Bacon again?!


30th January 2016. I woke up in the night after a strange dream about being in Russia. I had just finished reading the excellent book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eicher, which is a true story about a disaster which occurred in the Ural Mountains in 1959 (highly recommended, but perhaps not while you’re climbing a mountain!), so it wasn’t much of a stretch to understand why I was dreaming about that.

I took a visit to the bathroom and when I returned I was chilled to the core. I shivered for another two hours in my cold sleeping bag which was soaked by condensation on the outside, before finally warming up and falling back to sleep.

A few hours later we woke up to a still, bright and sunny day so the decision to carry to camp III was made.

This meant the plan was back on track and after the carry today, tomorrow we would move in to camp III , then attempt the summit early the following morning. We had our breakfast, packed up and set off.

The terrain was fairly gentle but the deep snow which fell yesterday meant some tough slopes, again around knee deep at times.

We made good progress and arrived at camp III, 5900m, in 3hrs 45 mins. This marked the highest altitude I’d ever been to (highest before being Kilimanjaro, 5895m). Despite only being 5m higher, I felt like I had left my comfort zone and was now heading into unfamiliar territory. We were still 1000m lower than we were aiming for so I found it interesting to assess how my body was adjusting.

I stood there in Camp III taking it all in as I remembered how exhausted I’d felt in the past reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro yet here I was at almost the same altitude but carrying an 18kg backpack and I still had gas left in the tank. It was very interesting making the comparison and I considered whether a contributing difference was my role on the expedition; here I was a client, but on Kilimanjaro I am always the trip leader where my focus is on the wellbeing of my clients.

That said, I was freezing and my calf had been cramping up for the last hour, so I actually felt a bit miserable. We stashed our gear before descending fast to camp II by 4:30pm to chill out. The sun had been warming our tents most of the day so Bruce and I took it in turns to have a good baby wipe wash (4 whole wipes!). I stayed in the warmth of the tent and relaxed while Bruce took in the sun.

A few hours later another spectacular dinner was served. On the menu today we had a bowl of rice topped with a mountain of bacon and parmesan, washed down with a mug of hot mint tea.

Fun fact: When you’re carrying all your gear on a mountain, even grams matter when you’re packing. As a direct result of this you start doing crazy weight-saving things cutting your closed-cell sleeping mat in half, removing garment labels, shortening your toothbrush handle or even re-using teabags.

Advice: If you’re planning on saving a few grams by re-using herbal tea bags, don’t! If you fail to heed my advice know that one herbal teabag has a maximum of two uses, the third is tasteless.

After dinner it was bed time, at 8pm. Good night!

From the IMG blog: “News continues to be favorable from Jonathan Schrock and his Aconcagua team.  Calm winds and sunny for their carry today to high camp.  Plan is to move to high camp tomorrow and take a summit shot on Monday morning.  Weather forecast currently is favorable, at least through then.  When the fish are running, it’s time to go fishing.” https://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/30/aconcagua/mexicos-a-wrap-aconcagua-looking-good/

Sun is shining, weather is sweet but the wind is brutal


29th January 2016. What a great start to the morning with delicious bacon and cheese bagels. As forecast the sun was shining and the sky was blue, so we packed our gear and broke camp. My first mistake of the day was overdoing it at breakfast with 1.5 bagels as I got really nauseous breaking camp. There was no time to feel sorry for myself and off we went up the hill to camp II.

My second mistake of the day was starting the day wearing too many layers (duh, idiot; ‘Be bold, start cold’). I spent what felt like ages faffing around taking off my jacket but I was soon back on track. Despite the clear sky and sunshine the wind was consistently high with 30-something mph gusts at times. The previous day’s snow storm meant we were left breaking trail through the snow on the never-ending scree slopes. For each step in the snow it was a gamble as to whether you’d sink, slide back or power across it. The energy sapping wind, deep snow and with me still getting over the nausea from the morning, it was a mental battle. At one point a gust of wind knocked me to my knees. We stopped for a break and I realised I was exhausted. We still had a few hours to go so I downed as much water as I could and we kept on moving.

Suddenly I found my rhythm, or maybe the terrain got easier, and I felt stronger. Stopping for another short break we rehydrated and continued up towards the col. The wind by this point was like walking up a downward escalator; you’re definitely moving but you’re not making any progress. It was a constant battle for us all to be stronger than the wind with our heavy packs.

As we reached the saddle we were briefly protected from the wind but our new challenge was thigh-deep snow. We plodded on, one slow step at a time, and arrived at camp. Tincho ‘the Invincible’ had gone ahead to pitch two of the tents which was a major help. We arrived into camp, all helped to pitch the final tent and moved in a few minutes later.

I was very dehydrated so made a concerted effort to drink 2 litres over the next couple of hours. This was all well and good except the ‘bathroom’ was behind a boulder located down the hill, across the frozen stream and up the other hill covered with 8” deep snow. After my second visit I realised I had a problem to solve.
The problem: long, arduous, cold walk to bathroom and no pee bottle (seriously, without a funnel – and who wants to carry that – do women really use pee bottles?).
Inspired solution: A 1-litre ziplok bag in tent vestibule. Win. It is moments like this for the female mountaineer that you really are grateful for an understanding and trusted climbing partner. Thank you Bruce!

We literally chilled in our freezing cold tent until dinner time, which was another treat of more awesome burritos. With our water bottles refilled and bladders emptied again, it was time for tomorrow’s briefing. The weather forecast looked bad again with heavy snow and strong winds expected. The suggestion Tincho and Johnny made was that they would do a load carry to camp III without the three of us (clients), so we could save our strength for summit. If weather was too bad for the guys to carry, we would all rest and either do a heavy full load move up to camp III the following day when the wind was expected to die down, or possibly hire a porter to help with this. We’d then aim to summit the following morning. (OMG! This is getting REAL!)

As always on Aconcagua, it all depended on the weather. According to Tincho, this was the worst season he’d seen on Aconcagua for at least 10 years. Certainly at that point no other IMG Aconcagua teams that season had successfully summited, and very few other teams had made it since the season started in late November. It felt quite hopeless.

We said goodnight and agreed to see what would happen in the morning.

From the IMG blog: “On Aconcagua, Jonathan and team pushed hard in spite of wind and new snow and got into C2.  What a weather year on Aconcagua!  This was a big move for the team as there’s a lull in the winds forecasted for early next week and the team’s trying to get into position to take advantage, if it occurs.  Everyone’s doing well and the chess game continues.http://www.mountainguides.com/wordpress/2016/01/29/aconcagua/orizaba-attempt-and-big-move-in-aconcagua/

“This morning I had to wear goggles to take a shit”


28th January 2016. I had a very disturbed sleep, topped off by a horrendous snow storm this morning. Bruce and I knew it wasn’t looking good for the move up to Camp II which was the plan. We’d been up around an hour when Johnny came by to let us know the forecast and plan for the day. In his words “I always have to step outside the tent to make a decision for the day, and this morning I had to wear goggles to take a shit so my expectations were confirmed. Rest day”.

This came as disappointing news to us both as moving up to Camp II was a big step closer to the summit push and with the delays at Plaza Argentina our summit window was shrinking. That said, with a pounding headache developing, a chance to rest and rehydrate was a silver lining. Johnny came back a while later with breakfast. What a champ. Pancakes with bacon and loads of hot water for morning tea. I had taken a supply of dulce de leche from Plaza Argentina so that was added to the pancakes. It was absolutely delicious. After breakfast a visit to the ‘bathroom’ behind a rock in the snow storm was made interesting; trying to hold open a plastic bag to take a dump into, in gusting winds, is a challenge. (Overshare? Reality).

Rest days are pretty dull. Sit, wait, drink, play cards, drink, eat, drink, pee, read, pee, eat.
Add white-out snow storms and insane winds and it’s an awful way to spend the day. Perched up at 4900m in a valley we were camping in something resembling a funnel. In fact Tincho told us the next day that tents are regularly destroyed at this particular campsite due to the wind.

Being inside your tent in an environment like this is unearthly. If you listen carefully you can hear the wind gently whistling at the top of the valley like the breath of a faun on a spring day. Moments later a growling bear version of the wind creeps towards you before your ears start to deceive you and you think you’re actually listening to the sound of a jet plane going overhead. Then it hits you like going five rounds with Mike Tyson. The force of the wind distorts the tent, the poles warp, guylines become as taught as violin strings and it feels like the ground is shaking beneath you. Then silence. The mountain breathes. As Tyson himself once said “It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm.

Sit, wait, drink, play cards, drink, eat, drink, pee, read, pee, eat.

Dinner time finally came around and we were treated to a yummy pasta dish with more bacon. Let’s just pause here. They say an army marches on its stomach and International Mountain Guides (IMG) who were overseeing the running of the trip (with the support of Grajales Expeditions on the ground in Argentina) know this. I think it would take a lot of persuasion for me to work with another company for big mountain objectives because of the unparalleled emphasis on bacon consumption by IMG.

I tucked into another one of my cinnamon oat bars for dessert and finished my mug of camomile tea. Another great part of expeditions, apart from the bacon consumption, is the simplicity of it. Things like doing the dishes – simple. Take one square of precious toilet paper and wipe down the inside of your Fozzils bowl (the only bowl for the mountains in my opinion – review coming later). For stubborn food residue you can add a drop of hot tea to another piece of toilet paper and it works like a charm. Dishes done, and so to bed! Tincho said that the weather was forecast to be calmer in the morning but the wind seemed to be getting worse all day.

Here’s a quote from my journal that day: “As I write, double the amount of ice has built up on the tent in the last hour. It’s freezing. I hadn’t quite appreciated how extreme the conditions could be. As I lie here, 21:26, the tent is shaking and it feels as if the ground is moving. I don’t know the wind speed but while the tent shakes, pieces of ice are falling onto my face which is only uncovered enough to breathe at 4900m. My foot keeps going dead from the cold inner boots I am wearing in an attempt to dry them out. THIS is mountaineering.

PRODUCT REVIEW: Berghaus BIOFLEX Light 35


Last year I was fortunate  enough to get my hands on a pre-release Berghaus Bioflex Light 35 rucksack. It was an absolute delight tearing open the packaging to reveal the Atlantic Blue pack I was soon to fall in love with.

You can read the specifications and details here: http://store.berghaus.com/p/backpacks-rucksacks/mens-bioflex-light-35-rucksack/420812/

I should perhaps point out at this stage that yes, I am a female and have a ‘mens’ pack. At 5’6, I have a long torso and short legs meaning that for rucksacks I have to go for the ‘mens’ fit instead of the ‘ladies’ fit. This isn’t just specific to Berghaus but in my experience it applies to all brands of rucksack. ‘Mens’ and ‘ladies’ fit is just a label Berghaus have used instead of the gender neutral ‘medium’ or ‘small’  (but that’s a debate for another day!).

The Bioflex technology is an innovate idea focused on a free-moving hipbelt for optimum comfort and fit and I am very, very impressed. To date I have used this rucksack for three different types of activity.

1) Trek to Everest Base Camp
12 days of hiking in the stunning Everest region of Nepal was probably one of the best test runs I could do for this rucksack. I have always used Berghaus rucksacks for hiking trips and the difference between the Bioflex Light and the previous ones I have used is black and white.

– The hip belt is wide and soft and the padding feels like it moulds to your hips (almost like memory foam), which makes the free moving part of the belt incredibly comfortable even when carrying a fairly heavy load.
The Berghaus website says “The waist belt is attached to a BIOFLEX® Light pivot; this allows the pack to move with you as you walk providing a higher level of carry comfort and weight transfer.” This is no exaggeration; it is exactly what the Bioflex system does and my opinion is that this system made each step easier, particularly when hiking at altitude where carrying even a small load can feel arduous.

With this being my first major use of the rucksack I did come across some teething problems. Adjusting the shoulder straps and back system for comfort took some playing around with and at times people pointed out that the rucksack was leaning left or right where I had over tightened one or the other shoulder strap (although despite this, at no point did I feel unbalanced- possibly due to the Bioflex system).

2) A walk in the hills, Lake District

14361_10151110864281467_1342138151_nA month after returning from EBC I was out in the Lakes with some friends for a crisp winter walk (read here for the story). The Bioflex Light came with me again, this time loaded with gingerbread, hot chocolate and other essentials for the hills. By this point 12 days of hiking in Nepal had got me totally used to the feel of the rucksack and I had adjusted the system to fit me like a glove. It was like I was hiking without any kind of pack. Weightless, comfortable, cosy.

– The Bioflex Light is a 35 litre capacity and is perfect for me – I like to have plenty of room in my rucksack so it’s easy to dig around in, and to have the option to help lighten other people’s loads if required. It looks larger than 35 litres on the inside, yet smaller from the outside (I’ve managed to use it as hand baggage on multiple occasions with no problems).
One of the things I adore about the Bioxflex light are the mesh zip pockets on the hip belt. As soon as I start walking I get a runny nose so one pocket fits a pack of Kleenex and the other is the perfect size for sweets! The side pockets are roomy too, easily fitting a 1-litre bottle into each.

3) Introduction to Scottish Winter Mountaineering

Scottish WinterI love trekking and have been doing it for almost 6 years but this year it was time to take things up a notch and try my hand at mountaineering. The Bioflex Light travelled up to Scotland with me (Easyjet didn’t even question the size of it for hand baggage) and new skills were learnt in Glencoe with JCG Expeditions.
Being nimble but sure-footed in the Scottish hills in winter is essential and carrying a cumbersome rucksack would be a sure-fire way to losing balance and possibly sustaining a serious or life threatening injury. The Bioflex Light reigned supreme again, hugging my body and to a degree, keeping me warm on the chilly winter days.
-The only possible drawback I can seee to this rucksack are the two small buckle clips that close the main hood are quite fiddly to undo and clip up again. I found I had to take my gloves off to do it, which in a winter scenario is a time waster and depending on the conditions, possibly risky to your fingers (particularly if you dropped a glove in the meantime). I also wonder how robust they are, given their size. Only time will tell.

 

Final comments
There is a large front pocket under the bungee cord which is made of the same soft, stretchy fabric for the side pockets. There is a small hole at the seam of the side pocket where I suppose I caught it on something. This gives me some cause for concern about whether the other areas might end up with a hole and I’ll lose something from them.

Apart from the questionable fabric mentioned above, it’s great to see Berghaus returning to using good quality, water resistant (rip stop?) fabric for this rucksack. The Bioflex Light has renewed my faith in the brand, after it had previously been shaken by the quality in the Freeflow packs dropping below that which I would consider acceptable (to the point where I wrote an email of complaint to the company). I’m pleased that things are on the up and I will now consider Berghaus for gear going forwards.

As with most hydration systems, the inner pouch isn’t long enough to fit the older version of the CamelBak (Omega) without it poking out from the elasticated top. It really makes no difference to the function, weight bearing or appearance but it’s just something that bugs me. I am yet to test it with the newer version of the CamelBak (Antidote), which is shorter and fatter, but I suspect this will fit much nicer.

It’s a real pleasure to find a rucksack in my favourite colour!

The real test for this rucksack will be on Mount Kilimanjaro this May. It will be my third ascent of Kili. I used a Karrimor pack on my first trip, Berghaus Freeflow on my second and the Bioflex Light will join me on my third ascent. Being able to compare the load bearing at altitude on a trek I’ve done twice before will be when I can say for sure what I think of it.

Big thanks to Berghaus for creating, to date, the best rucksack I have ever used.

Happy travelling!

PRODUCT REVIEW: Osprey Ariel 65


I was quite excited when it arrived in the post. The first thing I noticed upon removing it from the packaging was how many straps and clips there were on it, that I hadn’t noticed on the one I tried on. I was told in one of my many shopping visits that for a good mountaineering pack you needed something that was basically a bag with shoulder straps and a hip belt – this is significantly more fussy than that.

Nonetheless, I was quick to adjust the pack and get it packed with something to test it out. I was delighted. With this being a ‘Ladies’ fit pack, I had opted for the Medium in this style because the back size extended up to 47cm in Small and from 46-52cm in the Medium. My back size is around 47cm so I thought it best to go for the Medium and adjust it down rather than take the risk of the Small being too small.

The fabric seems strong and water resistant and the size seems to be a very generous 65l (in fact, I reckoned that I could actually fit myself inside the pack – althought I haven’t tried it…yet!). The hip belt is one of the most comfortable I have experienced and the shoulder straps sit nicely where they’re supposed to without any rubbing or soreness whatsoever.

The only possible gripe is with the hip belt size. At last measurement my hips are around 33 inches and the hip belt on the Medium pack has to be tightened to its fullest extent to fit snugly on my hips. 33 inches is not that small for a female so I was quite surprised by that. I believe you can buy custom hip belts but I will need to do more research into this and the associated costs (or I’ll just have to eat a few more pies!).

I won’t list off all the features of the pack because you can find this all on the Osprey website here: http://www.ospreypacks.com/en/product/womens/ariel_65_1

So far it has already travelled with me to China and back and it held up well. In 90% humidity and 30C temperatures it wasn’t cumbersome or frustrating to carry, although it was pretty sweaty on the hip belt and back (to be expected). Not being used to using a toploader for ‘normal’ holidays took a bit of getting used to and I have discovered that either I am terrible at packing efficiently or really forgetful about where I have put X, Y and Z in my pack, so I’ll have to work on that before any major expedition as disorganisation can be life or death on big mountains.

Overall, currently I am really pleased with it and feel that the £140 I paid for it (April 2012) represents good value for what it is. There may be additional reviews as I use it for different things so keep your eyes peeled.

Happy travelling!

Trying to find a suitable rucksack


When I started university I did what most people do; find a part time job to help pay for the ‘lavish’ student lifestyle. After a failed attempt at working for Woolworth’s (I suffered through 4 shifts before handing in my notice!) I discovered Nomad Travel & Outdoors, a small travel kit store in town where I became a supervisor. It was there that I worked for 3 years, and was trained to know everything there is to know about backpacking and hiking gear from technical fabrics, rucksack fittings, hiking boots and all manner of gadgets and accessories.

Fast forward 6 years and here I am about to embark on the beginning of a journey into the unknown (to me) world of mountaineering and I have to say that I am grateful I have the kit knowledge I do, as this has been one of the most challenging purchases to date.

All I wanted was a rucksack (aka backpack, pack etc). It had to be at least 70 litres (so one I could use for load carries on Aconcagua, my next big target), it had to be sturdy and above all, it had to fit like a glove. In the outdoors world thing change quickly, technologies adapt and I was under no illusions that my previous training would have much of a bearing on what I was to experience.

First problem. I get the impression that not many women are interested in hauling themselves up mountains and as such outdoors stores stock their kit accordingly i.e. they don’t have anything to fit a small framed woman. I travelled almost an hour each way to visit a store in Hampshire, to find that despite a huge range of packs they didn’t have anything in stock that would fit me; all the packs large enough were only stocked in ‘Medium’ or ‘Large’ (my misguided fault for not calling ahead). After speaking with a staff member there and him providing me with some so-so advice that I don’t really trust I left disappointed having wasted an afternoon.

Next I took a visit to my old store, Nomad, knowing that they aren’t mountaineering specialists but at least I could try a few different brands on. It was there I fell in love with Osprey, but again, the sizes started at Medium and when fully tightened the hip belt was loose around my hips – certainly no good for 20kg load bearing. But I had a place to start.

After travelling for 5 hours to my home town of Norwich I took a visit to Cotswolds and was delighted to find that the member of staff was helpful, informative and polite (albeit it in a rough Scottish sense of humour way). They had a good selection of rucksacks in a wide variety of sizes. He actually measured my torso (apparently I am around 18.5 inches – curse my teeny tiny legs) and spent a good amount of time helping me try on the Lowe Alpine Cerro Torre 65:85 (even when adjusted perfectly it didn’t feel right) and the smaller Osprey Ariel 65 (which after a LOT of fiddling around seemed very comfortable). I explained my concerns about it being only 65l and he showed me the floating lid which probably added an extra 5-7l of space.

I left the shop with a clearer idea of what to go for but still debating whether I should continue my search. The problem was the only other place I could go to find alternatives was London and being an 80 min train journey away during the week, or 120 mins at the weekend (thanks National Rail) I felt demotivated, given my previous experiences. After a few days of thinking, and then one evening of Googling for reviews I took the plunge and ordered the Osprey Ariel 65. It will get its first road test on a two-week backpacking trip to China next week (assuming it arrives on time).

Let’s see…

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