Sometime during the summer last year my wife Janet and I realised that for this year at least we might be able to escape the glitter, tinsel and mince pies of the festive season and quietly sneak off to Nepal for Christmas and New Year.
Our plans were to spent Christmas Day in Namche Bazaar, the de facto Sherpa capital, and do two treks, one in the Gokyo area and another up towards Everest, returning to Namche for New Year in between. After trekking we would return to Kathmandu and spend a few days visiting friends, including Phanden Sherpa and his family who added so much to our Nepal Earthquake fund raising efforts when he was in the UK last summer.
For the first section we would be five people. Janet, our friend also called Janet, two porters (friends and neighbours of Phanden’s) called Kami and Nima, and myself. For the second half, our friends Janet and Nima would descend due to a lack of holiday time, and we three would continue.
We made Namche our base because despite having no road access it does have 24 hour hydroelectricity, shops and bars etc. For many years the quality of life was far better in Namche than in Kathmandu. Actually I should have said that Namche had 24 hour electricity because the system had failed and the village was without power for more than 10 days. The welcome was as warm as ever but the temperatures and facilities were not. We stayed at the Kangri Lodge run by Tenzing Sherpa, above the Sherpa Adventure Gear shop. Higher up in the mountains some other trekkers reported temperatures of -20°C.
I have trekked up the Gokyo valley many times before but our special treat was to climb the view point Gokyo Ri (5300m) and watch the sun setting on Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and Makalu. The descent in the dark using headtorches was fun and made all the more so when, just a couple of hundred metres from our lodge, we encountered three pairs of staring eyes lit up by our torches. Jackals on the look out for an easy meal (fortunately not us).
On the Everest side we stayed in the village of Dingboche, a starting point for people who want to climb Island Peak (6189m) or Imja Tse as it is correctly called. There are many lodges here but only two were open and we were the only people in one of them. It was so cold here that the barrel full of water supplied to flush down the inside toilet froze solid in the night.
The highest settlement here is Chhukung where we met a small group of foreigners who were being guided up Island Peak by a local.They seemed somewhat ill prepared physically, mentally, and with their equipment for the cold ascent that lay ahead of them, so I hope they were OK. I have climbed Island Peak many times and it is not to be underestimated. There is more than 1000m of climbing from base camp to summit and it is especially cold as it is surrounded by glaciers and bigger peaks.
Janet and I went and explored a small (5400m) hill that squeezes between Chhukung and the south face of Lhotse called Chhukung Ri. An excellent summit with dramatic views of Ama Dablam, Baruntse and all the surrounding glaciers.
For our final objective we aimed to cross a pass between two peaks that I first climbed in 1991, Kongmatse (5820m) and Pokalde (5806m). For a while Pokalde was quite a famous mountain as for a charity event two of my friends had guided Sarah Ferguson to the summit. In the main trekking season the pass is a steep rocky ascent but in mid winter there are sections covered by waves of hard ice and boulderfields covered in snow. The top of the pass, the Kongma La is quite sharp with a steep drop off the other side. Definitely not a place to slip, so looking at the stunning view has to be done before leaving the top or after arriving at safety lower down near a small lake below.
Some days later, after trekking down to Lukla we made the short scenic flight back to Kathmandu and had one final celebration, my 62nd birthday.
Now that’s what I call a Christmas Holiday!
Even the best laid plans need adapting to the weather, or the traffic, or any number of factors. On Snowdon, we ran the gamut from A to L.
For those unfamiliar with this challenge, in order to complete the Welsh 3000s you need to reach the top of all 15 of the 3000ft+ mountains in Wales within the space of 24 hours, without using any form of transport. It’s about 24 miles, but walks to the start and finish can take it over the 30 mark.
After leaving work we will drive over to Wales, drop Tom’s car off at the end of the route and proceed to Snowdon. We will all bivvy at the summit of Snowdon for a first light start.
The weather is not kind to us, so a bivvy at the base of Snowdon seems more doable; we will wake before dawn, then head up to the summit to start at first light.
It's freezing, far too cold for me. We will sleep in the car instead, then start before dawn breaks.
The inevitable happens; we are so comfortable that we oversleep.
We set off at 07.30. It's been light for half an hour. It's cold but dry and we can see the tops covered with snow. We head up the miner’s track and eventually reach the snowline. Me and John immediately step in behind Tom and let him take the lead; we know our place on the mountain. Progress is slow but we keep on keeping on.
Battling through the snow we agree that we are not going to be able to complete our target.
We could just do Snowdon and the Gwydyr then back to the cars. We march on relentless and on reaching the summit we take the obligatory photograph and head slowly and carefully back down.
We head back down the miner’s track meeting several people along the way who upon discovering we have been to the top are very impressed.
We reach the car and decide to get changed and head to Plas y Brenin for a cup of tea then go over to collect Toms car.
Drinking tea, we discuss our plans and agree we made a few but had a fantastic day out.
We will be back in the summer to finish what we started. Hopefully this time from A to B.
With the autumn season in the Alps being a non-starter and Scottish Winter conditions seeming to disappear (for now!) I’ve been focusing on some more local projects. A few routes I’ve been eyeing up for a while have finally been laid to rest. London Wall has been on the list forever, I see it every day on the drive home, staring at me saying “come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough!”. Well, a few years ago I wasn't, and took the ride from the last move. I finally went back and very nearly took the same whipper, but not this time!
Also my Foster 5 tick list came to a close with a headpoint ascent of Balance It Is (E7 6c). It has been brilliant having a real goal so close to home. As satisfying as completing a climb or tick list is, it always leads straight onto the next, and Neil Foster has conjured up another list straight away (hold tight for Another Foster Five!).
Many of these ascents were captured on video, usually as a bit of an afterthought with a phone propped up in a shoe, this explains some awful footage, sorry! I hope you enjoy the video and don't take it too seriously, I’ve never made one before so it may not be up to scratch with the modern ones out there now but what the hell!
Outside’s Christmas book competition offers one lucky reader the chance to get inside the minds of climbers, mountaineers and hillwalkers ranging from the Hollywood persona of Andy Pollitt to the 40 something neuroses of Graham Wilson.
Our selection of four books explores our shared relationship with the outdoors, and the diverse responses we have to success, adversity and failure. Why do some people respond with maddening flamboyance, while others take their strength from logic and rationality? What do we find out about ourselves when we reach our limits, and how do we deal with the consequences?
Read our review of the four books and answer our cunningly devious multiple choice question for your chance to win them all and discover a world of insight and adventure.
High adventure in the high mountains
In the summer of 2012, a team of six climbers set out to attempt the first ascent of one of the great unclimbed lines of the Himalaya. At 10 kilometres, the giant Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat is the longest route to the summit of an 8,000-metre peak.
After 11 days two of the team, Sandy Allan and Rick Allen, both in their late fifties, reached the summit. They had run out of food and water and began hallucinating wildly from the effects of altitude and exhaustion. Heavy snow conditions meant they would need another three days to descend the far side.
In Some Lost Place is Sandy Allan's epic account of an incredible feat of endurance and commitment at the very limits of survival.
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
Driven to extremes
We should all have seen it coming. Climbing’s film noir episode was genre defining: the charming hero with flowing locks and smouldering eyes, driven by ambition and the expectation of his peers to take ever greater risks in the pursuit of first ascents like The Hollow Man at Gogarth and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door on Curbar Edge.
Andy Pollitt’s autobiography, Punk in the Gym, shows the man behind the Playboy image without flinching, laying bare a fragile ego riven with self-doubt and tangled with personal loss, drugs, drink and depression.
From the opening scene the denouement is obvious, but like all the best film noir the journey is what’s important. Frank, surprising, engaging and complex, Punk in the Gym is a dark treat cloaked in Pollitt’s characteristically flamboyant style.
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
Nine walking challenges to take you off the beaten track.
As middle age loomed, Graham Wilson faced a dilemma - 40 and fit, or 40 and fat? His response was to explore long-distance walking routes in northern England.
Forty Plus is the outcome of that exercise: nine walks of 40+ miles through the less frequented parts of three National Parks, featuring hand drawn maps and evocative photos provided by Chris Harle.
Published by High Tor Publications
A philosophical look at life and death decisions in the mountains.
Choices made above the clouds aren’t always black and white. The most rational mind can be affected by personalities, hopes and expectations, and the line between adventure and misadventure can be alarmingly narrow. Judgement Days is Tom Richardson's story of over thirty years’ climbing in the Himalaya and Karakoram and a reflection on the decisions he has made.
“A marvellous compendium of adventure, knowledge and insight about the mountains and how to stay alive in them” Dave Pickford Climb Magazine
Published by High Peak Books
I remember as a child watching ‘Journey to the West’, a famous old Chinese story featuring a stone monkey with super powers, fantastical monsters and even more surreal and fantastic landscapes. Who knew one day, climbing would take me to that same landscape.
We started our journey in Hong Kong. We could have flown to any of the major cities in China but we had heard that there was a lot of good climbing in Hong Kong, most of it very close to the city centre. However, with jet lag setting in and limited time to explore the concrete and glass jungle, we chose to do a bit of sightseeing and dumpling eating instead, before taking the one-hour flight to Guilin, the gateway to Yangshou.
The amazing karst towers of Yangshuo came into view as we left Guilin airport, the multitude and vastness of this was lost on us as the sun set and we were left to watch the lights of passing traffic.
Yangshuo is a major holiday destination for mainland China, outnumbering the foreign tourists who come to explore the cycling and walking trails as well as taking the famous bamboo rafts along the Yulong river. The level of English spoken in the town centre is excellent and most of the restaurants had English translations on the menu, although sometimes it seems more like Chinglish so you still don’t quite know what you're getting!
We booked a hostel just 20 minutes outside the city centre as we'd heard that it could get potentially noisy in the evening due to the many bars and clubs in town. As luck would have it the owners of the hostel were also climbers, and they organised a scooter for us to rent, as this would be the best way to access the majority of the climbing. (Note: riding a scooter in China involves a lot of dodging - dodging cars, other scooters, people, random animals, big pot holes…so if you have a little bit of the artful dodger in you it should be fine, otherwise there are bicycles and taxis that can be taken to the crags).
As the temperature hit 30°C with humidity set to 100% we headed to our first crag, Wine Bottle. This is one of the easiest crags to find as it’s situated along the main tourist road out of town and opposite a huge butterfly sculpture. As we rode out of the town centre the horizon full of limestone towers loomed all around us, most covered in greenery, however the rock that was exposed looked absolutely amazing. For anyone wanting to put up new routes this would surely be the place to go, as the potential is there as far as the eye could see.
We had heard that the grading was a little stiffer than those found in either Thailand or Greece, which is what we attributed falling off most things at Wine Bottle down to, or it could be the sweaty crux that was encountered halfway up the routes.
The rest of the first week was spent following our hosts Daniel and Frieda to different crags. They must have known we would get lost trying to find the different areas, even with a guidebook the majority of the crags needed local knowledge to find.
The climbing was varied, there was technical face climbing on small crimps and tufas at Swiss Cheese and Spearhead; long, massive and pumpy roof climbing at the famous Moon Hill; some very 3D manoeuvres at Treasure Cave and the very stiff grades at Lai Pi Shan where all the locals hang out on their projects.
Just as we were getting used to vertical bikram yoga, the second week brought cooler weather, 21-25 degrees of relief took us to white mountain, an impressive face that got more overhanging and harder as you progressed along it. Many years could be spent just at this one crag, however we only had another week left to try get in another few places. This took us to Baby Frog which contained some friendly grades, and the many faces of White Cliff and Banyan Tree (which famously has an 8a trad route put up by Steve McClure, the locals thinking they were doing him a favour bolted it later!).
As the trip drew to a close, we realised that we had not even begun to explore some of the non-climbing related things to do, as well as leaving a trail of routes to finish. It’s always good to have lots to come back for.
Try the local dish of beerfish, bring a clipstick some of the first bolts are pretty high, go and see the large local market, (not for the faint hearted). A huge thank you to Daniel, Frieda and Chocolate the poodle at the Stonebridge Hostel for showing us around, belaying us, cooking the best fried ribs ever and making us feel at home.
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