Rather than trickling in bits about my training, I thought I should write a little piece about my recent experiences ahead of this week’s EPIC7 challenge which will, of course, elicit a post-challenge blog that takes centrestage.
So, after leaving Scotland for my first bout of training, I headed home bleary eyed, a little fatigued, yet largely satisfied at what I’d taken away from the trip both mentally and physically. Comparing it to my previous Everest training, the only benchmark I really had, brought an overly rewarding feeling of progression. I’d had the lergy yet pushed on through (barring a couple of forced rest days). On Everest, I’m likely to feel decrepid for a good number of days when higher on the mountain, so it was reassuring to know I can get the job done regardless.
That final day, I was out with my friend Matt, an Everest summiteer and huge inspiration on my own journey. Considering it was just a few years ago as an inquisitive Everest dreamer that I’d emailed him for advice after his successful ascent, it was great to finally be here training for the real deal- being tossed around by 60mph winds in Coire an-t’Sneachda in the Cairngorms. Sudden bullets of wind would howl down then shunt us forwards like tapdancers, as I tried to hold my 78kg frame upright yet being catapulted onto my knees countless times. We’d abandoned the Fiacaill Ridge and climbed another grade I gully before practically flying back to the carpark. I knew Cairn Gorm Ski Resort was popular but I didn’t think they needed to invest in a wind tunnel…
The conditions had varied but had largely tested me. Staying warm, hydrated, fuelled, safe and efficient sounds straightforward, although combining them in a challenging environment becomes surprisingly difficult. It’s topping out on a climbing route with snow tearing out your pupils in blinding 50mph winds, your frozen nose leaking more rubbish than the Daily Mail and your face a glowing red from the icy windblast that have built my resilience and general hill conditioning considerably in the past weeks alone. Whether I can cycle 60 miles in sub 3 hours, do 100 pullups or bench press my bodyweight isn’t going ‘to determine whether I summit Everest.
I took a week at home to chase my tail with admin and enjoy the comforts. I visited Dayinsure in Tarporley, one of my main sponsors, for a speaking presentation to their team which seemed to go down well and I’m looking forward to working with them as market leaders in temporary motor insurance cover.
I caught up with general training on the bike and in the gym… and sadly I brought the virus home too. As my heart rate reached 190bpm during intervals on the gym bike, stuff dripped out of my sinuses that was most definitely the wrong colour.
It wasn’t long before I was back out. This time in the tamer Snowdonia mountains. I’d spent most of my Everest 2014 training here and only now did the imposing scale of the Scottish munros seem to belittle them. This weekend though, I had the enthusiastic and cheerful company of my good friend Giles Babbidge, a photographer, writer and podcaster from Portsmouth. I met Giles last year and stayed with him during my Chester2Chamonix cycle where I arrived incoherently at 11pm having cycled 127 miles. This time the hospitality was mine- he’d bought his camera gear and the plan was to have an adventure and get some photos.
My hospitality wasn’t quite as warming. We drove to Rhyd Ddu near Beddgelert, arriving about 9:30pm. Into the darkness we headed up the Rhyd Ddu path up Snowdon to wild camp on a beautiful, still night. On discovering a flat area, we also discovered that I had misunderstood the tent arrangements. I had assumed that Giles bringing a tent meant one for us both. ‘’Where’s your tent Alex?’’. ‘’At home… we’re using yours?’’ ‘’Mine’s only a one man!’’
Pausing for a moment, I waited for the ‘Gotcha!’… that didn’t come. I felt like a Buffoon.
I’d never slept in a car before. All 6ft 4 of me just about squeezed in. All part of the adventure I guess. Giles is an avid outdoors lover and regularly reviews kit. When he reviewed my Invisible Tent afterwards, he found the ultra lightweight, instant pitching and see-through design features to be extremely innovative…
The next day we headed up again at first light. Heavy snow drifts made the first section of the ridge tough but further up we came to Bwlch Main ridge which looked rather gnarly. We hurried across with ice axes before the wind picked up too much. I’d enticed Giles up the steeper sections with tales of decadent hot chocolate and flapjacks at the summit cafe. As I got there, I had to shout down, ‘’Do you want the good or the bad news?’’. ‘’You’re on top of Snowdon… but the cafe’s closed’’. Being on top wasn’t quite good news either as suddenly the winds picked up violently. I crawled onto the summit cairn, a couple of metres high; the wind thrusting like a tonne of bricks onto my back, my body curled over into the icy rocks vulnerably. ‘’Leave the summit… it’s not worth it!’’ I yelled down. Undeterred, Giles scrambled past me with his icicled beard to touch the true summit cairn and then we made a pretty relieved and quick descent.
Local mountain leader Jason Rawles saved the day by kindly lending us a tent- trusting me despite last night’s drama- and on his advice headed up towards Ffynnoen Loer from Ogwen. It was getting late, so we pitched just before the lake in a seemingly sheltered dip. The tent started to come together quickly but soon enough raging wind tunnels and pummelling snow flurries swept over Pen yr Ole Wen and into our faces as we curled forwards into the snow. Our rucksacks began to roll as we dived on the tent countless times before it was ripped from our grasp. After thirty unsuccessful freezing minutes I declared ‘’Right, let’s do one’’ as we put the tent back into the bag and legged it downhill. We found a wall, much further down, and this would have to do. Pitching behind this was a damn sight easier. ‘’Get the stove on!’’ I shouted through the wind as I untangled the guy ropes. Eventually, about 11pm, I crawled into the tent to a mug of hot chocolate and a hi-5. It’s the simple things in life.
The next morning we had a beautiful, mellow sunrise over the Ogwen Valley and Tryfan. After Porridge on the Jetboil, we headed up to the lake in a stunning cwm, and I posed around for Giles’ photos trying to look like I knew what I was doing. Reluctantly we headed home, leaving the majestic Carneddau untouched above us.
This weekend I headed out again with my friend Adam. He’s a prolific munro bagger (a munro is a Scottish mountain over 3,000ft) and so always plans really rewarding routes where I’m quite happy to just tag along! We had a remarkable, clear morning and headed first up the ridge to Cruach Ardrain and then down to Beinn Tulaichean. Stunning clear skies opened across to Ben More and Stob Binnein, and considering the so-called Winter weather I was sweating buckets and wearing just a baselayer most of the day.
From Crianlarich I then headed to Fort William and stayed at SYHA Glen Nevis Youth Hostel. My climbing plans were abruptly cancelled as my climbing partner pulled out on me, leaving me feeling a bit sorry for myself… so the next morning headed out alone for 7am along the West Highland Way to the edge of the forest where I trudged up onto Glas Chreag. I didn’t particularly want to be there which was a pretty good reason to continue. My route finding would have been better suited to those equipped with a wheelbarrow and spade as I crawled up boggy, vegetated ground for an eternity until a broad ridge eventually creeped up to the summit of Mullach nan Coirean. My fitness seemed to have stayed in bed at the hostel, but walking through snow just seems to double the effort. I crept up onto the summit then down to grab nearby Meall a’Chaorainn. Descended into Glen Nevis via the East Ridge – a tiring day.
Walking to the station at 6:30am yesterday, I nibbled on the remnants of a Tiger Bread loaf picked up from the reduced-to-clear aisle in Morrisons, stale enough that my ice axe would have cracked it in two. I was certainly disappointed to have missed out on the proper ice climbing. But all was not lost. I noticed the difference with my preparation this time is the visualization. When out on the bike or in the mountains, I’m not thinking about how many hours I’ve got left to endure, but about Everest and how I’m going to feel in the high camps, on the Lhotse Face, heading into the darkness of summit night and those final steps… and how I couldn’t wait to be off this eight hour coach to Manchester.
I’d made a last minute decision to leave my tent at home and stay in the comfort of the Glen Nevis youth hostel this weekend. Not because I was unnerved at the prospect of solo wild camping but because it struck me that I need to start taking care of myself. After all, in April-May I will be living in a tent for nearly 2 months. Through the EPIC7 and my training I’ve already broken, scared and stripped myself bare numerous times. With the trip looming, I feel more confident than ever that if the opportunity to summit Everest comes, I can hit it head on. ”Surely you’re fit enough to climb Everest!” I am regularly told- but frankly that’s irrelevant. Am I stepping off the gas? Maybe. Lots more work to be done- but for now maybe it’s time for a good book and cup of tea…
N.B. Thanks also to www.basicbushcraft.org.uk for their support in spreading the word recently!