far as briefly, we are walking on grass. And it sticks in the mind as it’s here that I kneel and drink from a puddle. This is not the taste of gabbro but of mud. But it’s fine by me. So this is what it’s come to!

At around this point we have a decision to make. Bidean Druim na Ramh is not a Munro but it is a named peak with a spot height and it is very definitely on the true line of the ridge. The guidebook tempts us towards an easy option: a 25 minute skirt around its flank versus 90 minutes of technical difficulty to cross it. Andy asks the question to which we both know there is only one correct answer: we go over it.

Beyond this, An Casteal provides further technical interest while Bruach na Frithe demands nothing more than a head down slog; the simple act of propelling tired bodies upwards, step …. by step. From its summit, things come back into focus. I have been quietly holding Bealach na Lice as a kind of holy grail. It’s our final pit stop. A point from which the end is quite literally in sight; a point from which we can drop down for water and rehydrate; a point which, more important than all of this, is the zenith of perhaps my greatest test of will: the preservation of my second peanut butter and jam sandwich. Understanding the inextricable link between food and morale, I’ve been holding it in reserve – against great temptation – until this point. It’s my final piece of ‘real’ food. It will fuel me for the final test.

22-AC heads twds Bruach na Frithe

Andy ascending Bruach na Frithe

A snowy crest links Bruach na Frith and Bealach na Lice – joy for the joints after the impact of so much rock. At the bealach we drop our bags and positively bound down the snow slope to fill our bottles among the boulders at its foot. We’ve been hustling along the ridge in the cloud since dawn, more than eight hours ago. Suddenly it’s cleared, we have just Am Bhastair between us and the final peak, Sgurr nan Gillean, and it seems we have all the time in the world. Better to rest, recover and re-cock here before the final difficulties than to rush into them half-baked.

AC heads twds Bealach na Lice

Enjoying the snowy ridgeline between Bruch na Frithe and Bealach na Lice

Naismith’s Route is the second and final pitch of Severe. What the climb from the TD Gap is to awkwardness, this is to airiness. Andy is visibly struggling for psyche and I can’t blame him. We’re in our forty-eighth hour. When it comes to my turn I have to concentrate incredibly hard just to wake myself up to how serious this is and how we are not yet at the end. In fact, on another day, what we are about to embark on now, might constitute a route in itself.

Light on gear and not in the mood for run outs Andy brings me up to a hanging belay from which we both dangle. Deep in concentration we change over gear before he climbs on, up the final crack before a heel-hook-body-flop sees him disappear over the top.

Having joined him – with no greater grace – we coil the rope for the final time, traverse and then negotiate one tricky step to the summit. Looking North we can see the Sligachan Hotel and even the van. It seems dangerously as though we’ve finished but of course, we are as vulnerable now as ever.

We descend, cross the bealach and follow a path that traverses below the ridge before petering out at the base of a Diff pitch, known reassuringly and not inaccurately, as the Easy Chimney. It’s the exposed moves around the pinnacles above which provide the final excitement and cause the inevitable “How silly would it be to fall and die here after all of this” thought to cross my mind.

With great suddenness there are no further obstacles and just a few easy strides to the summit: the end of the Cuillin Ridge: indeed, the end of the Greater Traverse. If the Cuillin Ridge Traverse were indeed a dance with a beautiful girl, then standing on Sgurr nan Gillean is the barely-dared-to-dream-of kiss at the end of the night.

DCIM101GOPRO

 Sgurr nan Gillean – the end of our Greater Traverse

Epilogue:

Looking back, there are three things that stand out above all:

The first relates to ‘masochists’ (those who enjoy activities which are either painful or tedious) and whippets (super fast dogs). To succeed on the Greater Traverse you need be neither. What you do need is the right level of experience, endurance and the right head for it. So be realistic about your own abilities and don’t deselect yourself because of subjective and colourful guidebook commentary!

The second is the charming incongruity of the fact that in 50 hours on perhaps Britain’s greatest mountaineering route, our most exhilarating highlight was a mid-way jump in the sea – a feature of the route that perhaps makes it truly unique.

Finally, and most important, this experience is a challenge to misconceptions about what the UK does or does not offer; a challenge to the ease with which we turn our backs on it and jump on a plane. Having bobbed about among some of the great mountains of the world I have a memory-bank of incredible experiences deeply etched. Yet among all of these, our Greater Traverse carves its own niche; beaten by none in quality and surpassing all in its simple low cost, low carbon beauty. Needing nothing but an answerable weather window, and without the exclusivity of big budgets or the carbon harm of air travel, The Greater Traverse is a jewel in the crown of karma-intact mountaineering and independent big country adventure.

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The Bolt Round The Holt – Fight The Gorilla!

My arm has been out of its cast now for nearly three weeks. It’s nearly seven weeks since I plummeted head first down a rock face in Spain, using my elbow as a brake. About two weeks ago the physio gave me the nod to resume running and swimming. Bit by bit, I am getting back on the horse.

After a couple of 6k runs in gently rolling Hampshire I headed to North Wales to throw some real hills into the mix. My injured arm which had hung a bit stiffly on the first couple of outings was now loosening up. Things went well and I even managed to break the 20k mark on a classic loop of the World’s End Valley, just North of Llangollen. With this in the bank yesterday’s decision to do the 21k Bolt Round The Holt didn’t seem too unreasonable.

That picture looked a little different this morning when I grudgingly left the comfort of bed and drew the curtains to a scene of uninspiring greyness. Reasoning that we wouldn’t run many races if we waited only for blue bird days, I brushed aside my lassitude and got hustling.

A good early arrival ensured no disappointment with on-the-day registration and I gladly parted with my race fee – this being a fundraiser for Guts – a bowel cancer charity – http://www.gutsfbc.co.uk/

Arriving at the registration marquee I coolly step on some uneven turf, turn my ankle outwards and lurch sideways in comic fashion – and much to the amusement of the ladies behind the trestle tables who clearly aren’t such nice people as they look. Having witnessed my inability to walk across a grassy field, they ask if I am sure about running round the forest. I assure them that flat pieces of grass can be more treacherous than they look and that in fact, woods are my forte. I’ll be fine thank you very much!

At said trestle tables there was not only derision to deal with but of course, a form: one final opportunity to take the easy option and circle ‘10k’. For a moment I was tempted but then it was done. 21k please.

There’s nothing to do now but return to basecamp – the trusty Nissan Micra aka Noddy Car – and build some psyche. Discovering that reading The Economist is in fact a psyche drain (who knew!) I ditch this and instead listen to some banging tunes (mostly by John Denver) until the car park has filled up around me and it’s time to head down to the Start.

There’s a very well-run and secure bag check area (well done event organisers!) and a couple of hundred people jumping up and down to more banging beats (though no John Denver) on the aforementioned dangerous flat grassy space. This is the official Warm Up. A lively lass is on a stage calling the shots. And a crowd of all ages, shapes and sizes (the type of people undeterred by grey skies) are doing their best to imitate her moves – or at least have a laugh trying. Against all odds, no one gets hurt and with the warm up a wrap, it’s time for the Start Line crush.
Those, like me, who circled ‘21k’ are kept waiting at the back while the 5k and 10k waves get underway – one final opportunity to reflect on our folly before the task of running consumes us.

I read a good blog yesterday about personal development and change*. When you are looking to step up a level – to develop – you weigh up the thing that stands before you and ask yourself “Do I want to change today?” I asked myself this at the start line, answered “Yes” and ripped through the opening kilometers at an unsustainably quick pace. Although I settled into a decent rhythm, my decision to change today into Mo Farrah landed me in some pretty deep hurt (I am pretty sure, on re-reading it, that this kind of rash overreach is not what the very sensible blogger had in mind).

Nonetheless, it did me good. This became a lesson in humility. And determination. Towards the end of the third of four laps I was sliding into bonk territory. Runners – the overtaking of whom had earlier fed my ego – now flowed back past me, trampling on it. I had nothing. Their breathing and footfall stalked me, they passed and then glided away from me. It was all I could do to keep going.

Yesterday I’d shared some training psyche with a friend; a great quote from the world of cycling:

“Training is like fighting a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired. You only stop when the gorilla gets tired”

The words now utterly haunted me. The race was my gorilla. I was tired: hideously, painfully tired. But the race wasn’t tired. The race just kept pummeling me. And the only thing for it was to fight back. And keep fighting.

With that in mind I started to consolidate and rebuild. The long, flat ‘back straight’ allowed me to mentally ready myself for the predominantly ascending final 2k. Yes, it would hurt. But the kilometres were ticking away and the hurt wouldn’t last much longer. The quicker I ran, the faster the hurt would end. The gorilla was tiring.

With my stare fixed rarely more than a few metres ahead, I started to find something extra. And claw back some places. I kept cranking it up, tiny increment by tiny increment, pushing heavy legs up the final kick, weaving through the trees and then, finally, I allowed myself to look up. The finish line! As the ascent leveled and we broke into the open, so I broke into a full sprint for the line.

The gorilla had had me well and truly on the ropes. But I’d hung in. My body screamed at my mind for being so strong; my mind at my body for being so weak. And the gorilla gave up … at least ‘til next time.

Bolt Round The Holt, aat Events, 2015 #run #racephoto #sussexsportphotography

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* http://digitalsteak.com/inspiration/embracing-change/

 

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Adversity & Trauma

Lowering off  after a 'failure'. Adversity makes us stronger but only if we make that choice

Lowering off after a ‘failure’. Adversity makes us stronger but only if we make that choice

Flipping Adversity on its Head

We typically associate adversity with negative events. But in actual fact, how we deal with adversity – and the attributes – positive or negative – that we ascribe it, is largely up to us. That we get to decide is part of taking the power back (Rage Against the Machine eat your heart out). Adversity and trauma often walk hand in hand. Acknowledging the trauma is the first step in breaking that link and flipping adversity on its head.

After a traumatic event (don’t be afraid to define & acknowledge something as a ‘trauma’ – it doesn’t mean you’re being weak, pathetic or melodramatic) it’s normal to feel vulnerable. You’ve just experienced something extraordinary. You’re cage has been rattled. You’ve been reminded of the fragility of the human body – and indeed, of human life. Your brain will be doing its own thing. And the chances are it will be replaying that traumatic event and running a lot of ‘what if?’ scenarios, even though you find this troubling and unsettling.

The aftermath of a trauma is not a good time to be alone. Don’t let yourself become isolated. Don’t keep those unsettling thoughts to yourself. Admit your vulnerability. Say it out loud. Talk to someone. Let them comfort you. Let them be a sounding board for those ‘what if?’ scenarios that your brain keeps churning up.

It’s probably time to stop preaching in generics and to start sharing in specifics.

Identifying & Acknowledging Trauma

You can’t effectively deal with a trauma without acknowledging it. My recent trauma came in the shape of a climbing fall which resulted in a broken arm. I’ve fallen plenty of times before and I’ve also seriously injured myself previously. Yet this is the first time I have identified and acknowledged trauma. Why?

Firstly, let’s discount most climbing falls. Most of the time they are unremarkable and no one gets hurt. But what about previous climbs where I’ve been scared or hurt by the fall? Are there distinctions between these and what happened recently?

Eg 1: Scary fall. No injury. My first fall on a trad route (where you place your own protection mechanisms into the rock). I was climbing on my limit. Suddenly my fist popped out of the damp crack in which it was jammed. I had been negociating a bulge at the time so I fell out into thin air – a horrible feeling but generally safe. My gear held.

Eg 2: Innocuous fall. Dislocated shoulder. Climbing slab (less than vertical). Foot popped off. Hand instinctively held on. As I was traversing, the body twisted. The shoulder was the point of weakness. It dislocated. I yelped, let go and fell.

In so far as my recent climbing trauma was both a scary fall and an injury event, it is distinct from those previous which were one or the other but not both. But actually, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, it’s now clear that both of these previous events were in fact traumatic and undoubtedly had some effect on how I climbed afterwards. In truth I was just too young, macho and ignorant to either identify or acknowledge them for what they were. As a result I at least partly missed the opportunity to analyse the event, identify lessons and thus make it a bridge to learning and improvement.

These days I have a much better understanding of trauma and I knew in the aftermath of my recent fall that there was no point trying to hide from it.

Acceptance – Rationalising the Initial “I’m fine!” Reaction 

British readership will no doubt be well versed in stoicism, stiff-upper-lip and the art of gross understatement. It’s our conditioned response. It’s part of our upbringing and perhaps even our national identity (actually we seem as a nation to be sliding towards abject whingery but that’s a subject for another day!)

What I am getting at is that it can be a deeply ingrained reaction not to make a fuss; to deny the trauma through a faux chipper “I’m fine!” or “That was a bit interesting” when what we really mean is “Fuck! That was scary and I’m hurt!”

The “I’m fine!” reaction is fine. You say it to reassure yourself because the truth is, you don’t even know what state you’re in. It’s incredibly vague. In my case I had just fallen head first and totally out of control. I’d impacted the rock with enough force to break bone and I’d come to a rest hurt, shocked and upside down. The subtext to “I’m fine but you can lower me down” was “I’m alive. I haven’t been paralysed and my head is ok. But I have hurt myself badly enough that I can’t climb any more”.

Reacting to both Trauma & Injury

Given what had just happened I might have expected to be more seriously hurt. When you know that you have been lucky; that you have just escaped lightly from an event which could have had much more severe consequences, then you should know to expect some mental turmoil. Your mind will run and run. It’ll reflect on alternative outcomes – the history of ‘what ifs’. It will trouble you. So be ready for it. And start talking about it right now.

Part of this kind of extraordinary event is the fear of the unknown. Perhaps you don’t even yet understand what happened and why. Perhaps you don’t know how badly hurt you are. Your senses have been shaken and now you’re re-orientating yourself.

Sometimes the not-so-painful unknown can be more traumatic than the excruciating known. For example, when I’d dislocated my shoulder I knew without doubt what had happened. It was excruciating and horribly unpleasant. But there was comfort in knowledge and I knew what I had to do: walk off the mountain. Get to hospital. Get it reduced (put back in place). Excrutiating though all of that was, my mind was in control and my focus was clear. But right now I am in shock from a combination of the fall itself and the injury. And I know the injury is bad because I can’t untie and take my harness off. I am troubled by a lack of knowledge. The injury severity is unknown. I’ve never broken a bone. I have no reference point for this kind of fall or this kind of injury. The doubt and lack of knowledge add to the trauma.

OODA – Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act.

This will help you take control, analyse and plot a course. In this way you may start to address the doubt and the unknown and in so doing, start dealing with the trauma.

Observe:

I am observing that I am in some pain. Although it’s not acute, it is a type I haven’t experienced before. There is pain and swelling around my elbow – on the outside, where it struck the rock – and on the upper forearm, near the joint. I can’t straighten my arm.

Orientate:

I am safely back on the deck. I must be in shock. It’s dawning on me that I won’t be climbing again today. It’s dawning on me that there’s no point hanging around. Maybe I will need to go to hospital. I can’t carry much kit but I’ll be ok to walk back to the Olive Branch where we are staying. I’ll be able to take stock there, get some ice and maybe some advice.

Decide:

I am going to walk back to the Olive Branch. I’ll ice and elevate the arm and see how it feels. Based on that – and any advice I can get – I’ll go to hospital (I am still in denial. I haven’t fully computed the gravity of the injury. I am indulging in wishful thinking. Maybe it’s just bruised …)

Act:

We do all of the above. It feels good to walk. We walk and talk. I begin the analytical process. What happened and why? I lie down with an ice pack for an hour. Maybe two. My biggest concern is the not knowing. I can control this. I can go to hospital and get an X-Ray. It seems silly to have waited this long, though we’ve not lost much by it. For future reference

“If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt”

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A Short Walk Around The Annapurna – Part XIV – Journey’s End

DAY 20 – JOURNEY’S END 

Sun Rises as a  Golden Orb above Pokhara Valley

Sun rise: – a golden orb above Pokhara Valley

I rise before dawn and head out to the knoll. Sunrise is preceded by a chill wind, funnelled up from the cold waters of the Mardi Kola. By the time I have set up a tripod my hands are numb. Wrapping them around the mug of Nepali chiya that didi has just brought out fills my heart with joy – surely one of life’s simplest and most timeless pleasures.

I catch some shots of the sun, a perfect orange ball, rising out of the cloudy haze above Pokhara and then switch my attention to the mountains. It’s the same cast as yesterday: Annapurna South, distinctively linked via the mother of all traverses to Hiunchuli, then a gap to Machapuchare, standing alone, set forward from the rest of the range. A brief show of watery sunlight illuminates their Eastern flanks before the sun is swallowed by a thick morning haze – my cue to scuttle inside for a bowl of porridge and more tea.

Dawn Light on Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli

Watery morning sunlight briefly bathes the Eastern flanks of Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli

For the final time I pack my things. This is by now a well-practiced routine. Everything has its place. I caste an eye around the room, give the blankets a shake and check under the bed. Good to go.

Before leaving the village I have to check in at the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) office. A bored official makes the necessary marks on my permit and TIMS (Trekker Information Management System) card. The latter I find particularly hilarious – as though by calling something a system it renders it sophisticated, efficient and technologically advanced. I am pretty sure it is none of these things.

The trail flows gradually downwards through the jungle. At times there are views out to the East and what is most striking is the size of the sky and the fact that I am looking at a view void of mountains.

It’s not long before I reach Dhampus and my senses are assaulted by all manner of sights and sounds which have become unfamiliar. Like a tentacle from the Pokhara octopus a vehicle track now reaches out to Dhampus, bringing with it rugged buses with snorting old diesel engines, knackered Mahendra 4 x 4s and tractors. It’s a busy time of day at what passes for a bus park. With much noise and commotion a bus is being crammed full of people and their stuff, bound for the bright lights of Pokhara, until not so long ago, a days walk away.

I head straight on by but not without attracting some attention and no shortage of comments about the fact that I am using a namlo. The namlo is a headstrap linked to a thin rope which is fastened so that it runs underneath whatever load is being carried. The strap is normally a couple of inches wide in order to spread the weight of the load across the head. Sometimes they are woven from hemp though more often than not they are made using strips of sacking stitched together by hand. They are a common enough sight across the head of a Nepali though not of a gora.

I’d first used a namlo some years ago when I had run the doko race, an event which has become synonymous with Gurkha Selection. The event is widely considered the hardest of the physical tests encountered on the journey to being selected as a Gurkha soldier. It is a 5km hill climb gaining over 300m in altitude and which must be completed in under 48 minutes. The doko with which it is eponymous is the traditional carrying device of the hills of Nepal: a conical shaped basket, woven of reed and harnessed with a namlo. The race is run carrying a doko with a 15kg load. Anyway, the namlo, for the British Officer at least, is most often an alien and hurty way of load bearing and something that most adopt solely for the purposes of the race – before returning to the tried and trusted rucksack.

I had done just this and had no intention of again yoking myself to namlo. However, events conspired otherwise. I was working at the time for Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association and was recovering between episodes of field work when I was attacked by a particularly unpleasant dog. That said cur damned nearly bit the tip of one of my fingers off, aside from being rather distressing, also put a tedious delay on the next deployment. A Doctor told me to sit still in Pokhara for another week but I only managed a few days before heading off to the East of Nepal for a 35 day mission.

The journey to the start of the walking went smoothly. I motorcycled across the Terai and climbed epic zig zags into the hills as far as Phiddim where I parked the bike. From there I had to retrace my journey by jeep and bus as far as Dharan and then reinsert into the hills by another long bus journey, this time having met up with my three porters, Krishna, Min and Santa. At Rumjatar we finally ran out of road and started the trek.

The effect of shouldering my pack had an almost instant effect on my wounded finger and I knew straight away that I was in trouble. With the circulation affected by the weight going through the shoulder strap, the heavily bandaged digit began to throb horribly. I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue with it as it was and was feeling somewhat disgusted: a three day journey to get here only to find that I couldn’t trek. At this point Min came to my aid, producing a spare namlo which he attached to my pack. The rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, familiar though the namlo may now be to me, my using it remains a strange and unfamiliar sight to others. If nothing else, it is a source of amusement and a perfectly good icebreaker.

From Dhampus I am aiming to follow the single immense spur right to the point where it drops steeply at its tip to the metaled road at Milanchowk. Straightforward as this may seem there are complications. As I ask for directions to Pokhara it is quite naturally assumed that I mean to get to Pokhara in the shortest possible time – and thus I am directed with abundant confidence down short, steep trails which run off the ridgeline and plummet to the main road where, quite naturally, I must want to get in a taxi. Realising my error, I refine my inquiry, asking my way village by village; Hyangjakot, Astam, Jhijirka, Milanchowk.

Once I am away from Dhampus and finally on the right track to Hyangjakot things become once again dreamy. My fear that this final day might just turn out to be an arbitrary slog proves unfounded. In fact, the thought of dropping off this magnificent ridgeline, taking a short-cut to the road and thence a taxi to Pokhara is not even remotely tempting. Why would I want to cut short the final day of this amazing journey and rush back to the melee? I will be there soon enough. Better to enjoy the final miles on foot and slowly reintegrate. To return to it in a taxi would, I realise, be crushingly sudden and abrupt.

A magical view back into the Annapurna (seen from the Hyangjakot ridgeline)

A magical view back into the Annapurna (seen from the Hyangjakot ridgeline)

Hyangjakot makes every step to regain the ridgeline worth it. I arrive to the sound of a band. The village is celebrating the opening of their refurbished school, a project, I am soon to discover, that has been funded and overseen by the International Lions Club. My timing could not be better. The villagers have just been gathered outside a beautiful home in the centre of the village prior to the procession, now under way. There are plenty of leftovers of both jilinge and chiya made with fresh buffalo milk (absurdly tasty). Yours truly swoops uncompromisingly on both and wonders how life could possibly be any better.

The didi refills my glass while a curious passer by peppers me with questions:

Kahan bata aunu bhayo?                  Where have you come from?

Pokhara jane aja?                             Are you going to Pokhara today?

Kahan kam garnu hunchha?            Where do you work?

-Kahan siknu bhayo Nepali?               Where did you learn Nepali?

-Kahile des ma pharkine?                    When are you going back to your country?

and so forth …..

There are homestays in Hyangjakot and it’s a place I resolve to go back to.

The scene (bottom right) of the recent slaughter and butchery of a buffalo (Hyangjakot)

The scene (bottom right) of the recent slaughter and butchery of a buffalo (Hyangjakot)

Eventually I reach the tip of the spur, at which point it drops steeply to the main valley floor and the hustle and bustle of greater Pokhara. I stop at the first roadside eatery and a didi gets to work preparing a pack of Wye Wye noodle to which she adds saag (spinach). I sit on the concrete step next to the tarmac road under the steel shutter. It’s a different world.

This minor road links in no time to the main Baglung-Pokhara highway and would be an easy route back to camp. But it’s known terrain and a long dull drag and so I rule it out. Instead I cut through back yards and down a dirt track which leads me towards the Seti Kola (White River). The Seti is at this point contained by a deep wide gorge, access to which is proving problematic. Just as I am starting to think that the Baglung Road wouldn’t have been so bad, I pick out a trail that drops into the gorge and leads to the sole crossing point; a rickety bridge.

A steep climb out of the gorge really is my last climb of the whole journey. Before I know what’s happening I am walking along the side of a road that leads into Lamachaur and thence Upallo Dip, home to the British Gurkhas Camp – my final destination.

I stop at another roadside place and order a chiya and a kind of fried snack about which I am curious. Believing it to be, like jilinge, another local Nepali food which has somehow-until-now eluded me, I ask what it’s called: “Do-not” the boy replies. “Do-not”? I parrot back. “Do-not!” he confirms. Just as I am marveling at how, even so close to its end, this trip keeps on giving, I bite into this new and novel snack. And suddenly it all makes sense. Not “Do-not” but “Doughnut”. What I am experiencing is nothing more novel than a Nepali interpretation of that health workers best friend, the mighty doughnut.

As I move on I notice that modern houses have replaced those of the traditional fashion and that these are becoming ever more densely packed. And then I am in Lamichaur chowk. And something very bizarre and utterly Nepali is taking place. There’s a stage at the chowk and quite a crowd. They are watching a Nepali rock band who are wearing Christmas hats and belting out metal. The foothills of the Himalaya in the morning to a gig played by rockers in Christmas hats in the afternoon. I have to smile. I order samosa at a stall far enough back from the stage as not to be deafened and sit on the step bathing in the sureality of it. Unfortunately – and this is also very Nepali – the music comes to a premature stop and a Nepali of high caste takes to the microphone and proceeds to deliver an interminable monologue whilst the young rockers in Christmas hats wait awkwardly on the stage for this lamentable verbal diarrhea to finish. Happily for me, I can vote with my feet.

Given that these days almost nobody actually starts or finishes their trek from Pokhara I must look quite bizarre: a skinny, bearded gora trekking into town under the yoke of a namlo. It doesn’t much bother me and I stride purposefully along the roadside, returning to the familiar. Turning left the camp gates hove into view.

Twenty days ago I stepped off from here under a burden of uncertainty. I didn’t know if my journey would last a matter of hours, days or weeks. I didn’t know what routes I would take, what the weather and the conditions would allow me to do, what my body would allow me to do. I had a vague notion of walking right round the Annapurna but it seemed foolish to even speak it. Looking back, I understand the value of that uncertainty and it seems wondrous. I can’t price what I have experienced – as is the way with the best things in life, money cannot buy it. I feel fresh, reborn. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Posted in Adventure, Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna South Face, Doko Race, Gurkha, Himalaya, Machapuchare, Mountains, Nepal, Pokhara, The Gurkhas, Travel, Trekking, Trekking The Annapurna Circuit, Trekking The Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Short Walk Around The Annapurna – Part XIII – Ghandruk to Pothana

DAY 19 – GHANDRUK TO POTHANA

Ravi Rana

Ravi Rana – a lifetime of Himalayan hillside living etched on her face

I dance off down the steep stone staircases which wind relentlessly to the valley bottom far below. I have not travelled far before I am distracted from my downwards progress. On the stone paving outside a house next to the track sit three generations of women. The eldest is the centre of attention and she sits cross-legged while her daughter and granddaughter lovingly and meticulously groom her. I ask if I can photograph them but sadly for me they decline. I wish them well and am about to skip off down the track when a voice comes from the other side of the trail.

“You can photograph here!”

The voice is that of Pratap Rana. He beckons me and I climb up from the trail to join him on the porch . He lives here with his elderly mother, Ravi and, as it turns out, neither of them shares their neighbours’ camera shyness. I take some portrait shots of Ravi. Decades of hillside existence here in the shadow of the himalaya are etched on her face. Her leathery skin may show the years but sparkle remains in her deep, dark, shiny eyes and it’s not long before she cracks a toothy grin and allows herself a chuckle.

Pratap Rana - his high viz jacket in interesting juxtaposition with his mother's traditional hillside garb

Pratap Rana – his high viz jacket in interesting juxtaposition with his mother’s traditional hillside garb

Pratap is dressed in his high viz jacket and is about to go off and wield a shovel or pick-axe for the rest of the day. He is one for whom the insatiable appetite for ‘road’ building is providing steady employment. As we both have places to be and the impromptu photo shoot is a wrap, we shake hands and bid farewell. It’s at this point that I notice the difference between our hands.

Our hands tell their own story

Our hands tell their own story

Scurrying on down the trail I encounter various further distractions: a posse of rather charming mules are grazing the padi stubble of adjacent terraces; cute children in red and grey school uniforms are on their way home from school and are as easily amused by me as I by them.

Day 19 - Mule

A mule looks down its nose at me. Disdain or curiosity?

By the time I cross the Modi Khola the cloud has rolled in and the weather is oppressive. I am now in head-down mode and climb hard, sweat pouring and my heart pounding in my chest. This is my last climb of the journey and will take the rest of the day.

Man's work

Man’s work …

... or not

… or not

By early afternoon I’ve regained about 400m and reach Tolka (1700m) where I write the following:

1422hrs Just stopped in Tolka and had a reviving black tea and chow chow. It’s gone from bright morning to flat, dull afternoon and has been drizzling this past hour. My hands are cold so can’t write too well. There’s a kind of heavy atmosphere over the hills and a deep stillness. There’s the sound of the stream, pouring out of a canyon in the jungle below, of birds chirruping and cheeping in the tress and of a man down near the stream chopping wood.

I look at the easy smiles of the bahinis whose portraits I took in the 11 o’clock sunshine just 3 or so hours ago and it seems incredibly distant. Anyway, onwards and upwards to Pothana, a view of Machapuchare in the morning – maybe – and then the descent via Dhampus to Milanchowk and thence, Pokhara!

From Tolka there is one final push as the path climbs a jungle covered hillside to reach Pitam Deurali (2100m). The rain has stopped and a watery late afternoon sunshine illuminates the dripping forest which is evidently host to a wealth of birdlife. The air is alive with their song. That aside there isn’t a sound bar the occasional clank of a mule’s bell from somewhere below me.

Deurali is a common place name in Nepal and means ‘saddle’ or ‘pass’. This particular one separates the Modi Khola and Mardi Khola watersheds and is marked by nothing more than a single teahouse. It lies on a 4 way junction: turn left and I will be on the ridge line running North, rising ultimately to Mardi Himal (5553m) – an adventure for some other day. Leading straight ahead a trail drops steeply off the ridge and down to Lwang and from thence, the Mardi Khola itself. A French couple have just climbed up from this direction and are the only other trekkers here. I am relieved to have finished my own climb and it feels good to get out from under the weight of my pack and stretch. The French couple are easy company and I enjoy not only their company but also the challenge of switching from Nepali to French (it doesn’t go as seamlessly as I would wish and some of the resultant sentences are somewhat hybrid and bizarre). They are planning to stay the night here. However, whilst their company is appealing enough, and the wood smoke coming out of the lonely teahouse hints at a warm cosy place, I do not feel ready to stop yet. The clag may be in but there is probably another hour of light and the trail down to Pothana beckons. So before my body temperature drops and muscles stiffen, I re-yoke  and set off, turning right to descend the ridgeline to the South.

There’s little of note during the descent: just a lone traveller treading a deserted trail through the cloud covered jungle in the dying light of a long and varied day.

Sure enough, Pothana emerges from the gloom. A few lights, a hint of woodsmoke and a gauntlet of hoteliers to be run as the half dozen or so businesses vie for custom.

It’s not long before a choice is made, I’ve scrubbed up and am sat writing my journal as I wait for supper of soup and momo.

Well, it’s just getting dark and I am enjoying a plate of mokai (corn) while I warm my feet by the wood burner. I am at the Gurung Guesthouse. The girl at the gate was stunning – which may account for me being here – though I also rather think it was that she and her – presumably – mother, were far less pushy that most of the other hoteliers. This place also has the attraction of a dining room set back from the main drag on a promontory of pine trees from which, in the morning, I am assured there will be fine views.

Duly warmed from the inside out by a belly full of piping hot food I return to my room and hunker down for the night, enjoying the weighty blanket which I wrap myself in against the damp chill. It seems strange that tomorrow this nomadic rhythm will be broken and I will find myself once more in Pokhara.

Hands: the worn hands of a professional stonebreaker juxtaposed with the pale, cold, bloodless hand of yours truly

Hands: the worn hand of a professional stonebreaker juxtaposed with the pale, cold, bloodless hand of yours truly

 

Posted in Adventure, Annapurna Circuit, Ghandruk, Mardi Himal, Mountains, Nepal, Pokhara, Pothana, Travel, Trekking, Trekking The Annapurna Circuit | Leave a comment

A Short Walk Around The Annapurna – Part XII – Ghandruk – Greed, Gurung Girls and Machapuchare

DAY 19 – GHANDRUK

Morning sunshine lights up fresh snow on Annapurna South and approaching ridgelines

Morning sunshine lights up fresh snow on Annapurna South and approaching ridgelines

Ghandruk is one of the largest and most famous of Gurung villages. Poised on a hillside high above the Modi Khola, it looks across this steep sided valley to Landruk, a smaller village nestled below an immense jungle ridgeline. This ridgeline rises as it progresses North, first meeting Mardi Himal (a ‘trekking’ peak at 5553m) and then the spectacular, sky-piercing white spike of Machapuchare (The Fish Tail).

Machapuchare

Machapuchare

This latter peak is widely considered the most beautiful in the world. Some call it the Matterhorn of the Himalaya. In so far as it is a dramatic, isolated spike-of-a-mountain, the comparison holds up. But whilst they are both spectacular peaks, there is more to Machapuchare than just its looks. There is for one thing, its sanctity. Where the Matterhorn lies at the accessible heart of European mountaineering, so often a folly of conquest and jingoism, Machapuchare lies in a very different sphere. Nepali people consider it to be the home of Lord Shiva. It is duly sanctified and climbing it is forbidden. This reverence shown by Nepalis towards Machapuchare strikes an interesting contrast with dominant Western attitudes which so often associate mountains with playgrounds and proving grounds; objects for conquest and vehicles to heroism.

While the first ascent of the Matterhorn by British climber, Edward Whymper, pathed the way for thousands of subsequent ones, the sanctity of Machapuchare has meant that no one has ever publicly admitted to climbing it, although whether it has actually been climbed or not is open to conjecture.

The twin peaks of Machapuchare (literally, macha: fish, puchar: tail) framed by rising morning cloud

The twin peaks of Machapuchare (literally, macha: fish, puchar: tail) framed by rising morning cloud

In 1957, an expedition led by the charismatic Gurkha Officer, Lt Col Jimmy Roberts MC, was allowed on the mountain on condition that they did not reach its summit. We are told that the ‘summit’ pair got to within a short distance of the top before honouring its sanctity and the condition of their being there and turning around. If this is the truth, then they certainly showed respect and restraint in equal measure and fair play to them for doing so – the temptation must have been great! There is also speculation over whether the summit has been ‘poached’ in more recent decades, as climbers on the extreme end of the scale adopt fast and light styles of ascent that are subsequently fairly discrete. Perhaps best known among such stories is that of New Zealand’s mountain hardman, Bill Denz, who some say summited in the early 80s. As he died soloing on Makalu not long thereafter, he is around neither to confirm nor deny this. Some things are better left mysterious.

The epic wall that links Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli

The epic wall that links Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli

Ghandruk also lies not only on the Annapurna Sanctuary route but also across the trail that leads into the heart of the range, the great natural bowl, home to Annapurna Base Camp. It is a fairly monotonous trail, handrailing the Modi Khola and often offering nothing for views but jungled hillsides. But as it wraps around the back of Hiun Chuli, it rewards the trekker’s efforts by arriving into one of the most incredible mountain amphitheatres.

Despite its immensity, being set back in the range, Annapurna I is often difficult to identify. Not so here: its entire, monstrous South Face rises some three thousand vertical metres from this mountain bowl.

Annapurna South Face (Image courtesy of Ali Colqhuhoun)

Annapurna South Face (Image courtesy of Ali Colqhuhoun)

It was climbed for the first time in the ‘70s by an expedition led by Sir Chris Bonnington. It was the prodigious gruff mountain hardman of the era, Don Whillans, and the younger, prodigiously talented Dougal Haston, who summited after weeks spent laying siege to the face. It is a route that has seen few repeats and until recently had been little in the public eye; until last year that is: news broke that I found hard to fathom: Annapurna South Face had been climbed solo. Having read Chris Bonnington’s account of the protracted toils of his immense expedition: the weeks of fixing lines, establishing camps and shuttling kit, equipment, food, fuel and fresh man power, it seemed literally incredible that one man could bypass all of this and, relying on individual ability and belief, climb the face solo. This is however, exactly what Ueli Steck did.

Morning cloud billows up from the valley and quickly re-envelopes the himal in a shroud of secrecy

Morning cloud billows up from the valley and quickly re-envelopes the himal in a shroud of secrecy

Anyway, mountaineering digression over.

It is strange to find ourselves in such a large village – 38 hotels in total, according to my map. Unfortunately though, size is no reflection on quality, as I observe in my diary:

The lower you come, the closer to ‘civilisation’, the shitter the food and the more it costs. People become less interested in hosting you and more interested in taking your money. It is thus, here in Ghandruk.

Fortunately this does not apply everywhere and Min knows where to go. He has friends here from his chicken-portering days and thus we soon find ourselves sat around a kitchen fire in the cheerful company of Nee and Samichya. They are the teenage ladies of the house and clearly remember Min fondly from the days when he used to porter with their father. They heat raksi and prepare some secuti (dried, spiced meat). This is the last time Min and I will share these things together. He is committed to being back in Pokhara the following day to start on twenty-straight days of work, labouring on the British Gurkhas Camp during Gurkha Selection. In the morning he will extract down the valley to the road head at Birethanti and I will finish my journey alone.

I reflect on the difference between our lives: I am feeling strong and lean but also duly tired on the back of 18 days of trekking. In two days I will arrive back in Pokhara and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about the coffee and cake and the lazy, restful days which await me there. Being with Min opens my eyes to another side of the coin. For Min there will be no high fiving in the mirror, no bathing in post-trek luxuries. He will beeline to the British Camp to sign on for the work. He will go home, spend the night in the single room in which he lives with his wife and daughter and then he will slip out in pre-dawn darkness for the first of twenty consecutive days of labouring. There is no self-pity. He is visibly happy to have another 20 days of work. And he is apologising for leaving me. I, in turn, am humbled.

With a certain reluctance we drag ourselves away from the cheerful bahinis and the ambiance of the hearth. Back at Hotel Milan there is a group of young Kiwis (not literally: that would be weird). After supper they invite me to join them playing cards and introduce me to ‘Arsehole’. It’s a game which is something of a mirror on society: if you win the first hand (consider this the birth lottery) then thereafter the odds are stacked in your favour. At the start of each subsequent round the loser has to hand you their best cards (paying rent) and you either have to be exceptionally unlucky or exceptionally stupid to relinquish your dominant position (think: silver spoon baby who develops a coke habit and proceeds to spank the entire family fortune). It also involves managing a great number of cards which, in spite of Min and Rob’s best efforts, I still do with all the finesse of a man with no fingers. This and the fact that I am a beginner lull my Kiwi companions into a false sense of security. I win the first hand and with a grip of steel, dominate them for the rest of the evening. I am an arsehole.

The morning dawns clear. Min skips off down the valley. And then there was one.

Breakfast is an unsatisfactory affair: overwhelming in price – underwhelming in either quantity or quality. I take the thimbleful of muesli and powdered milk back to the kitchen and explain that mousa ko lagi pugchha hola (it might be enough for a mouse). Ma mousa jastai lagchha? (Do I look like a mouse?) After agreeing, albeit reluctantly, that I do not look like a mouse and that someone of my stature probably warrants at least two thimblefuls of muesli, the chef duly adds another helping.

When it comes to checking out the greedy dai presents me with the bill which I duly pay. Thanking him, I make to leave – only to be called back. He has remembered that I had bed tea – something we had both forgotten. He adds it to the bill I have already paid … with apparent glee. I can’t get out of here fast enough.

I take a photo walk around the village and wind up back with Nee and Samichiya. They make chiya and jilinge (pron. jil-ing-gay). Jilinge is a traditional Gurung snack which had somehow, up until now, escaped me. It is dough based, roled thin and then dropped in oil so that it comes out like a large crispy wormhill. On its own it is not worth the mention. With Nepali chiya it is divine.

I am made to feel so at home here. There is laughter and innocent banter. I feel like I am riding on the back on Min’s high stock. A friend of his is evidently a friend of theirs. There are various remonstrations from both sides when I ask to pay. Nee is refusing my money and saying that my chiya and jilinge come from her tarpha. Not recognising this word I ask about it. I struggle to get a direct translation but understand it to mean ‘heart’ and thus I parry, pressing a note into her hand which I tell her is “mero tarpha bata” (from my heart) – which it is.

I leave the two girls eating their mid morning dhalbhat on the sunny step outside the kitchen doorway. The dollar signs in the eyes of the greedy hotelier at Hotel Milan had really put a cloud over me. Luckily, the heartfelt generosity and warm smiles of these sweet Gurung girls blew my sky wide open again and I set off down the hill with a spring in my step.

The sweet laughter of a Gurung girl: what better sound to have echoing in my ears as I depart Ghandruk?

The sweet laughter of a Gurung girl: what better sound to have echoing in my ears as I depart Ghandruk?

Posted in ABC, Adventure, Annapurna Base Camp, Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna South Face, Bill Denz, Ghandruk, Gurkha, Himalaya, Jimmy Roberts, Machapuchare, Mountains, Nepal, The Fish Tail, Travel, Trekking, Ueli Steck | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Short Walk Around The Annapurna – Part XI – Ghorepani to Ghandruk – Frost, Snow and an Alaskan Bush Hippy

DAY 18 – GHOREPANI TO GHANDRUK

My alarm goes before dawn, waking me for just long enough to look out the window, establish that we are still inside a cloud and turn over to rest some more: so, my third trip to the famous Poon Hill viewpoint will yield no better views than the previous two. Ke garne? (the philosophical cum defeatist Nepali answer to almost any situation which is not going as well as it might – literally, ‘what to do?’). Mountain views have not exactly been scarce over the past 17 days so I am not unduly bothered that the secretive Annapurna South is once again hiding its morning face from me.

An alternative view from Poon Hill (2012)

An alternative view from Poon Hill (2012)

I hope that by getting an early start today I may beat the crowds. It doesn’t quite work out that way and I briefly find myself in the midst of a large group of teenaged school kids from an international school in Doha. Luckily we are moving at different speeds and passing beyond them the forest which I am climbing into resumes a wonderful, still silence.

Hoar frost lends a sense of magic to the high ridgeline between Ghorepani and Ban Thanti

Hoar frost lends a sense of magic to the high ridgeline between Ghorepani and Ban Thanti

The contrast between yesterday’s first climb and this one is not lost on me. Passing 3000m altitude (for the last time on this journey) we have left behind us the bustling, motorised world. No tractors, nor even any ponies carrying chickens. No dust and no sweat. No noise. Instead, a heavy hoar frost has caste a breath of white magic over the thick forest. Prayer flags, thin and weathered hang limp between the bows.

Faded prayer flags hang limp in the frosty forest

Faded prayer flags hang limp in the frosty forest

Having climbed from Ghorepani the trail now follows the rise and fall of the ridgeline before descending to a settlement barely worth the name, Ban Thanti. I have caught up with and befriended a couple nearer my parents’ age than mine: Boris and Yammi. They are paramedics from the Yukon and clearly no strangers to the great outdoors. Indeed, Boris describes his younger self as having been an ‘Alaskan bush hippy’. We find much to talk about and as we are not in any rush, stop and enjoy the warming comfort of a mug of chiya.

From Ban Thanti the trail descends a series of zigzags and stone staircases. There are no views to speak of. Mostly we see nothing but the thick forest surrounding us and I find myself glad of the good company.

It’s strange seeing this jungly environment frost covered. The last time I was here was July 2011 and I was running in the opposite direction, from Ghandruk to Nayapul via Ghorepani and a prodigious number of steps. At that time it was monsoon: warm and wet. The rain was quite literally torrential, turning the stone staircases into a series of mini waterfalls and the streams, now barely flowing, into torrents. At that time leaches were so prolific that sitting or even leaning on anything was a sure formula for getting your blood sucked. Instead when we rested we remained standing, leach checking one another. Sometimes we spotted the leaches in their ambush positions, poised on the very tips of leaves and branches, waiting for their unwitting meal to come within range. We amused ourselves by moving a hand close to the bloodthirsty critters and watching as the sucking end of the leach not securing it to the leaf extended itself in a thirsty, desperate frenzy towards the heat source which, of course, we kept tantalisingly out of reach. This we did more out of curiosity about the hunting mechanisms of the leach rather than out of any particular cruelty (living at the end of a leaf for extended periods of time waiting for a passing meal must be a shit enough existence without being taunted). Funnily enough the trails on that occasion were almost completely void of foreign traffic.

The same trail in monsoon - a striking comparison with this journey's frost, snow and general monotone

The same trail in monsoon – a striking comparison with this journey’s frost, snow and general monotone

Anyway, back to the present: having descended next to a stream for some time we now climb away from it, through rhododendron forest, to a view point with a well situated teahouse. The view is more atmospheric than photogenic: interlocking spurs of dark jungle meeting an invisible river far below us that runs away towards the Modi Khola, draining Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and their foothills. Snow is now falling and the scene, strangely still and silent becomes almost monotone, a vision of real life, yet in black and white.

From here there is just one remaining descent and climb before Tadapani which we reach in suitable time for a leisurely lunch. Like Ghorepani, Tadapani is a renowned view point. Like Ghorepani, Tadapani is only of interest today for anyone wishing to experience what the inside of a large, grey, cold and wet cloud looks and feels like. For anyone who might be curious I can assure you that it’s not an experience worth travelling around the block for, let alone half way round the globe (and besides, there are plenty of places in Britain where such conditions can be sought and found with great reliability and at a fraction of the cost).

Boris, Yammi and I drown our weather induced disappointment in a large thermos of chiya and I enjoy hearing about their life in a cabin in the Yukon. Having shared food, enough chiya to drown in and no shortage of conversation, I bid them a fond farewell. They tell me to come and visit in the Yukon and Boris adds, with a twinkle of humour in his eye – “Don’t wait too long” (we’re not getting any younger!). Min and I, alone again on the trail (and for the last time) make short work of the descent from Tadapani to Ghandruk where we decide, for our sins, to stay at the Hotel Milan.

Posted in Adventure, Annapurna Circuit, Ban Thanti, Ghandruk, Ghorepani, Monsoon, Mountains, Nepal, Travel, Trekking, Trekking The Annapurna Circuit | Leave a comment