Everest, Volcanoes & The Problem With Adventuring

Claire asks herself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’

“Being adventurous is simply who I am – whether it be nature or nurture I’m not sure, but there are stories of me wandering off as a two year old seeking my own adventures, much to the anxiety of my parents, yet it’s also from their influence that I have the desire to try new things instilled in me.

As a child I wasn’t aware that I was particularly adventurous, as going camping in the wild, hiking over the moors and finding new hideouts was the family norm most weekends.CK

However, it was only in my late twenties that I started to push myself beyond my comfort zone and I became more aware of the adventures other people were having, which made me envious, and I developed a thirst for wanting to push myself more and more, often not really sure if I was capable but at the same time not really thinking it through either. I developed an attitude of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and the more I pushed myself, the more I wanted to see what else I could do.

In 2009 I took a year out, rented my house out and set off on my biggest adventure yet. I booked 4 flights, Manchester to Mexico, Argentina to North Island New Zealand, South Island New Zealand to Hong Kong and Nepal back to Manchester. And that was as far as my planning went. All I knew was that I was craving a culture shock. Although Mexico was a great country, thick in customs and tradition, it also had a large American influence and it wasn’t until I headed south to Guatemala where I started finding life very different and a lot more uncomfortable. I thrived off each nerve-wracking experience, asking myself ’what’s the worst that could happen?’ – It was a love-hate sensation, well more hate (at the time) and love (once I’d succeeded).

I travelled my way by chicken bus through the very poor but beautiful Latin American countries, largely keeping off the tourist path, living with local families, learning Spanish and meeting fantastic people along the way. I made my plan as I went along, either from recommendation or by reading the travel guide whilst being bashed about on a packed out, rickety, old bus on muddy tracks, finding it hard to concentrate as Latin music blurted out of the speakers and at every stop several ladies hopped on trying to convince you that you need to buy yet another snack.

The only goal I had set myself from the outset was to go running in every place I went to, as you see so much more when running around places, and doesn’t require any preparation. Running was the one thing I had in common with people where ever I went, and I often ended up with a local who running alongside me, wanting to chat, intrigued by me (usually as they were often running in jeans, sweatshirts and woolly hats and I was in a t-shirt and running tights).

In Ecuador, I joined a local’s mountaineering group who taught me how to alpine climb and I had some great adventures with them, summiting several of Ecuador’s highest glacier topped volcanoes. Ironically, it wasn’t the mountains which I was most nervous about but whether I would be able to understand a thing with my not so fluent Spanish (at this point I had only been learning for 8 weeks) but I thought ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ Well, when I struggled to understand they simply repeated it louder (and my reaction tended to be smile and nod). I did become a bit of a mascot for the group and gradually made some great friends (as my Spanish improved).

The thing I found was that whatever I was doing, I always met someone doing something ten times more adventurous than me whether it be mountaineers, or people on their own hunt for adventure such as charity workers, using their time and skills to help others, such as the volunteer vets helping the sloths and turtles and the aid workers supporting orphaned children and women who had escaped violent homes. This spurred me on to push myself even more and make the most of every opportunity.

As Nepal was my final destination, and my 30th birthday, I had decided to treat myself and had booked with a company to do a 3 week expedition, incorporating three 6000m mountains in the Everest region. I headed to the Annapurna region and raced around the circuit and sanctuary in ten days, a) to get some fitness and b) to see as much as I could as I only had 2 weeks before my expedition started. On returning to Kathmandu, I found out that my expedition had been cancelled – I was so disappointed. I started walking around the tour offices to find other adventures to do and came across the Tenzing-Hillary Everest marathon. This would be the perfect finale to my goal of running in every place! However, I had never run a marathon – and the running I had done throughout my trip had been an hour maximum at jogging speed. I wasn’t really sure if I was capable but ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ I asked myself…well my flight back to Manchester was on 1st June, and the marathon was on 29th May – that was quite a major factor (as I was pretty homesick by this point and was looking forward to going home). I told myself to stop thinking and just do it, after all I still had 4 weeks to train for it J.

I set off to the Kumbu region, trekking from teahouse to teahouse and visited most of the villages in the area. I met many brilliant people, all doing amazing and inspiring things, people who had either summited, or were en route to summiting Everest; I had afternoon tea with David Walsh, the famous Sports Sunday Journalist who was writing about Lewis Pugh who was there to swim in a glacial lake at 5300m in just speedos to make the world aware of the problems of climate change. I met a guy sponsored by Skype setting up internet links between the primary schools around the region so that they could support each other more and I was humbled by the work of the volunteer doctors who had set up medical rooms in tea houses to treat the porters who often suffered maltreatment.

I managed to summit two 6000m mountains before heading to the Everest Base Camp to start the marathon. The marathon was the best (and hardest) thing I had ever done to date and I was high on adrenaline during the whole race, being cheered on by teahouse owners who I had befriended along the way. I made it to the finish at Namche Bazar in one piece – much to my amazement!

The ‘problem’ with being adventurous is that you’re never satisfied – once you’ve achieved something you thought you couldn’t do, you gain that little more confidence and start looking for something that little bit harder (and scarier!)”

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Mountains, Crampons, Tears & Toasting

Nicola tests her adventuring limits in memory of lost loved ones:

“I believe you have to make the most of life & so I like to challenge myself. I was brought up walking in the Lakes & it’s where I am happiest.  In 2007 we lost my Auntie to cancer so as a distraction for us all & to bring the family together I proposed that we’d climb the national 3 peaks (Ben Nevis, Scafell & Snowdon).

In 2009 cancer struck again, this time we lost my Granddad and I started thinking about what my next challenge would be. I knew it would be something with the mountains again but I wanted to push myself harder. 2009 was the same year as the celebrity Kilimanjaro challenge for Comic Relief. However, I didn’t want to jump on that bandwagon so started looking at other mountains & after some research I decided Mont Blanc would be it.

Battling a bit of panic on the summit

Battling a bit of panic on the summit

I did some research & I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe standing at 4,810m & can be a dangerous place. It is constantly covered in snow so we had to gain some basic alpine skills of crampons, using ice axes, walking with ropes and over crevasses, all at altitude.

We booked the trip with a specialist company and their website had lots of advice for kit & fitness requirements, which basically said we needed to able to run a half marathon in under 2 hours. So I took up running! After a few weeks of hating it, I started to build up my fitness and I loved it. I entered races to test myself and to help keep focussed.

The day of the trip finally came & off we set…

On the first day we headed to the Mer de Glace glacier to be tested on our alpine skills and my first, of many, challenges! The glacier sits about 300 to 400 feet below a cliff top which is accessed by a via ferrata, basically metal ladders and rods cemented into the cliff with no ropes or anything to clip on to. I’m pretty clumsy so when it comes to climbing things or heights, I get nervous. By the time I got the bottom I was shaking like a leaf!

Down on the glacier we got our crampons on and spent the next 2 hours walking along the glacier, in & out of crevasses practicing our technique. We had been fortunate that 2010 was a very cold winter, so we’d been able to gain some experience wearing crampons in the UK. However, I found it very different and difficult to grasp the basics out on the ice and spent most of the 2 hours sliding into the crevasses & trying to crawl out of them!

During our lunch break I was so annoyed at myself for not being able to grasp the crampons and knowing it was a key requirement for the summit in a few days’ time I found a small crevasse & continued to practice.

The second day involved altitude training at Aiguille Du Midi, 3,842m, which is accessed via a cable car from Chamonix centre. We geared up in our harnesses, crampons & got roped up before heading out of the safety of the cable car station & on to the ridge down onto the Col du Midi. The ridge itself was very daunting, it was just about wide enough to stand with your feet together & no more. Thankfully the clouds were low that day so the visibility wasn’t great, this I realised later, worked in my favour as there was a sheer drop either side of the ridge. When I found out at the end of the day I burst into tears.

Unleashing my inner Ice Queen

Unleashing my inner Ice Queen

From the Col du Midi we walked across the glacier over to Ponte Lachanal to do my first ever ice climb & I was scared! The climb itself was up a 60 degree slope of about 100m and half way up, to my surprise, I started to enjoy it. At the top we walked on snow slopes for another 10 minutes to find a nice spot for lunch. This was where they broke the news to me that I had to go back the way we’d just come. Now I was petrified! I think I even tried talking them into a different route so I wouldn’t have to do it! Very slowly though I made it back down & I was really proud of myself, I’d done it!

We then headed back for the ridge & up to the cable car station!! Knee tremble time! Especially as it’s now later in the day & it’s busier with people wanting to pass you on this 12” knife edge!!

Ouch, by day three my legs felt like lead! I’d been so tense over that last 2 days and all the stuff we’d been doing it was a challenge getting out of bed & standing straight, let alone walking in my boots. The realisation of the challenge was starting to hit me & I was having doubts about my abilities.

We headed for Petite Aiguille Verte at the top of the Le Grand Montets glacier for more crampon & altitude training. Trying to get my aching, tired legs up this mountain took a lot & then there was a prospect of another ice climb, I wanted to cry. I think our guide took pity on me at this point and suggested we practiced my descent techniques instead.

That evening we found out that Mont Blanc wasn’t going to be possible. We needed two clear days & there was only one on the horizon. They’d been hoping we could travel to the Gouter hut on Thursday through the storm & climb Mont Blanc on Friday but the guides said there’d be risks of an avalanche due to the fresh snow. We were given a few alternatives and decided on Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain at 4,060meters. This had some of the same challenges as Mont Blanc but in some senses it was also a lot harder as there’s no access via the cable car, our second day was now a lot longer.

The big day arrived! We were teased again in the morning that Mont Blanc might be back on the cards but between leaving breakfast to pack our bags for the trip & returning to the office that hope had been dashed once again. All the guides agreed that it was simply not possible as there was too much snow already up there & storms were predicted that day.

We headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel & out in to Italy. We stopped at a small café on route for coffee, you’d be surprised how many Italians were drinking Chardonnay at 11am!  Our starting point was at 1,000m so we did have a bit of a head start. Today was a relaxing day as it was just over 800m climb to reach the Refuge Chabod & our home for the night. It was a very picturesque both up and down the valley and the walk helped ease my aching legs.

Once at the refuge we had a snooze in preparation for the 4am start the following morning and had an amazing meal considering we were at 2,750m & everything had to be carried there.  The next day we were all up at 3.45am for breakfast & on the trail for 4.30am with our head touches leading the way. The route was very different to the previous day as we had to traverse over to the glacier via a path which had high risk of falling rocks. Once we reached the glacier it was time to don the harness, crampons & walking poles & get our heads down for the long walk ahead. The route took us up to the top of the glacier & then round the back of Gran Paradiso before climbing the steep ridge up to the summit.

Celebrating in style

Celebrating in style

I summited at 9.30am & then promptly had a mild panic attack. However, a quick whiskey & toast to my Granddad help calmed my nerves!

The route back down was via a different glacier & over to a different refuge, Refuge Vittorio Emmanuele, for a quick rest & lunch before continuing down to the cars at 1,000m.  It was a long day, approx 10hrs, with a 1,311m ascent followed by a 2,100m descent. I cried the entire way down due to sheer emotions and the fact that I’d actually done it. I was so proud of myself.

This challenge pushed all my limits, physically and mentally. I was so proud of myself and it gave me a massive sense of achievement. The trip was one of the best things I have ever done. I also found my love for running and is also how I met my husband!”

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