Sep 28, 2012

Bad Ass Climbing while the skiing was taking place - the 7000m tag

Laying in a cold tent, nestled deep inside of a huge, puffy down sleeping bag, fashionably dressed in the latest in 7000m lingerie (eg. down suit) is about the most comfortable place to be above 6600m and at the crack of dawn. This morning was no exception. It was 8am and the sun STILL hadn’t reached our tent and all of my water bottles were frozen. Given that Chad had given us a 9.00am set-off time I knew that I’d have to get moving. It seemed however, that Chad had similar appreciation for his sleeping-bag and down-suit combo as he shouted across to our tents to see if we’d be happy to postpone our departure time to 10am. I certainly wasn’t going to complain…!

We left at 10am sharp, just in time to see the sun hit the face of wall that we’d have to climb to reach our 7000m ‘tag’ before descending back to Camp 2.  The route started with a gentle snow-slope, up to a rock band, through a steep icy section and evening out at a 7000m plateau. A challenging climb but on mixed terrain which made for an interesting route which kept the brain alert and engaged.

In spite of the slow start and cold conditions, I must admit that it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable climb and absolutely stellar day. Chad, Valdes and I managed in just about 4 hours including several breaks to watch Sergey and Adrian’s absolutely epic ski from 7200m through the deep powder bowl to the right of our route. It was one of those unforgettable Himalayan days with blue skies, heaps of sunshine, no breeze and plenty of laughs. Topping out at 7000m, looking across at the NE Ridge of Everest and into the snow covered peaks of Tibet reminded me of how lucky I was to be on such a spectacular route with such a great group of people. We made a quick descent and met with Adrian and Sergey who had been lounging in Camp 2 following their ski descent.

Camp 2 on Makalu

View from the 7000m bench - a hint at what the future holds

Bad Ass Skiing at 7250m...

I’m fairly certain that the Sherpas, like us, assumed that Adrian and Sergey were carrying their skis up the bouldery and snowy steep slopes of Makalu in an attempt to look seriously bad-ass in front of all of the other people on the mountain… (um… all 10  of them?!). 

We all watched with bemused looks upon our faces as, in a session of ‘arts and crafts’ in the mess tent, they installed complex boot-heating systems with an even more complex layer of duct tape to super-power their Black Diamond Quadrants boots. We looked on as they tried to assemble the all-important ski and apres-ski wardrobe suitable for an 8000m peak while balancing minimal weight with warmth and, of course, style.  Sadly the black-bear fur balaclava was sacrificed in an attempt to minimize weight and maximise efficiency… We scratched our heads in curiosity as, they seemed to carry their La Sporta GT 177s anywhere and everywhere there was a chance of an increase in altitude directly proportional to an increase in snow-depth...

Finally, this morning, as we lay in our sleeping bags, we  listened to them grunting to get up at the crack of the sub-arctic dawn, chip open their frozen solid water bottles, drag their harnesses over their down suits and cram their thick wool socks into their boots. All in an attempt to ‘lay down fresh tracks’ after making the 400m ascent from Camp 2 up to 7200m in the -15 degree temperatures.  Either they are seriously, seriously bad-ass or no-one told them that Makalu hadn’t been skied above 7000m before.... and from the merry-band of travelers currently on the mountain, there wasn’t going to be any stiff competition to clinch the title..! 

Regardless, from the comforts of our cozy Marmot sleeping bags we all admired their dedication and spirit and looked forward to watching them carve big, deep turns into the snowy slopes of Makalu against a spectacular Himalayan backdrop of Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Cholatse…

When we arose from our sleeping bags a few hours later I poked my head out of the tent and watched their silhouettes against the rocks making their way up the face. They’d made excellent progress and I was looking forward to witnessing a seriously amazing descent. I knew the line that Adrian had in mind – it was to the climbers left of our route in a wide, steep bowl of what looked like quite well consolidated but ‘light’ snow.

At 12-noon I found myself perched on one of the rocks in the rock-band  heading up to our 7000m touch-point – jumar in hand, gasping for breath, boiling under the blazing sun… and heard Adrian’s call… “Coming down, climbers left”. And waited. And waited. And waited. And then suddenly I saw them – Adrian first in his ‘Ronald McDonald’ red and yellow Marmot down suit and Sergey looking appropriately Russian in his red Mountain-Hardwear one-piece.

For me, there are few things as mesmerising as watching an accomplished skier on steep terrain, making huge, effortless, big S-turns in fresh, untracked snow. From our vantage point in the rock band as we climbed to 7000m, looking down at the skiers it was like high-altitude ballet in deep powder. In spite of the fact that they made it look effortless it was clear from the breathless, “AWESOME” echoed over the radios that the descent had been seriously hard work.

It’s pretty clear why, as documented in a recent BBC news article, “What Adventures Are Actually Left” why mountains such as Makalu remain unskiied.

With the summits of the world's 14 mountains over 8,000m long since reached, climbers have now taken to skiing down them.
Most of the 14 major mountains, including Everest (Davo Karnicar) in 2000, have been completed, extreme skiing site suggests. But K2, Makalu and Kangchenjunga, in the Himalayas, remain un-skied or un-skiable from the summit.

That night, when we all safely descended back to our Camp 2 tents we all agreed that it had been an absolutely incredible and tremendously unique Himalayan day. Between the climbing and the skiing I couldn’t imagine anywhere I would rather have been. 

Nice to see the boys already plotting their 7200+m line ;-)

Watch this space... more to follow..!

Sep 26, 2012

Rest days before the next acclimatisation push....

Spare yourself no illusions that we are stilll heroically trudging knee-deep through a steep snowy slopes on the far flung reaches of Makalu, clinging onto our jumars with clenched teeth, breathing each breath as if it were our last… Oh no.... Rather, the greater proportion of us are lounging in our tents or enjoying the warm comforts of the 'chill out tent' where the world is 'yellow', enjoying the benefits of satelite internet, solar power and the rather eclectic mix of songs on Adrian's ipod. Every now and then Monica breaks out into song and Tashi comes by with a new recipe which he'd like to try out on us... I am just digesting the most fabulous 'baked spaghetti' and counting down the minutes to dinner. Adrian has decided that as a side-business, he will open up the high altitude Alpenglow Coffee Republic cafe with his cappucino apparatus that also provides a great arm-work out in preparation for all of the jumar-ing ahead..!

We're resting today as tomorrow we head back up to Camp 1 and then on to Camp 2 from which we'll climb to 7000m. This will be our last push before our summit bid which is expected in early October - weather dependent...! I'm excited to be heading back up the mountain to conduct the final preparations of both mind and body for the tremendous challenge ahead.

Everyone is feeling healthy and strong - there is one other team here (Keri Kobler) as well as three small independent teams. Having said that, the mountain is in top-notch condition, the weather forecast is excellent, the ropes are fixed to Camp 3!

I've tried to post as much as I can today in an effort to catch up on some missed-days so hopefully this will give you a good overview of the adventures that we've been having on this absolutely spectacular mountain.

That's all for me for now - in spite of the 5* conditions, my fingers are slowly freezing and the sun is setting behind the mountains so it's time for me to dive into my tent and read the 2nd installment of Harry Potter! 

Will post again in 3 days! x

Sep 24, 2012

Our thoughts and prayers are with those on Manaslu

We’re just back down from our latest round of acclimatization to Camp 2 and have learned of the terrible avalanche on Manaslu. 

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the ongoing rescue efforts on Manaslu, to our friends and family dealing with the disaster on the mountain, and to all those who have been affected by what is one of the biggest Himalayan accidents in history.

Sep 23, 2012

Rocks, Glaciers, Snow Walls and Seracs - our journey to Camp 1

Must. Take. One. More. Step. Gasp. Gasp. Gasp. 

Yes, sadly, despite the comforts of Advanced Base Camp the time has come for us to make the hot slog up to Camp 1… Our initial round of acclimatization up to ‘Crampon Corner’ did prepare our bodies for the initial part of the push up to the Camp but the real fun began (eg. High altitude reality check) when we strapped on our spikey ice-walking crampons and began our move across a giant dry glacier. It’s easy to be distracted by the views and clearly impossible to forget why we’re ‘there’ – eg. Makalu couldn’t be more prominent in our view..! But it’s hard to concentrate on enjoying the view AND walking at the same time… So, I kept my head down, focused on putting one foot in front of the other.  

It was an enjoyable climb up and we took it nice and slow on account of the searing heat which bounced off of the snow. A tan can be charming but not especially becoming on the underside of your tongue and nostrils..!!!

If you don't count the effects of altitude, the route up to Camp 1 is relatively straight forward – an initial climb over the huge bouldery moraine up to "Crampon Corner" where simple walking attire eg. sturdy shoes is replaced with some more 'hardcore boots' and crampons, our climbing harnesses and helmets.  Then we cross a dry glacier and move up to a headwall of snow. Up to this point we are moving together on straight forward terrain using fixed lines when crossing a few open crevasses. Upon reaching the headwall at around 6200m, we don our ‘jumars’ which allow us to ‘pull’ (am sure that is not the technical term!!) up a 60-degree wall of snow up to a snowy plateau. Here you’re met with the most amazing views framed by some icy-blue seracs and deep crevasses. The terrain is once again made safe thanks to the amazing work of the Sherpas. After moving through some undulating terrain of ice and snow you get the first views of Camp 1 perched high on a snowy plateau overlooking the Barun valley and providing a spectacular view of Baruntse and Ama Dablam... 

It was a fun but challenging climb  - made even more enjoyable thanks to the company of Valdiz, Corbin and Chad plus the entertainment provided by Adrian and Sergey with their skis. Needless to say, arriving at Camp was a welcome event as we dove into our tents, turned on our stoves and bunkered down for a chilly night..! It was the first of many above 6000m and a reminder of all that needed to be done to focus the mind (and body) on the tremendous challenges ahead.

Sep 21, 2012

Acclimatisation Walk to Camp 1, 6300m

 Today we hop-skipped-and-jumped our way up to ‘Crampon Corner’ as part of an acclimatization walk which granted us our first views of the route to the summit of Makalu. I say ‘hop-skipped-and-jumped’ because it was all we could do to stop the giant glacial boulders from slipping from under our feet and careening down the to the glacial lakes about 200 metres below. We could definitely feel the altitude but kept a steady pace along a trail marked by cairns set up by Adrian and the Sherpas who began to set the trail a few days before us. It was a thoroughly stunning walk surrounded on either side by giant penitents (20 - 30 meter ice seracs) along our boulder-y trail. It was not dissimilar to the penitents on the North side of Everest between Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp. 

Along the trail we met with Kari Kobler’s team where were just coming down from their acclimatization push up to Camp 3 – they have a truly epic challenge ahead with an attempt to summit without the use of supplemental oxygen. It was a spectacularly sunny day so thoroughly enjoyable to stop along the trail, make initial introductions and discuss conditions and camps. When we got to Crampon Point, Adrian and Sergey, anticipating fresh powder and the opportunity to carve ‘fresh tracks’ quickly geared up with harnesses, La Sportiva skis and walked onto the ‘rather dry’ looking glacier. It wasn’t long before they reported a 3cm layer of snow over an icy base (of the glacial variety). “Fresh tracks” wasn’t going to be an option this morning. Still,  it made for quite interesting and entertaining viewing.

Sep 20, 2012

Showering at 5700m - not for the faint hearted….!

I’ve gone on quite extensively about ‘Advanced Base Camp Hilton’ that we are quite comfortably occupying here at 5700m.  With it’s 5* high altitude kitchen, 5* tent accommodation, 5* ‘lounge’ room, and 5* toilet facilities it’s worth paying special mention to the 5* shower… yes, in spite of the temperature range between -5 and +15 we do have a particularly luxurious shower – complete with hot water, luxury spa products with which one can ‘lather up’ and a high altitude sauna (aka, the lounge room).

Showers on previous expeditions (if showering was an option) included the very basic ‘gets-the-job-done’ potato-pan and an ingenious (but perhaps slightly inefficient) system whereby one of the kitchen-staff stands on a large rock next to the shower and holds a garden-hose through which he pours luke-warm water…

Here at ABC not only do we have an array of spa products from which one can choose to wash away that high-altitude ‘build-up’ after days of suffering sub-arctic conditions, we have a shower (JUGS Sport Shower) that you can use ‘on the move, anywhere’…. Even at 5700m in the privacy of your own base camp.

The showering… errrr…. Spa system is of the ‘pump’ variety. A plastic container which resembles a giant plastic gas-tank is filled with luke-warm water in the kitchen. The pump and ‘shower head’ is then connected, carried to the shower tent and then ready for use..! One full container will be enough for a luxurious 5 – 7 minute shower – more than enough for a deeply nourishing lather, rinse, repeat.  Several notes of caution – avoid cold gusts of wind, frozen zippers, and don’t lose track of time as it’s not a place where you’ll want to run out of water!

For the ‘piece de resistance’, after one is showered, primed and powdered, one can then go into the bright yellow, sun-attracting dome tent, close the doors and windows and have a sauna…

Seriously… could it get any better than this?

The Sacred Pilgrimage of Adventure – The Puja Ceremony

Central to the Buddhist religion and forming an integral part of any Nepalese or Tibetan expedition is the ‘Puja Ceremony’, during which the Sherpas pay homage to the mountain deity. The ceremony is the starting point for all Himalayan expeditions. The ceremony conducted by a Llama or Sherpa trained in conducting the Puja ceremony reads from a book of sacred prayers while sitting in front of a stone altar covered with offerings of cookies, chocolate bars, popcorn, rice and beer.. and whiskey. During this ceremony all climbers and equipment are blessed before beginning the ascent of the mountain. Marking the end of the formal ceremony, ‘tsampa’ (a roasted barley flour) is thrown into the air and rubbed on the faces of fellow team-mates and everyone is given a silk scarf as a symbol of being blessed.

Our puja was conducted by one of our Sherpa’s, Pasang, who had been trained in conducting the puja ceremony at a local monestry.  At one stage in the ceremony he began to chant louder in what appeared to be the climax of the puja as his well worn fingers followed the Cyrillic liturgy on the prayer book in front of his knees. He sat cross legged in front of the stone "stupa" (a sort of stone alter) which was covered from top to bottom in offerings flour, cakes, precious oils, cut up Bounty bars, Mars bars, Snickers bars… as well as an assortment of beverages including the finest whiskey as a sacrifice to the Mountain gods.

Pasang’s intonation increased to an even higher, louder decibel as he threw his arms in the air releasing handfuls of tsampa flour as clouds of yellow dust high into the sky. The Sherpas, fully prepared for the move, eagerly followed his lead. An arc of grey 'dust' flew through the air and for one brief moment seemed suspended in time - a halo of flour superimposed over the omnipresent plume of spindrift coming off of Makalu.

The ceremony lasted about 1.5 hours in total and ended formally with the flour throwing and informally with a ‘brunch’ which consisted of gorging ourselves on chocolate, and shots of whiskey. It was an extremely enjoyable and fun-filled yet richly symbolic morning. The end of the puja ceremony symbolised that we were officially allowed to begin our ascent of Makalu and that the appropriate prayers, blessings and sacrifices had been made.

The whole expedition now seems even more 'real'. The 1.5 meter stone monument stands as a prime focal point in the middle of our 'tent city' giving the skyline a truly authentic look as 5-streams of prayer flags in the colors of red, green white, blue and yellow radiate from its core to various points in the Camp.

It felt "humbling" to be a part of something which is so clearly an integral part of the Sherpa tradition and Sherpa beliefs. There is a certain indescribable 'power' surrounding Himalayan expeditions that certainly puts into context the significance of such a ceremony. As I look out at the panorama from my tent - the stupa with its realms of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the breeze against the clear blue sky and in the shadow of the mountain herself, I can not help but feel part of her spell, her magic, her power.

Sep 19, 2012

The People You Meet: The Alpenglow Expeditions Makalu 2012 Team

Expeditions would make a fine social psychology experiment – You take a group of people from different nationalities and backgrounds who don’t know each other and you put them together under challenging conditions for 1 – 2 months and get them to work together. They will all have their own personal objectives but must work together to reach one common objective – to summit and descent safely both as individuals and as a team. And then, of course, even more importantly, they must bond as a team and be ready to celebrate in the after party!  For a leader or guide ,this presents a tremendous challenge. Similarly for the individuals on the team, it can be a daunting prospect. If you all get along – fantastic – if not, then you must learn to compromise and work together regardless. 

So, when I received the initial email from Adrian Ballinger, the guide for the expedition, which ‘introduced’ the team, it really made the expedition feel ‘real’. This was actually happening! Having said that, it did feel like the start of a joke…. 

“SO, there’s a Latvian, an American, a Russian and a Canadian and they all decide to go to Makalu… they have two American guides and one Spanish doctor…..”

In all seriousness, in spite of the fact that our team sounds like a make-shift United Nations, I couldn’t ask for a better group. We met as a team for the first time in Kathmandu over a fantastic dinner where we gelled immediately, sharing stories, experiences,  and a love for the mountains. In spite of the fact that we all come from different backgrounds, I’m confident that we will get on brilliantly and will make a fine strong team for this exciting ascent of Makalu.

Team members are:
Heather Geluk - Canada
Corbin Olsen - USA
Voldemars Spruzs - Latvia
Sergey Baranov - Russia (attempting ski)

Adrian Ballinger - UK - team leader and ski guide with Sergey Baranov
Chad Peele - USA - climbing guide with main group

Monica Piris - Spain

Sirdar: ('head honcho sherpa')
Dorji Sonam Sherpa

Climbing Sherpa: ('legendary climbing sherpa)
Dan Nuru Sherpa
Nima Tsering Sherpa
Palden Namgyal Sherpa
Pasang Rinzing Sherpa

Cook (Haute Cuisine par excellence)
Tashi Ram Basnet

Sep 17, 2012

The People You Meet: The Sherpa People of Nepal

I opened my eyes, shuddered and wiggled deeper into the down depths of my -30C sleeping bag. The wind was howling and I could tell by a dark-ridged shadow along the outside of my bright yellow tent that a fresh layer of snow had fallen overnight. Ice condensation lined the inside dome - sparkling in the light coming from my headlamp. Over the sound of the wind I could hear a 'crunch crunch' - it sounded like someone walking over styrofoam. Early morning chatter was heard coming from the tent next to mine and then suddenly there was a rustling at my tent-flap. 

"Heather di-di - Good morning to you..!" sang a cheery voice as my tent was unzipped and a thick-gloved hand lay a tray of biscuits and a cup of warm tea at the foot of my Thermarest. I smiled to myself as I fumbled for the warm thermos, marvelling at the gracious hospitality of the Sherpa culture. I couldn't believe that I was actually getting tea and cookies in bed..! I don't even get this kind of first-class service at sea-level, let alone 6000m..!!

There is something about Everest and its neighboring cultures that intensifies our desire to better understand it. Its profound presence, geography, glaciology, the Sherpa culture, Buddhism, the mighty Yak and even legend of the Yeti seems to draw us deeper into Everest's mystique. The 'social geographer' in me prompts me to include an entry here on the Sherpas culture and the Sherpas themselves - the local people who are employed as guides for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas and who will form an invaluable part of our climbing team on the mountain. They are, for me, an awe-inspiring part of the 'Mountain Experience' -- or the "Nepal" experience for that matter..!  

Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local terrain, renowned for their hardiness and experience at high altitudes and were of immeasurable value to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides and porters at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the Himalayan region.

While the climbers use their base camp as a place to acclimatise, recuperate and make training runs up the mountain, the Sherpas will be busy servicing the camp and looking after the climbers. More importantly, they will constantly conduct essential repairs to the route up the mountain - fixing ropes, breaking trail and conducting crevasse reconnaissance. 

In a single day the Sherpas may make multiple trips up the formidable mountain to fix ropes and the ladder bridges across the crevasses and to maintain the supplies on the higher stages of the climb - with loads significantly heavier than my own and at triple my speed..! It is not a wonder that during the first Everest expedition in 1921, the skill, expertise, honesty and dedication of the Sherpas impressed English climbers such as George Mallory on his early Everest attempt. From that point on, the Sherpas became an integral part of international Himalayan climbing as guides and partners. The affinity of Westerners for the Sherpa/Buddhist civilization eventually grew into an increasingly close sharing, understanding and friendship between these two cultures and today form an integral and vital part of many Himalayan expeditions.

Sherpas moved to the Everest region from Tibet over 500 years ago.  The name "sherpa" literally means "people from the east" because they originally came from the Kham in eastern Tibet and went on to settle in the mountain valleys of northern Nepal. Today approximately 30,000 Sherpas live in Nepal, and around 3,000 of them live in the Khumbu region, the gateway to Everest.  Sherpas are traditionally farmers and traders, raising yaks and growing and trading barley, buckwheat, potatoes, wheat and animal products however since the 1950s, tourism has become the dominant source of employment and income in the area.

Advanced Base Camp Hilton / Hyatt / Four Seasons / W …….

I know that I can be a bit of a diva… and there is something to be said about creature comforts on a mountain… maintaining a degree of comfort (while pretending to be ‘roughing it’ and suffering terribly in blogs!) is something that I’ve managed to achieve over the past few expeditions. The Alpenglow Advanced Base Camp at 5600m takes luxury to a whole new level…. Our ‘ABC’ is base camp on steroids. I have never quite seen anything like it and it could quite easily become my very comfortable ‘home away from home’.  It’s bizarre to think that I’m actually nearly 6 kilometers ‘above’ my actual home… and enjoying similar comforts even though the nearest we are to ‘civilization’ is a 10 day walk away!

Makalu’s steep face dominates the Advanced Base Camp skyline – and is absolutely massive. In spite of the creature comforts it would be absolutely impossible to forget why you’re here! The mountain face looks almost blue-grey against the clear-blue sky.  The rocky terrain for our camp has been carved into the landscape by the glacial activities thousands of years ago, leaving trails of scree and moraine in its wake.

Our Camp is made up of our individual (gigantic!) Salewa tents (covering real estate that would easily make it into triple figures were it in Central London!).  The tents are clustered around our main ‘mess’ tent where we take our absolutely delicious meals (we had pizza yesterday!!).  There is also an impressive toilet tent - well constructed and fairly secure (thanks to some strategically placed boulders) and an equally impressive ‘shower’ which would rival the water pressure in many homes but with slightly more ‘baltic’ temperatures!

The ‘piece de resistance’ of our little luxury camp is the ‘Hang Out Tent’ (which we are looking to rename to something that better captures its sheer excessive ‘OTT-ness’ (over the top-ness) – a giant yellow dome tent complete with carpet, lounge pillows, an ‘internet’ table (where I’m currently perched!), screen where we can watch movies, heater…. And, last but not least, a giant pink ‘bean-bag’ like chair… Awesome. Life is tough up here… seriously!! Sometimes it even gets cold!!

This fantastic set up will no doubt will feel more and more like The Hilton as the expedition progresses and as we are faced with much more difficult conditions higher up the mountain. Until then, I will continue to revel in these creature comforts and enjoy my afternoon latte and biscotti with sheer, unadulterated pleasure.

Sep 15, 2012

A Vision of Home - Makalu Base Camp At Last!

This morning we woke to rain and fog – not ideal news given our previous track record of helicopter flights and rain. We looked out at the heli still ‘parked’ in the rapidly growing swamp and wondered how we would get out if the rain continued… One option was to start the two-day walk up to Base Camp which, in the freezing cold rain, wasn’t an especially appealing option… particularly when a helicopter and a 15 minute ride up the valley was the second option (weather dependent!).

Suddenly a smile broke across Captain Ashishs’ face and he pointed to a break in the heavy clouds. Within seconds, the heli was prepared, loaded and Adrian, Corbin and I jumped in for the first flight out.  As we took off for our ‘base camp or bust’ ride, we were again treated to the most spectacular views of rocky outcrops, massive waterfalls, and lush green vegetation which became more and more sparse as we headed up the valley toward the mountain. Giant glacial lakes with aquamarine waters appeared below banked on either side by steep walls of rocky moraine.  When the bright yellow tents appeared in the distance we couldn’t help but give each other ‘high fives’ and smile from ear to ear – BASE CAMP and wow, the very impressive South Face of Makalu what an absolutely spectacular view..! And even more impressive, sunshine at last!!

Sep 14, 2012

The People You Meet: The Himalayan Helicopter Master, Captain Ashish Scherchan

With nearly 20 years of experience, Captain Ashish Scherchan was the man for the job in ‘rescuing’ us from leech central with his trusty engineer, Anil Basnyat in a 9N AKA helicopter. We could not be in better hands for the precarious journey through the Barun valley up to the final destination of Base Camp at an altitude of 4700m. Flying at altitude presents more than its fair share of challenges primarily due to the ‘thinness’ of the air.

Captain Ashish is a pilot with Fishtail Air - a helicopter charter company operating within Nepal, with its base in Kathmandu. The company operates primarily throughout Nepal with occasional trans-border flights to Bhutan and India.  With a fleet of four helicopters, which includes two AS 350 B3 "Ecureuil", one AS 350 B2 "Ecureuil", and one Bell 206B III Jet Ranger helicopter, they have established themselves as one of the largest helicopter operators in Nepal.  Fishtail Air operates flights for sightseeing, rescue, medical evacuation, corporate movement, project support, expedition works or any other purposes that need the services of a helicopter.
Our next shuttle from Leech central was a 15 minute heli-ride to yet another thriving metropolis – this one with a population of about 5 with about 15 children. The weather was certainly changeable as we began to gain altitude. The pockets of air made for a bumpy ride and you could certainly ‘feel’ the changes in the weather and hear the blades of the helicopter go into overdrive as we gained in altitude (clearly I’m not a helicopter techie!!).  Captain Ashish seemed relaxed and controlled so in spite of the tricky terrain and conditions we knew were were in good hands. 

I could see Monica’s bright pink hat in the distance as we neared our ‘landing pad’  - a giant green marsh / waterlogged field (would make a fabulous cricket ground when drained!! Perhaps the next Bunbury match?).  We were assured by Captain Ashish that it didn’t have any leeches however he did mention that he did find 3 of them hiding in the heli that morning..! Now that leeches were no longer a threat, my next area of concern was the fact that our heli would ‘drown’ in the marsh..!

We landed gently on the grass and unloaded the bags before the heli took off and headed back down the falley to collect another load of bags and the fuel required for the final and subsequent shuttle to Base Camp. Sure enough, as if right on schedule, the weather closed in again leaving us ‘stranded’ in the swamp, staring anxiously at the sky waiting for the cloud to part and for the heli to reappear. Amazingly it did…! But just in time for the weather to close in again. Ashish indicated that the 11am flight would almost certainly be the last flight of the day unless the weather cleared. We unloaded the last of the bags and settled into the lodge for what was suspected to be the remainder of the day. Whilst the thriving metropolis of Yanglekharka didn’t seem the most comfortable place (eg. It certainly wasn’t the Hilton!), it was a leech-free, cozy, dry and relatively clean little stop off on our journey into Base Camp. The other advantage of Yanglekharka was that it was at an altitude of 3500m so proved to be a great step in our acclimatization process.

The Yanglekharka stopover on our tour of the Barun Valley… with the eventual destination, Makalu Base Camp

 “OK, everybody up! The heli is ready to gooooooo” sang Adrian at 5am. I genuinely couldn’t believe my ears after what had seemed like non-stop torrential rain all evening. Stuffing my sleeping bag and bedbugs into my duffel bag I couldn’t help but wonder what adventure the day held. The morning sky revealed patches of blue sky between the thickening cloud. It was obvious that more rain was on its way however the main question was no so much ‘if’ but ‘when’. All that stood between the lodge and the helicopter was a field of leeches – the final obstacle to safety We made a run for the heli with our socks strategically pulled to our knees, our packs on our backs. It wasn’t long before the first leech sighting was called – a leech at Chad’s knee moving alarmingly quickly up his leg. He handled it well and we let the Usain Bolt of leeches continue to make its way up his leg while we looked on and took photographs in sheer horror…. Base Camp has never looked more appealing..!!

Sep 13, 2012

The Thriving Metropolis of Tashigon – aka. “Leech Central”

We were met at Tashigon by a very blood stained Adrian who ran to the heli door looking less the fashionista with his pant legs tucked firmly deep into his socks.  Looking closely at his ankle you could see where blood had begun to seep through his sock. As we stepped out of the heli and into the drizzle Adrian and Monica gave us a warning in unisin – LEECHES BEWARE!! Within three minutes Chad had a 2 cm long ‘specimen’ inching its way up his bare leg. We all screamed (seriously? And we’re about to climb an 8000m mountain!?!) and danced around the helicopter anxiously trying to deter any further leeches who were also on expedition and frantically tucking our pants into our socks.  We all ran from the heli to the safety of one of the small lodges to escape the leeches. Alarmingly, the children seemed oblivious to the infestation and ran through the grass in bare feet and wrestling eath other to the ground. We remained ‘jittery’ all afternoon as the lodge remained our island of safety and as we kept a keen eye on the sky waiting for the cloud to part so that we could continue on with the next shuttle.  As the sun began to set we accepted the fact that we weren’t going anywhere fast that day so we made ourselves comfortable in the dormitory accommodation while the heavens opened and a rain of biblical proportions came down overnight. I genuinely thought we’d have more success building an ark to escape leech central than expect our heli shuttle to our final destination.

In spite of the rain, the humidity, the leeches, the spiders and the damp we all remained in good spirits and ready to accept whatever fate the weather held for us...

Destination Makalu Base Camp - Almost..!

I spent a sleepless night in Kathmandu enjoying the relative benefits of jet lag packing and repacking my two 110 liter duffel bags.  It’s strange to think that everything that I needed to deal with temperatures from +30 to -40 was contained in these two bags.  What’s slightly unnerving is the realization that if you forget something you either need to improvise or make do without – there’s no Walmart or Selfridges enroute to Makalu!!

Our first flight out of a series of shuttles connecting Kathmandu to our final destination Makalu Base Camp was on a small fixed wing plane to the tiny airport of Tumlingtar.  We were welcomed to the thriving metropolis of Tumlingtar (population 10 residents and about 40 chickens) by a wall of 30 degree temperatures as we dragged our bags to the side of the runway and flopped onto the grass. Here we waited for the connecting helicopter from Fishtail Air under the command of our pilot Ashish, which would take us up to Base Camp. Adrian, our guide, had already begun to manage expectations around weather and, looking at the sky which was quickly filling with cloud, I suspected that our heli-ride into Base Camp would be broken into a series of shuttles taking advantage of the flat terraces which could provide safe places to land in case of emergency.

As the silver heli drew near we quickly sorted both bags and passengers. It was a spectacular ride – the summer monsoon had greened up the valley and we were mesmerized by the many different greens which knitted together the rocky, mountainous landscape below – from greens so dark they appeared almost black to greens that appeared almost fluorescent under the shadow of the helicopter passing overhead. It quickly became clear that a shuttle directly to Base Camp was going to be impossible on account of the weather which was quickly closing in.  Ashish the pilot gave us a knowing smile and began our premature descent in the rain into Tashigon… another thriving metropolis with a population of about 20 people and about 40000 leeches….

Sep 11, 2012

NEWS!! Thrilled be part of the Sherpa Adventure Gear brand ambassador team

I'm delighted to share with you some exciting news..! Today was my first official day as a member of the Sherpa Adventure Gear Ambassador Team!! I visited the Sherpa Adventure Gear store headquarters in downtown Kathmandu and was given an extremely warm Sherpa welcome by Ang Phurba Sherpa, the store manager and his team.

I am absolutely thrilled to be a brand ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear. I have long  been both overwhelmed and humbled by the hospitality, kindness and strength that the Sherpa people have shown over the course of my travels and adventures throughout Nepal. The Sherpa appreciation for balance - be it in work, life, play - has transcended to my own life in the way that I approach work, my adventures, and a deep respect for the many cultures and people that I meet along the way. In my role as an ambassador, I hope to continue to inspire others to find this balance and encourage others to explore the world and its people.

Over the course of the coming weeks I'll be sharing more with you about the brand, some of the finely crafted gear that I"ll be testing on the mountain and some great ways in which you can find out more. Sherpa Adventure Gear will be launching in the UK in September so stay tuned for some exciting events that will be taking place as part of this exciting new brand..! Brand Ambassadors, Kenton Cool and Neil Gresham have already started a series of lectures about their many inspiring mountain adventures which will be sure to get you inspired and planning your own..!

Sherpa Adventure Gear was founded in 2003 by Tashi Sherpa, who was inspired to start the company when he discovered that his uncle was one of the Sherpa on Sir Edmund Hilary’s celebrated, first-ever expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. 
Sherpa Adventure Gear—which manufacturers apparel for mountain and outdoor adventures—honours the unsung Sherpa heroes who make high altitude Himalayan climbs possible by carrying the loads, laying the ropes, and guiding the way.  Sherpa athlete-ambassadors test and help design Sherpa Adventure Gear products, most of which are manufactured in Nepal.
The company employs over 150 people in Nepal, and in 2009, furthered its local commitment when it opened its downtown Kathmandu headquarters, which houses its offices, a flagship store and The Terrace bed and breakfast. Two more stores opened in 2010, in Namche and Pokhara, Nepal. 
Sherpa Adventure Gear gives back to the Sherpa community through its Paldorje Education Foundation.  A portion of every sale funds educational and social initiatives, such as providing scholarships to deserving Sherpa children.
For more information about Sherpa Adventure Gear

The Sherpa Adventure Gear store team in the Kathmandu flagship store
Lhakpa Tsering Sherpa
Kunga Tashi Sherpa
Tsering Futi Sherpa
Tenzing Chodon Sherpa
Sange Sherpa
Ang Phurba Sherpa
The well-stocked shop in Kathmandu for all your outdoor adventure needs!
Vibrant and warm Sherpa hats - all handmade by the Sherpa family

Every piece of Sherpa gear is finished with an Endless Knot. This auspicious symbol represents the unity of thought and action, words and deeds, wisdom and compassion. The knot is represented on all clothing to bring you good fortune and serve as a constant reminder that all things, in all ways, are tied together as one.

Sep 10, 2012

The People You Meet: Sir Stirling Moss OBE – Mr. Motor Racing; Patron of Hope for Tomorrow Charity

Sir Stirling Moss OBE, better known as ‘Mr Motor Racing’, is arguably the greatest all-round racing driver of all time and a true icon of the motor racing world. 

I first met Sir Stirling and Lady Moss one very sunny afternoon in Mayfair a few short weeks ago through Christine Mills MBE, Founder of the Hope for Tomorrow charity.  Stirling and Susie are Patrons of Hope for Tomorrow.  With a warm and friendly smile and humble manner it was hard to believe that I was sitting across from the man who, out of the 375 competitive races in which he finished during his professional racing career, won an astonishing 212 – including 16 Formula 1 Grand Prix victories. He raced 108 different types of car, across all classes of motor sport, during his remarkable career, which spanned 3 decades.

His victory in the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, racing a Lotus 18 against the more powerful Ferrari's, was his third Formula 1 victory around the Principality and is still regarded as one of the best Formula 1 races ever.

I found it ironic when Sir Stirling complimented me on the gutsy nature of the challenges ahead – this coming from a man from an era when life expectancy was measured in years and months and from someone who I feel represents all that is best in a sporting hero today. I suggested that he come and join the expedition as a Sherpa but he politely declined.

As one of the Patrons for Hope for Tomorrow, Sir Stirling launched the first Mobile Chemotherapy Unit in February 2007, which is now fully operational and visits hospitals in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.  In December 2010, Sir Stirling launched a second Mobile Chemotherapy Unit for Somerset, which he affectionately named 'Bumble', after his late Mother-in-law, who sadly lost her battle against cancer in 2006. A further 2 Units are now in operation covering Wiltshire and Hampshire.

If you were to go on an expedition for 2 months and hand-picked a team of individuals to be on your team, who would you pick and why? 

Stirling: "The first member of my team would be my wife Susie. I would never go anywhere without her and she is not only my soul mate but also my memory!

Next would be Ollie Bradley, my grandson. He is such an academic and sporting all-rounder that I know he would be able to defeat any challenges we may encounter. At 14, he has youth on his side so he can keep going when the rest of us are dropping.

Our son Elliot would have to be with us to keep us all fed with restaurant quality dishes. He trained under Michel Roux Jr. and is a highly talented chef. He is also immensely fit and incredibly strong from his body building so he would be able to carry all the kitchen equipment he needs!

Francis Wells and Professor Sid Watkins would be a must to cope with our medical requirements. Both very good friends, "The Doc" is a heart specialist who would know how to deal with high altitude and Sid has overseen a lot of the operations I have had over the years so knows my body as well, if not better than I do.

The entertainment would have to come from Marty Henne who is far and away the best musical entertainer I have ever seen. He is American and we met about 15 years ago when he was performing on a cruise ship. Susie even booked him as a surprise for my 80th birthday party. His wit and talent would be loved by everyone of all ages.

Richard Frankel, who is a friend of ours, has a tremendous sense of humour and some of his emails have us doubled up with laughter, so he would have to come along to document the trip and write the Blog."

What was the biggest mountain that you've ever climbed - either figuratively or literally?

Stirling: "Accepting that I had to work for a living when I was only 32 years old, following my crash at Goodwood in 1962."

Sir Stirling and Lady Moss with Christine Mills MBE, founder of Hope for Tomorrow, and Ros Wyke chairman of Musgrove Park Hospital Taunton 
Photo taken in "Bumble", one of the Chemotherapy units named after Sir Stirling's late mother in law.

Sep 9, 2012

And so the adventure begins - next stop Kathmandu!

"Life is uncharted territory. It reveals its story one moment at a time." (Leo F. Buscaglia 1924-1998).

I have just two short hours until my taxi comes to transport me to Heathrow and on to Kathmandu via New Delhi. My two bags (guess-timate weight is 40kg) are both parked at the front door waiting to whisked away on yet another this great adventure - although, given the weight, the more appropriate term would, in fact, be 'lugged'..! I have a number of different emotions and thoughts going around in my head - nerves, excitement, standing on the cusp of the known and the unknown... Soon this journey will 'formally' begin... and I can't wait..!!

Before leaving to say a few "Thank Yous" that are long overdue…

Thank you to my amazing friends - for your many emails, calls and words of wisdom. Thanks for your kindness and for making me laugh during those moments when I needed to most and for listening and for picking up so many thing for me while I am away. You guys are the best and I really really can't wait to have a drink with you all in the pub in November…! A huge special thank you to my amazing flatmates DJ Lora  and Pieter and my inspirational climbing partner Magda. You guys rock. Literally.

A huge thank you to David English, who is an absolutely legend and a true inspiration having introduced me to the charity, Hope for Tomorrow through which I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with two amazing women, Christine Mills and Alex Trapnell.  I'm really excited to be working with you. Your enthusiasm and sense of adventure will no doubt give me strength and determination.

Thank you to my family - for your patience and for the spirit of adventure that I am certain that I inherited from you.... although there is some argument which side of the family it actually came from..! I know how much you worry about me but, in the same breath, how much you totally stand behind and support everything that I do. I promise to do my very best to come back in one piece and that my next adventure will involve butterfly collecting or basket weaving.

Thank you to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and to my colleagues for putting up with my stories and worries and random outbursts on a regular basis. Thank you so much for your support, encouragement and for putting up with me - especially in the last month when my 'hypoxic' state was affecting my short-term memory...

Thank you to the organisations and individuals who have supported me – Sherpa Adventure Gear, Striders Edge, Chucs Dive and Mountain Shop, Maximuscle, and the Sisterhood.

A final humungous thank you to all of you who have kindly contributed to Hope for Tomorrow. On behalf of the charity, I very much appreciate all of the support that you have shown to this tremendously worthwhile cause. Your donations will certainly help to make the lives of those people living with cancer and requiring chemotherapy much more comfortable, allowing them to have their cancer treatment close to home. If you haven't donated but wish to support this fantastic cause you can do so via this link:

On that note, I'd best log off here... My next entry will be from the city of organised chaos, Kathmandu!

Sep 8, 2012

The People You Meet: Dr. David English, MBE, CBE, OSCA - cont'd

As Eric Clapton once told him, David English has a personality that is "larger than life" and hence deserves a second entry in this blog - this time with his thoughts on the 'dream team' of expeditions and to thank him once again for introducing me to the amazing charity, Hope for Tomorrow, of which he is a Patron. Hope for Tomorrow launched the world's first mobile chemotherapy unit bringing cancer treatment closer to home - over 3000 patients have been treated so far and over 70,000 miles of travel have been saved.

David's all-embracing personality serves to remind me of the adventure, unexpectedness and countless opportunities in life... how life should be celebrated regularly, daily... at every opportunity with vivacity and passion. Through reading David's autobiography and spending  time in his company, you begin to realise just how much you can actually fit into the short time we have on this planet of ours -  particularly if you embrace the opportunities presents and never look back.

In a previous entry, I provided a brief biography of his eventful and roller-coaster life and absolutely extraordinary CV. It's definitely worth a read. You can find it online by clicking here

Here are some of David's thoughts on his ideal expedition team...

If I was to go on an expedition for 2 months and had to hand pick a team to go with me they would be:

David: I would take Chrissie Mills for the inspiration and cuddles. As guides I would take Sir Ian Botham for his “Never Say Die” outlook on life and Sir Viv Richards for his spirit and laughter (see picture above). Sherpas would be part of the team and Lord Maclaurin would fill that role for  his wisdom and unique leadership qualities plus the banter. My Mum (when she was alive) would be the cook - she made the best meals I’ve ever tasted served with love and care only a mother can give. Plus I’d take my daughter, Amy Rose, a master of the culinary arts. Finally, the porter would be my pal,  Robin Ford (aka ‘The Badger’) who looks after me fantastically at my Bunbury Cricket Matches.

Biggest mountain I’ve ever climbed...

David: Literally -  was the Matterhorn, stark naked (then I woke up)

David: Figuratively – learning the 2000 lines of my character Major Bartellot in Simon Gray’s play, ‘The Rear Column’ at Everyman Theatre, 1981. Never thought it was humanely possible to absorb all that dialogue but I did..!!

"The fact is that people always seem to live and work within the confines of being comfortable. Never stretching themselves, never daring to explore every path to fulfil their promise and dreams. Just think of all those people go who to their grave saying, 'I do wish I had done this or that'. Too late - the chance would have been presented to them but nullified for fear of faulure. Content to read about other people's adventures in the pages of a colour supplement. Not me! If everybody felt that way Everest would never have been conquered, penicillin discovered, Harry Potter written and Ian Botham would not have trudged 5,000 weary miles for Leukaemia Research"
- David English from his autobiography, "Mad Dogs and the Englishman"