Categories
Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Trekking

6 Scottish Hills That Can Prepare You For Everest

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!”

Heading out of Lukla on the Everest Base Camp Trek Oct 2016

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 HillEverest 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.

Safety First

Slopes of Stob Na Broig Feb 2017

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.

Nepali Flat

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.

Looking up the Hinku Valley to Mera Peak Oct 2017

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.

Looking down on An Lochan Uaine from the ascent of Meall a Behuachaille Apr 2018

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.

Kilimanjaro

Climbing the Baranco Wall during Kilimanjaro ascent Sept 2018
Approaching one of the final scrambles near the top of Ben Vane Aug 2018

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.

Ascending onto the Cairngorm Plateau in summer Jun 2018

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.

Crossing the Shira Plateau during Kilimanjaro ascent Sept 2018

Summit Night

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.

Sunrise at the Half Way Lochan descending Ben Nevis May 2018

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.

Looking across at Everest in the sunrise from the Mera Glacier 300m above High Camp Oct 2018

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.

Leaving the Toubkal Lodge to start the ascent to the summit of Toubkal Aug 2019

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.

Categories
Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Trekking

Coping At High Altitude

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 MacduiCairn 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.

High Camp on Mera Peak Route 5,800m Oct 2017

After completing 3 Himalayan trips including; Poon HillEverest 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.

Pulse Oximeter Reading at Sean Level

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.

Slowly Slowly…

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 NepaliSwahili 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.

Looking down on the Khumbu Ice Flow on the approach to Everest Base Camp Oct 2017

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.

Stay Hydrated

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.

Categories
Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Trekking

how to stay hydrated in the mountains

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

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

Staying hydrated on the move. External water bottle with electrolytes attached to the front of my Day Sack and the straw from my Hydration Pack full of plain water. Kilimanjaro Trek Sep 2018

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

Tea at Tadapani in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas during Poon Hill Trek Nov 2015

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.

Categories
Adventure Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Trekking

The Call To The Mountains

Sean Himalayas
Annapurna Range in the Himalaya’s in Nepal. Poon Hill Trek Nov 2015

I see the road to the top of a mountain as the pathway to peace. But it’s not about how high I climb or how fast. How many I’ve bagged this year. It’s about the beauty around me in a place that was here a million years ago and the realisation that to find peace is not to fight mortality but more to embrace eternity.

Categories
Adventure Life and Wellbeing Pictures Travel Trekking

OMG It’s AMAZING!

You never forget your first cloud inversion

All I could see in the darkness of the woods in pre-dawn was the head torch of my pal bobbing about as she jogged up the track towards me. “Look at that!” She screamed excitedly. She was actually jumping as she ran so she could see over the bushes at the view. She was pointing over my shoulder to the sunrise she had clearly seen before I did. When I turned to see it, I knew exactly what she was so excited about.

20140511_050506
Kiltepan. Above the clouds and below the rising sun

God looking down on the world

If you think about God looking down on the world, you might imagine something like this. Mountain tops bathed in the pink and orange of the newly rising sun poking through a carpet of clouds which completely covered the valley below.

20140511_051649
Golden sunrise

I took the selfies

Sure, I took the selfies and posed for the photos like a hundred times on this trip. But not before the scene took my breath away, caught my heart and left me with a moment which will be with me forever.

20140511_053159
Moments which last forever

Get More Adventure

You can read other tales of adventure from all around the world here.

Like, Share and Subscribe

Please support this page by hitting the Like and re-blogging or sharing through Social Media using the buttons below. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can also leave a comment and subscribe to the blog to receive automatic updates whenever I post.