Sometimes you have to search deep inside yourself, move past all the doubt and self loathing and in there somewhere you will find your spirit. That naïve and powerful thing of playfulness and adventure that always knew that everything is possible. And you have to nurture it and believe in it because so much is possible when you come to realize how much it believes in you.
If you ever walk the endless and arduous undulations among the valleys and foothills of the Himalayas, what the locals describe as ‘Nepali Flat’, you’ll understand what I mean.
Mera Peak Day 3 Briefing
Sitting exhausted and aching but feeling content in the Tea House at the end of Day 2 of the Mera Trek and Ang, our Lead Guide, called for silence so he could tell us about day 3. ‘Please give us an easy day!’ I silently hoped as he started into the schedule.
Didn’t sound too bad at first. Along a path, a few ups and downs and then we’ll get to see Mera Peak in the distance for the first time. So far so good I thought…
“We’ll start our decent into the valley…”
“Then we’ll start our decent into the valley,” He continued.
My ears pricked up… how far? I wondered…
“it’s 1,200m down.” He said.
Holy crap! I thought
“And be careful of your footing because it’s very steep and lots of loose scree…”
My though process started swearing profusely.
“We go down for about an hour and then we stop for morning tea break.”
Hold the bloody bus! He’s already described three weeks of walking and all we’ve made it to is morning tea break?!! I hope it’s special tea!!!
“We stop for lunch.”
“Then down to the bottom of the valley where we stop for our lunch.”
LUNCH?!!!!!! Having just descended 1,200m on a steep slope through loose scree my knees are going to feel like someone’s been playing xylophone on them for a month. I’m going to need 3 hours in a Jacuzzi with a litre of whisky.
A bowl of veg noodles some lemon tea and a 3 year old bar of chocolate isn’t going to work. Surely to God the afternoon walk MUST be easy!! Maybe a steady mile along a tarmac path?
“And then we go up…”
“After lunch we cross a bridge….”
Don’t say it I mentally pleaded, please don’t say it!
“and then we go up….”
Awwww he said it!
“700m up towards the next valley where we stop at our Tea House for the night.”
He finished with a beaming smile as I cried silently into my look warm Veg Chow Mein.
“By some miracle I was still going.”
Next afternoon after crossing the bridge after lunch and we started our steep 700m ascent through the rocks and lush vegetation of the valley floor roasting in the afternoon sun of the Indian Sub Continent that I realized by some miracle I was still going.
My Group were eagerly climbing ahead and above me already and I plodded along at the back with Newang, the Sherpa who had been assigned to me so I could walk at my own pace. It dawned on me that my body was already exhausted and yet I had no doubt that I would make this 700m climb. The fact was that something far deeper and stronger than my body was driving me on.
If there’s one thing I love about my homeland of Scotland, it’s her mountains and, if there was a picture to capture the loneliness of being away from them during isolation, this is it. The Scottish Saltire flying high in the clouds above Ben Lomond, an iconic Scottish Mountain.
From mountains like Ben Lomond to welcome walkers to their first Munro (Scottish Mountain 3,000ft or over) to the Rannoch Wall on the Buchaille or the North Face of Ben Nevis offering the serious climbers some of the wildest unaided climbing in Europe and everything in between, there’s something for everyone in the Scottish Mountains.
Even the commute involves breath-taking beauty that you’ll remember forever. I must have been to Glencoe a hundred times in the past 5 years and I still catch my breath when I see her. Then there’s the walks, like the Glenloin Loop heading out from the shores of Loch Long at Arrochar and meandering among the spectacular Arrochar Alps or the wild East Side of Loch Lomond.
“How do you feel?” My Guide asked as I sat hunched in the darkness panting heavily.
“Absolutely…. exhausted.” I gasped back at him between pants.
“Are you sick or do you have a headache?”
“No… Just…. exhausted.”
We were sitting at a moment of truth high up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. If my Guide told me to go down, I’d turn round. If he asked me if I think I should go down I’d turn round and start heading down.
“No headache, no sick, you can still go on.” He said. “We are so close to Stella Point now. Just keep walking and follow me and I’ll get you to your dream.”
That was how close the call was and that was the logic which made me wearily haul myself back onto my feet and stagger another agonizing few feet up into the darkness.
Leaving Barafu Camp
My journey had started about 9 hours earlier and close to 4,000ft lower down the mountain where our tents nestled among an inhospitable pile of rocks on a steep slope at Barafu Camp. At 9:30pm I sat in the Mess Tent decked out in all my winter gear reluctantly forcing down a ‘breakfast’ of porridge, coffee and biscuits. Myself and one other, a lady from our group, were the slow walkers and were heading out an hour ahead of the main summit party in order to get the most time and best chance of summitting.
I stepped out into the rocks, knowing there was a steep rocky climb of about 100ft just to get up to the Reception of the Campsite and get started. The adrenaline was pumping and I wanted the nervous, sleepless waiting to be over. My guide asked if I was ready, I said I was and we were off. I launched myself into the climb and was soon bounding through the Campsite heading for the next pitch. Another steep and rocky climb would take us onto a plateau 1,000ft above the Campsite where others were camping by virtue of special permits they had purchased.
Soon after we started, I heard the lady who had also left early shouting into the darkness for me to wait up. I had given her some electrolytes and some words of encouragement in the Mess Tent but no need to wait up for her now. She had a Guide and a Porter to look after her. For days, they’d had to take an arm each to guide her over the rocky pitches. If I had waited for her, we’d both been off the climb before long. As my own guide and I started across the plateau towards the higher camp, we were joined by the other Guide and Porter. My friend had already turned back.
Biscuits At 17,000ft
We started at around 15,000ft above Mean Sea Level, I’d hardly noticed as we passed through 16,000ft and as we took one of our regular short breaks at 17,000ft I was feeling great. By all accounts our pace was encouraging and the night was still and clear. There are always hundreds of trekkers ascending through the night on this route on Kilimanjaro (Lemosho Route) but most of them had only just set out and I could see their lines of headtorches steep and far below me as they headed up into the darkness.
I resolved to get to 18,000ft as easily as the rest of the ascent so far and cause an upset by reaching Stella Point (The first point on the rim of the volcano that is Kilimanjaro) in a very fast time.
Storm At 18,000ft
As things turned out, Stella Point is not at 18,000ft but almost 1,000ft higher. What I did find at 18,000ft was that I was moving incredibly slow, that every step was complete exhaustion and a ferocious wind was tearing across the mountain chilling the temperature well below the ambient -20C. The lines of walkers ascending the mountain were now trudging wearily past me.
My Guide had fallen and broken his wrist. We tried to strap him up in a sling using bandages from my First Aid Kit but it hadn’t helped too much and he had to turn round. He went down to pick up one of the other trekkers from the Main Group who we had been told had also turned around. I headed on up with a Porter who turned out to have the strength of an ox and the patience of a saint. A replacement Guide was heading up to us from the main party and would be with us in due course.
I joined the lines of climbers heading up a steep and seemingly endless slope of loose scree through a series of zig zags (Switch backs as the locals called it) but the altitude was starting to get to me for sure. I was becoming less aware of where I was and, more to the point, where I was going. At the end of each traverse of the slope, where the others turned back on themselves and traversed back across the slope, I kept wandering off into the rocks where I would lose my balance, stagger about and need to sit down. The climb across the rocks to get back onto the slopes with the others was confusing and completely exhausting.
The Porter who was with me kept hauling my arm to bring me back on course and telling me we were almost at Stella Point. All the while I knew that even a descent of 100ft and my head and my breathing would start to clear. It was whilst sitting wondering if I should, or could, continue that our replacement guide arrived. He soon established that I was fit enough and close enough to Stella Point to continue. And so we pushed on up ending a very long night on the long, steep slope at the top of Kilimanjaro’s rim.
Sunrise Far Above The Plains Of Tanzania
With the rising of the sun my breath was taken away for a whole new, and much more positive, reason. The slopes around the rim of the volcano, towering back cliffs rising above and around me with huge patches of ice, looked spectacular. Far, far below, the Plains of Tanzania spread out forever. Everything in the beautiful, silent pink glow of the early morning.
Meeting Above The Clouds
A short distance further along the track I took another rest in a small rocky inlet watching the world walking past me towards the top as I gingerly sipped at my water feeling too exhausted and sick to take on anything more substantial. Among the countless climbers passing me, the main party from my own tour who had left for the summit an hour after me soon came into view.
“Mr McBride. How are you?” Called Abraham, our Main Guide, as he saw me.
“Absolutely exhausted!” I replied.
“Remember tiredness is not an illness.” He beamed, “See you at the top.”
His character and his comments caused a broad smile to spread across my face and at that, one of the girls from the group came over and gave me a huge hug. This mountain was a turning point in her life as we had discussed on the way up while she had battled through the emerging effects of the altitude. She sobbed into my shoulder overcome with emotion and in that moment I felt like somehow I was helping and it felt great.
Stella Point – 18,885ft
For the next hour we labored on up the slope. The Main Group were ahead of me but never got too far and I could always see them. By this stage the Porter who was with me was pushing my back or my hips just to keep me upright every time we moved off. I guess I didn’t look too good on that final ascent, That Porter was a hero and there was no way I would have got up without him. At last the wooden slats of the sign for Stella Point were there in front of me among crowds of excited climbers.
The main group from my tour were already sat in a line to the side of the sign for Stella Point and I collapsed in a heap beside them. We congratulated each other, shook hands, hugged and patted each others backs. It was a bright sunny day now around 6am local time. My last action with the group that morning was to stand among them posing at the Stella Point sign. Stella Point – 18,885ft above Mean Sea Level.
Abraham pulled me to the side, explained what an amazing achievement it was to get to Stella Point and suggested that I start back down the mountain rather than heading on up to the highest point at Uhuru Peak. I could see Uhuru Peak along the rim just above us. It didn’t look too far but I was exhausted.
Abraham was asking if I agreed with his suggestion to turn back. It would have been foolish not to and would have put either him or his team under more pressure. I wasn’t really ascending under my own steam by that time anyway. I could only have reached Uhuru peak if they carried me and they had enough to carry without my 250lb frame on top. Reluctantly I agreed to head back down.
We soon descended into the loose steep scree past the line of weary walkers still making the climb. My guide bobbing up and down gently and gliding down the slope as he ‘scree skied’ through the loose rocks. Me behind him staggering about and hanging onto my trekking poles with legs like water feeling a world of pain below my waist. I could see the campsite looking something like a million miles below us. Sadly I realised even that was the high camp about 1,000ft above our campsite at Barafu.
I was soon sweltering under the African Sun as we plodded on into the bright morning. We stopped, de-layered and plodded on. Eventually, completely exhausted, I found myself clambering down through the rocks from the high campsite down to Barafu. I crawled into my tent at 11:45am and slumped into an exhausted sleep. I’d been on the go for 14 hours into extreme altitude and both hot and cold extremes of weather. I’d climbed 4,000ft and descended 4,000ft.
When the others arrived back at camp some 3 hours later, there was time for some hot chocolate and lunch before we continued our descent along a gruelling 9 mile dried riverbed to Mweka Camp a further 5,000ft below Barafu.
Back in civilization and tagging a safari into the holiday, I had time to reflect. At first there was a sense of relief. No more climbing, an hotel room instead of a tent and cold beer once more. Then there was the feeling of achievement at reaching the top of the highest free standing mountain in the world. Well the rim of the volcano at least. Then the doubt and disappointment that I could never say I just reached the top.
Not simply, “I climbed Kilimanjaro.” but always then the story which qualified what I’d actually done. “…I got to the rim…. I got to the top but just not the very top…” These notes I have written here. That is my full story of Kilimanjaro. it was amazing and I am proud of what I did.
Wandering down the bustling main road through the small mountain town of Lukla the world was full of colour, movement and excitement. Sherpas strode past teetering under impossible loads mounted on their backs and strapped to their foreheads. Lines of heavily laden yaks and mules trotted past, the bells round their necks clanging as they went. On the way to the mountains we passed an Irish Pub, a Scottish Pub and a million Souvenir Shops. As we made our first steep, rocky descent onto the trail leading out of town towards Everest Base Camp, I realised how valuable my training in the Scottish Mountains had been. I smiled and thought, “I can do this!”
Since first deciding to climb mountains in an effort to improve my fitness in 2014, I have summit-ed 55 Munros. I have also completed 3 Himalayan Expeditions including; Poon Hill, Everest Base Camp and an attempt at Mera Peak as well as attempting Kilimanjaro and summit-ting Mount Toubkal. What has become increasingly apparent is that, in terms of terrain, the Scottish Mountains are a fantastic Training Ground when planning a trek or a climb overseas.
Before continuing however, I need to add a vital note of caution. Scottish Mountains are a treacherous and deadly environment which require a range of skills and equipment to safely negotiate. Only experienced mountaineers with excellent navigation skills, full winter equipment and all the training on how to use it should venture onto the Scottish Hills in winter. Even in summer; plummeting temperatures, near zero visibility and high winds can strike with very little warning and create significant and deadly problems for unprepared or inexperienced climbers. Please plan appropriately before attempting any of the routes described in this post. Now we understand the dangers, lets discuss the similarities.
Anyone visiting the spectacular routes through the Nepalese part of the Himalayas may well come across the term ‘Nepali Flat’. This describes the endless ups and downs you are likely to encounter in the early days of some of the treks as you climb the steep sides to emerge from one valley and then descent the equally steep sides into the next.
Following the Meall a Behuachaille Circuit past the Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore you will soon find yourself ascending and descending frequently before making a drop of a few hundred feet through the trees to a small lochan and then climbing back up to a bothy. All of this just to get to the foot of the mountain. This route is a great introduction to Neplai Flat.
For the fitter and more experienced mountaineers, there is the option of climbing Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich in the same day. This will give you Nepali Flat at it’s most extreme. Caution should be taken however. This feat involves a very long, arduous day over very steep and rocky terrain with some scrambling. It is not for the inexperienced or feint hearted and skills such a good navigation with map and compass are essential.
For those thinking of heading to Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route I would say a summer ascent of Ben Vane, with it’s steep rocky path and requirement for scrambling, would be good training for the Baranco Wall, a 300m steep rocky ascent encountered about 5 days into the Kilimanjaro trek.
Sticking strictly to summer ascents, the circuit taking in Ben Macduie and Cairngorm from the Ski Centre above Aviemore can be good training to ascend to the Shira Plateau on Kilimanjaro. Again, note that a summer ascent is mentioned here. The Cairngorm Plateau in winter is a deadly environment with a far closer resemblance to the North Pole than the Shira Plateau.
Having made summit attempts on Mera Peak, Kilimanjaro and Mount Toubkal, I would recommend a night ascent of Ben Nevis via the Mountain Path as good training for any of them.
The reason for recommending the night ascent is that the summit bids on the other mountains tend to start any time from midnight on to allow maximum time for reaching the summit and descending to safety. It is beneficial therefore to get used to climbing in the dark. You may also get to see a billion stars and then a breathtaking sunrise.
The ascent of Ben Nevis is similar in vertical height to that from Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro. Also, for a lot of the year, especially in winter, you will need winter climbing equipment such as crampons and ice axe and the skills to use them to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. This will help prepare you for the ascent of the Mera Glacier or a winter ascent of Mount Toubkal.
The mountains of Scotland offer breathtaking routes with spectacular views and every type of walking and climbing you can imagine. This is what makes them an excellent Training Ground for trekking and climbing elsewhere in the world. Perhaps the main difference between the Scottish Mountains and all of the others I have mentioned here is altitude. There is nothing in Scotland which is high enough to prepare you for the rigours of climbing and trekking in the thinner air of high altitude. This is a subject in itself and one which I discuss in my next post.
If, like me, you frequent the Scottish Mountains in order to train for some of the classic high mountain climbs around the world you’re certainly frequenting an excellent training ground. Ben Nevis, Ben Macdui, Cairn Gorm and Ben Vane, to name but a few, are mountains which can prepare you for the eternal ups and downs of ‘Nepali Flat’ in the Himalayas or the Shira Plateau and Baranco Wall on Kilimanjaro. The one aspect of high mountain trekking or climbing that you cannot experience in Scotland however is the effects of Altitude.
Effects Of Altitude
In a nutshell, the higher we climb above Mean Sea Level, the ‘thinner’ the air gets. That is to say the less oxygen is available to us in each breath we take. Even at the highest point in the British Isles, the summit of Ben Nevis at an altitude of 1,345m, there is sufficient oxygen in the air that you should not experience any adverse effects. On higher mountains around the world however, you could first expect to start noticing a lack of oxygen in the air at an altitude of around 3,000m. By the time you get to 6,000m, the effects can be quite extreme and above 8,000m literally quite deadly. These can be described respectively as Altitude, High (or Extreme) Altitude and The Death Zone.
After completing 3 Himalayan trips including; Poon Hill, Everest Base Camp and an attempt at Mera Peak as well as attempting Kilimanjaro and summit-ting Mount Toubkal I have reached a highest point of 6,140m above Mean Sea Level. For me, I started to become more breathless than normal around 3,000m. By 4,000m I generally start to experience common symptoms associated with Altitude including a frequent or ongoing headache. On the 2 occasions I’ve passed through or come close to 6,000m the effects have felt quite extreme. Needing to rest after every step, unable to sleep for any length of time and loss of appetite. It should be noted however that the effects of altitude can vary from trip to trip or person to person with no significant pattern related to fitness or lack of fitness. More significantly, symptoms of altitude can escalate extreme quickly and can, and do, kill.
It is possible to measure how your body is coping with altitude by using a device called a Pulse Oximeter to measure the oxygen saturation in your blood. A typical reading for a healthy person at Sea Level would be 95% or above. At altitude this can drop below 80%. My lowest reading came during the Everest Base Camp Trek where it was as low as 66% and, yes, I felt quite ill.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Ultimately the effects of being at altitude can develop into what is called Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. This can manifest in 2 deadly conditions; High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) which is a build up of fluid in the lungs and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) where there is a build up of fluid putting pressure on the brain. Both conditions can cause unconsciousness and death quickly and the only cure is to get the patient down to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. Someone suffering from HACE may be acting confused or irrationally without realising that anything is wrong hence it is vital that climbers and guides constantly check each other for symptoms of AMS.
If it is impossible to move someone suffering from AMS to a lower altitude one other step which can be taken, if you have one available, is to place the patient inside a Gammow Bag. This is an inflatable bag which the patient is placed inside and then the air pressure inside the bag is raised. This can have an effect similar to a significant reduction in altitude.
Preventing The Onset Of AMS
They say prevention is the best cure and this is certainly the case when it comes to AMS. There are a number of practices and routines which can be used to reduce the effect of altitude during a climb or a hike.
This can be said in terms of both Rate Of Ascent and pace as you climb. Once above 3,000m, it is recommended that you do not increase your sleeping altitude by much more than 300 to 500m per day.
In terms of pace, the slower the better at altitude. As I have learnt from experience, the worst thing you can do is rush the pace. In my case, a 300m dash after lunch to catch up with the main group just above 4,000m on the way to Dingboche on the Everest Base Camp Trail left me sitting in a heap close to feinting with the whole mountain spinning.
Thanks to the Mountain Guides who drum this principle into us, I can now say, “Slowly, slowly” in Nepali, Swahili and Arabic
Acclimatise – Climb High, Sleep Low
The principle of Acclimatisation and corresponding adage of, “Climb High, Sleep Low” is very much at the heart of coping at high altitudes.
Lets say, for example, that you are walking from Dingboche (4,410m) to Lobouche (4,940m) along the route towards Mount Everest. Instead of stopping when you get to Lobouche, you could climb higher still and ascend a further 100 vertical meters to look down on the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier spilling down from Everest. Then descend to Lobouche to sleep. Apart from the breathtaking view, this detour will also help your body adjust to the effects of altitude.
As you ascend into thinner air, your body adjusts by producing more oxygen bearing cells in your blood. This can happen in a matter of hours whereas the process of your blood returning to normal can take several weeks. Hence your body adjusts to the highest altitude you climb to but, because the effects do not reverse as fast, remains able to cope at that highest altitude even when you descend to sleep in air which has more oxygen.
Practising this principle, those who climb to the peak of Everest will make several Acclimatisation ascents to the camps above Base Camp and return each time to Base Camp before making their final summit bid. Even the route to Everest Base Camp, at an altitude of 5,370m, has extra days and detours included so that our bodies can acclimatise.
As well as ascending at a steady rate, moving slowly and acclimatising, it is also a good practice to take on plenty of fluids whilst climbing or trekking at altitude. I will be discussing this in more detail; what to drink, where to get it and when to take it on board in what quantities in my next post.
Exhausted, head pounding and breathless, I climbed out of bed in the small Himalayan settlement of Gorac Shep and reached for my water and some headache pills. The water was frozen and my heart sank. Even inside the room it was -20C. I checked the hydration pack inside my day sack and it too was frozen solid. Fortunately I was able to get my hands on some boiled water from the Tea house Kitchen. I explained to Kumar, my guide, that I was feeling exhausted and weak after giving everything I had to reach Everest Base Camp the previous day. He gave me some Electrolyte Tablets to put in my water and said they would help. They did. Soon I was replacing the fluids, electrolytes and energy which had all been used in the previous days efforts and, as we climbed out of Gorac Shep to start our return to Lucla, the world was a better place. Such is the importance of taking on fluids in the mountains especially at altitude.
Dehydration is more likely to occur when trekking or climbing at altitude. Taking on fluids, whether laced with sugar, salt, electrolytes or just plain water is especially important for reasons including those outlined below.
Blood becomes thicker as it oxygenates to adjust to altitude
Humidity is lower at high altitude
More water than usual is lost through increased respiration rate
How Much To Drink
It is recommended to take as much as 3 to 4 litres per day. It is also recommended to take on fluids frequently while you climb. For example, sipping out of a Hydration Pack every 10 to 15 minutes as you progress along the trail.
Avoid Water Freezing
In colder temperatures fluid tends to freeze unless kept warm or close to the body and this can become a problem with Hydration Packs. Hence, I always carry extra water in bottles. Higher up when the temperature tends to plummet, these can be placed inside socks to keep them warm. Also, as fluid tends to freeze from the top down, it is a good idea to keep them upside down so that the fluid is always close to where you drink from. Final point on bottled water is that I would recommend dissolving some electrolyte tablets in the water. This will help replace other losses through sweat such as salt.
Other ways To Hydrate
There are also several other ways of hydrating beyond your water supply. Throughout my trips, I have come across a huge variety of different teas such as lemon, mint and even masala tea. You can stir in a spoonful of honey into the tea to add that bit of energy as well. In Nepal, they often serve Garlic Soup. It may sound not so nice to some but personally I love it. Any soup will warm you up and can be very welcome on those cold nights. In addition, there is normally salt in most soups. It is said that Garlic has properties which naturally help fight the effects of altitude.
Avoid Single Use Plastic
Many of the National Parks which host the high mountains discourage excessive use of single use plastic bottles. Hence, it is always good to help the environment and use an alternative source to bottled water. Boiled water is often available in the campsites and Tea Houses and, once cooled, is good to drink. For those who feel they can fill up from a stream, the use of a device such as a Life Straw to filter the water or Water Purification Tablets are extremely helpful.
Avoid Alcoholic Drinks
For those of us who enjoy a beer or two or any other alcoholic drinks for that matter, the best advice is not to indulge whilst at altitude. Apart from the obvious alcohol related questions around fitness and good judgement, alcohol does have a tendency to dehydrate us. Not such a great idea to dehydrate ourselves in an environment which dehydrates us in the first place.
Having saved myself through both the Everest Base Camp and the Mera Peak Trek, I can say that the night in Lukla before boarding the flight to Kathmandu next day involved some good alcoholic celebrations. It was definitely worth the wait.