Thursday, 27 February 2014

Let the mountains challenge me,....

So after solo scrambling yesterday, today was the official course day,    first glance out of the window this morning told me some improvement in the weather had occured.... no rain for starters. So I left for the meeting cafe early, mainly so I would have some time with a phone signal to catch up with everyone. Eventually 8 am arrived and I found myself drinking a coffee with the guide for the day and two other gentlemen who were also participating. We had reasonably similar aims for the course but it seemed they had a vast amount more experience with winter mountaineering than I do, this being my first foray into this world of ice and snow. 
We then drove back to literally the point I had started and kit was produced from rucksacks. This being my first time, I was on a try before you buy policy and was borrowing most pieces of kit. So out came the mountaineering boots, looking more like space boots... infkexible, hard shelled and waterproof, they must have added at least 1kg, or at least thats what it felt like. Walking in them, just on the concrete was tricky at first, and I briefly wished for my leaky walking shoes.

Then out came crampons, walking axe, rope, karabiners and an assortment of slings and other equipment. Once that had been squared away we set off the path towards the top, initially following a similar path to the one I had trodden yesterday.

My lack of fitness showed, well at least to me, as I was soon huffing and puffing, worse than that, I was overheating rapidly. My new coat, much better at keeping warmth in than im used to and soon the zip as open as we made our way up. At one point we came to  reasonably steep gully, filled with boulders and the scrambling started. In mountain boots, once again, it seemed trickier than it normally would but soon became more confident in balancing on the rigid toe caps and using them to thrust up for the next foothold.., better still, was enjoying every second of this. Its what I would do for fun out and about by myself in the mountains and the weather was holding to create a pleasant day.
Once we had topped out of the gully  we were faced with a boulder field. Once again I struggled with the new boots, but soon found a balance and found that I didnt feel the rocks bashing into the sides of my feet, as I do normally with walking shoes, which made this part more enjoyable than usual. Then finally we hit the snow line,  and this is where the boots crossed from ok to fantastic. Fully waterproof and occasionally sinking ankle deep, it didnt matter and the grip on them outclassed anything I had ever worn on my feet before.

Then we arrived at the bottom of the walls of the peaks and here the guide pointed out where small avalanches had been, the cornices on the ridges above, which are inherently unstable and other things to be aware of when selecting where to climb... invaluable information.

On went the crampons and out came the axes, harnesses and helmets on, and the real fun of the day began. First came a lesson in putting on and ways of walking in crampons.  Another thing to get used to. This type of snow too soft for proper crampon use and we regularly sank up to knee or even waist level as the soft snow gave way under our weight.

Kicking steps in the snow was fun, but hard work, but despite being told it was easier to follow in others footsteps, I kept veering slightly off line to practice the technique.   As we progressed up the gully, the angle increased until we were informed that we were on a slope of 30 to 40 degrees, which by the way, is where most avalanches happen.... interesting.

Eventually we reached a point where the ropes came out and here at least I knew how to attatch myself to it and belay others. That however is only the beginning. Here we covered anchors to rock, using slings and karabiners and attaching anchoring points as you go up, to lessen the fall distance.  So then we continued up the gully,  taking turns to lead and belay.  The hardest parts were where you would climb on some exposed rock with your crampons, balancing on the 2 front points in places, axe dug into turf, not snow. As I  hadnt done this before, I was a little slower,  but gained confidence in the crampons and was moving a bit easier by the end of each pitch. 

It was at one of the points where lead climber switched that I remembered to look at the view. Up till now I had been concentrating too hard, but as I looked  down and around me, the scenery  blew me away quietly.  The sun was lighting up the valley and the surrounding snow tops looked suddenly accesible with this new found way of moving.
Suddenly the danger areas jumped out at me, places to avoid, cornices that might at any second, fracture and fall to the floor below. This new found knowledge felt like a whole new world had opened up to me, a new playground to get temporarily lost in, new challenges and dreams to set my sights upon.

But back to the business in hand... The ground got steeper as we climbed and soon we were on all fours, axe in hand, three points to the snow at all times. The safety net provided by the rope removed an element of fear, and enabled the mind to concentrate on hand and foot placement. Several pitches later and one rock/snow bit that I found a bit more tricky, and we were standing grinning at the top.  The lessons hadnt finished. Snow anchors were demonstrated and abseil technique from a snow anchor demonstrated and just like that the day had gone and it was time to be heading down.

The adage of  'the top is only halfway' was highlighted as as I know from many of the books I have read,most accidents and deaths happen on the way down.  Personally I prefer going uphill as down hurts the feet more. Fun on snow slopes with long strides though at times backwards was a faster method, despite getting the occasional face full of snow from the climber above. It certainly was quick and in no time at all, the crampons were off, climbing gear was stowed and we set a reasonable pace back to civilisation.  The wind picked up on the way down and once again provided a reminder how quickly conditions can change.  By now, my foot, the previously damaged one on route 66, was starting to hurt but managed to keep up and not jar it too much.

And then we shook hands, swopped emails to exchange photos and went our separate ways. Personally I felt that I had gained an awful lot out of today. New equipment, not quite mastered, but at least now familiar... a greater sense of the different dangers winter in the mountains can bring, and how to avoid them or at least reduce the risk, and finally the satisfaction that completing a new challenge brings, albeit leaving me with more dreams and ideas.  Today the mountains called me and I shouted back!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

New adventures...

This past week has been a pretty good one. Firstly my book about the Route 66 bike ride has been published and is available on amazon in kindle format and from the printers in paperback. I spent a good hour staring at the amazon screen, generally in amazement that something I wrote is on amazon. It does have one slight drawback... it signals the end of a fantastic adventure that took me across America, which means that I now need something else to plan. New Zealand in feb 2016 is looking more and more a certainty but that does leave a bit of a gap.

Which brings me to my ten year plan and this weekend which signals the beginning. I have a ten year plan to climb Mount Everest.... now I have had this plan for a while and have even gone so far as to hint at it, but that is a bit different than getting the wheels in motion.  I may never reach Everest, due to the huge costs involved but might as well see where my plan takes me and I am following my own advice of dream, plan and (most importantly) do.

So with that in mind the first part of the plan swung into action this weekend. I had booked a winter climbing course to try and learn some of the fundamental skills required. Fortunately it had snowed in wales... unfortunately its not the right type of snow, so the day I am going to do is more of a winter mountaineering course, with hopefully some useful information about staying safe, survival skills, belaying etc. So I  drove up monday morning towards north wales and as soon as I saw the mountains in the distance, I felt a huge wave of calmness sweep over me, not that I have been particularly stressed out lately, but every time I arrive here It fortifies the soul.

Im staying at a yha, essentially on the edge of the snowdonia national park. But this is not the snowdonia I am very familiar with, in  fact this range of mountains that the yha is nestled in is separate to the snowdon range and I havent really set foot in them before. The first sight of them is pretty impressive, the tops have a dusting of snow, which makes them look more majestic.  Having arrived at the yha a bit early to check in, I gather some kit, throw it in a rucksack and set off down the road in pursuit of fresh air and freedom after such a long drive. The road doesnt really hold any interest for me and as I often do, I scrambled off the road, up the mountain,not on any particular path, when I realised, in my haste to get out there, I was wearing completely the wrong shoes, which were now soaked through. Since I already had wet feet, I carried on, up over rocks and through boggy ground till I reached the waterfall.

I love waterfalls, I love getting as close as possible and letting the noise of the water hitting the rocks fill my ears with the roar. Normally, with better footwear, I would be clambering up as far as I could go, but with trainers, its incredibly slippery. I was also heeding the time, as didn't really want to be sliding down in the dark, and there would be plenty of time to get wet, muddy and tired tomorrow. So back I went, settled in a room, meant for 4, but seemingly only occupied by myself and then went to get food.

The next morning, I woke up early and got everything ready to get out the door once it was light as wanted to make the most of the reasonable weather. My plan was to ascend the mountains behind the yha and then arc round the back of them before dropping back down to the road. I found a path and set off at a good pace. It wasnt raining,but the wind was reasonably strong, even in the valley and I was mindful that when dealing with mountains, the weather can change at the drop of a hat.  So I was well kitted up. A base layer and t shirt, with a fully waterproof, insulated jacket and waterproof, insulated trousers. In my rucksack I carried another thermal layer, some thermal waterproof gloves, a survival bag, first aid kit and headtorch, gaiters, energy tabs, water bottle a fruit energy bar and my SPOT tracker. I had most eventualities covered. My problem at the beginning was that I was far too hot when climbing up. But better than being cold in my book.
It was probably because it was early, but didnt see anyone on the way up, and I reached the lake in good time. Here I got blasted by the wind,  and as I went round the lake, I was glad of the layers. Then I reached the point where the path wound upwards. I say path but from this point on it was a series of boulders and the scramble upwards began.  It was pretty steep and even my hiking boots were not gripping hugely well but it was ok until I came to a stream, where the path had been washed away. Too wide to jump at this point I scrambled/slid down the mountainside looking for a point to cross. Eventually I found a bit where I could sit on my arese, stretch my leg out to a slightly wobbly rock, which had water flowing fast over it, and gain enough purchase to stand up on one leg, reached out with the other and found a hold on the far side of the bank. Tricky....
Safely over the other side, the 'path' continued up through a gash in the rock walls and although several times I was clambering up and over huge boulders, I made the top of the path, to find snow and what looked like a river bed leading to the ridge. Here the wind was funneled directly towards me and it was no longer gentle.  Blowing at 40 to 50 mph I was at one point leant 45 degrees into it to stop being bowled over, and this was whilst I still had the ridge offering a bit of protection. I crested the rise to find myself on the flat, with a view to die for. Straight ahead the path continued, eventually to lead to Llanberis, but I turned right, instead of the planned left. This was because the peaks above to the left were now completely shrouded in mist and cloud and I could see the peak to the right, which meant I would have more chance of topping out. I rounded the corner, past the lake at the top and was once again hit by a wind so strong, that I found myself dropping to my knees to stop being blown off the edge of the ridge. Several times I just stopped myself from being bowled over and once I was blown across the ground, whilst sitting down... and this wasnt at the top. The peak was calling me and I tried to fight against the wind, but with every meter I climbed the strength of the wind increased. Added to that it had started to hail/snow. The clouds were being blown in from the llanberis side and I decided that soon I would be able to see very little and the weather would get even worse, so relunctantly, I  turned around and headed back to the path to descend.

I had noticed that the peaks even further to that side, seemed to be less cloud covered and made a plan to drop back down to the lake and try getti g to the peak from the other side. Coming down, I met a nice lady walking up and warned her about the conditions. She said 40 to 50mph had been forecast but she thought it was worse, but so saying continued on up.  It did make me feel better that I wasnt the only one running around the top in this kind of weather and maybe I was just being pathetic by electing to turn around.

However I continued down,  past the snowline and slowly and carefully made my way through the gash in the wall, treading carefully as the rocks were now wet as well as steep. I had only descended a short way when the wind dropped off a bit and I once again felt a bit more secure.

Got to the lake again, and here the deterioration in the weather was palpable,  with gusts once again making me unsteady on my feet. Undeterred however, and wanting to get to the top of something, I headed up the path that would lead me to the peak from the other side. This was a better, more clearly defined path and although slightly steeper in places I manahed to get to the ridge with little difficulty... and then... battered once again by the wind. Here the snow was being blown off the peak and hurtling at a 90 degree angle, straight at me. I had to kneel down and turn my back to the wind to stay upright. Every time the gusts stopped, I stood up and climbed further, but it literally became impossible to stand and I got blown over so hard that my arm hit a rock, which hurt!  So once again,despite not being that far from the peak, I turned back. Basically crouching as much as possible to keep a low profile and making sure I was secure in my footholds before trusting them. It was a bit of a battle but I made it to the path descending and almost as doon as I did, I was protected from some of the severity of the wind,which enabled me to practically run down, carefully of course!

As I descended, I kept an eye on the other path, hoping that the lady I met hadnt hung around long at the top, and was on her way down. But finding it difficult to see with rain now lashing in my eyes, I carried on down.
There were other peopke at the lake when I got there but none were continuing upwards. The weather was getting worse by the second and I was glad I came down when I did. That said, it was only half twelve when I got back to the yha and hadnt felt as though I had made the most of the day yet. The wind was better in the valley and the rain had died down,so I elected to walk along the road next to the resevoir with a view to finding the path that would take me round it. I found the entrance and a small road that took me over a bridge to what was supposed to be the beginning of the path. Up I went, searching for at least a defined track, but ended up wading through extremely boggy ground and rivulets. Added to that the clouds had closed in, visibility was worsening and the rain was lashing down, to the point where I was wiping my eyes every few seconds just to be able to see.  My feet were now soaked and I had given up rock hopping, instead just wading ankle deep through the bog... yeah, I know... mad. Well it had even come to the point where I thought I was mad, do descended back over the bridge for a fast clip along the road to the yha.

Despite the snow, hail, rain and wind... I had enjoyed today. Just  being out in the mountains and once again relying on no one but myself, with consequences, possibly severe ones, if I misjudged anything... makes me feel alive, more than anything, and once again, the mind becomes free and the thoughts flow uninterrupted. Perfect!  I also was reminded that although I have been across deserts and shown spectacular canyons, actually, this place makes me just as happy, charming me in its own way, and all close to my backdoor,  relatively speaking anyway.

So first day outdoors done and am looking forward to the course day tomorrow...maybe I will learn how to keep moving against a wind that strong!