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'Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.'

T. S. Eliot

Other Expeditions

Ama Dablam

Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper have recently returned from climbing Ama Dablam (6,856m) in the Nepal Himalaya. This is one of the most important...(more)

Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper have recently returned from climbing Ama Dablam (6,856m) in the Nepal Himalaya. This is one of the most important steps along the way to becoming the youngest Britons to climb Everest, which they hope to attempt in April/May 2006. In the climbing world so often dominated by older climbers it is an incredible achievement to build up this kind of experience on such a technical and exposed peak. Furthermore it is rare that mountaineering partners ever know each other as well as Rob and James, who have cycled and climbed throughout Europe together, and who grew up together as the closest of friends in the same boarding house: an invaluable base for the task ahead of them. This time Rob and James summitted on separate days, and this report provides an insight into one of their climbs, but it was written together with a shared vision of their experiences on the mountainside.

The last of the rolling hills disappeared from view as we stared from the rain spattered window of our train. We were returning to Christ's Hospital after a difficult and inspiring cycle tour of the Lake District. With burning calves, the whirr of freewheels and the cold wet wind on top of the passes, this tour had finally brought back my thirst for energy and adventure. As the train lamentably wound away from the hills, our conversation turned to climbing. The comfort of a warm express train and some good bacon sandwiches always provides a dangerous atmosphere for romanticising, and a crazy idea emerged. As children, just like many others, we had heard of the heroes and seen the pictures of Everest, with its tremendous snow-streaked bulk majestically dominating the sleeping giants of the Himalaya, and we decided here, ever keen to pull faces in front of a camera, that we want to be in those pictures.

As we neared Ama Dablam's small 6856 metre summit, doggedly gasping up the final precipitous snow ridge, my mind began to wander from the single goal that had transfixed it since we'd arrived in Nepal almost three weeks previously. The last four days, from when we began the final push for the summit, had taken their toll on my body, and my lungs were labouring on about 40% of the oxygen that they are used to. I was physically exhausted. The long days, the steep and exposed terrain, and most of all the altitude, had made them some of the hardest of my life. The exhilaration, and my enjoyment, had pulled me through so far; but I knew that on the descent, the more dangerous part of the climb when the adrenaline and energy of the summit waned, I would need all my grit to concentrate on the technical ground below. During the last few strenuous, over-stretched steps to the summit, my mind turned back to our conversation in the warmth of the train. 'How naive we were' I thought, yet as I arrived at my goal I knew how inexplicably glad I was that we had set ourselves this challenge. A panorama from China to India spread out beneath us, and the scale and number of the jagged and serene monuments of the Himalaya was the greatest and most startling reward I could have dreamed for.

Our trip to Ama Dablam had been riddled with uncertainty from the start, because we were determined to save as much money as possible, and to climb as independently as we could. With a week to go the trip was effectively off without the funds to pay for it, and we were despairing that our whole project would be a non-starter without Ama Dablam: everything hung in the balance. Fortunately we were advanced a very generous loan, and although this was a worrying prospect for our return and not a situation in which we want to find ourselves again, we were overjoyed when we were finally given the opportunity to cut our teeth on such a technical preparatory peak. Our work and training however did help to keep the focus of the trip alive, and we had spent months waiting on party guests and lifting bricks in the cold early morning to cobble together what money we had. Any complaint about cold hands on a building site is obviously met with quick retorts about the nature of mountaineering. Our training fitted in around this, including evening pack walks with the dog, running, indoor climbing to hone the technique and finger strength, and rock climbing in Swanage or the Peak District to practise rope work.

Mountaineering, contrary to what some people perceive, is not about speed. It is a task for the patient, and involves days and even weeks of slow plodding against the ever-increasing limitations of fatigue and a lessened oxygen supply to the muscles. The most technical bits of the climb on rock and ice must be taken far more slowly than a quick run up an indoor wall or a grit stone crag in the Peaks. Indeed prior to our four day summit attempt we spent a week trekking in, with built-in acclimatisation days, as well as time waiting at base camp and days acclimatising on the lower slopes to transfer gear to the lower camps: a simpler version of the pyramid of lesser ascents that is required of the Everest summitteer. Himalayan mountaineering generally involves early starts, of the sort that morning drill detentions at school prepare you for. Starting in the crisp light of the morning enabled us to avoid the clouds that swim down the valleys in the early afternoon and the stronger winds that sweep up the slopes later: you only have to look at the white plume that provides an unmistakable appendage to Everest to realise the power of these winds. As the day continues, the regular intake of snacks and solid meals becomes increasingly difficult, and the body's expenditure is, however hard one tries, greater than the intake of chocolate bars and boil-in-the-bag meals can provide. At nights we collapsed exhausted into our down sleeping bags, in full clothes and accompanied by our water bottles to keep them warm for the morning, just as our camera batteries always had to occupy an intimate spot under the armpit.

As we stopped at the snowy plateau of camp 3 to pick up our sleeping bags, I remembered climbing the other way earlier in the morning, when my feet had frozen minutes after we had left the tent. For all the wasted energy that went into stamping and kicking, no blood had returned to my feet, and I had considered turning back. Here, descending in the full light of the sun and with the blood jostled back to the extremities, that crucial decision seemed distant as we gazed over the autumnal browns of the Khumbu valley.

Our Sherpas, Padawa and Ang Nuru, work long hours through much discomfort on the slopes of these Himalayan mountains, and patiently encouraged us as we fought the demons of tiredness: they are proud of their mountains: indeed their homes are adorned with Everest peak certificates. They were at the same time wonderful ambassadors for the country beyond the snowy and unpopulated peaks that they work on, an important element for mountaineers to understand. Nepal is, as well as being an obviously beautiful country, a hugely tolerant one in which religions share ceremonies and gods, and in which the staple dish of rice and lentils is always accompanied by an infinite refill. No one tries to impose themselves upon you, and they are always keen to share experiences and thoughtful opinions. The Maoist problems have almost arisen from the social dynamics of the mountain existence and the tolerant mentality of the Nepalese, and it remains the case that, despite being the second poorest country in the world, Nepal's level of contentment is very high, even amidst the seemingly disorganised craziness of Kathmandu.

After an emotionally and physically arduous day, it was with great relief that we rounded the last pillar of rock to once again see camp 2 perched on its improbable rocky pedestal. A small cluster of tents hugs every inch of rock space on the little platform of camp 2, and there is only room on top of the column for 5 tents, in which you are held above the emptiness only by the material of the tent if you get a late spot. The sunset sent deep red and purple hues across the jagged horizon, with the snowy peaks standing guard as white sentinels: it was a perfect ending to an incredible day. At lunchtime the following day I limped in to base camp: dehydrated, aching and never so happy to see a cup of tea and a broken plastic chair.

At Christ's Hospital we greatly valued the generosity, commitment and trust of a few individuals who opened up this world to us, and we are very fortunate to have had the opportunities through the school that have given us the chance of being at Everest base camp, although much remains to be done in the funding line. Ultimately we would like to provide other youngsters with these opportunities starting by taking a number of Blues and Old Blues to the Himalaya in 2007, at the same age that we were first able to climb in the Karakorum, although we must first focus on Everest! Our early cycling and climbing expeditions were often supported by the Charitable Awards scheme at CH, which provides an important capacity for pupils to discover the world of experience that runs in parallel to examinations and work.

After our winter training in the Alps and Scotland, we will return to Nepal from March to June next year on our quest to become the youngest Britons to climb Everest. This has become an endeavour that can no longer be funded by our wages, such we are currently devoting our energies in public speaking, letter-writing and research to the time-consuming search for sponsorship: any recommendations or suggestions in this line would be very much welcomed. We are hugely appreciative of the interest and support that we have received so far, at the many different levels from which it has arisen.

Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper (less)

Towards the rising sun: Cycling from Bilbao to Istanbul

Three years after a Land's End to John O'Groats ride which cycled ever towards the cold and wet, and after various wet summer tours in Eastern Europe, a new approach was in order: hot weather cycling...(more)

Three years after a Land's End to John O'Groats ride which cycled ever towards the cold and wet, and after various wet summer tours in Eastern Europe, a new approach was in order: hot weather cycling. Hence we chose, aided by the destinations of budget airlines, to follow the Mediterranean from Bilbao to Istanbul. This promised an exciting conversion to long-distance tent-bound cycletouring, as a diverse cross section of Europe from the Alpine passes and their Tour de France crazed cyclists via the intriguing complexity of the former Yugoslavia and to the Greek coast and Asia.

Spain regally provided us with a police escort after our delayed arrival: more realistically we turned up at the wrong airport in England and were caught, sirens blaring, on an illegal road when we did finally arrive. Unable to judge our progress at such an early stage of the trip, we decided to bypass the Pyrenees and the Tour de France in favour of speed, and put in some long days from the rolling hills and dairy farms of St Girons, through the tree-lined avenues and vineyards before descending to the flat beaches of the Mediterranean. Via historic towns and local festivals in the South of France, we landed at the imposing hulk of Mont Ventoux, the windy moonscape of Tour legend that saw the death of Britain's greatest cyclist in the hot oven of its upper slopes. As the mountain rising from nothing in the flatlands of the Rhone valley, the views in all directions stretched for miles: even to the Alps beyond Tommy Simpson's poignant memorial below the summit.

On the disappointingly easy pass into Italy we were reminded of one of the great pleasures of a trip like this: the intriguing and varied characters who littered the route and our experiences: from farmers to cyclists; kids to pensioners; laborers to professors; Christians to Muslims and people of all nationalities and ideologies. The Italians are particularly uninhibited in their intrigue and two set about filming our trailers and engaging in a flurry of hand gestures that, as we embarrassingly lacked a common word, failed to convey the complexities of trailer mechanics and aerodynamics. Nursing our linguistic wounds and lamenting the loss of the wonderful free public toilets that Mcdonalds provided in western Europe, we cycled under the imposing Dolomites that rise from the winding shores of Lake Garda, speeding between the tunnels and cliffs of Bond films.

Mechanical problems and an unexploded Second World War bomb were all that hindered us as we left the green meadows and alpine chalets of Austria, keen to see what three years and EU membership had done to our beloved Slovenia. In fact, it remains a fairly undiscovered secret: the currency is still the SIT (such that you pay 40SIT for a sit in public toilets) and there is cheap cold beer, soup served in bread and the romantic charm of its small capital, Ljubljana contrasted with the dramatic beauty of the Triglav range. Slovenia felt empty compared to the western countries, and it hailed the start of a new tour for us: not only were our numbers inflated to four, but it began to rain consistently and we were also setting out to discover a set of new countries that are so often misunderstood.

In line with the new theme of rain, punctures, broken axles and bullet-ridden houses, we spent our first night in one of the bombed out houses, which, once we had learned how to cope with the presence of hungry rats, proved consistently useful throughout our week in Bosnia. The grim and grey towns of the north turned out to be a rarity; indeed we found that the majority of the towns had vibrant centres with a lively atmosphere and a forward-looking population: not the bleak picture painted by the absence of forgotten Bosnia in the media of its own continent. The hatchet of ten years ago seems buried, and along the remote high road to Sarajevo we encountered more support and interest from the people of a country that seems full of hope for recovery, despite the convoluted nature of the arbitrary border between the two regions. The chewed road to Sarajevo reveals a city of intrigue: An Olympic city with strong Muslim influence, Chetnik shells reigned down from the surrounding hills, largely because it is such a harmonious meeting point of cultures. In our careful research into the safety of Kosovo, one resident nearly became quite angry because, justifiably, she reminded us that she had been compelled to carry out her daily routine under siege for five years.

After the tight valleys of Montenegro and a night in no-man's land, we took a long and winding mountain descent onto the Kosovan plateau, where the only available postcards were faded pictures of derelict houses, and where illness gave me the first hospital visit of my life. Whilst I was hooked up to a suspicious yellow IV drip attended by a doctor who looked worse off than me, a Kosovan man translated whilst his own wife was in casualty. The next day two of the group fell drastically ill with food poisoning and we limped into Pristina where we were welcomed by large posters sporting the Union Jack and declaring: 'People of Kosovo: we are with you'. Were the people of Kosovo sharing their sympathy over the appalling obesity epidemic in Britain or were we offering our commiserations at the construction of their first Mcdonalds? There is still a huge and well accepted UN presence in Kosovo, and the cleaner air from the German cars reveals it to be better developed than much of Bosnia, a wealth often stemming from the international connections of the returning refugees.

Past the 1950s lorries of the ever-present scrapyards, we descended on empty roads to the arid fields, horse carts and rustic villages of Macedonia, where in some villages the inhabitants had never met an Englishman. In one we chatted politics with a young computer scientist; in another we were bought lunch by two beer-drinking locals, and in Skopje we drank in the trendy bars of the main square. After a brief incursion into the cheapest corner of Bulgaria, we entered the unexpected wealth and infrastructural regeneration of post-Olympian Greece: I couldn't help thinking that some people must be priced out in this new-found prosperity. Fuelled by fresh salads and far too much pizza, we rode along the old route of St Paul amongst beaches, olive groves, coastal tracks and archaeological sites to the Turkish border, where a five-mile queue of packed cars angrily heckled the inefficient bureaucracy of a suspicious border.

Aided by free watermelons and the slipstreams of helpful tractor drivers, our glorious entry into Istanbul was marred by the Russian roulette of slip roads and drivers who were dangerously unfamiliar with cyclists, and the discovery that Istanbul was less the crazy world of shacks and haggling that we had anticipated. In fact the gateway to Asia was very European, and even the suburbs which usually betray poverty were brimming with expensive tower blocks. However it is interesting in many other ways: it is a cosmopolitan western city where the calls to prayer rebound in competition between the minarets and the nightclubs blast out Arabic pop or Kurdish folk music, and in this it is the corner of many worlds. In the hypnotic colour of the Grand Bazaar you can find textiles from India, plates from Bosnia, glass from Syria, clothing from America, carpets from Pakistan, metalwork from Africa, waiters from Uzbekistan and tourists from Lithuania (as we discovered this claim significantly lowered the prices). Istanbul was the first place where we could change our spare Serbian groats. In Istanbul we were struck by the unnecessary ease and friendliness of the people, from shopkeepers' teas in rainstorms to the shared wisdom and water pipes of two students or the family on the beach who gave us their wisdom of the sea floor without a single word in common. As Turkey cannot be lumped with the Arab world, every country made us realise so many misunderstandings whilst providing us with new dichotomies and paradoxes. It was heart-rending to entrust Doris and Allin to the uncertainty of the baggage handlers once again, but the cow-shit, bacteria, food particles and grime from the length of Europe will be forever ingrained into the seat of our overly-tight lycra shorts daring us ever to forget the people and places of, thanks to the song on repeat in the overused CD player of the cyclist's mind, the Long and Winding Road to Turkey. (less)

Spantik 2004

Before returning to school for A-levels, we thought to undertake some more practical education...(more)

Before returning to school for A-levels, we thought to undertake some more practical education for our sports science and geography exams; on a trip that provided our first experience of the battles that are unique to high-altitude mountaineering. Spantik (7027m), not to be confused with a Russian space vessel, is located Pakistani Karakorum in the heart of tribal Kashmir. The Karakoram encompasses a handful of the world's fourteen 8000m peaks like K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbraum, and with the Hindu Kush and the main body of the Himalaya it makes up the three major ranges that are pushed up by the northward movement of the Indian subcontinent. Ultimately we chose Pakistan for its weather in August which, unlike Nepal, is amenable to climbing in our school holidays, and Spantik was a less technical peak on which we could adjust to the different lifestyle of prolonged assaults on large peaks.

We arrived in the oppressive heat of post-monsoon Islamabad in early August, after a long overnight flight via Dubai. On our first visit to Asia the culture shock was initially overwhelming. Television images and internet research can only prepare you so far for the colourful melee of Asian cities, but we soon began to decipher the order concealed behind this crazy facade. As an illustration of the different psychology that comes into play, at the age where we were learning to drive we had to teach ourselves that seatbelts are an unnecessary extra; that stopping to wait at a junction causes journey time to increase tenfold; and that bumpers are for carrying passengers.

The next day we started our journey northwards, travelling first along the one of the most spectacular roads in the world: the Karakoram Highway that winds its improbable way through deep and barren gorges under the vertical faces of Kashmir's stern gatekeepers. The road is barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and after two head-bruising days we arrived in Skardu, the final large outpost before we were fully into the mountains. We were fortunate to have two scheduled days here, as we both became very ill with food poisoning. When we left Skardu we were on the road to recovery, although it didn't seem like that when peering out of the rusty jeep down a kilometre of steep and loose shale that was slipping away beneath the wheels! Finally trusting our own creaky mechanisms, we continued on foot for three days en route to base camp. Spantik dominated the head of the valley on the trek-in, and below its vast snow dome the graceful serpent of 200 porters in line wound its way over the glacier to rest on the sharp moraine of base camp, devoid of plant life.

Upon arriving at our new home at 4400m we had a couple of rest days and then set out on our first acclimatisation excursion doing a load carry to Camp 1 (5300m). For the entire day, burdened with 35 kilos, the route zig-zagged its way up a very steep and volatile scree field until it met the ridge less than a hundred metres from Camp 1: an expedition in itself. After our five hour climb, we pitched our tents on the broadest available section of ridge, dumped our loads, and made our way back down, assured that the crime rate on these mountainsides was nothing to worry about. A couple of days later we were back at Camp 1 and spent two nights acclimatising to the new altitude, before both being selected for the first six-man summit team. The following morning we roped up early in the rising sun and made our way along an interesting and enjoyable snow ridge that wiggled its way to camp 2 (5700m) at the bottom of a large snow slope. It was two in the afternoon by the time we'd pitched our tents and we reverted the long process of boiling water for our mountainside fix of tea. On this beautiful evening we were excited about the prospect of moving up to Camp 3, until the weather had other ideas. When the sun goes down in the mountains the temperature instantly drops to the point of a few more immediate layers of clothing anyway, but this was compounded as a large storm blew up during the night. When we emerged from our tents in the morning, we were greeted with near white-out conditions, such that a large amount of new snow had blanketed the slope. Attempting to push through the wind and snow up the slope, and sinking to well above our knees with each new step, we decided to turn back. Six people is not enough to snowplough through that permanent depth without becoming dangerously exhausted, and in the worsening storm our reluctant decision to turn around was made for us by the greatly heightened avalanche risk.

On reflection, it probably more valuable for us, as young and inexperienced climbers, to have known that in failure to reach the summit we still achieved more than we could have hoped: had we reached the summit with ease our attitudes to the relative danger of mountains may have developed very differently. Within the need to push yourself beyond your known limits on a mountain, it was also useful to realise that there was still inestimable value in the expedition without the summit that has, we hope, given us an awareness that summitting must not come at too high a cost.

A few days later we were back at base camp with the Union Jack defiantly staking out Little England in our international community of climbers, and there was little to do until the porters arrived for the trek out, so we busied ourselves searching the glacier for large crevasses that we could use for ice climbing. This proved to be a good way to pass the time, and we had an enjoyable few days with axe in hand improving our technique on intriguing ice problems at altitude. We returned to Islamabad the same way we journeyed up, except that our arrival in the capital this time, albeit shocked by the intensity of activity after so long in the empty mountains, felt like a homecoming. Acclimatised to the vitality of the market, the prevalence of the moustache and the piloting of rickshaws, we greatly enjoyed our final few days in Pakistan, even to the point of surrendering style to the mercy of the barber's swift strokes.

All in all, the trip provided us with more grounding than we could have anticipated in many areas, on and off the mountainside and varying from the internet cafes of Rawalpindi to eating in the mud-brick family houses of the hill villages, or from the oppressive heat of the city to the close world of a mountain storm. We enjoyed meeting and climbing with people from all walks of life and from all round the globe, as well as living and working at such intensity with each other. Climbing in a strong partnership certainly improves the chances on a mountainside, in addition to the time that we spent building up essential experience of rope-work and climbing techniques, and we hope that Spantik will have given us an important foothold on the routes of future climbs. (less)

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