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Humour Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

Nepali Flat

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…

On the trail on Day 3 with Mera Peak above my head in the distance Oct 2017

“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!!!

Above: Looking across the valley from ‘Tea Break’ to the location of our Tea House on the other side of the valley where we’d be stopping for the night. Oct 2017
Below: Zoomed in view of the Tea Houses where we’ll be stopping for the day

“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.

Above: High on the Mera glacier at first light on Summit Day. I turned around shortly afterwards due to a mix of exhaustion and the effects of altitude at 6,140m
Below: This is why I do it. Everest over my shoulder taken from the entrance to High Camp on Mera Peak 5,800m Oct 2017
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Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Travel Trekking

If You Love mountains Visit Scotland

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.

Taken from the return to Inveruglas from the Sloy Dam in April 2019, a Scottish Saltire appears in the clouds above Ben Lomond

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.

Ben Nevis North Face taken from the CIC Hut Jul 2019

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.

Looking across Glencoe from the foot of the 3 Sisters Sep 2017
Looking across Loch Lomond from her East Bank near Balmaha Mar 2020
Categories
Adventure Life and Wellbeing Mountaineering Trekking

Summit Night – Kilimanjaro

“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

Barafu Camp – Kilimanjaro Sep 2018

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. 

Switchbacks

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

Group Photo at Stella Point with Kandoo Adventures – Kilimanjaro Sep 2018

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.

Turning Back

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.

The Descent

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. 

Reflecting

Stella point with Uhuru Peak over my right shoulder – Kilimanjaro Sep 2018

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.

Sunset on the Serengeti