Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Having just led two fantastic team challenges around the National 3 Peaks in under 24hrs I would like to congratulate all those participants who made both weekends such a fantastic and rewarding experience. I am sure that you are all 'made up' with your super-human accomplishment and rightfully exercising your bragging rights to all you may corner.
We will ascend Ben Nevis 1344m (4409ft) in hopefully 5hrs
Scafell Pike 948m (3209ft) in approx 5.30hrs and
Snowdon 1085m (3560ft) in approx 4hrs
450 miles of driving and 44kms (27 miles) of walking including 2900m (9800ft) of ascent.
Cost - £250 - including all transport during the challenge including professional drivers in comfortable coaches, accommodation including bedding in comfortable bunk-house with restaurant and bar attached. Breakfasts x 2, professional, qualified mountain guides throughout who are first aid current and experienced in the challenge requirements.
Friday, 11 March 2011
The Stone Giant – Aconcagua
Measuring 6962 meters Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and the second highest of the fabled ‘7 Summits’ (the highest peaks on each continent), and is a mountain that demands the utmost respect and caution for all who dare to ascend its perilous slopes.
My love hate relationship with this 4.3 mile high summit started in 2007 whilst still serving as a regular Army Air Corps soldier, 5 years later as a Territorial Army Air Corps soldier and full time mountain guide this pile of ancient rock, scree, ice and snow is still testing and challenging me, and even after 4 ascents it still has the ability to test me at every opportunity, and to destroy anyone it chooses with regular frequency.
After successfully guiding 156 clients to the summit of Kilimanjaro in 2010 I was looking forward to the anticipated challenge that I knew Aconcagua would bring, and was also suitably acclimatised and experienced to deal with the anticipated problems that inevitably occur at such extreme high altitudes as Aconcagua.
Assisting me on this climb was my close friend and trusted colleague Phil ‘Darby’ Allen, an ex Royal Marine pilot and former 655 Sqn AAC veteran, now working with myself in the outdoors industry as freelance Mountain Guides.
After over a year of planning, fund raising and training; including an Alpine Proficiency course and numerous ‘closer to home’ training trips, the 4-man team from 657 Sqn Army Air Corps along with Darby and myself arrived in Mendoza, Argentina, a lovely town on the edge of the Aconcagua National Park, and apparently the 7th wine capital of the world with a population of approximately 1.7 million.
After a manic day spent purchasing costly park permits and other essential consumables in Mendoza the team departed for their ‘adventure of a lifetime’ which began with a stunning bus ride up the Rio Grande valley to Puenta del Inca and the start of the long approach to Aconcagua.
After a couple of nights at Puenta del Inca (the park entrance) to acclimatise to the thinning oxygen levels the team was soon on its way. The first objective on the ‘approach trek’ was the halfway point of Confluencia Camp, it is here that most teams, including ourselves conduct their acclimatisation training by spending 2 nights and a day trek up to 4000 meters, and the South-Face viewpoint of Aconcagua; ‘a spectacular vista of Aconcagua’s gargantuan 3km high ice-clad South Face, one of the hardest climbing challenges in the world’.
After completing the following days gruelling 16km walk to Plaza de Mulas Base Camp in the somewhat oppressive heat and dust the team spent a well-earned rest day preparing their equipment and provisions for the long climb ahead.
The initial climb and ‘gear cache’ to Camp Canada 5000m was conducted with relative ease, and after depositing the ‘high mountain’ stores, food, gas, cookers, crampons, axes etc the team erected their high altitude tents and descended back down to the thicker oxygen levels at Base Camp 4400m where they would sleep the night, before ascending back to Camp Canada the following morning after their acclimatisation had caught up with their height gains.
The team acclimatised well, and after a mandatory check up by the Base Camp Doctor were given the ‘green light’ to start their ascent. The climb back up to Camp Canada was a relatively slow affair, carrying heavy packs in expedition style ‘triple layer boots’ up a relentless scree slope in searing heat was not one of the highlights of the trip, and after several hours all were pleased to be safely at Camp Canada and the safety of their 4-season tents, which had fortunately survived the night without them.
The following morning everyone was woken by the sun beating down on their frozen tents and after a quick freeze-dried meal were soon toiling up the continued scree slope towards their next destination; Nido de Condores, the second intermediate camp at over 5500 meters.
During the ascent to Nido it became apparent that the assistant guide; Darby was not firing on all 4 cylinders and was suffering from a lingering winter chest cold, and was most definitely not finding the dusty thin air conducive to high altitude mountaineering.
After eventually arriving at Nido de Condores, 5000m, it was not long before Darby was to succumb to the effects of altitude, and struggling with low oxygen saturation levels and continued breathing difficulties, along with the initial signs of suspected Pulmonary Oedema, it was with a heavy heart that Darby was assisted back to Base Camp by the Park Rangers and subsequently choppered out of the park where he was to make a full recovery once safely back in Mendoza’s oxygen rich environment.
The following morning after checking the short range weather forecast it was decided to capitalize on the next few days expected good weather, and with continued good health and acclimatisation it was decided that the team would skip their planned rest day and head further up the mountain to their final high camp of Camp Colera at 6000 meters to hopefully push for the summit in two days time and hopefully beat the expected poor weather that was forecast for the near future.
During the ascent to Camp Colera another team member, Graham was to find the altitude, coupled with a lingering bout of diarrhoea and vomiting too much to continue, and after a brief rest at Colera descended back down to Nido to wait for the team to return the following day after their planned summit attempt.
Summit day arrived with anticipated good weather, and as all shivered their way out of their tents at 0630hrs they were eager to get underway for their summit push, and the opportunity to get the blood flowing again and to warm their chilled bones.
The going was laboriously slow and difficult, with everyone’s bodies struggling to adapt to the ridiculously thin air, and the relentless scree slopes that typify Aconcagua. After 5 hours of heavy breathing and sucking in the precious available air, the team finally arrived at the infamous Canaletta summit gulley. (250 meters of steep rock, snow and scree, which delivers successful parties to the summit of Aconcagua)
After a further 2 hours of seriously hard work and lung burning effort the team arrived at the summit of Aconcagua, exhausted, elated and triumphant. A fantastic achievement for a relatively novice team of mountaineers, and one to be rightly proud of.
After three hours of descent and a short break to collapse the tents at Colera the team arrived back at Nido and a recovering Graham, where they spent a further night before making the short descent to Base camp and the long walk out back to Puente del Inca and the welcome bus journey back to Mendoza, and eventually onwards to Buenos Aires for some well earned R&R before flying back to England.
For myself, R&R in Mendoza was short lived and I was soon back on Aconcagua with a commercial group of clients approaching from the opposite side of the mountain to my Army expedition.
Aconcagua has the record for the most number of seasonal deaths of any mountain in the world and should not be underestimated.
Aconcagua is a fantastic objective for military and commercial expeditions, but only with the very best of clothing, equipment and experienced leadership should it be attempted.
Imp Adventures will be leading a summit climb on Aconcagua via the Horcones Route in Jan 2012, for more details see www.impadventures.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Damon (Boris) Blackband
Monday, 15 November 2010
D day -1 (getting ready to deploy)
On the eve our mission to get to Bastion, via a number of ‘undisclosed’ stops. Each flight carries the potential of mechanical setback pre and in-flight, and each stop is of undetermined length...I hear there is a daily unpredictable risk that the metal cargo door will expand so much in the heat on the runway that it will not shut, so we sit around until the temperature drops!
As a hospital we have received a glowing green light, at least procedurally; we have a massive conglomeration of personnel from tri-service and multinational (US & UK anyway) backgrounds who have achieved some degree of unity within 72hrs; we just need to ensure this survives contact with the enemy, our enemy being casualties coming through the door. Hard to glean too much about the personalities, strengths and abilities of the staff with whom I will work when we treat fake patients, certainly not my forte. I do hope that they have learnt a little about me though, enough to support my weaknesses and push me where I require it, but enough to know that I will work as hard as is required and remain loyal to them and my patients.
Me, I’m nervous; anxious is probably a better word. Not about my safety (although I do wish people would stop asking that stupid question of my mother, insensitive springs to mind); but anxious about my ability both to do the job as well as I want to, & to cope mentally with the sight of grown men crying or alternatively being more stoic than I am when faced with their own worst nightmare. No point wasting either energy or sleep worrying now though, will deal when it occurs and pack some herbal sleeping tablets since red wine won’t be available to me. It still is though, so here’s to a last Thai meal and a tasty bottle.
3 Weeks into tour...
3 Weeks into tour...
So how to summarise these first three and a significant 24hrs more - workload massively outstrips my distorted perception of time. It has flown by, some in a semi-wakeful haze, and other images so much more focused; the red amongst so much sandy camouflage; the dark skins of the locals and the cries of a sad series of children surrounded by a bunch of scissor and stethoscope wielding white strangers working in a well practised routine.
Sleep is a luxury, and in my case, jealously guarded from crap, but so often interrupted by necessity or just spending time chatting with both patients and colleagues, even interrupted for exercise; all of which ensure I retain my sanity. Sugar however is no luxury; we are very well looked after for easy snacks foods, much of it care of our embedded US colleagues; the rest by family! My craving is porridge, nuts, protein and anything other than bloody cheese baguettes for lunch; never for such an longtime have I ever been so incarcerated by my vegetarianism! But I have no inclination to give myself any wiggle room; it no longer appeals in any shape or form. Raisin bakes however, I can thoroughly recommend, oh and Clif bars!
An endless row of changing young USMC faces sit facing blue screens behind which sit the unchanging detainees ostensibly awaiting further medical attention until they fit the very high standards set by the US detention facility, being mobile without the aid of crutches seems a high bar to set to a detainee who has a high hindquarter amputation......we await judicial process. Where I was going with this train of thought is that it is those young guards who provide the Clif bars generously, and gorge themselves on the only fast food at Bastion (beside the hospital) pizza. Usually these USMC guards have recently been through the hospital with a minor injury or illness and are given this role as ‘Light Duties’/recovery time; or as one marine told me ‘everyday is one more day i get to keep my legs’. There is no suitable answer to that. The few British guards don’t bring food but they do make cups of tea, generous with their time and smiles instead, the ward staff, in turn, are liberal with their kit-kats.
I had made a few notes for the first few days of this deployment that I thought might spur me into memory of each day and act as sources of inspiration for typing; how wrong, they sound bland as black and white facts. However 1 tale still appeals – the oft quoted communication barrier between the Americans and ourselves; a US surgeon requested in post op notes that the patient who had just been through major bowel surgery should be on a ‘sips and chips regime’, so the nurses obediently fed said patient with the cookhouse chips washed down with sips of water, against their better judgement i hasten to add. Only on ward round, when the patient had wolfed the offered chips down, was it realised that the intent had been chips of ice. The lady in question did however recover very well but lost no weight.
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Everest Base Camp Trek 2010
Weaving through the chaotic labyrinth of streets and alleys that breathe life into Nepal’s throbbing capital city, it was hard to fathom out whether Kathmandu was just emerging from a long sleep or whether it was merely saying farewell and about to implode. Contrasting scenes greeted me with every change of direction that the bus made during the short, but fascinating journey from the airport to my chosen hotel.
New merges with old as decaying buildings and ramshackle hovels jostle for space amongst the skyline of modern hotels and emerging industries. If a place of calm and tranquility existed in Nepal then it surely wasn’t here. The heat, smog and pollution only serve to make one’s time in Kathmandu short before heading off in search of relative nirvana and true beauty, which lure the many thousands of travellers who make the life-changing pilgrimage to Mount Everest’s base camp each year.
My journey to Everest Base Camp began two days after leaving a black and rainy Manchester for Kathmandu followed by a short but electrifying plane hop into the high mountain trailhead of Lukkla, a small airstrip precariously balanced at an angle of 25 degrees on the side of the Khumbu valley. On descending into Lukkla, one cannot fail to become slightly alarmed by the sight of the numerous plane wreckages that litter the approach to the airstrip. Our pilot plunges our aircraft out of clouds and into an ‘ascending descent’. Eventually we squeal to an abrupt arrival at Lukkla airfield, amid loud and jubilant cheers of the now relieved, but still shaking, trekkers embarking on their journey of a lifetime.
In keeping with ‘best practice’ and sustainable tourism, I opted to utilize the Himalayan institution of the ‘Tea House’ to facilitate my Base Camp trek accommodation and dining requirements. I used a local trekking company to organize my safe passage and lodging each night thereby relieving the great burden of worry that would undoubtedly fall on less ‘commercial trekkers’, who may opt to source their own logistics after each day’s trekking. This was an option I am pleased I didn’t take after witnessing the amount of traffic that this justifiably popular route receives and the potential inconvenience that a ‘No Vacancies’ sign created.
My trek started the following morning after a relatively comfortable night in my cosy sleeping bag on a proper bed, and with the luxuries of running water, a hot meal and the option of paying for a quick dousing under a trickle of hot water. I also grabbed a few wallet-busting minutes of internet usage - time to let my ‘Facebook community’ and my wife know that I had arrived safely.
The Khumbu valley is a truly stunning destination, lush green woodland and vegetation ease you into the gradual ascent up the Khumbu river towards the ‘Sherpa capital’ of Namche Bazaar, reached normally after one or two days’ trek. It provides a welcome oasis of trekking bliss as most base campers spend at least two days acclimatizing at this milestone location, which gives them time to enjoy the splendid views and surroundings whilst allowing their bodies to adjust to the thinning oxygen levels.
My time in Namche was well spent rating the myriad of coffee and cake vendors, internet cafes and sifting through an abundance of trekking and mountaineering apparel that spews from the dozens of jam-packed shops, which line the narrow cobbled streets clinging to the hillside. Travelers beware! It’s a true test of willpower and “gear savvy” to differentiate between ‘genuine’, good fake and bad fake! Needless to say, almost everyone leaves with some new additions for their yak to carry up the hill over the following few days.
Beyond Namche, the landscape changes rapidly. The temperature drops and for many, shorts and t-shirts are soon replaced with trousers and wind shirts as the lush vegetation quickly gives way to a more barren, but dramatic panorama of rock and ice.
My first big “Wow”, following many lesser “Wows” was on reaching the highest point of the ‘Everest View Hotel’ and being greeted by the truly majestic sight of ‘Ama Dablam’ 6812m, a soaring granite monolith of a mountain, capped by an icing-sugar finish resplendent with a gravity defying hanging glacier adorning the south face. Along with the many other trekkers, I rattled off dozens of photographs and tried my hardest to capture a unique angle to make this mountain my own, but feeling somewhat jealous that I had to share this amazing sight with my fellow gasping colleagues. My only consolation being that I could now see glimpses of the lofty summits of Everest and Nuptse and the numerous other 7000+m peaks disrupting the skyline many miles further up the valley. My heart raced.
After a sad farewell to Namche and a dramatic change in terrain and climate, I was soon greeted by my favorite hilltop village of the trek; ‘Tengboche’, a welcome refreshment stop after puffing and panting up the short but steep hill that guards this ancient monastic village. It has the largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the Khumbu, replete with its ‘Swiss’ bakery, internet café and minimalist charm; it made me feel that this was the Himalayas that I had longed to find. (Diary entry – ‘I’ve arrived’)
After Tengboche a day’s easy trekking brought me to the valley junction of Pheriche/Dingboche, the crossroads of Everest. Here my destination split left and took me into the last real outpost of civilization, and the medical centre of Pheriche. Fortunately I was able to attend the daily complimentary High Altitude medical presentation by the resident volunteer doctors. It was an informative presentation that has no doubt saved the lives of countless trekkers who have passed through this centre over the years. It also belayed any fears that I or others in my party may have been having over whether our heads were going to explode or our blood boil at altitude!
After Pheriche things steepened even more and the worn trail that had filled our lungs and faces with dust and dried yak dung each day slowly gave way to glacial moraine and large boulder fields. Climbing up onto on to the edges of the Khumbu Glacier, we passed through the ‘one horse’ outpost of Dughla and had an overnight at Lobuche before sucking in the rarefied oxygen prior to arriving at Gorak Shep and the end of the lifeline of Tea Houses that has fed, watered and accommodated us so caringly during our last six days of trekking.
For many trekkers now comes the last big decision: to climb to the ‘Everest view point’ of ‘Kala Patthar’ 5545m to witness the evening sunset, or to collapse into bed and climb the hour-long trail in the cold of the morning to alternatively capture the sunrise over Mt Everest. Kala Patthar, a small 375m hill overlooking Gorak Shep offered the best view point to see and photograph Mt Everest, a view which cannot be seen from the actual Base Camp due to the immense size of the Khumbu icefall tumbling down onto the base camp glacier.
Although only a few hundred metres of climbing is required to ascend to the rocky pinnacle of Kala Patthar, it is often too much effort and hardship for many trekkers to prise themselves out of bed in the early cold of morning and climb in the freezing thin air, so many often fail to make the real jewel of the trek and miss out on the truly breathtaking and inspiring views afforded by this seemingly innocuous hill top.
I chose to ascend to Kala Patthar the same evening on arriving at Gorak Shep and after a hot chocolate and short but breathless climb was rewarded by a spectacular golden sunset, which will stay with me for the rest of my life.
This panorama of Himalayan giants must truly rate as one of the greatest views in the world and a fitting cherry to top a fantastic journey of discovery that consistently rewarded me on every turn or twist of the trail.
The descent back to Gorak Shep, although freezing cold, seemed to take only minutes due to the great feelings of achievement and success that were now racing through everyone’s thoughts as we anticipated opening a celebratory, if somewhat costly, ‘Gorkha’ beer on arrival back at our overnight sanctuary. Sleep came easy that night.
The following morning we made the short but interesting trek along the edge of the Khumbu Glacier to the hallowed ground that is Everest Base Camp, stopping short of the actual camp so as to preserve the sterile surroundings that are vital in the preparation of the many dozens of serious climbers hoping to scale the mountain in its entirety and stand on the top of the world looking up to nothing, and down to everything.
After a brief photo shoot and a clamber around on the rocky moraines of Base camp it was soon time to start our four day descent down the mountain, for me a sad farewell and hopefully the start of a lasting love affair with this majestic mountain and its incredible neighbours.
Following a rapid descent and an equally terrifying departure from the airstrip at Lukkla I was soon homeward bound, my life enriched, my fires stoked and my thoughts inspired and provoked once more. I will be back…
Damon Blackband is a freelance mountain guide, director of ‘Imp Adventures’ and is leading an attempt to summit Mt Everest in 2012 in support of the Veterans Charity Help for Heroes. To find out more about Damon’s climb and to sponsor his team please visit www.everest4heroes.com
Saturday, 14 August 2010
Can I climb the National 3 Peaks?
The Infamous ‘National 3 Peaks’ challenge is a serious test of strength, stamina and determination. To climb the 3 tallest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales in 24 hours is a life changing adventure, that will test the metal of any participant, and is often regarded as a ‘right of passage’ for the thousands of hill walkers and adventure racers who attempt the challenge each year.
The ‘3 Peaks’ as it is known as (not to be confused with the equally demanding ‘Yorkshire 3 Peaks’) is a timed challenge to scale the summits of Ben Nevis 1344m, Scafell Pike 978m and Snowdon 1085m inside 24hrs. The distance walked is around 26 miles, the height climbed is around 9700 feet or 2957m, and the drive in between is approximately 450 miles.
Can YOU complete the challenge? For the majority of those reading this article the answer will probably be YES! That is not to say that the challenge is easy, far from it actually, for the grim reality of it is that well over half of those hundreds of hopeful ‘3 Peakers’ who attempt the challenge on every weekend during the summer months, most normally fail to cross the finish line inside a genuine 24hrs.
In recent years the challenge has become a stable source of revenue for the dozens of charity challenges organized as ‘mass participation’ events, each and every weekend throughout the summer, and subsequently the need to ensure that the majority of participants succeed in passing the challenge has resulted in a ‘watering down’ of the challenge requirements. The pure and perceived approach would simply be to log the challenge start time and then have the finish time as 24hrs after this time, what could be simpler?
For the vast majority of challengers and challenge providers, this is the standard, and it is strictly adhered to, however some of the more unscrupulous providers have now taken it upon themselves to ‘bend this standard’ and ‘stop the clock’ during rest periods, ‘stop the clock’ on top of the final summit, or even more underhandedly divide the time to 14hrs of climbing and 10hrs of driving (regardless of how long the drive actually took) to allow even the most hapless of participants the ability to pass within a dubious ‘24hrs’.
The secret to achieving the National 3 Peaks in under a genuine 24hrs is all in the ‘small print’. Good preparation, strict adherence to time keeping, good administration, a dedicated driver and a nominated leader who is qualified, experienced, current and competent on the complexities involved in route finding and navigation on each of the 3 peaks, in the worst weather known to man, by day and by night!
The challenge normally starts at the foot of Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands after an overnight stop in nearby Fort William. This first peak ideally sees participants scale the highest of the 3 summits on fresh legs following a well-established footpath in hopefully a sub-5hr time. For some challengers this is often the hardest of the 3 peaks, being the highest and steepest, but generally after this initial rude awakening and a 6 hr drive with the opportunity to refuel and rest, most participants have usually recovered well enough to attack the next summit with renewed vigor and enthusiasm! Which is just as well as the next peak is technically the most demanding, and depending on which route is taken, often the longest.
‘Scafell Pike’ in Cumbria is the second summit to be attempted, with the majority of ‘non’ 3 Peakers tackling the mountain from the farming hamlet of ‘Wasdale Head’, ascending the shorter but steeper route up ‘Brown Tongue’. However, the route and road to ‘Wasdale Head’ is narrow and winding, and for most ‘3 Peakers’ the slightly longer but less steep approach from ‘Seathwaite’ is the preferred option.
The rocky and loose approach along the ‘Corridor Route’ from ‘Seathwaite’, ‘often done in darkness’, is generally regarded as the most technical section of the ‘3 Peaks’ challenge, and is normally the section that most groups lose valuable time on, and have the most difficulties with navigation and route finding on, especially with large and inexperienced groups of charity trekkers. That said, in mid summer, with good weather and long daylight hours this approach can be truly stunning, with spectacular views to be had by those able to raise their heads from the trail beneath their feet!
A good time on ‘Scafell Pike’ would be sub 5hrs, and as long as ‘Ben Nevis’ and ‘Scafell Pike’ have been accomplished in sub 5hr times and there have been no unnecessary traffic hold ups, then at this time (normally about 2245hrs based on a 0700hrs start time participants would generally know if they are going to complete the challenge successfully with just ‘Snowdon’ in Wales left to climb).
Following a short drive of approximately 4 hours into Wales and the Snowdonia National Park, participants would start the ascent of ‘Snowdon’ from the ‘Pen y Pass’ car park and hostel at approx 0300hrs, thus giving challengers 4 hours to complete the final summit on a well worn, but very rocky ‘Pyg track’. This route is generally achieved in under 4 hours by most walkers.
Whilst 24hrs is a reasonable target for most well organized, prepared and led challengers, it is however, far nicer and almost as equally rewarding to achieve the ‘3 Peaks’ ‘as a team, as friends and with all who started out in a ‘reasonable time’, rather than to turn the challenge into a test of stamina and endurance and subsequently leave by the wayside all of those unable to keep the pace of the fittest members of the group; exhausted, dejected and destroyed, and probably highly unlikely to undertake another adventure again for fear of failure!
This article was brought to you by:
Director – Imp Adventures
‘exciting adventures at home and abroad’
t 07768 608914
Monday, 25 January 2010
Am Bodach - 943m / 3085ft,
Meall Dearg - 953m / 3127ft,
Stob Coire Leith - 940m / 3088ft
Sgurr nam Fiannaidh - 967m / 3173ft
Time: 6 hours in summer – possibly significantly longer under snow. Winter benightments are common.
Start: Layby on the A82 near Allt-na-reigh cottages (NN174567)
Finish: Minor road just short of Glencoe village (NN112585)
Map: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 41
Accommodation: Variety of bunkhouses, bothies and youth hostels. See book for details.
Sleeping out: Discreet wild camping close to the road is feasible in Glencoe.
Public transport: Scottish Citylink buses between Glasgow and Fort William run through Glencoe, and can pull over where you like.