When you push the boundaries of what you’re capable of, it’s inevitable you won’t hit every target. That doesn’t mean you can’t try again.
I slumped exhausted on the thin ridge we’d been scrambling and trekking towards for the past two hours or so and looked in despair at the peaks surrounding us. “Do you think you can go on Bro?” Asked my brother Abel. “No!” I thought as I heaved a weary sigh and said, “Yes.” This was my third attempt at Stob Na Broige in Glencoe and the first time I had actually reached the ridge which interconnects the summits of the Bauchaille Etive Mor. On my first attempt, a short steep scramble about half way up had depleted all my energy and scared the life out of me. We turned round not long after. On my second attempt we weren’t even able to breach the stream at the bottom which had become a raging torrent in the Scottish rain. It was now or never I thought as we started to climb up from the bealach towards Stob Coire Altruim. An hour or so later we finally stood on the summit of Stob Na Broige.
In my 50s with a Body Mass Index (BMI) Close to 40, well and truly in the obese category, I have to say that the figures don’t add up when I take them into the mountains. On the bigger mountains around the world that I’ve travelled to, it’s fair to say that I’ve missed the top as many times as I’ve reached it. The thing is however, regardless of where I end up or turn around, there’s a constant beauty around me, complete peace and moments of exhilaration and joy. For sure it’s amazing to stand on top of the mountains but it’s never any less to walk among them. So, as I look to the trips I have planned for the year ahead, and one I am contemplating, I am anticipating all the best that the mountains can bring to my life. It just so happens as well however that completing these trips would take me to almost all of the summits I have missed in the past 4 years. A re-match in every trip.
At 4am on a late November morning in 2015, Thakur, my Guide, knocked on the door to my room. I was quickly out to meet him already dressed and packed for the summit bid. We were in the Nepalese settlement of Ghoripani in the foothills of the Annapurna Mountains. After making the steep climb out of the valley below over the past 2 days, I was aching and tired. I had been injured and mostly immobile for most of the summer due to a hip injury and didn’t have much experience on the hills. Thakur had seem my struggle as I ascended to Ghoripani. We decided that the weather wasn’t good enough to go. That it would not be worth the ascent due to the lack of view. Thakur consoled me with the fact that the Duereli Pass, over which we would be walking later in the morning, was as high as Poon Hill in any case. As a beautiful sunrise spread across the mountains around us, I took my pictures from outside the Tea House a few hundred meters short of the summit of Poon Hill then we left Ghoripani behind and started the days Trek.
Though covering the more extensive Annapurna Sanctuary Circuit towards the end of March and into April this year, the first 2 days will be a direct re-tracing of the steps I took in 2015 as we climb out of Birithanti to Uleri and then on to Ghorpiani. In the small hours of Day 3 we are due to start the day by making our way to the summit of Poon Hill. This will be the first of my re-matches in 2021 as I seek out the sunrise from the summit.
Chukpo Lari – Monument To Those Who Have Died On Everest
Sitting at the end of the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier on the main route to Everest lies a bridge and a teahouse at a place called Dugla. Moving from there in the direction of Everest, a steep rocky ascent is encountered which rises over 300m and at the top of which sits the prayer flags and monuments of the Chukpo Lari. Here, the climbers who have died on Everest are remembered.
I staggered into Dugla, weak and exhausted and really feeling the effects of the altitude in late October 2016. I was feeling dizzy and sick as I sipped at a cup of tea and picked at a stale bread roll trying to get some nourishment into me and wondering if I’d be able to carry on. The prospect of the rocky ascent I had seen along the trail past Dugla did nothing for my morale. We had a discussion as to whether to stay in Dugla for lunch or push on to Lobuge, about 1.5 miles along the trail, where lunch was actually scheduled. The group decided to push on to Lobuge and the main guide volunteered to stay back with anyone that needed a rest. I opted to move with the main group and slowly started to climb out of Dugla towards the monuments of the Chukpo Lari. After about an hour’s steady climbing, I was one of the last people to reach the monuments. There wasn’t really much time then to take anything in as the main group had already waited long enough for me to arrive. We pushed on through and made our way along the track to Lobuge.
Though I had reached and walked through the Chukpo Lari, I’ve always regretted never being able to take the time to experience the place properly. To stand an pray adding my words to the words pouring off the prayer flags to the heavens. To meet the memories, perhaps the souls, of those adventurers who sacrificed everything chasing their dreams. To share, at least in some small part, in their challenge and adventure. I’m returning to the Everest Base Camp Trek in April. Unlike 2016, I’ve now ascended through and over 5,000m three times. I’ve slept at 5,800m and reached a highest point of 6,140m. I’m older now and my knees are weaker but I know how to walk at these altitudes and my confidence is high. Hopefully these factors will make it possible for me to look around and take in the Chukpo Lari when I’m next there.
It is said that the best views of Everest can be seen from the summit of Kala Patthar, a distinctive black mountain which rises above Gorakshep some 3 miles short of Everest Base Camp. Though an ascent of Kala Patthar was an optional part of our Everest Base Camp Trek back in 2016, I opted against taking it. I felt I had barely made it back from Everest Base Camp the previous day, my oxygen saturation was below 70% and I was feeling weak and lethargic. Kumar, our lead guide, had recommended that I take on some electrolytes and head down the trail towards Pireche. Given how I was feeling, there was no argument from me.
We’ve actually scheduled an ascent to Kala Patthar the day before we head to Everest Base Camp on my coming trip. For me it is very important this time to make the top with enough light to take the pictures of Everest.
Great Glencoe Challenge 2021
Winding it’s way from the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, through the swampy ground at the base of the glen and up over the Devil’s Staircase onto the West Highland Way, the Great Glencoe Challenge covers a gruelling 26.2 miles all the way to the foot of Ben Nevis. My brother and I completed the course in 2016 and 2017 and I booked my place to take it up in 2018, this time with 2 of my daughters. The weekend prior, during one of the hottest weekends of 2018, I made my way up onto the Cairngorm Plateau and on to the summit of Ben Macdui. After lunch, I headed back to the front edge of the plateau and followed the spectacular path along the cliff tops towards Cairngorm. Weak and exhausted, in the late afternoon, I reached a junction and debated following the downward path towards the ski centre and my car. Against my better judgement, I took the high path and soon found myself scrambling up towards Cairngorm Summit. By the time I reached the top, feeling desperately tired, my pulse rate had reached an alarming 204 bpm. This was the latest in a series of alarm bells that had started ringing in my life. A resting pulse constantly over 100, chest pains and even a black out. It was time to visit the Doctor.
My Doctor concluded that my blood pressure was higher than it should be, put me on medication to lower it and suggested I take a few weeks physical rest. I told him about the Great Glencoe Challenge and he looked shocked. In no uncertain terms, he recommended that I don’t attempt it. It was probably one of the saddest moments of that year as I waited at the finish line for my daughters to come in. Sure, I was so proud of them but I knew they’d been suffering towards the end of the course and my place was with them. Helping, advising and protecting them. Not waiting for them and leaving them to get to me. I felt less of a person. Less of a Dad.
We booked to do the challenge together in 2020 but as everyone knows now, no one went anywhere last year. Least of all to organized mass participation events. Hence, the Great Glencoe Challenge is sitting in front of us in 2021. My daughters know how to complete that distance now but, in meeting such a huge challenge in such beautiful surroundings and such amazing company, I hope to make this one of my best memories of 2021.
Mera Peak is billed as the highest ‘Trekking Peak’ in the world. It stands at 6,476m above sea level high in the Himalayas in sight of Everest and many of the highest mountains in the world. The route we attempted was 16 days end to end trekking with almost a week at 5,000m or above and 3 days on the Mera Glacier roped together and using crampons. This was a bit more for serious climbers than tourists and I was terrified of it. Meeting the rest of the group in Kathmandu did nothing to alleviate my fears. They were a combination of young, fit and experienced mountaineers. I had started to fall behind by lunchtime on day 1 after a steep descent from Lukla. By the time we started to climb out of the valley in the afternoon, I was soon 30 mins behind the group with a dedicated Sherpa. I had already started to plan an early return to Kathmandu. By the time we reached Paiya at the top of the afternoon’s climb, the main guide, Ang, assured me that I’d be ok to walk at my own pace and didn’t need to keep up with the group. In the end, I completed all 16 days of the trek but missed the summit of Mera by 300 vertical meters. Ang had suggested I turn around at first light on summit day after we had climbed through the night from High Camp. I was at a height of 6,140m. As high as I’ve ever been.
In truth, we had all been hampered and slowed that night by a heavy fall of snow which had been dumped on the mountain while we stayed at High Camp. This meant the Sherpa’s breaking trail through the deep snow and us doing the same if we went past anyone. It was slow and exhausting progress which ended with 4 of our group getting frostbite. My brother had turned around agonisingly close to the summit, clearly able to see the 5 of the group who reached the summit on their final 50m ascent. He has suggested we go back and try again this year. I haven’t booked it, but I haven’t ruled it out. If the world opens up and I get to stay on Everest Base Camp in April, I’m going to stand at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall and look up into it. Only then will I know whether I’ve still got what it takes to have another crack at Mera Peak.