Monday, January 26, 2015

Back on Skis

Just had two very good days with the party which has been organised with Chris Boulton and friends in one form or another for 20 years. They are creatures of habit. They always stay at the Hotel de la Couronne. They always eat in the Office Bar [at least twice] and they always hire their skis from Stamos Sports. Finally they always engage my services for at least two days. Chris,Kevin,Peter,David,Adam,James,Peter,Steven.

On our first day we skied off piste where James Mitchell took this remarkable photo of me on the piste at Le Tour

On the Sunday they all agreed that some skiining was what was wanted in an attempt to burn off some of the 10 tons of cheese they had eaten. So at 8.00am we squeezed everyone into the Land Rover and drove through the Mt Blanc tunnel and then over to Punte Crocce which over looks La Thuile. Here we enjoyed possibly the best weather day of the season

Finally from the summit you are treated to as a good a view of Mt Blanc as any.

Friday, January 23, 2015

African Odyssey Part 1 Kilimanjaro 5894m

The trip did not get off to the best start. I was delayed twice and missed my 1st two flights due to fog in London. Finally arrived at Heathrow eight hours late. Eventually with great help from HRG travel agents I found a flight to Kilimanjaro International airport via Amsterdam and via Nairobi and actually arrived before my partner in crime for the trip Charles Sherwood.

My Next problem was I did not have the required $50 for my Tanzanian entry visa. I was told to go out side the airport withdraw unfathonable amount of Tanzanian shillings [about 80,000] from the ATM , then go to some dodgy guy who would then convert them into Dollars. All while the immigration officer would "look after " my Passport until I returned...

Unsurprisingly the ATM was not working , so back I went , then a very strange thing happened: An American over heard my disagreement and just handed me a $50 dollar bill! Problem sorted.

Charles arrived from Doha we were picked up by Rift Valley Safaris Ltd and driven to fantastic Moivaru Lodge which appeared to me to be in the middle of the jungle. Here we got the first sight of Kilimanjaro which was on the label of the beer bottles we supped.

Our plan was to climb Kilimanjaro as a way off getting some solid acclimatisation for the real challange of making the complete and rarely achieved traverse of Mt Kenya. We were to start our trek on Kilimanajaro by the Machame park entrance. This is apparently considered to be one of the most beautiful routes. We left the Hotel and gradually picked up people who were going to help us , firstly the cook , then the guide Onex and then a second guide JV [never really sure why we needed a 2nd guide] Then we stopped for an hour so they could all have breakfast , then we arrived at the park gates where we went through a mountain of paper work , met our porters [8 of them] and finally set off around mid day.

We trekked up through an area of forest called the Montaine forest. This is of course rain forest and it lived up to its name by raining torrentially. Fortunately this coincided with lunch and as we rounded the corner our rather Colonial looking Tent had been erected , table was laid [complete with table cloth ] tea was served with sandwiches and hot soup.
All this rain did create a load of thick mud so when we arrived at the Macheme camp 3000m we were already filthy. The camps on Kilimanjaro are somewhat busy and seemingly chaotic . There must have been about 250 tents.
The next day our destination was Shira Cave campsite at 3850m. It wasn't long before it was raining again, it was cold wet and pretty much like the average day in the Scottish mountains. The weather was shaping up to be exactly like it had been 13 months previously , when Charles and I had last been on Mt Kenya, namely crap.
However in the late afternoon the weather did clear to reveal impressive views towards Meru peak and behind us the first real view of Kilimajaro. This was more like what we had hoped for.

The trek form Shira camp to Barrunco Hut 3950m involved firstly walking up to the Lava Towers at 4600m before descending down to the Barrunco camp. This was all part of the well tried formula to aid acclimatiastion "climb high - sleep low"
Still after the initial hour of glorious views , it wasn't long before the mist socked in and it started to rain hail and eventually snow.
At least it cleared up in the afternoon to reveal what a fantastic spot the Barrunco camp is. It is situated bang slap under the giant Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro [until 20 years ago some of the finest ice climbs in Africa.]

The next day it wasn't raining and we set off up the steep scramble towards Barafu Hut at 4800m. The first part of this was really enjoyable and my favourite part of the trek so far. Yet as we got higher the landscape changed and it became very lunar looking. The challenge of this day lay with the porters because there is no water at the Barafu Hut camp and so it all has to be carried. This was mostly done in 20 litre buckets. A grim and herculean task balancing 20 kilos of water on your head and struggling up hill at over the height of Mt Blanc.

Rather embarrassingly we had to wait for them to catch up and so we were forced to stop for an extended lunch in our colonial tent. Fried Chicken and chips and several cups of tea [or in Charles case "Milo" his new favourite African drink]

We arrived at camp late afternoon. It was over dinner that Onex our guide broke the news that our next breakfast would be at 11.00pm. We would be out and on our way for our summit attempt by 11.30pm.
This was to be a big day . 1300 meters of ascent. Unfortunately after an hour it proved too bigger day for our 2nd guide JV who was complaining of a "splitter" - altitude headache.
Onex Charles and I continued , overtook everyone on the mountain and arrived on the summit well before dawn and well before all the other parties.

It was super cold. Full Mt Blanc style clothing , duvet jacket and toe warmer T-bags. Plus big boxing glove like mitts. What I had not anticipated was just how fantastic I would find the summit 5894m . I have been lucky enough to stand on a lot of summits , but the top of Africa ranks amongst the best.

After a lot of photos it was back the way we came , firstly around the giant volcanic rim to Stellar Point and then back down the track to the campsite where we arrived at our tents at about 8.30am.
Charles and I were feeling tireder than we had wanted to be.
After a couple of hours lolling in our pits we had brunch. After which was the next challange of the day was the 4 hour descent to Mweka camp 2950m. Again this was a seemingly endless luna like scape which was made even less inviting when it started to rain big time.With this came mud. Lots and lots of mud which made the campsite like something a battle field.
During the night the rain stopped and there was real alarm that a lion was loose in the campsite. This in fact was me snoring. I was tired.

11th January. This was to be a big logistics day and so an early start was needed. We set off for the road head at 6.30am and arrived at the Park Gate at 8.30am. We signed out of the park and collected our Kilimanajro summit certificates. Our pick up arrived and took us to a hotel where we showered and repacked. It was then to Kilimanjaro International airport for our 2.00pm flight to Nairobi.

It was here while waiting for our flight that we learnt about the terrorist attack in Paris. [The last time were in Kenya we were caught up in the fallout from the Westgate shopping Mall atrocities]

At 2.00pm We were told we could board our flight. We went out on to the runway but it took us several minutes to find our plane which was not a tall what I had anticipated but instead a single propeler engined 15 seater Cessanna Caravan.
There were 4 passengers.
The flight was brilliant.
The plane didn't climb higher than 2000 meters during the whole flight and bounced around in the thermals as it flew across the savannah. Nor did it land at Jomo Kenyatta International airport , but instead at Wilson aerodrome. After filling in the Ebola forms and passing through immigration our taxi met us and whisked us to the wonderful Fair view Hotel. The day had run pretty much perfectly. In addition we were greeted by Eddie our guide for Mt Kenya who I have known for over 25 years.

Part 2 to follow!

Traverse of Mt Kenya 5199m African Odyssey part 2

We left the comfort of the Fair View Hotel having scraped most of the mud of our kit, dried it all out ready for our attempt on Mt Kenya. We trundled through Nairobi before hitting the open road . Eddie might be very good at organizing the logistics of our climbing but what he wasn't very good at was finding a suitable place for my birthday lunch. The cafe was like a scene from Hell with Chicken and chips which had been deep- deep fried and then cremated with a blow torch topped off with warm, almost hot beer.
We continued on up to the park gates where we checked in for the week and re fixed the wheel on the Toyata Land Cruiser which was threatening to come off.
We arrived at the beautiful Met Station 3000m at about 3.30pm.
Unlike Kilimanjaro camping, there was just one other tent and plenty of lush grass to pitch the tents on. The last time I had camped here was in 1988. It was during the night that our neighbours tent had been attacked by a lion and we had all had to run off and hide in a hut. This time the only wild life were some pesky monkeys.

13th January we set off walking , again through rain forest , but this time it wasn't raining . Our goal for the day was to arrive at the American Camp , some 1300 meters further up the mountain. This involved negotiating the "vertical bog."Fortunately it was dry and our progress was rapid. We enjoyed stunning views in every direction and got our first view of Mt Kenya

There were very few people about although we did bump into a member of the ZZ-Top tribute band
We arrived at the camp 4300m at about 4.00pm. I was tired and immediately fell asleep in the grass.
The plan for the next day was to walk up to the foot of the route , scope the approach , come back down , pack up , rest up and prepare for our big day. The approach has changed considerably since global warming has decimated the glacier, leaving just a Tarn at the bottom.

15th January 2015 .3.00am.

We awoke, had our breakfast cooked by the quite magnificent Ashford. Charles elected for a " full English" I didnt fancy this so I had porridge, honey and bananas. Eddie and his side kick Lloydford volunteered to carry our rucksacks to the foot of the route. We all set off at 4.00am.
At 6.00am we aarived at the start. There were 2 Germans, with their Guide Felix, who had climbed a lot on Mt Kenya while taking his degree in Physics at Nairobi University. They set off while Charles and I geared up , Eddie thrust Mars Bar offerings at us. We elected to climb in rock boots carrying our big mountaineering boots in our packs.

The climbing was good and straight forward.

We mostly moved together and quickly. We arrived at Baillie's Bivy after a couple of hours, then overtook the Germans before climbing the very good crux pitch [IV] before some easy scrambling lead to the top of Nelion at about 10.00am. Perfect weather and no wind.

We changed back into our mountaineering boots and got ready for the "real climbing" namely the traverse of the Gate of Mist and the ascent of Bation. We negotiated the ridge which which was just like any typical alpine ridge in the Alps, only higher. Soon we spied some steps in the snow which supposedly lead down to the Gate of Mist. We strapped on crampons and down climbed until down climbing became sketchy and we decided to Rappel the final 30 meters .

[The German climbers elected to stay on the crest of the ridge and then rappel down to the Gate of Mist.]

Their choice was faster , but did require a long rope which we did not have. Anyway we were now in the Gate of Mist and now we had the not inconsiderable task of actually getting onto the summit of Bation. I pulled out the radio at mid day so that we could have a prearranged check in talk with Eddie at back at base camp.

There were about 3 pitches to the summit the penultimate being of outstanding quality. Although probably no more than IV, it felt quite involved at over 5000m ,wearing big boots and carrying a full alpine pack complete with bivy gear.

We summitted at about 1.00pm. The weather was still good and so we were able to initiate the second part of the plan: Namely to traverse and descend the north face route. This was fairly audacious because it required crossing from the southern hemisphere [where it was summer] to the northern hemisphere [where it was winter.] This meant that we would descend the route in full winter conditions.

The descent was choked with snow and I said to Charles that once we leave the summit we were going to be committed because it would be impossible to climb back up. This was my way of making sure he was psyched for what lay ahead. We decided to make lots of short rappels so as not to end up getting the ropes stuck which as it proved would be ultimately faster.
We started down the West Ridge alternatively rapping and down climbing until we reached the iconic Shipton's notch - a key land mark on the descent. We then turned right onto the north face proper and made a series of hair-raising rappels , not least because always the next anchor was buried under snow and had to be chopped out and laboriously cleared with an ice axe.

Sometimes I could not find the anchor point and we were forced to leave slings and mallions behind. Slowly we negotiated Firmins Tower and then entered the Amphitheater where we un-roped and crashed down the scree. After 200 vertical meters we turned left to pick up the line of the next set of rappels. After 3 more rappels it was getting dark. on the equator there is no twilight. It is as if at 6.30pm someone switches off the sun. It was now dark but the ground was not now steep enough to Rap so we down climbed some treacherous loose terrain , finally finding the penultimate Rap. The last Rap to the ground is the key one as it is a long way to the side of the gulley and out of the line of stone fall. It is mission-critical that this last anchor is found. Having a very powerful head-torch with good batteries proved to be important. We found the anchor and we landed on the deck at 7.30 pm.
All that was now required was to find somewhere to stop and rest up. We agreed that we should head for Kami Tarn where we knew there would be water.

This was one of those " How hard can it be?' type moments , well it was hard and in hindsight rather comical , but at the time we were shattered . Our quest to find the Tarn was compounded [amongst other things] by the fact the tarn had dried up to resemble a muddy field.
Eventually after two and half hours of stumbling about we found it and a trickle of water.

Every stitch of clothing was donned [ it was very cold] and then I conjured up tomato soup, Shepards Pie , and a pint of tea topped of with a knock-out sleeping pill each. It had been a long day.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Indifferent start to the "Proper" ski season

There was no snow of any sort before Christmas . In fact on Christmas day I rode my mountain bike up the piste to Brevent.[Which was hard work!]

Then just after Christmas it snowed about 50 cm and it got quite cold -12c.

The problem was that the cold snow fell directly onto the ground which had no snow base. Consequently it all got swept off the piste in a matter of minutes, leaving brown strips everywhere. The one place that seemed to be on another planet as far as good snow conditions were concerned was Les Contamines. Here the skiing was exceptionally good and so this is where we went most of the time .