Day 5 and 6 of the Winter ML… snowholing and navigation

Its 11am – I’ve already got frozen snot across my face and my buff has frozen with my breath. The goggles I loved earlier in the week have failed me and I feel like I’m in a white out as they’ve misted up.

It was windy and cold as we headed up onto the Cairngorm plateau on Thursday, in search of somewhere to spend the night. We spent most of the day leading each other on navigational legs, predominantly heading into the South-Easterly wind. It was a time for head down trudge and holding on tightly to the map. Having lost one person from the group at the start of the day due to fitness, the pace had suddenly quickened and as we had to start breaking trail through the deep wind slab it was a lot of effort to keep up a good pace to keep from being cold in the wind.

Looking for obscure contour features in these conditions was a test of endurance more than it was of ability.

As you can imagine I’ve never been so happy as when we reached our snow hole spot at Ciste Mhearad at 3pm. Especially when we found old snow holes which we could get away with extending. It still took 3 hours of digging before we could sit in relative comfort for an hour of melting enough snow to eat freeze-dried food before we headed out for night navigation practice.

Snowholing

The one thing I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading at the same time is snowholing on the expedition section of the Winter Mountain Leader training. My technique for digging leaves a lot to be desired (as had been confirmed earlier in the week), and I would have still been there at midnight if I had to dig one on my own. I’d rather walk off the hill in a blizzard than spend 3 hours or more digging into the hillside. I’d night nav any day but dig another snow hole? No way!

The trick to snowholing in comfort is a good bivvy bag, a thick thermarest and a good sleeping bag. I had none of these as I’d borrowed kit from Glenmore Lodge to save weight on my train journey, which meant I had a decent bivvy bag, but a thin sleeping bag and one of those thin foam mats you give Duke of Edinburgh groups with an apologetic face because you know they’re not going to keep out the cold. 

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I did however pack a second warm jacket and another hat so that I could sleep in relative comfort – when I did wake it was only because my leg had started to go dead lying on the hard ice. Oh and for a wee about 3am but there was no way I was going outside, so I crossed my legs till dawn.

Cooking in a snowhole is a case of high calorie/ low taste food – boil in the bag or freeze-dried and a lot of snacks. I’d usually try to drink a lot of fluid at night when out on trips when I know I’ll struggle to hydrate during the day, but faced with a trip out at night for a wee I limited the bedtime drinks.

Navigating at night

I was lucky to end up spending the evening with Nigel, Glenmore Lodge’s navigational guru who gave me and Jo plenty of top tips for navigating in horrendous wind using only contours. We both aced the challenging navigational features we had to find.

Nigel gave us a range of obscure features, some of which like Marquis Well where hard to distinguish in the frozen landscape. It was a great lesson in navigating just using contour features – using the shape of the landscape to identify your location.

From an obscure feature on Cairngorm summit I had to find the cairn and Jo had to find the weather station. So we wandered on a bearing in separate directions with a fair amount of praying to find the right spot. I’ve never been so happy to find a trig point at 9pm on a Thursday night in a 40 mph wind and a sideways blasting of snow.

Nigel’s top tip is ‘travel to unravel, move to prove’ – always check where you are by moving around and seeing what the landscape does.  He also recommends orienteering as a means of excelling in micro navigation, learning to read contours without using bearings and learning how to walk on a bearing without setting your compass (that one is really quick but seemed like magic in the dark and howling wind).

Jo and I got back to the snow hole about 10pm and both of us slept relatively well considering the cold (and urge to pee). Nevertheless I was pleased when morning came and I could head out into a calm morning. There’s nothing like a wild wee when you’re not worried about your bum freezing in the wind!

Navigating in the sunshine

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The trouble with it being a gorgeous morning was that our navigational challenges were going to have to be a lot more difficult, given that we had such good visibility. In the glorious sunshine we bagged Cairngorm summit for a second time.

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We then headed down into Coire Raibert to a couple of contour feature.

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It was then my turn to lead the group and of course my leg was a relentless ascent through wind slab, break trailing all the way up to Stob Coire an T-Schneachda summit. This was a brutal leg in the blazing sunshine with heavy packs so I was relieved to reach the top. Just look at the view!

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From here we bagged the summit of the peak otherwise known as 1141, before we descended down to the ski runs and the path back to the car park.

Debrief and reflection

After fueling up with my third cake of the day and a second hot chocolate, we each got a debrief for the week. I know my log book needs more work – but otherwise I just need to get out and get the required number of days in before I book the assessment.

Prior to assessment I need to do another 40 Quality Mountain days, but that doesn’t include days out leading groups or days which aren’t the definition of ‘Quality’ – long or complicated.  I also need to have done 10 grade 1 climbs to prove my confidence on steep ground – I don’t see this being an issue as I’m planning winter climbing trips.

I headed into the Winter Mountain Leader training being a bit non-committal about whether I’d do the assessment since at the moment it’s all for personal development. Despite a challenging week I’ve realised I have more confidence that I thought I did in winter and while I have a lot to do, I’m super keen to work towards the assessment in the next few years.

Here’s to more winter adventures!!!

Snow shelters and emergency rope work – Day 4 of the Winter ML

‘I think I’d rather carry on walking in horrendous weather than dig a snow shelter’ I complained as I lay on the floor trying to dig out the back of my shelter. When I then compared my rather snug hole to everyone else’s I realised digging isn’t my forte. They had all made theirs much larger and added a seat in the back. If I ever find myself benighted or in gale force winds I’m likely to die before I’ve dug a snow shelter suitable to save my life….

Testing the snow pack

Testing the snow pack is essential to do before you head up a slope steep as a person walking can affect 1 metre down in the snow pack.  Thankfully testing the snow is really easy.

Shuffle your feet along the slope aspect creating a trench (in deep snow you need to go over it a few times to make sure its a proper trench) and then take a few steps up and shuffle diagonally down to see if there is a break in the snow layers. If there’s a weak layer then it will create enough energy to break off.

This isn’t a great photo but at least you can see the depth of wind slab which can break away in this test, and give you an indication of the energy in the snow and potential avalanche risk. And this slope was less than 25 degrees. Typical avalanche terrain is on a 30-45 degrees slope. So don’t be complacent about less steep slopes not being risky.

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Emergency rope work

Thankfully emergency rope work at winter ML level isn’t a million miles away from the summer award. Classic abseils and confidence roping are still used. Phew.

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In a crossloaded but safe gully (we did a lot of trench tests to check!) we had plenty of wind slab to dig into for our snow shelters so it also meant it was perfect for another go at snow bollards and perfect for stomper belays which would have been impossible in the hard neve we had yesterday.

The stomper belay I think is my preferred belay technique for the speed of construction, although it requires really soft snow to create. Dig a shoe box sized trench about knee depth and stamp your axe down to the depth of the head. Around the shaft slip on a karabiner and then thread through the rope with the end for the person to be belayed coming out of the bottom of the karabiner. Stand on the axe head and belay by wrapping the rope around your back as demoed by Doug our instructor.

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Navigation

After a quick break we then had a navigation leg, which despite the 40 mph winds I was really happy doing; I love navigational challenges. I also love teaching others and sharing my love of finer map details.

So working in pairs to find a re-entrant over the other side of the hill, I was happy to let Kim have a go and give pointers and tips and not take over. Whilst Kim is happy with the rope work stuff she’s less confident at navigating, so giving her chance to test herself and help was more useful for her.

Once over the other side of the hill we found a huge cross loaded gully which was perfect for one last snow bollard. This one had to be huge if we were going to abseil off it and deep to get past the weak layers of wind slab and into stable snow. So we dug this one with shovels.

Kim was first to abseil down over the small cornice, and despite her first fear she got to the bottom ok. It was easy enough to abseil off with a classic abseil, although I managed to break the cornice off stepping over it – I’m clearly way heavier than Kim!

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8th Feb

Snow Bollards and belays, in the ice…. day 3 of the Winter ML

What did you do today?

I walked a few hours to dig some holes in the snow. Well actually it was rock solid neve that went down for half a metre and took forever to dig in. I felt like Popeye by the end of the day.

I can’t really complain, there had been a lot of snow fall over night so the walk into Coire an Lochan was fantastic. The visibility was pretty good and we could see up to Cairn Lochan and the Fiacaill ridge, though visibility eventually dropped as we got on to the edge of the ridge west of Coire an Lochan.

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The avalanche report had said that northerly slopes were most at risk so we stuck to the west edge of the ridge for our rope work exercise, despite other groups being much further into the back of the Coire. Yes they probably had much deeper wind slab to dig through – making it easier – but it was a much riskier place to be. Always be avalanche aware.

So after a quick demo by Phil our instructor we cracked on digging our snow/ice buckets for belaying.

This is where I have to say my digging is pathetic, I clearly need to spend more time on upper body work out if I’m ever going to excel at digging anything in solid neve. It’s like chipping away at concrete. All I could think is that I really hope we don’t have to dig snow holes later in the week in solid snow.

Snow buckets, buried axes and bollards

Snow buckets are needed for you to have a solid position to belay someone from – they need to be a semi-circle at least 1/2 metre deep, past the weak layer in the snow, and have a front wall which is strong enough to support your weight and rest your thighs against.

After we had dug buckets big enough for ourselves to sit in and at the correct angle (perpendicular to the slope) so we wouldn’t fly out, we then set up buried axe belays and then snow bollards.

To dig a buried axe belay you need to dig a slot along the fall line of the slope, which is long enough for the axe to sit in and deep enough to be below any weak layer in the snow pack. The axe then needs to be placed along the lower wall of the slot with pick buried completely in the snow face down. In my slot this took a lot of hitting to get it in to the ice.

Around the shaft of the axe you need to reverse clove hitch a sling which is then placed in a vertical slot running down the fall line with a karabiner at the bottom. The rope is then tied around your waist and clove hitched through the karabiner to secure you into your bucket seat, and then the other end tied to the person you’re going to belay.

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Snow bollards aren’t that much different in the principle of how they work but are good to do when you need to abseil down and be able to pull your rope through without leaving an axe or any gear behind.

The size of the horseshoe bollard you create in the snow depends on the type of snow. In the rock hard neve we had it only needed to be the length of the axe as an arc. In really soft wind slab it needs to be the length of your arm plus your axe to make sure the snow has the strength to hold the weight of a person. Again it needs to be below the weak layer of snow. The arc needs to taper inwards so the rope doesn’t pull out with weight.

I failed to take a photo of the belay in the neve so here’s one from the day after which we created in wind slab to abseil over a cornice. Abseiling on a classic abseil around the body is the simplest way to use this. If you’re using it to belay from a bucket seat, tie on to one end of the rope from the bollard and clove hitch the other end to a karabiner on the rope around your waist.

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I felt like I was doing well, that all made sense and I remembered much of it from practice years ago. I feel like I’ve come a long way from someone who really struggled with the rope work bit of the summer ML.

Be Avalanche Aware

We had a detailed avalanche session in the evening. The Be Avalanche Aware principle is straight forward and as a process is a great way of forward planning and ensuring you’ve considered the risks before heading out.

Here’s a great link to find out more – Be Avalanche Aware and a great PDF leaflet. If you’re heading out always check the Avalanche report at SAIS.

While reading an avalanche report is something I would always do before heading out in the snow, reading the detailed snow profiles and understanding them is a whole other level. My unscientific mind needs a lot longer to digest the different ways avalanche prone snow forms, thankfully the SAIS website has loads of helpful guides and information. I feel like I need a field study guide to snow…. or an I-spy book….

7th Feb

Its a bit windy today…. day 2 of the Winter ML

What’s your favourite bit of kit for winter??

Tough question I know. I’ve been known to have a half hour discussion with a friend just about different crampons, and then we moved on to axes.

I love gear. Not in a ‘all the gear and no idea’ way. I don’t buy gear to look good. I like the technicality of different gear whether that’s climbing kit or waterproofs. But that’s not to say I don’t hoard gear too.

But in winter my favourite bit of kit has to be my rose-tinted goggles which add a veneer of sunshine to the worst weather, and despite my love of gear I only own one pair. (Well except for the glacier glasses that have goggle attachments…)

Anyway, goggles are fantastic, especially for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t get on with contact lenses. My glasses fog up on the most peaceful days if I make the mistake of tucking my chin into my coat to keep warm. So goggles are brilliant for keeping me from stumbling around like I’m in a white out all the time.

Today everyone had goggles on before we’d even left the car park. The forecast was for 30 mph winds with it getting up to 50-60 mph by the end of the day. But as we got to the ski centre car park it was clear that the gusts had arrived earlier in the day.
Walking in to Coire an Schneadcha was a challenge to stay vertical.

Teaching techniques for crampons

So it was in wind strong enough to blow us off our feet that we headed up into the Coire to a spot tucked away on the east side out of the avalanche risk, to practice teaching each other techniques for walking in crampons.

Cue bunny hopping and frog hopping as useful techniques for encouraging novice winter walkers to use their crampons properly to flat foot and front point. Imagine hopping like a frog and ribbeting as you front point in gale force wind and spin drift blows up your nose…

It was useful to remember that whilst I was (happy is the wrong word) tolerating the frozen snot and stumbling in the wind, novices would be really intimidated and out of their comfort zone so a bit of ridiculous hopping around is a good way to reduce fear and give confidence.

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Navigating in the wind

Nevertheless we eventually bailed out as the wind stopped gusting and became consistently 60 mph. We still had to practice navigating out though. Despite relatively good visibility it is important to not rely on visible features but focus on contours as the only reliable means to navigate. What is the ground telling you as you cross it? Are you going up, down, is it flat? Hard to say when you can’t stay upright.

Pacing, bearings and timing as all useful to get in more or less the right spot but reading contours is the only accurate way to know where you are….

I’m pretty nerdy about maps too so you can imagine how I feel about staring at contours….

6th Feb

Pretending there’s snow for Winter Mountain Leader training

I’d planned on doing my Winter ML last summer when I realised I had the ability and skills required. I knew my log book was a bit thin on days but I knew navigation wasn’t a problem and I was confident on snow and ice. So why wait?

There was an intimidating moment as we went round the table this morning at Glenmore Lodge, introducing ourselves. One Outward Bound instructor, 2 members of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, someone who has returned from working with British Antarctic Survey and someone who’d done the assessment before and left it too long to redo the bit they’d deferred on so having to do it all again (so basically adept at most of the syllabus).

And then there’s me. Someone who’s done a fair bit of personal winter walking, some winter scrambling and only uses her summer award about 6 times a year to either take Duke of Edinburgh groups out or lead challenge walks. Out of my depth doesn’t begin to describe how I felt!

Planning a route

We spent the morning discussing winter weather, looking at useful sources of information such as SAIS, MWIS and the Met office – websites I regularly use for planning winter activities. I was then introduced to a load more I’ve never used such as XCWeather and WindyTV. So here’s the avalanche forecast for today:

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Key learning point here is that the three things to consider for avalanche risk are:

  1. Aspect – which way does the slope face and is this considered a risk by the forecast?
  2. Angle – is it between 30 and 45 degrees (most likely to avalanche)?
  3. Altitude – is it high enough to be in the risk area deemed by the forecast?

So after looking at the area around Coire Laogh Mor area to the north of Cairngorm summit, considering the potential avalanche hazards and wind direction, we plotted a route around the coire to look at snow conditions.

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As we headed out of the door we collected avalanche kit – a probe, shovel and transceiver before heading out for a play in the grounds. I then had to embarrassingly admit I’d never used an avalanche transceiver before – why would I? I’ve never been into seriously avalanche prone areas, or to seriously high summits – oh hang on. Yes I have. And I’ve been to the Alps and walked alone in Scotland…. well that’s embarrassing. And scary I’d not considered it before…..

Whilst not in the Winter ML syllabus Glenmore Lodge consider it standard practice to make sure that everyone carries and can use an avalanche transceiver. So when we came to practicing with avalanche probes it made the theory much more understandable. (Note to self – get a transceiver!)

Navigating to find snow

We parked at the lower car park and took it in turns to contour around the hillside into Coire Laogh Mor, each being challenged to find an obscure contour line feature. As we ascended up the mountain to 800m it quickly became clear that the avalanche forecast might have been overly cautious. There was very little snow at 800m, we spent most of the morning bashing through heather. Which is at least physically challenging like wading through snow, although a lot less fun.

Key Learning points for navigation aren’t really that different from Summer ML navigation – the 5 D’s:

  1. Distance – how far do you need to travel?
  2. Direction – what’s the bearing?
  3. Description – do you go up, on the flat, or down?
  4. Dead end – at what point do you need to consider checking if you’re going wrong?
  5. Danger – avalanche awareness – are you walking into somewhere with more risk?

Learning to teach snow skills

When we eventually found snow, near the col into Coire na Ciste we practiced kicking and cutting steps and how you teach these skills to novices and give confidence. Imagination was needed here, as we stood on a piece of snow surrounded by heather.

Moving slightly higher we found a big enough patch to practice self belay techniques should you fall – grabbing the top and bottom of the axe to keep it in the ground. Again imagination was needed as the snow was too warm and sticky to slide far. It is interesting that this is a skill that is a quick way to stop yourself falling far, but something that is often left out of winter skills courses as people expect to learn how to ice axe arrest. Is it not more important to learn how to walk properly on the snow and ice and quickly self belay without having to arrest and potentially fail to stop yourself??

There’s some great videos on the MLTA website for how to properly ice axe arrest – check them out here. Top tips – make sure you’re properly over your axe when you come to a stop and make sure when you spin round you dig the axe in properly to spin so it doesn’t fly out of your hand (that one I speak from experience!)

After all that I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn if I expect to teach winter skills!!

Coming down off the hill we a herd of reindeer had come to greet us. It’s like a belated Christmas now!

5th Feb

Live your dreams

“So what are you doing with your week off work?” my boss asked.
“I’m off to Scotland to play in the snow, I’ll try not to throw myself off a mountain this time!” I replied.

I could see he was both confused that a week mountaineering in Scotland could ever be considered a holiday, and sweating with concern as I’d reminded him of the time I returned from a trip with a twisted knee, looking like I’d been in an RTA and spend 6 weeks hopping round the office.

So I legged it out of the door before he could ask why I was off to do a winter mountain leader course for a career that has nothing to do with my day job and would I have Wifi access to deal with any issues he might have while I’m gone.

How many of us have dreams of another life?

Almost everyone I know wishes they had a different job, lived somewhere else, had different personal circumstances. Hadn’t made certain decisions, or perhaps missed opportunities.

How many of us act on those dreams to make them happen?

Probably a lot less.

I’m not perfect by any means. It took me a long time to decide to follow my dreams. I love my day job, I enjoy the work (mostly!) and I have the luxury of money and time off to do the big trips I live for.

But I crave space, air, nothingness.

I’m not good behind a desk, I quickly go mad.

So I’m heading to Scotland to do my Winter Mountain Leader training. I don’t know where it will lead me, I have no strict goals when it comes to a career. The summer course years ago was the first step on that path, and I never expected to do freelance work when I passed that so who knows ….

… but I do know that the process of completing the Winter ML will lead me places I’ve never been, to adventures I do dream of and confidence to be the winter leader I want to be. Which will definitely lead me to those big goals I now live for.

What life do you want and why aren’t you living it?

What excuses are you giving yourself for not making them happen?

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Summiting Huayna Potosi, Bolivia

After failing to summit Ancohuma due to altitude sickness and deciding to bail out of the rest of the trip, I didn’t want to feel like a total failure and go home having not achieved anything. So I decided that Huayna Potosi was an achievable objective.

Huayna Potosi is frequently advertised as one of the world’s easiest 6000m mountains as it is easily accessible by road meaning it has only 1400m height to gain and only requires one night on the mountain. Its also the closest mountain to La Paz making it the most popular mountain in Bolivia to climb.

That said it is still a huge effort to climbing and while the normal route is incredible popular it is still graded PD and requires the ability to use crampons and axe.

Driving to the mountain from La Paz takes you through El Alto and across the plateau on dusty back roads.

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The climb starts at 4700m where a series of huts can provide an overnight base camp or equipment for those climbing the mountain as part of a mountaineering training course.

Having already spent nearly two weeks in Bolivia and having already been up to Ancohuma base camp at 5100m I felt well acclimatised as we ascended straight from the vehicles up to the high camp refuge at 5130m. It was still hard going on the last steep stretch but with less than 500m to climb it wasn’t too challenging on the lungs.

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After food and some sleep we started the ascent at 12.30am for the summit. It only takes 20 minutes of scrambling on rock to reach the edge of the glacier. From there we slowly headed up the glacier on a well trodden route. It reminded me of summiting Kilimanjaro 3 years ago – following a line of people in the dark with head torches on, and feeling like I was shuffling along hardly gaining any ground.

Half way up the ascent is a steep section of snow and ice at about 40 degrees which required us to climb, or with the altitude it felt more like crawling with the aid of an axe. Later I’d rappel down this in no time at all.

I reached the final rocky section of the summit as the sun started to rise, although I didn’t make the summit until 15 minutes after sunrise at 6.05am and unfortunately just at the same time the mist arose around the summit. So no views of the city of El Alto below.

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Ok so it wasn’t the more challenging summit of Illimani that I had hoped to climb, but it was certainly an achievement and my first 6000m summit.

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On the descent back down to the refuge it was fantastic to see the amazing glacier we had crossed in the dark.

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The section I climbed up and rappelled down, the route running diagonally.

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What took me 5 and half hours to ascend in the dark, stopping frequently to breathe and slow my heart, I descended in 2 and half hours in the daylight.

After an hour break at the refuge we packed all our gear and hiked back down to the road. This little guy was sleeping at the refuge when we got back, I’m not surprised really as he’d managed to navigate the glacier until the steep section so had spent all night following us up the snow in the dark!

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Huayna Potosi might be the most climbed mountain in Bolivia, and its accessibility might make it an easy first 6000m mountain to choose; but I was still shattered by it and proud of myself for making it to the top.

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On not summiting Ancohuma, Bolivia

Mid October I’d flown to Bolivia with the intention of climbing three 6000m peaks – Ancohuma, Illimani and Sajama. The three highest peaks in Bolivia.

What happened instead proved to me that mountaineering is relentlessly punishing and that the desire to climb mountains is sometimes something that is only enjoyed in retrospect.

Ancohuma at 6430m was our first objective, and we climbed to its base camp at 5100m in 5 days. Nestled in the Cordillera Real mountain range Ancohoma is about 4 hours north of La Paz and a half hour drive from the nearest town of Sorata to the start of the trail.

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The landscape is amazing and once away from the outskirts of La Paz the country is beautifully empty. The valley around Sorata is terraced with farms providing hints of green in the otherwise brown and barren landscape.

We set off from a small farm high in the mountains above Sorata at 3200m and after a night camping we headed up to Laguna Chijillata at 4200m.

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Laguna Chijillata, whilst high at 4200m it is still grazing land for Alpaca and en route to an active mine used by local communities.

It is nevertheless still an impressive landscape.

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It was from Laguna Chijillata that we saw our first view of Ancohuma summit.

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After an acclimatisation day we headed to Laguna Glacier which is Ancohuma’s base camp, at 5100m. The route becomes more rocky close the glacier and in the glaring sunshine it was hard work ascending to that altitude.

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Unfortunately for me whilst we did have an acclimatisation day at Laguna Glacier, I spent the whole time sick, and it would have been foolish to try to summit. I hadn’t eaten a thing for two days, couldn’t keep anything in me and hadn’t slept a wink. When I found myself running out of the tent numerous times in the night, (including one time when I only just got my head through the zip in time), it was clear I was struggling with the altitude. I felt sorry for Paula who was sharing a tent with me.

When I’m staring at the roof of the tent wide awake and thinking about all the things I could be doing instead of being awake because my brain says its not getting enough oxygen, I had to consider my options.

It was a hard decision, having made it to that point, but I decided to turn around and not go for the summit. I doubted if I had the energy left in me having not eaten for days, I felt drained and weak and tired from lack of sleep. I was totally disappointed. I felt like a massive failure. I still do.

Though I didn’t know it then, the group would also fail to summit due to the weather on summit night. But that doesn’t reduce the feeling that I failed in my goal, and that I felt any longer term dreams of mountaineering I have might be over.

While I felt like a total failure as I got the bus out of the tiny town of Sorata for the 4 hour trip back to La Paz, I don’t regret my decision to bail out. I felt broken as we trekked back down the mountain, every effort to put one foot in front of the other was exhausting. I knew I wouldn’t have made the summit when the walk out was a massive effort.

Knowing when to turn around is important. I would have jeopardised my own health and the summit success of the rest of the group had I attempted to continue.

So what went wrong and what did I learn?

1. Water – the water around Ancohuma was high in minerals and having found myself struggling to digest food with such rapid ascent at altitude, even the water became a struggled to keep in me. At high altitude I needed to be drinking over 4 litres a day and I wasn’t even managing one. This reduced my ability to acclimatise.

2. Nutrition – I’ve lost my appetite at altitude before but not so low. There was still two days and over 1400m of ascent left. In retrospect I also don’t think I was eating enough calories from the start which is something I need to ensure in the future. As a vegetarian I was getting fed and then food was having meat added so the meat eaters were always getting seconds. This would have been useful at lower altitudes to build my calorie intake. I don’t like taking supplements but in future its something I’ll seriously consider to ensure I’m not depleting my reserves too early. The food wasn’t highly calorific anyway.

3. Choose trips carefully – just because I’ve climbed high before doesn’t mean I can again. Altitude sickness is known for not being consistent and just because I’ve been fine before doesn’t mean I would be again.

I chose Bolivia as it sounded impressive to bag three peaks and already start so high, but flying into 4000m and not having a week to acclimatise is a massive mistake. It wasn’t until well into my second week in La Paz that I started to feel better. I’d spent my first week being too active so when it came to the mountaineering I started to suffer with the effects of altitude much earlier than I would usually and much more severely. I’ve only had minor headaches in the past.

4. Choose trips carefully – harder isn’t always better, especially high up. I thought that as I’d almost summited Mera Peak if not for the weather, why not try something more difficult. Apart from the altitude Mera was technically easy. There’s a crucial bit in that. APART FROM. Altitude is never easy and just because something is high it doesn’t have to be hard. High IS hard!!

5. Research – October is the start of the wet season in Bolivia, something that I hadn’t considered and was ultimately the reason the rest of the group failed to summit Ancohuma.

I also didn’t research acclimatisation along the route to make my own mind up as to whether I felt it achievable. I trusted the company to be right – but their altitudes for locations along the route were wrong, leaving height gain per day to be more than I expected. This was fine for the rest of the group, but not for me.

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Would I do it again?

My inability to put my head down and bear and grin it in this instance just to bag the summit makes me feel I’m not a mountaineer. I don’t get summit fever.I didn’t struggle with the decision to leave – but then I almost had to crawl out of base camp.

I’ve also questioned climbing high mountains with huge walk-ins. Ancohuma had a 5 day walk in for one day on the glacier. Mera Peak in Nepal had a 10 day walk in for 3 days on a glacier. Where’s the fun in that? The whole point of me wanting to mountaineer is because I crave being on the snow and not because I want to do days of trekking.

I’ve realised I’d rather do lower stuff to enjoy the snow and ice – if I want to do long treks there’s plenty of long trails of interest that don’t have to ruin my body.

With a week behind me since coming home from Bolivia, would I do it again?

No, not that trip.

Life is to short to do the same thing more than once, the world is too big.

Would I attempt to go high again?…. the rational part of me says no. But then decisions to climb mountains aren’t always rational. So who knows.

Bivvying and the art of knowing when to change plans

I’ll admit to a great deal of procrastinating about heading out for an over night expedition. I love sleeping wild and love big adventures, but I also don’t like to put myself in situations where I can’t be self reliant and get myself out of a fix.

I don’t like having to rely on others and not to be in charge of my own decisions. I’ve been in situations before with gung-ho individuals who won’t admit their lack of knowledge or skills, which is a nightmare when you are far from safety.

So the thought of being out with two eager friends (though they do know what they are doing) felt like it had all the hallmarks of me being led up a mountain and having no say in decision making, easily done when you’re all roped together – you can hardly have an argument and stomp off to do your own thing.

As it was, that proved not to be the case and whilst I might have started out feeling like a tag along, in the end I was just as involved in navigation decisions.

We took the cable car from Le Tour at the end of the Chamonix valley to head up to the Refuge Albert 1er, knowing full well that it was already booked up and we would have to bivvy out. The walk is a two hour route that winds around the hillside from the Col de Balme and then ascends steeply to the refuge. It was a very hot day and it’s been a while since I’ve carried a full pack so I was definitely pleased to arrive and be able to get a cold drink and sit in the shade.

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We originally found a great platform to camp out on just above the hut, amidst other bivvying on the rocks and snow. But after scoping out the route for the following day, we changed our bivvy spot to be closer to the glacier and past all the rocks which would be hard work in the dark.

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Below you can see the route we will take in the early morning – diagonally across the snow below the peak of Aguille de Tour.

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So after much debate we settled for sleeping on the snow. It was a fantastic spot to bivvy, with impressive views of Aguille de Tour and Chardonnet but it was impossible to sleep. First the sun blinding off the snow and then later the full moon. It was also incredibly uncomfortable as I kept sliding down to ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag.

So with my sleeping bag pulled over my eyes I got a few hours sleep – although I did stick my head out for a few photos of the setting sun on Chardonnet.
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It was 2.30am when we set off across the glacier, with the intention of ascending Aguille de Tour, heading past it to cross a col and climb from the other side. After the decisions over route choice became a discussion, I had to admit my anxiety about not being in charge of my own destiny resurfaced. Thankfully I channelled it to problem solving and navigation – things that give me inner calm.

So after ensuring we were all confident we were heading the right way and just had to keep walking, we found the right col to go over.

Unfortunately we chose a gully too far left to try to climb which turned out to be full of loose rock; it was going to be slow progress. As it was, so much rock debris came down as our rope leader was ascending that it was clearly not a safe place to cross and we had chosen the wrong line. I had a near miss with a football sized rock, and so was grateful we chose to retreat.

This is the route we should have gone up, although by the time we’d retraced our step and worked this out the crack in the ice didn’t fill me with confidence. That said I was annoyed at a lost opportunity to have a go at a proper alpine peak.

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So after a debate we decided to head to nearby Tete Blanche, nowhere near technically difficult as it was merely a snow plod up to a scree summit. But, we did make it for sunrise over Switzerland and it was an amazing view and it is still 3429m high so worth the effort.

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The route was also a valuable learning experience. I learnt a valuable lesson to always trust my own decision making and navigation.I also learnt I need to get better at alpine climbing so I can lead.

I am also even more committed to my project and despite it being summer still, I have already got myself signed up for the Winter ML. A tangent from my project perhaps, but one which will at least commit me to a winter of fun in the snow. I love snow!

The Mer de Glace and the Vallee Blanche

It’s easy to dream big when you arrive in Chamonix. Everyone wants climb Mont Blanc – and plenty do without really being alpinists.

Whilst it was in the back of some minds for the end of the week, to start with we were all happy refreshing winter skills and teaching crevasse rescue techniques as we played on the Mer de Glacé. Important lesson of the day – ice screws are sharp and go through fingers as quick as ice. Ouch!

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The following day we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to take the cable car up to Hellbronner- it’s changed so much since I was last there 4 years ago, but then so have I.

Back then I looked in awe at the alpinists heading out across the glacier, roped up for their adventures. Now I am one of them.

Despite the warning signs to be properly equipped there was plenty of people heading out from the cable car station across the snow in no more than regular summer hiking gear. Some even in trainers. I have to question the logic of people who would do that when they see lines of climbers heading out with harnesses, helmets, crampons and axes and roped together for safety. For as beautiful the Vallee Blanche plateau is, it is still a glacier with dangerous crevasses.

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We wanted a short but reasonably challenging route to start with and so we picked Petit Flambeau, a rocky pinnacle in the middle of the plateau with a snowy arete to ascend.

The ascent was from the North east side so we had to descend the glacier to ascend the steep but not technical route onto the ridge. The view was worth it. Having committed to my project I know I love the snow and love the physical exertion it requires, and despite by recent calf troubles I was pleased to get to the top with little aching.

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It’s a fantastic view to look back along the ridge with truely awesome mountains behind.

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