Sunday, November 9, 2008

from Marpha 23rd October 2008

It seems hardly credible that for half the team the Expedition is all but over. Tomorrow we have a short hike up the road – yes that’s right there are motor bikes and Land Rovers here – to Jomsom. Hopefully at there we will meet up with Sandra Green who flies in from Pokhara tomorrow morning. Tenji from Sherpa Brothers flies in from Kathmandu tomorrow too in readiness for tomorrow night’s party at Jomsom. The following morning half the team begin their homeward journey via Pokhara and Kathmandu.
The remaining 26, those truly addicted to cold, high and uncomfortable places, will then swap their porters for donkeys and head up into the remote and restricted mountain province of Mustang. This should be a huge contrast to what has gone before. We are now in an the arid Kali Ghandaki valley which is hugely different to the jungles and cloud forests of the Magdi Khola which led us towards Dhualigiri. The religion has changed too. We have left behind the Hindu Stupas and swapped them for Buddhist prayer flags, chortens, monasteries and temples.
Marpha glittered in the morning sun as we walked through the narrow medieval streets with player flags fluttering in the strong breeze and water gushing down the irrigation channels that feed the orchards. High on the cliff a Buddhist temple and below it a brand new monestry. The team gorged themselves on apple crumble and fresh coffee in this delightful town that forms a major staging post on the Annapurna Circuit – one of the busiest treks in Nepal. Marpha gives us a taste of what is to come in Upper Mustang which has only been open to Westerners since 1992 and even now has very restricted access. We will be following the traditional Salt Route which, for generations, has been a key trade route between Tibet and Nepal. This will take us into an untainted Buddhist mountain province. Rumour has it that it will be cold!

Dismantling Base Camp

By the morning of the 22nd October all vestiges of Base Camp had been packed away and the site picked clean of litter. We climbed over the Damphus Pass to around 5,250 metres before traversing left on a very spectacular route perched high above the Khali Gandhaki. Eventually, after several kilometres, the path lunged down a ridge descending steeply from 4,900 metres to 3,900 metres. Unfortunately for the stragglers this involved strong winds, a snow storm and a late arrival at our camp at Yak Kharka.
The sunny walk down from Yak Kharka today was a delight. Descending 3,900 metres to 2,800 metres though pine trees, yak trails and always under the watchful eye of eagles and vultures. The Annapurna range dominated the view on the opposite side of the valley all of the way. Then, at last, we came to the delightful Buddhist village of Marpha with its narrow ancient streets and brand new Buddhist Temple. A taste of what is to come in Mustang.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chris's blog from Base Camp after her summit bid (Damphus 6,000 metres)

Getting up at 3.30 am was no fun, especially when the inside of the tent was covered in hoar frost. Group 1 hosted a very chaotic breakfast before we headed out of camp and into the darkness. Denzil, Jim and I brought up the rear of a long line of torch lights heading up onto the Damphus pass.  By day break we were already winding our way breathlessly up the snow and scree slope of the peak. We were going well – 30 steps, then stop for breath, 30 steps, then stop for breath! By late morning we reached the main summit ridge and ate lunch – a boiled egg (frozen), slice of cheese and chocolate bar. (I couldn’t face the greasy Tibetan bread). With axes, crampons and roped up we continued along the ridge, steep snow to one side and some amazing fractured rocks to the other. The summit remained hidden behind so many other false summits and by the time we were nearing 6,000m we were gasping – 5 steps, then stop for breath, 5 steps, then stops for breath – even when it was almost flat! Was it worth it, yes! The views from the summit were spectacular – up onto the 7 and 8,000m peaks of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurnas, way down onto our Hidden Valley Base Camp and deep into the valleys of Dolpo and the Kali Gandaki (where we’re heading next). Celebrations over, we enjoyed a rapid descent with ever increasing oxygen. We had been out on the mountain for just over 12 hours, a spectacular day in the Himalayas and another 6,000m summit reached successfully. At the time of writing, around half of the expedition will have successfully summited Damphus and returned safely – a great achievement!

Maggie's Blog on the last full day at Base Camp

Corrections column: I am told we can still see Dhaulagiri mountain – it is a small, insignificant looking, rounded summit in the distance, looking tiny in comparison to Tachoochi, our nearest  real peak.

Also, Doug says his blood cell centrifuge is NOT power hungry; it is another research project which uses most of the power.

Final day at Hidden Valley Base Camp: Researchers are now rounding up the few volunteers who have yet to complete the programme, including people who were too exhausted on arrival to complete even the so-called ‘sub-maximal’ step test. It’s another bright sunny day and we are sharing binoculars to watch the large party attempting the summit of Damphus. They were woken at 3.30am, with breakfast at 4pm, because the previous day’s party returned dangerously near to sunset, and the sherpas are keen to avoid walking in the dark, which slows everything and increases the risk of hypothermia. A couple of today’s party returned at 5am, having become so breathless that they realised they would not make it. We are existing here on half the amount of oxygen we have at sea level, and many people find themselves taking an involuntary gasp every so often, a phenomenon known as periodic breathing – something that Chris Wolff is investigating.

 James Anholm and Bhavini, from Santa Barbara, USA, are coping admirably with the low temperatures, investigating with Doppler echo equipment what happens to the blood supply to the lung at altitude. Volunteers are given either a drug called Iloprost, or a placebo, and then measured on a sort of exercise bicycle called an ergometer, which has been carried here by our incredibly strong and dextrous porters.

 We have been fraternising with Slovenian mountaineers nearby, thanks to our Slovenian member Petra, from Bovec near the Julian Alps. Doug’s helpers Sven and Jenny also made contact with a nearby German and Austrian group attempting Tachoochi.

 They were involved in our latest medical drama, in which we provided emergency help for one of their cooks suffering the life-threatening condition High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (Hape). He was put into our Gamow bag, with someone pumping oxygen to stabilise him. He was carried over Damphus pass and down towards our final destination, Jomsom, where we hope he has recovered. Sadly, this is a common problem, with some trekking agencies supplying cooks and porters from low-level regions who are asked to climb too high too quickly.

 Tomorrow we will ascend 250m to Damphus pass and descend rapidly to Yak Kharka, so-called because it is summer grazing ground for yaks. We hope it will be warmer and that we will get a big buzz from the extra oxygen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blog from Stephan (Group 1)

After almost three weeks of trekking we felt it was time that group 1 made a contribution to this blog.


We arrived in Beni with a simple mission – to lead the way to basecamp so that we could have first access to the sauna and jaccuzi; there was some mention of setting up some science too. Sadly we had underestimated the other groups and our own desire late starts and short days.


The adventures started about 10m into the trek; what seemed a very simple task (to cross a bridge) became a major obstacle when Petra and Dave (aka Emma Lloyd-Davies) decided to take a photo. As the rest of the group vanished round a corner Petra and Dave were faced with a simple choice – to follow the 50 porters, tents, blue barrels, sherpas, guides and their 10 group mates or to go for the small road to their right. After a couple of hours of walking it slowly dawned on them that maybe they had chosen the wrong one. Thankfully a quick bus ride soon brought them back to the rest of their group and raised an interesting possibility when Jamie asked a passing taxi, ‘How much for Hidden Valley?’


Further up the valley Dave managed to provide some interesting education for the local Nepali children, who now know that Westerners poo in the same way as everyone else, while Joey (aka Zoe) almost became a snack for a praying mantis.


A couple of days later two simultaneous disasters occurred, firstly a fear that we had run out of toilet paper and then Jamie’s trendy sunglasses were accidentally given to a donkey herder. Thankfully the toilet paper scare proved unfounded however if anyone sees a cool looking donkey near Dhaulagiri please send a message to Bangor. Jamie’s problem did result in a new game: ‘Challenge Denzil’. The idea is that you give Denzil a few odds and ends and ask for him to make it into something useful. This can range from a replacement pair of sunnies to a cold fusion reactor (which he’s still working on).


Fears were raised about the manliness of some group members to the extent that some of the (allegedly) female group members drew up a list of requirements to be a real man. While some of these were easy to complete (folding a map, sharpening a pencil with a knife), a few members are struggling with slaying dragons and asking directions. Olivia (aka Sam) is also finding the ‘growing a beard’ requirement slightly hard. A corresponding list of lady-like qualities (mostly contributed by Rob the Pole) provided amusement during a hard day’s walking  including looking pretty in a blizzard and having a headache in the evening.


We finally caught group 3 at a school campsite and put on a show of our Olympian strength with a piggy back race (girls carrying boys). This looked great until Dave decked it onto the floor. In the evening we hatched a cunning plan: to leave the flat and relatively dry campsite to take a rest day at a swamp one day further up the valley. Iestyn led the way in his trademark yeti boots through the delightful cloud forest to a wonderful campsite that featured daily rain, permanent cloud and an attractive mud finish. Realising that group 3 would still catch us up we hatched another plan to hide some of their kit...


The rest day produced some strange effects as Catherine began to dream of Britney Spears and Doug finally began to beat Phan (aka Stephan) in the beard competition. The next day we arose refreshed and dry for the first time in a week and decided it was time to leave the leeches behind. After a brief shower in a humongous waterfall we soon arrived at the glorious Italian Basecamp, though were disappointed by the lack of pizza or fine art. It did imbibe our team with a sense of style though and Sam realised that he could have bedhair without making any effort.


The final few camps before Hidden Valley basecamp featured quite rapid altitude gain and a few headaches and illness, fortunately we were able to ascend the French Pass together to reach the Hidden Valley. Knowing that there would be stocks of tents, fresh vegetables and most importantly more hot chocolate we were spurred into action. This dream was shattered somewhat when we found that basecamp was basically a shoddly errected tent and about three barrels. We put Denzil and Buffy (aka Jim Duffy) to work and A-team like they soon managed to produce a basecamp dome and a hint of electricity. The Hidden Valley proved to be a wonderful campsite with perfectly flat ground and sunlight from 7am to 5pm. The only problem was the wind that knocked down our first attempt at research tents and required igloo like reinforcements.


We were all delighted to see the other groups, not least of all because we could prod and poke them with different experiments and an attempt to collect as much saliva, urine and blood as humanly possible. Jamie and Sam estimate that we will be taking over 2.5kg of frozen spit back with us. If anyone would like to put in a bid for this please text Simon...


Despite the intense cold we are all feeling well and enjoying the science and climbing opportunities. The attraction of teahouses, restaurants and a shave is seeming more appealing by the day though! A big thank you to everyone who has sent messages to group 1 members, it is always wonderful to hear from home so keep them coming!


PS On a personal note, lots of love to Imo, missing you lots and looking forward to seeing you soon.



Blog from Maggie

It’s a true wilderness here – particularly at night when the sky is filled with stars and moonlight. The snow reflects moonlight, making it almost as bright as day, but the hills and mountains take on different shapes and colours. At first sight, there seems to be nothing but snow and rock. However, we’ve seen snow buntings and ravens, plus plenty of yak dung, which seems, strangely to be thrown as an essential part of Sherpas’ football practice. Where possible, we have pitched our tents on little hummocks of dry ground, Arctic tundra on which there is saxifrage, lichens and other unusual plants.

 We aim to keep the area as a pristine wilderness, and have enforced a ‘No peeing in the snow’ rule which seems to be being obeyed.  There was a big rubbish problem, dating back some years, at other camps, but we have seen almost no litter since entering the Annapurna National Park, which started at Dhalaguiri Base Camp. We have lost sight of the terrifying ice faces of Dhalaguiri mountain and have now rounded the corner to pass behind it. We have sent some of our most elite climbers up Damphus Peak – Stuart and Iestyn being the pioneers two days ago – but yesterday Sherpa Dome assessed the climb in trainers, returning just four hours, with no ropes, crampons, ice axes or any of the paraphernalia that Westerners need.

 After the initial chaos, the camp is now an impressive engine. Power supremo Denzil has rigged up one wind turbine and several solar panels, which allow all the sophisticated electronic medical tests to run. One of the most crucial is the power-hungry centrifuge used by Doug, Sven and Jenny to separate blood samples. They are measuring how the immune system works under stress at altitude. This involves volunteers stepping up and down on to aluminium steps while their pulse rate is monitored, in time to a metronome which increases in speed until they are gasping for breath. Highly toned athletes have been reduced to hanging on to their helpers for support, almost at the point of collapse. This is known as the ‘maximal stress test’ and was quite hard at Bangor at sea level. If the volunteers’ blood samples cannot be centrifuged before the power fails as the sun goes down at 4pm, all the volunteers’ suffering would be wasted.

 Chris Woolf is delighted with the results of his study into periodic breathing and cardiac output. His volunteers have to breathe into a carbon dioxide monitor while heart rate, blood oxygen saturation and blood pressure are monitored, as well as their chest expansion.

 Group dynamics are changing now that we are all together, with climbing and research creating different liaisons. No romance stories will be told here, but several people are competing to have their hand held by Dome when the path is particularly vertiginous.

13 members attempt Damphus Peak today

Three groups left BC at 5am this morning to attempt Damphus Peak this morning. Another 20 are poised to go tomorrow morning. The research is going well and the research is starting to wind down. The weather remains fantastic. All members are fit and well.