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March 21, 2007

Xtreme Everest and the media

It's less than a month since my birthday, but already I am scheming to spend my next one having more fun. Somehow, scrambling over steep, slippery rock in Snowdonia in persistent rain wasn't quite what I had in mind when I enrolled in the Xtreme Everest expedition. I am one of 200+ volunteers undergoing medical tests at various altitudes from sea level to Everest Base Camp (5300m/17,400 ft) to assist research into the effects of low oxygen (hypoxia) on brain, blood and breathing. The mystery is why some folk tolerate lack of oxygen so much better than others.

Our group of 17 leaves for Nepal on 7 April. At least the Snowdonia weekend let some of us meet and we do some team-building stuff – more fun than getting soaked and drained. Sea level testing had taken a full day in London in January, and included cycling on an exercise bike until you drop from exhaustion - in my case at a heart rate of 185 beats per minute. I am not looking forward to repeating this at altitude! It has also emerged that the innocuous-sounding daily "diary" requires a series of measurements before and after a step test that I found tiring even at sea-level. It seems that we have to do this daily, first thing, without so much as a cup of tea first!

The weird thing is that the press thinks this is a story. After seven years of beavering away as a publisher of Rucksack Readers, suddenly there's one feature after another. This week alone there's a story in The Bookseller, a feature in Country Walking magazine and a centrefold imminent in the Stirling Observer. People trek to Everest Base Camp all the time, but it seems that the combination of grandmother, EBC and medical research pushes all the buttons. I am bemused by visits and phone calls from reporters, and a photo-shoot takes longer than I could have imagined. Mustn't be ungrateful though, it will probably be at least another seven years before anybody notices us again – if ever!

April 7, 2007

Preparing to leave Landrick for Nepal

Belated realisation of how unfit I still am, together with a spell of stunning weather, led to a week of work punctuated by the odd hill climb: Dumyat by the less-trodden route, Ben Chonzie which still had mountain hares in their snow-white coats, then Ben Ledi on Wednesday afternoon. Here is Bramble on the summit of Ben Chonzie, with its wonderful 360 views: the mountain behind her is Schiehallion:

brambleShiehall.jpg

Still, I am conscious that these efforts are all "too little, too late" and feel nervous about my ability to keep up the pace/survive the medical tests on Xtreme Everest. And I'm sad about leaving my husband Keir for so long, I'll miss my children, and I'm worried lest grand-daughter Amy forgets me completely in the coming month.

I'll also miss Landrick, which is beautiful year-round and especially now with the bird life on the pond. A couple of weeks ago I looked out to find a mute swan had dropped out of the sky (sadly s/he left the next day), I often see our friendly heron, we have two resident oystercatchers and yesterday the first ducklings were launched by their proud mum:

ducklings.jpg

She can't protect them all, of course, and today only four were left, which upset me more than usual: the callous crows had left the pitiful tiny corpses lying in the open. We leave on an evening flight from Heathrow, so there's been time for a good long walk with Bramble, prepare the weedkiller, half a weekend with the family, finish off the packing and now for the EDI/LHR flight. First I had to burn a couple of CDs for photos downloaded from the digicam, gather up chargers, instructions and batteries for sundry electronic bits and pieces, and generally make sure I've got enough to keep myself occupied: I dread boredom on a long flight, and can't usually sleep. I'm really surprised how full the Jagged Globe kitbag now seems, all for under a month. Just hope I make good use of it all ... and that I can update this blog from Nepal.

April 13, 2007

A clear view of the summit of Everest (from Namche)

From one of Namche Bazaar's internet cafes (altitude 3400m/11,000ft), I'm trying to catch up, despite the sensory overload and backlog of events since I last blogged - not to mention the distractions of street noise and meter ticking at 10 rupees per minute: this is only half the rate in our Namche lodge but still five pounds per hour, a small fortune in Nepal!

The highlight so far was today's pre-dawn excursion from our lodge to the military base which has an amazing viewpoint towards Everest, flanked by Nuptse and Ama Dablam. So I have finally seen the summit of the world, clearly and with awe. I watched the light dawn over the ridge about 7 am. Most iconic of all summits, Everest has entered the English language and seems an overworked metaphor, as whenever somebody is a bit stretched they talk of attaining their "personal Everest". To me, the Nepali name Sagarmatha ("goddess of the sky") seems much more fitting. (Chomolungma, meaning "Mother of the Universe", is the Sherpa/Tibetan name.)

Afterwards, I had a heart-warming experience. On return to the viewpoint later, I had carelessly left my wallet in its cafe-museum. Noticing later, I returned a third time, not in panic, but with total confidence that the Nepali attendant I had spoken to would have kept it safe. He had, and I knew I didn't need to check its contents, although obviously I was happy to reward his honesty: rupees to the value of about 40 pounds in sterling could have represented considerable temptation. So here in Nepal, Friday the 13th was my lucky day.

We (the Xtreme Everest volunteers) are certainly working hard. Our daily routine begins with a half-hour testing session (blood oxygen saturation, pulse and blood pressure, then a strenuous 2-minute step test, then re-test, then swap places and repeat all). We do this before breakfast and sometimes it is followed by further tests (blood samples, exercise bicycle and neuro-psychological). We have trekked so far between Lukla and Monjo, over precarious suspension bridges and steeply uphill to Namche Bazaar. My maximum power output at Namche was a mere 140 watts, but producing it was just as big an effort as the 170 watts at Kathmandu.

We realise that things get inexorably harder as we gain altitude: Base Camp has about 50% of the oxygen available at sea level. But our morale is good, we know why we are here and we are getting feedback on our performance. We also had a good briefing on the brain from a young doctor in Kathmandu, and last night an excellent talk on hypoxia by Monty Mythen. He is a Professor at University College London, and also a great communicator who involves his children in his professional life: his use of Brio toy railway to explain hypoxia will remain with us all a long time.

April 16, 2007

No-frills Pheriche (4250 m/14,000 ft)

We arrived at Pheriche yesterday from Deboche, after criss-crossing the river by various suspension bridges and with a net altitude gain of 550m/1800ft. It's a wind-swept spot, known as "no-frills" and famous for housing the HRA (Himalayan Rescue Association) clinic. The HRA is a wonderful outfit, founded in 1973 to provide free medical care to Nepalis and paid-for help to trekkers. Its daily briefing on altitude sickness is excellent (over 40 trekkers attended today's) and apparently nobody who has attended it has later died of altitude sickness - so far, at least.

Outside the HRA stands a stainless steel memorial to those who have died on Everest since the 1924 Mallory/Irvine expedition. It's inscribed with the names of nearly 200 climbers and sherpas who have died in the attempt. The chilly vertical surfaces of its split pyramid in have ample room for adding the names of those who have yet to die. The death ratio seems fixed at a predictable 1 in 10: one death for every 10 successful attempts. But of course everybody who attempts Everest thinks that this refers to somebody else.

This morning I completed my testing: the normal diary set, plus blood samples and the infamous bicycle ramp test. Although my maximum power output was much lower (125 watts cf 170 watts in Kathmandu) and maximum heart rate also down (160 bpm cf 181 in Kathmandu) I can't say that pedalling the bike was any less effort. However, at least the testing was brief, so there was time to go for a walk and also to attend the afternoon briefing at HRA. We have dinner at about 6.30 pm and retiring later than 9pm is considered staying up very late!

April 22, 2007

Everest Base Camp (5350m/17,500ft)

It looks so simple on a map, Friday's climb from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp, with an altitude gain of a mere 180 metres. But net gain conceals a multitude of undulations - too gentle a word for the stark rocky ups and downs. There was a slow section where we were supposed to keep 10 metres apart because of rockfall danger, but the real reason it took a full four hours was the superb clear weather combined with stunning scenery: you had to stop, stare and take loads of photos. We were walking first alongside, then on top of, the Khumbu Glacier, with brilliant views of Nuptse, Everest and Pumori. Coming into Base Camp, although you can no longer see Everest's summit, the views of the Khumbu icefall were closer and more breath-taking than expected.

Physically it wasn't that tough because we went so slowly, and for once I found myself more comfortable near the front of the group (mostly I've been hanging near the back, but altitude is a great equaliser:). Yesterday's exercise bike ramp test showed a further decline in my maximum power output and heart rate (only 120 watts at 150 bpm now, compared with 170 w/181bpm at Kathmandu) but that's expected. We also did smell and taste tests, had retinal photos, spirometry (breathing tests) and neuropsych (block design, dexterity, memory of 15-word lists, coding and speed reading) so this took most of the day.

The food is definitely more varied than before, with fresh fruit as well as vegetables, and they are working hard to entertain us here. Last evening's illustrated talks were on how your mitochondria handle oxygen (more challenging viewing than Eastenders), and also a photo-history of attempts on Everest. Despite the deep chill inside the communal mess tent, we stayed alert and took in most of this. Back inside my tent it was another very cold night (about -15 or -20°C) and your breath quickly turned into clouds of icicles. Sleep was punctuated by the loud (and surprisingly close) sounds of avalanches from the Icefall. We have just heard that the summit team have postponed their departure as a result: seems wise! This morning I shall explore the Icefall, but with great caution and cowardice as it does seem to be on the move.

April 26, 2007

Namche Bazaar revisited

Yesterday we descended to Namche from Tengboche (3860m/12,700ft). My day began at its monastery, which sits on a spectacular ridge surrounded by snowclad mountains. My three previous attempts to make sound recordings of the monks chanting had failed, so I went along to the service at 6.30am with my sound kit: fourth time lucky. The early service was also more atmospheric than the 3pm one, where thoughtless tourists ignore the clear and understandable prohibition on flash photography. Anyway, the recording was captured, breakfast quickly swallowed and we set off by 8am.

During a net descent of 420m (1400ft) over 4.5 hours, down a path that undulates a fair bit, we felt a rush of well-being as the vegetation grew lusher and the air richer in oxygen. And not far above Namche, we were thrilled to see 7 eagles wheeling and soaring over the valley, really close to the path. You never get that close to a golden eagle in Scotland!

Had a busy afternoon in Namche, rejoicing to find moving around much less effort than last time: what a difference a fortnight makes! Revisited my favourite internet cafe and not only found a raft of emails (thanks, guys) but also played around with our website: it was obvious that, thousands of miles away, my PA had just released a new book (our Speyside Way) so it seemed like a good idea to feature it on our front page. Making this change gave me a curious sense of satisfaction: can't have lost all my brain cells!

The Namche lodge was unexpectedly busy with two other Xtreme Everest groups, Group F having been delayed 24 hours by fog at Lukla airport. Club Namche's chilly basement was transformed for our benefit into a party venue, by sparkly lighting, funky music and plenty of booze. All this followed immediately after dinner, which meant I was still in my hiking boots. (An oddity of trekking is that you often wear heavy boots all day and evening, and you don't always take off any clothes before retiring.) What I didn't know is that the Ceroc session wasn't just a demonstration, but also a lesson and all of us were to take part. So I learned the beginnings of a new type of dance (it's a cross between jive and salsa) in hiking boots, at 3450m/11,300ft!

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Jacquetta in the Xtreme Everest category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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