What a weird winter we are having! As usual the papers predicted the coldest winter ever and then Scotland had just about the warmest December on record. With the New Year the cold and the snow finally arrived. The top boys were having a field day on the hard mixed routes, such as shop favourite Ian Parnell with his impressive ascent of The Needle (VIII 8) but the big gullies have been powdery nightmares. With a couple of days off I stole my winter rope gun from his job and headed north.
With so much fresh snow it was hard to choose a safe climb. We decided the technical routes on the Douglas boulder, a short walk from the CIC but on the Ben would be ideal. We were right. Luck was on our side from the start; as we began our walk a van pulled through the gate with the fabled key to the top car park. We negotiated (begged) a lift with Hannah from West Coast Mountaineering and chatted about friends we had in common.
The casual walk to the CIC confirmed our guess; the big gullies looked hard work and scary with all the snow. We headed for Cutlass VI 7 and a stunning looking crux corner pitch. I geared up quickly and set off, ensuring my trusty partner/hero Rich Howells got the crux. He pulled over the first overhang on good hooks and the rest of the pitch was involving, technical yet steady. Good gear when he cleared the snow out, small edges for feet, good hooks and even bomber turf to get onto the belay ledge - mega. I followed with frozen hands and Rich purposely kicking snow on me to make it feel “proper”!
Looking up at my pitch I was shocked by how hard it seemed up the steep chimney. A perfect crack on the right wall allowed hooks, great gear and footholds for my monos. It wasn’t nearly as hard as it looked; but it was just as awesome. A few more pitches of easy mixed took us to the summit of the Douglas boulder and an ab back into the descent gully. There followed an easy walk back to the hut and down to the top car park, where our new friends drove us back to the van just after 3pm. Maybe the most chilled day I've ever had on the Ben. Type one fun!
On the walk down we planned the next day. We noticed someone had broken trail all the way to number 3 gully during the day, so this lead us to think about trying Gargoyle Wall, a classic I've fancied for ages. It was due to be a nice day again but with a light dusting of snow in the morning. With alarms set early we woke and started the long slog.
The dusting arrived. It didn't stop. This was no dusting and before we even reached the CIC hut it was building above our ankles. On top of the deep snow that was already there we decided it would not be safe up high. Sadly we turned and headed down. Later, we saw the reports and sad news on the BBC over the next few days and we were thankful for our safe, if disappointing decision.
I was determined to rescue the day but as it was too late for climbing we decided to take a wintery walk in the Bridge of Orcy and headed up Beinn An Dothaidh. By now the sun was out and it was beautiful however the depth of snow was clear and we chose a safe but tiring route to the summit up the ridge from the col. It wasn't climbing but it was still a great day out. Once again we were down early and back in Sheffield before 10pm.
I feel pleased with our choices even if it was only one day of climbing. As I always say, “I’m too much of a wuss not to be safe in winter.”
Here are my top tips for fun but safe days in Scotland:
Thanks to a bit of peer pressure we managed to muster a team of 10 staff and friends to do our annual 21 mile Nine Edges run. With an awful forecast of mist and rain we finished work at 17:30 and got lifts down to Fairholmes at Ladybower, allowing us to start running up into the clag at 18:00.
Once up on the first edge (Derwent) we realised that it was going to be slow going. You could only see 3-4 metres at times, and due to the amount of rain we have had it was very muddy. Thanks to our friends Wingy and Janet we had some support along the way to ease the pain. And thanks to John at Lyon Outdoor for his company and for the loan of the very necessary Petzl Nao and Tikka RXP headtorches.
Our first checkpoint was at the A57 just before heading up towards Stanage End, where we fuelled up on Jelly Babies and water. The next section was slow going. Rain, very thick mist and mud resulted in us slipping and sliding along Stanage Edge to our next checkpoint, Burbage North.
Several edges later we eventually arrived at the finish line, The Robin Hood pub at Birchen. The pub was closed by this point but we're no fools; we had some beers prepared for just this situation. It took us 5 hours which is a bit longer than usual but despite the conditions it wasn't a bad effort. Not exactly what you would call fun, but definitely type 2 fun!
I live in Matlock and surely it must be the outdoor capital of Central England. Many gritstone and limestone climbing sites are located within a couple of miles, including Pic Tor, High Tor, Wildcat, Willersley, Black Rock & Masson Lees. There is even an indoor climbing wall in Wirksworth - The Face at Anthony Gell School.
For walkers, the 55-mile Derwent Valley Heritage Way passes through town, and there is a link to the 45-mile Limestone Way. Kayakers and play-boaters can have fun on the River Derwent slalom course in Matlock Bath, and not far away, windsurfers and sailors can get their fix at Carsington Water. Cyclists are also well-provided for with a choice of traffic-free trails on the Cromford Canal, High Peak Trail and around Carsington Water.
Unseen below, an amazing network of caves and mines are accessible to those who dare. In many cases natural caves have been enlarged and extended by mining operations during the 19th century and before.
I don’t need to tell anyone what a spoiler the rain has been recently for climbing and walking so we decided that caving was possibly the driest alternative. So yes, I have gone over to the dark side and ventured underground.
Compared to hardened cavers our trips have no doubt been a little tame but we are gradually re-learning the art of SRT (single rope technique) and upping the excitement factor.
Trips to Jug Holes, Devonshire Cavern, Cumberland Cavern and Wapping Mine were followed by Water Icicle Close Cavern, Knotlow Cavern & Wharf Pipe Mine.
All these trips can be comfortably done after work allowing plenty of time to get back to Wetherspoon’s in Matlock for a mixed grill & pint. (Other pubs and bargain meals are available!)
Mukot Peak, 6087m, Lower Dolpo Nepal October 2015
I was thinking that it had been quite some time since I thought I had made a first ascent of a Himalayan peak. In fact it was way back in 1979 and I say thought I had made a first ascent because unless someone builds a cairn, sticks a flag on it or writes about it somewhere, you just never know whether you are really the first. I’m not sure that it matters all that much anyway, it’s not a competition.
These days the Nepalese government are very keen to encourage climbers to visit new areas and are opening up new peaks of moderate height and difficulty, trying to tempt people away from the honey pots of the Khumbu area into the 99% of the rest of the country. It’s good policy.
KE Adventure Travel, one of my several employers, has always had in their heart the spirit of mountain exploration. For autumn 2015 they made a plan to make the first official ascent of Mukot Peak a 6000m mountain located in a remote and wild corner of western Nepal nestled at the flank of the rarely seen but phenomenal Dhaulagiri 2 (7751m).
The plan was that we would have 3 groups, A,B,C attempt the peak and using Sherpa support would fix ropes on the steepest section that lead to the summit ridge. I was to lead Group B. I was excited at the prospect but somehow doubted that following Group A, the Leader, Ade and Sirdar (chief Sherpa), Phanden having done the reconnaissance of the trek, we would make the first ascent.
They left a week ahead of us and we followed in their footsteps. The approach to Mukot Peak is quite complex. The first stage is a flight from Kathmandu to the town of Nepalgunj. It is a hot and sweaty place set in the lowland Terai area.
The next day is another flight, nearly as impressive as the famous flight to Lukla that takes you to the landing strip at Juphal. It’s a sharp contrast, set amid steep wooded hills with just a dusting of snow on them. Unusually though, the trek begins by descending to the valley bottom at a mere 2510m and after 4 hours of hot trekking we made camp at Dunai, the last village where there is a shop.
After five days of wonderful trekking along the river valley, encountering wide sandy plains, narrow trails above huge drops, spectacular bridges and mountain vistas, we reached the final settlement of Mukot Village. The villagers here have a very tough life eking a living from their animals and a few fields in the high cold atmosphere. Here we also learned that 4 out of 12 members of Group A had climbed the mountain with Sherpa support but none of the summiteers were either English of American, but we were, so first English and American ascents were still available.
The next day our camp was on a flat strip of land strangely called Nani Goth, the view dominated by truly one of the most dramatic and rarely seen peaks in the world, Dhaulagiri 2. The Dhaulagiri Range contains one 8000m, being the highest it is called Dhaulagiri 1, but its other 5 family members, although slightly lower are equally breath-taking.
Base Camp at 5000m was another dramatic spot right at the base of the north face of Mukot Peak. It’s traditional to have a Buddhist ceremony of blessing called a puja before setting off up a mountain. Fortunately one of our Sherpas, Dawa, was an ex monk so could oblige with the formalities. Base Camp was a cold place, especially at 3am the following day when the whole team - Pasang, the Sirdar, climbing Sherpas Dawa and Dorji and 7 members, including Janet, my wife, and myself all headed off to the mountain. We had planned to climb as two roped parties.
At the point where we needed to put on crampons, one member turned back and returned to Base Camp with Dawa. We continued.
The snow conditions were good and we made good progress on the easier angled slopes. At two thirds height the terrain steepened considerably as did the exposure. Fortunately we were able to use the fixed ropes set up for Mukot A. The wind picked up as we closed in on a col from which we would ascend the ridge to the summit.
On the ridge the wind accelerated, sapping energy and breathe from the already tired team. We moved slowly along it and reached a small col. The summit was close, just above us but the cold and wind was fierce. Some of the party decided that they couldn’t go on. It was out of the question for anyone to hang around in the conditions so we began our descent. It had taken 6 hours from putting our crampons on.
Descent was, initially, a bit quicker as we were able to use the fixed ropes and descend using prusiks and slings as a safety back up. When the angle eased things became more tiring as the adrenalin abated and real exhaustion set in.
We finally reached Base Camp after nine and a half hours of climbing. The team was done in. Some members had given it everything and just collapsed in the doorway of their tents still wearing their boots, stirring only to have spasms of coughing brought on by the effort and breathing the thin cold air.
The next day we descended from the Base Camp aiming to carry on the trek crossing several high passes, including the first one at over 5700m. It would be a tough challenge to any trekking party but we were severely weakened by our climb. Kala Pattar, the well-known high point above Everest Base Camp for example is a trekkers high point and it’s only 5545m. Much of the team was struck down with coughs, sickness, bad stomachs and exhaustion too.
The camp below the pass was at 5000m, cold and windy. I was concerned that we would have a lot of difficulty getting over the first, let alone the subsequent ones. We had also been blessed with the weather so far. It hadn’t snowed, but if it did it could make us stranded or at least late in making a rendezvous at Kagbeni from where we would trek to Jomsom and fly to the regional capital Pokhara and thence to Kathmandu.
In the morning my decision became easier, but not in a good way. One of the mule men who had been with us all the way from Juphal was in a state of distress. One of his precious mules had died from the cold in the night. Everyone was upset.
It would have been unfair to even ask him to go on. We attempted to at least financially recompense him for his loss, sorted out tips for all the staff, and I called up a helicopter to take the sick and their partners to hospital. The remaining two members flew out too. The mixture of slight disappointment and relief by them being overridden by the ride of a lifetime in the helicopter, passing our route on Mukot Peak and the Dhaulagiri Range and down to the airstrip at Jomsom.
The officials in the Ministry of Tourism weren’t bothered that we were just below the summit and, back in Kathmandu handed out certificates accordingly. We may have been the second ascent and first English and first American ascents. It doesn’t matter much, what is for certain is that we had a hell of an adventure.
If you are wondering what happened to Group C, well they followed behind us and as soon as they reached the Base Camp, an enormous storm blew in. Overnight they had more than 1 metre of snow. It was all they could do to evacuate Base Camp with all the equipment and retreat back along the trek towards Juphal from where they flew back to Nepalgunj and Kathmandu.
If the outcome was certain, it wouldn’t be an adventure and would be hardly worth doing.
When you mention Mongolia, the home of the legendary Genghis Khan, most people imagine big skies, wide rolling plains, yurt type wool and felt tents, marmots, horses and a nomadic way of life. For much of the country this is true, but in the far western corner, where it joins with China and Russia and nearly connects with Kazakhstan, it is very different. As Michael Kohn, the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia said:
“Travelling to Mongolia’s westernmost province gives one the distinct feeling of reaching the end of the road, if not the end of the earth.
“Many peaks in the province are more than 4000m and permanently covered with glaciers and snow, while the valleys have a few green pastures that support livestock as well as bears, fox and wolves.”
He didn’t even mention the relatively frequent sightings of snow leopards, the nomads and their hunting eagles and the fact that there are more reported sightings and stories of yeti here than anywhere else in the world, including the Himalaya.
For me 2015 was my 7th trip to these superb mountains, getting time off from working in Outside to lead a group for KE Adventure Travel. There were 11 team members, 10 from the UK and one from Canada, comprising 4 women and 7 men with an age range from 37 to 74 years. All were experienced in a variety of mountain regions including previous KE trips.
Before leaving the capital Ulaan Bataar for the mountains, we had a warm up trek in the nearby National Parks, summitted the Tsetseesgun view point and visited the new Mongolia attraction of the giant stainless steel Genghis Khan.
One of the things that makes the trips in Mongolia go well is our local support team. Sandagash is a school teacher in the major settlement in the region, Bayan Olgii, a Soviet built border town, populated by people of Kazakh origin. She works on our trips during the holidays and organises all the provisions and equipment and the catering from Base Camp. Working with me on the mountains were two Mongolian mountaineers. Usukhuu, my friend of many years and previous trips, who has two ascents of Everest and one ascent of Denali to his credit amongst much else and Senguu who had lived in the UK for several years. Despite limited shared language, Usukhuu and I always get on well, especially with banter around the fact that he more or less eats only horse meat, and I’m vegetarian.
The mountains are reached by a four hour flight from Ulaan Bataar to Bayan Olgii. Then a 6-9 hour drive off road (there are no hard topped roads) in Russian jeeps to a point described without irony as the Road Head, marked by two Gers (known elsewhere as yurts) and a scattering of nomad encampments. Here the landscape is a bit like the Cairngorms in drought, but on a grander scale. A few summers ago a nomad camped near us at the Road Head found a wolf cub abandoned by the pack. He raised it tethered to a stake alongside their herd of goats until it got strong enough to be returned to the wild. In the winter they hunt with eagles.
The Base Camp is usually reached with a one day trek using two humped Bactrian camels to carry the gear. They are gentle and friendly, unlike their grumpy Arabian cousins, the Dromedary. Base Camp is a couple of Gers set in a beautiful green ablation valley alongside the enormous Potanina Glacier. The area is becoming more popular but it is still rare to find more than one other group in the Base Camp. This year we could only use camels for our return journey as they were occupied elsewhere gathering winter fodder, so the jeeps went to Base Camp.
The highest peak is Mount Khuiten, sometimes written in translation as Huiten (4374m).It was first climbed by a Russian and 12 Mongolian climbers in 1956.All the peaks in the area have been climbed but the potential for new routes up the many dramatic faces and ridges is vast.
All in all, the peaks are of alpine character but are extremely remote and you almost certainly can’t be rescued. If you go there, it is a proper mountaineering adventure.
However, unlike on an expedition to the Himalaya or even the Andes you can get there, climb several superb routes and be back at work in the UK in about two weeks. However, both your head and your heart, like mine will still be in the mountains of this part of Mongolia for many years.
From our Base Camp we made an ascent of Malchin (4037m) as a warm up peak. It gives some steep and dramatic scrambling and a narrow snowy summit. It also gives a breath taking full frontal view of Khuiten’s awesome East Face and views across into Russia and China.
To reach the other mountains all the gear, food and tents need to be carried up the glacier to make a high camp from which they can be tackled.
The Potanina Glacier is the biggest of many in the area and it varies in condition depending on the weather. The glacier is highly crevassed in places, but they are not always visible after snowfall, so it always is essential to be roped up. It was also helpful having the powerhouse Usukhuu breaking trail leading the front of our three roped parties. We were lucky this year as the conditions both on the way up and at the High Camp were good and we soon had our selection of tents anchored down in the lee of a large rognon.
With the help of Usukhuu and Senguu I do all the catering for the team at High Camp. Again we were lucky, it can be pretty grim in a blizzard. Our system for cooking is to use petrol with either a Primus Omnifuel stove or for sheer melting power an MSR XGK with two stoves under one pot. Very large aluminium pots for melting lots of snow are brought from Bayan Olgii. My catering is to the say the least simple. Melting snow to make enough water for drinking, cooking and filling water bottles takes hours.
In the past I have arrived at High camp and been unable to pitch the tents due to high winds even when replacing tent pegs with Russian ice screws. It is a long and demoralising journey back to Base Camp to start again.
After as early a start as we could manage, we set off next morning, the 30th August to climb Khuiten, the main prize, via a col and the ridge that skirts the flank of the north face. One member elected to stay at HC, exhausted by the carry the day before.
We began in the three roped parties of the previous day, but as the terrain steepened, it became clear that Senguu’s English and rope management skills were both higher in confidence than reality. At the beginning of the steep slope that leads to the summit ridge, I joined our two ropes together, leaving Usukhuu and his team ahead.
At about mid height I looked up to see he was doing. I was surprised to see that Usukhuu had made the group safe and was now descending towards me, with something of a sense of urgency! I was a bit worried, but could do nothing until he reached me. He spoke first, “Tom, you have toilet paper? I eat bad horse meat!”
I did, passed over some supplies and he continued his descent all the way back past us to the col. On arrival he bent over and then squatted, emptying himself from both ends. Moments later he was again powering back up the slope towards the rest of us. On passing me he just paused and grinned.
”Now all OK!”
Ushukuu is a tough guy. On reaching High Camp he tucked into another batch of horse meat.
Our slope steepened to the summit ridge which is at the point we reached it wide and easy angled giving fantastic views in all directions. Usukhuu’s group went to the small final summit as there was fewer of them and we paused on the summit a metre or two lower but lacking the drop down the north face.
As with all summits, it is only half way to safety and a very careful descent followed down the steep slope below the ridge before easier group could be reached en route back to High Camp.
The afternoon and evening was spent melting snow, rehydrating, eating and eventually sleeping for a second night with mostly 3 people to each of our 2 person tents.
The next morning we were off again, this time with all team members to ascend the walk up peak of Narindal (4082m). Narindal is the point at which the borders of Mongolia, China and Russia meet.
From the summit we returned across the glacier via our route of ascent. We were amazed to notice a line of large cat footprints crossing ours. No doubt somewhere nearby we were being carefully watched.
After refreshments and some time hacking our tents out of the ice, we packed up and descended the Potanin Glacier once more, scrambled up the moraine at the edge of the ablation valley and trekked back to Base Camp. Sandagash, as ever came to meet us with very welcome fruit juice, followed by lunch.
The next morning we began our 3 day journey by foot, jeep and plane back to the tower blocks, beer and pizza of Ulaan Bataar and eventually home.
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