Aug 28, 2012

It's official... Makalu 2012 expedition confirmed!!

Not only do you learn about mountains and cultures in this wonderful world of mountaineering, you also learn about politics... and the art of being flexible and always looking on the bright side of life (flashbacks of the Olympic Closing Ceremony spring to mind here....). To put it mildly, a change of plans in mountaineering terms is a little bit more complex than changing your Saturday evening plans from Plan A: 'The White Horse Pub'  to Plan B: 'Tiger Tiger Disco Bar'....  To keep the nightclub analogy going, today my Plan A: 'White Horse Pub' plan (a la Cho Oyu) officially changed to Plan B: the equivalent of a an all-nite rave bar in Shoreditch with a lot less oxygen (although am sure that the effect on brain cells is not dissimilar).... Welcome to Makalu. At 8463m it's the 5th highest mountain in the world, just 385 small metres lower than the summit of Everest and an unpredictable beast of a mountain with an absolutely gorgeous silhouette.... 

Over the past 5 years Tibet has occasionally been closed to climbing by the Chinese government. When I decided to head back to Tibet this year to climb (and ski) Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world, I knew that this political uncertainty was one of the logistical risks. I've been keeping my eye on the border situation in Tibet for a few months now so it wasn't a massive surprise when I received confirmation from my expedition guide, Adrian Ballinger from Alpenglow Expeditions, that the border was well and truly shut  and that the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association (CTMA) were not handing out climbing permits this autumn. Hence, the move to to Plan B.  Makalu, one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb, will be a massive challenge for various reasons - not only because of the altitude (the obvious answer!) but also due to factors such as the remoteness of the mountain, the distance between camps, the tremendous summit day, the technical nature of the mountain (have I sold it to you yet?). 

Through the climbing grapevine that runs thick and fast during Himalayan climbing season, we've learned that a number of climbing teams who had planned to climb Cho Oyu have been in Kathmandu for over a week, visiting the Chinese Embassy and requesting access to Tibet without any success in receiving the climbing permit required to attempt most Himalayan peaks. 

Makalu is our Plan B over other mountains because despite its' challenges, it is believed to be a realistic goal for our very strong team of 4 climbers, 2 international guides and 5 Sherpas. As with so many challenges much will come down to planning and putting in place all of the infrastructure required to manage (and minimise) the risks and maximises the chances of success. This means a high climber to sherpa ratio (1:1), climber to guide ratio (3:1); fresh food, excellent base camp and abc infrastructure... and supplemental oxygen. I'd love to be a 'purist' and follow in the footsteps of so many of the mountaineers that I look up to for their alpine-style climbing techniques (light and fast with no fixed infrastructure) however, I have to be realistic with my approach and my overall objectives about Why I climb... but that is the subject of a whole other blog entry!

In terms of logistics, in order to have Makalu Basecamp established in time for our arrival and expedition, our sherpas and equipment will be flying from Kathmandu tomorrow and then they will start the 8 - 10 day walk into Base Camp. We will be helicoptering into Base Camp at just over 4000m (hence my pre-acclimatisation antics!) around the 11th or 12th of September with a view to hit the late September / early October summit window. This is the window when the normal jet stream winds of 100kph+ subside for a few short days and allow for a summit attempt before picking up to their gale-force speeds.

It will be a tremendous adventure and one that I am very much looking forward to - I won't lie and say that there is no apprehension or nerves but you never know unless you try - and no matter what, it will most certainly be an adventure of epic proportions with so much to do and see and people to meet along the way... and, after all, isn't that what life is all about?. 

Aug 19, 2012

Sounds like vindaloo... and nearly as spicy. Makalu, Nepal. 8,463m/27,765ft. September - October 2012.

"While standing on top of Everest, I looked across the valley, towards the other great peak, Makalu, and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed… it showed me that, even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything for me, by any means. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges." - Sir Edmund Hillary

Having had a similar vantage point from other Himalayan summits, I can certainly relate to Hillary's famous quote and can certainly relate to his character. No sooner had he achieved one goal, he was already looking to the next one..!

Whilst I must admit, my original goal was not Makalu it has turned out this way due to an unexpected change of events which has closed the border between Nepal and Tibet for the autumn season.  
Having said that, the prospect of attempting this absolutely stunning 8000m peak (just under 400m lower than Everest) is an exciting yet tremendous challenge. Here are some slightly 'dry' climbing stats but I hope to put them into perspective for you over the coming weeks..!

Elevation: 27,765 feet (8,462 meters)
Location: Nepal, Asia
First Ascent: Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray (France), May 15, 1955

Just 22kms / 14 miles east of Everest, Makalu (derived from the Sanskrit Maha Kala, a name for the Hindu god Shiva that translates to "great black") has a distinctive pyramid shape, with its South East and North Western ridges being most prominent. The latter provides the 'normal' route of ascent for the majority of climbers attempting the summit and will be the route that I will follow. The steep summit ridge is on the border between Nepal and Tibet and is one of the most challenging 8000m peaks with steep climbing, exposed ridges, and rock climbing on the summit pyramid.  Only five of the first 16 attempts successfully reached Makalu’s summit.

The French team led by Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray that made the first ascent in 1955 climbed the north face and northeast ridge  and placed nine climbers, including one Sherpa, on the summit.

Though the pyramid shape of the final ascent makes topping Makalu extremely difficult, just over 300 people have since accomplished this feat in the decades since... compared to over 5000 summits of Everest. 

Hanging in there with the Air Force and more traditional techniques...

Training to climb a mountain has its ups and downs (literally). One of the fun parts of training for me has been my regular sessions at the Castle’s indoor climbing wall. It seems like a bit of a pointless exercise to grunt and groan and ruin a perfectly good manicure to get up an artificial wall only to be lowered back down again… but it is phenomenally good exercise and it provides very tangible progress – both on physique and overall ability to climb higher and higher grades with different techniques. The only downside is that the shoes are even more uncomfortable than my Jimmy Choos. Why someone doesn’t invent comfortable, stylish climbing shoes is beyond me – somewhere someone is missing a trick.

On the subject of climbing walls, the other day I came across a You Tube video which I found fascinating (yet worrying that funding actually gets put into these projects). The creatively named, Dyson inspired, “vertical ascender”, built by an engineering team at Utah State University which won an Air Force contest to design a device that will turn members of the Special Forces into the equivalent of Spidermen.... at least long enough for them to reach the top of a 90-foot wall. Tubes attach the giant battery-powered vacuum in a backpack the size of a small beer-fridge to giant pads worn on the hands of the wearer, allowing suction to seal the pads, (and their wearer) to the wall. With 30 minutes of battery life, the vertical ascender has about enough juice to scale the wall (and clean it at the same time) but not much more than that. Now, all the team needs to do is reduce the device’s size and weight—and maybe turn down the volume.... and then come vacuum my room when they're done with the wall..!
At the Castle, one of London's best indoor climbing walls
Not quite sure what I'm doing here other than ruining my nails

Aug 17, 2012

Grow a pair...

I came across an online article the other day which prompted me to reflect upon my approach to life. The article is titled, "10 Ways to be More Interesting". Whilst the title seems a bit 'misleading' (reflecting on who you're making life more interesting 'for'), I felt that it was worth sharing.

On days like today when I have a 'to do' list that seems impossibly long, I wonder how on earth I'm going to get through it all in a day. Why do I always seem to take on so much and how is it that I am rarely bored or looking for something to do... and why can't I enjoy a mojito and a beach holiday like normal people? (ok, I do enjoy the occasional mojito from time to time!) Through a constant desire to explore the unknown, to push myself to the ultimate limit, to share my discoveries, to have a go at the impossible and, by embracing my 'quirks', I have set out on journey after journey and have opened myself up to countless opportunities - some have turned out well, some have taken unexpected divergences, some have been 'character building',  and some I'd rather forget..! I love to write and share my experiences both through my writing, through client-work, through telling stories and laughing at myself and the rather random situations that I get myself into (see notes on 'embracing your innate wierdness!')

These experiences and the people that I've met along the way have enriched my life and have made life more interesting to 'myself'. I hope that I have been able to impact others in the same way. I genuinely believe that if you focus on simply making your life more interesting to yourself, you’ll enjoy life more and odds are that others will find what you do interesting (although, sometimes mad!) as well.

And if they don’t…who cares as long as you’re happy? ;-)

How To Be More Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps)
By: Jessica Hagy

1.Go exploring.
Explore ideas, places, and opinions. The inside of the echo chamber is where all the boring people hang out

2. Share what you discover.
And be generous when you do. Not everybody went exploring with you. Let them live vicariously through your adventures.

3. Do something. Anything. 
Dance. Talk. Build. Network. Play. Help. Create. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re doing it. Sitting around and complaining is not an acceptable form of ‘something,’ in case you were wondering.

4. Embrace your innate weirdness.
No one is normal. Everyone has quirks and insights unique to themselves. Don’t hide these things—they are what make you interesting.

5. Have a cause.
If you don’t give a damn about anything, no one will give a damn about you.

6. Minimize the swagger.
Egos get in the way of ideas. If your arrogance is more obvious than your expertise, you are someone other people avoid.

7. Give it a shot.
Try it out. Play around with a new idea. Do something strange. If you never leave your comfort zone, you won’t grow.

8. Hop off the bandwagon.
If everyone else is doing it, you’re already late to the party.  Do your own thing, and others will hop onto the spiffy wagon you built yourself. Besides, it’s more fun to drive than it is to get pulled around.

9. Grow a pair.
Bravery is needed to have contrary opinions and to take unexpected paths. If you’re not courageous, you’re going to be hanging around the water cooler, talking about the guy who actually is.

10. Ignore the scolds.
Boring is safe, and you will be told to behave yourself. The scolds could have, would have, should have. But they didn’t. And they resent you for your adventures.

On the rather unexpectedly chilly summit of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
White water rafting on the Bhote Kosi River, Nepal
Trying to put up a tent somewhere in Canada

Aug 12, 2012

Pre-exped Preparations... and breathe...

Benjamin Franklin, one of America's Founding Fathers, once uttered that all too well known phrase, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

One thing that my hobby of persuing this um... 'glamorous' life of adventure-seeking / career balancing has taught me is the delicate art of multi-tasking, deep breathing and smiling bravely through those situations when you realise that there are only 24 hours in a day and you've planned for a day of 30. Those are the days when you find yourself lycra-clad in the gym, gasping for breath on a treadmill, reading emails with blackberry in hand, on a conference call finishing off final details of a project plan and deciding what you will have for dinner once you've finished off your 4th can of Red Bull for the day. It's all about multitasking... If there were Olympic gold-medals awarded for the creation of 'to do lists' then I would certainly be in contention for a gold - or at least a silver medal. 

I sometimes find that one of the most challenging phases of an expedition can be the run-up to the expedition itself. Managing work commitments and responsibilities, striking the balance between arriving early and staying late with training, fundraising, sponsorship, organising kit, managing 'stakeholders', personal commitments and taking time out for yourself - it's easy to become overwhelmed. Over the past few weeks I must admit that I've had to stop and force myself to take a few deep breaths, revisit the checklist, (re)define key dates, (re)prioritise and let my body catch up with my brain. These are the times what I really need to focus on my 'vision' and be very disciplined in what items on my 'to do' list relate directly to my 'vision' and which are just "nice to have's".

I've gone through this pre-expedition routine more a few times now so am starting to appreciate that my mini-panic attacks are part of the process and that my careful planning in this 'preparation' phase will certainly pay off in the longer-term during the 'execution' of the project - that is, the actual climb of the mountain itself. When there are that many 'moving parts' involved it's important to be disciplined and rigorous in your approach so that you don't find yourself on a mountain without a sleeping bag... or returning from an expedition without a job!

Today I was mulling over a client proposal with some colleagues - the  request for proposal indicated budget (eg. team) for a 'lite' 'Design Phase' and a 'heavy' delivery or 'Implementation Phase' (to use some classic 'consultant speak!). We spent a long time discussing the way that the proposal had been written and tried to understand the reasoning behind the clients approach in terms of both time and money.

I couldn't help but reflect on my own 'mountaineering' experiences - if I calculated the number of hours spent simply PREPARING for the climb (eg. months of training, investment in the training, conducting PR, managing stakeholders etc.) then it would certainly surpass the number of days spent on the climb itself... Needless to say, the money spent on executing the actual climb would far surpass the money spent on the training and preparation - however without the training and preparation there would simply not be any point in even setting foot on the mountain..!

I've summarised below some additional parallels to help draw out this metaphor... 

I must apologise to my colleagues and my esteemed employers (and clients!) for the 'draft nature' of these ideas - my brain is struggling to cope with trying to be intellectual and function at 5200m at the moment!!!

Aug 11, 2012

The People You Meet: The Tremendously Talented Guide, Isabelle Santoire

I've been known to be a bit nervous when it comes to heights and exposure (yes, this is kind of ironic given my climbing ambitions!!). I've put on more than a few brave faces trying desperately to ignore the butterflies in my stomach when looking over the edge of a sheer rock face. Over the past few months, these butterflies have subsided thanks to the amazingly inspiring and talented UAIGM Mountain Guide, friend, mentor and teacher Isabelle Santiore. I now find myself looking forward to the sheer drops with a smile, feeling incredibly privileged to see the world from this unique perspective..!

A fellow Canadian, Isabelle is one of the inspirational and hugely talented people that I've met through this crazy altitude-driven journey and someone from whom who I have learned a tremendous amount. She is an inspiring athlete and unique teacher. On skis, or on a rock face, or when meeting to discuss ambitions over a coffee in sunny Chamonix, she is passionate about sharing the spectacular vertical world that is the mecca of the Alps. Her goals are to encourage others to experience the same and to go beyond their own perceived physical and mental limits.

Based in my idea of 'heaven' - aka the Chamonix valley, it's no surprise that Isabelle has become a local icon with her contagious smile and warm personality. She can point out most summits and tell you a story about a climb she has done or a North Face on which she has shivered on.

As a French Canadian, Isabelle grew up in the extreme winters of Quebec - something that I could relate to thanks to my university days in Montreal...! It wasn't until Isabelle came to Switzerland, 20 years ago as a teacher, that she discovered the high mountains. Since those first steps, her life has taken a dramatic change. Whilst finishing a Masters degree in Adult Education in Geneva, she found herself drawn ever closer to the rock walls and snows of the European Alps.

Her extensive adventures around the world include: traversing the Alps on telemarks, experiencing the high altitude of Aconcagua, Denali and Ama Dablam, battling spin drifts in Alaska and exploring the mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia. This motivated her to pursue her passion as a career. She is now one of just 16 women in France to have made the mountains her home as a professional mountain guide and member of the UIAGM. 

Heading up to the summit

Being the proud mum of 2 gorgeous young children, Isabelle had to adapt her mountaineering aspirations. She continues to live in the constant search for perfect balance enabling others to achieve their alpine dreams safely and spending time with her family. 

Climbing, mountaineering and skiing remain a source of inspiration to her. Whether on rock or ice, in the mountains or sports climbing, she relishes these forms of creative expression. She needs daily challenges, the search for a solution to the seemingly impossible.

Looking for an adventure..?
I highly recommend getting in touch with Isabelle to develop an itinerary that suits your objectives and ambitions, and choose from an endless selection of classic ski tours and climbing routes in and around Chamonix. Take one day out or spend several on a hut-to-hut tour of the Alps. Some of the most breath-taking scenery and journeys are to be had at the VallĂ©e Blanche, Grand Paradiso, Bernese Oberland and along the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route.

Go ice climbing, snow shoeing, glacier trekking or climb Mont Blanc & surrounding peaks. The possibilities are endless - so go, get out there, explore the vertical world and have FUN!!!

Isabelle Santoire
Tel: +33 6 88 65 27 75

Aug 5, 2012

Climbing the Weissmies... Snow, Seracs and Summit(s)

If you’ve ever thought about going wild and crazy, and trying something a bit ‘different’ for a weekend then let me tempt you with a little 4000m gem of an experience. The Weissmies in Switzerland. A very straight-forward snowy mountain which can be climbed in a day – either from the quaint Swiss village of Sass Grund (complete with garden gnomes, cow-bells, chocolate and a fabulous espresso) or from the alpine hut called the Hohsaas (accessible by a luxurious high-speed gondola with mountain-views on which you can eat said chocolate!).

If you’ve ever thought about tossing aside your Jimmy Choos and replacing them with some more (dare I say) ‘comfortable’ footwear (aka. crampons) or escaping from Saturday-evening couch-syndrome  (aka X-Factor) then this might very well be a perfect opportunity… and I encourage you to break out of your comfort zone and give the 'one foot in front of the other' passtime a healthy shot.

Like the other ‘Swiss giants’ which include the Breithorn, Allalinhorn, and Mont Blanc du Tacul, the Weissmies is one of the big, 4000 meter summits that can usually be ascended without encountering difficult technical climbing – it’s a perfect acclimatisation peak providing the opportunity to get to 4000m in just under 3 hours from the nearest 'hut'. Don't let the label 'hut' deceive you - I think that it was a term applied to these mountain 'resorts' by mountaineers keen to keep the Hilton's of the Alps an inside secret. The Hohsaas in particular is excellent - fabulous thick duvets, comfy mattresses, clean rooms.. bliss!

Under first light of dawn Isabelle and I strapped on our crampons and roped up to cross a fun section of snow covered and exposed crevasses. It was a good opportunity for the coffee buzz to set in - to be honest, I initially felt like I should have had a Red-Bull chaser with my coffee.

After a short section of gentle snow covered slope we reached the steeper middle section of the glacier.

I would be a terrible alpine-version of Usain Bolt. It always takes about 15-20 minutes to find the 'zone' with my high-altitude plodding but once I find a steady pace and clear my mind I find the plodding a tremendously therapeutic experience. Roped together by a flourescent green climbing rope for safety, I followed in Isabelle's footsteps. We both plodded on in silence enjoying the stillness of the mountain air and the gorgeous views as the morning sun began to crest over the mountains.

Eventually the angle eased and we arrive on the crest of the west ridge of the peak. This was followed fairly easily to the 13,176 foot high summit. We did it in 2.45h - including a few rehydration and food refueling stops. An excellent time and we were rewarded for our efforts with the most spectacular view of the Alps.

I thoroughly enjoyed the climb – we really pushed ourselves trying to max our already acclimatised bodies thanks to the ascent of the Lagginhorn the previous day.

The final ridge up to the summit as the sun rises
Isabelle and Heather on the summit

Ridge leading up to the summit (taken from summit on descent)

Summit shot

Aug 4, 2012

Mountain Globetrotter - passport not required... Climbing the Lagginhorn

Apine starts are not my ‘speciality’. Even when sleeping in the worlds widest bed with at least 15 other groggy climbers in a stuffy humid and 'not so pleasant smelling' room (have I sold it to you yet?? Trip Advisor review?), the prospect of crawling out from under a warm woolly blanket and into the cold fresh air is never an appealing one. Today was no exception – with the fog settling outside the only thing that could rouse me from my slumber was a fresh cup of coffee – and fortunately the hut had that in abundance..!
Like Heidi in the mountains, we set out from the friendly Swiss-German run hut at around 6am after a leisurely breakfast on account of waiting for the early morning cloud to clear. Fortunately Isabelle had done some initial reconnaissance the previous evening as the path leading up the tongue of the glacier was not well marked. As my body got used to the ‘shock’ of having woken up at 4am, I was reminded of what I love about climbing – the stillness of the air, the steady plodding of feet, and the anticipation of a lovely sun-rise. This morning was no exception as we made our way over the loose scree and onto the glacier where we prepared for our ascent of the mighty Lagginhorn.
It was a great, straight forward climb which we managed with ease solving all of the worlds problems along the way. Some sections revealed some exposed ridges and careful navigation over ‘loose’ scree and brittle ice.  As we reached the 4010m summit, we were treated with spectacular views of the Weissmies which we’ll be climbing tomorrow. Whilst on the summit we took our blood-oxygen sats with the pulseoximeter – for the first foray up to 4000m results were good! The clouds from the summit were absolutely spectacular but when thunder was heard rolling in the distance we decided to make a well-timed departure from our lofty perch..!
The descent was a bit more treacherous and proved to be a great challenge on the knees with the loose rock underfoot - there were times when your feet went one direction and the loose rock had other intentions..! I didn't know it at the time but sadly the Lagginhorn had been the scene of a terrible climbing accident several weeks before in which 5 German climbers had lost their lives. It serves as a reminder that even on straightforward peaks, care and attention must always be taken.
Fortunately we had brilliant weather and managed a relativley quick descent, arriving at the bottom in time to enjoy a quick snack and the sunshine. When we arrived at the Weissmies hut at around 3pm that afternoon, we enjoyed a refreshing glass of apple cider and took in the spectacular views from the stunning hut. With its gigantic windows overlooking the Weissmies, we were absolutely spoiled with the sun streaming into the dining room. A fantastic dinner of schnitzel, salad and spaghetti was served accompanied by some of Switzerlands finest house-red wine.
A fantastic and fun day out in the Swiss Alps!

Aug 3, 2012

Chamonix, Chamonix... Mountain Mecca and Adventure Playground