’39, 5ft 2, 60kg, shopaholic, beauty therapist with a taste for adventure, challenges and beautiful mountain scenery’.
I feel physically stronger, mentally challenged and spiritually upbeat post Winterskills.
6th March 2015: Feeling deflated I stared at my 25kg, 140ltr mountain equipment bag, contemplating the uncomfortable pain of carrying or possibly struggling to carry the heavy load. Stop procrastinating, just do it I told myself. Leaving Blackburn on the train changing at Preston and onwards to Euston, I looked like a snail, my heavy load of ice axe, harness and all things warm weighing my back forward to 30 degrees. A night stop at Yasmin’s flat in Arsenal- my mountain buddy from EBC- for some positive mental attitude and then onwards to Gatwick Airport, in a slow, calculated sloping manner.
No signal at Gatwick Airport led to failure in meeting Jo and Hugo (very worrying) until we united on the plane. Phew! Great now for relaxation, time to be told what to do by the Guides. A relaxing winter break in the sunny slopes in the South of France. A relief from work, Wifi, social networks, schedule planning and deadlines. How wrong was I!
2 hr drive to Luchon from Toulouse, we were welcomed into Rolfe and Marni’s home in beautiful sunshine. A quick drink as we devoured the scenery of beautiful snow capped mountains before we rushed off to go rock climbing. After harnessing up and then squeezing in to the tightest pair of climbing shoes, (closest I would feel to having my feet binded) I stretched and pulled myself up a grade 4 climbing rock with supporting kick ass girl quotes from Jo (Bradshaw) using some cracks, rock holds and openings, eventually managing to reach the top. I then abseiled down with the occasional sidewards sway here and there. The second attempt was not as easy and soon realized my upper body strength and hand grip was bordering on worse than poor.
That evening we went for a meal out in Luchon. I enjoyed Mark, Marni and Helen’s company, prior to this the latter two were only known to me via emails, invoices, expedition lists and good advice.
Morning breakfast led to quick assessment on kit list. My 25kg was broken down to about 13kg of actual kit needed with 3 tubs of Haribo sweets now becoming part of the group’s food rations. Jo’s observant eyes were quick to notice my mini make up bag which was confiscated straight away. Expedition kit now consisted of 65ltr rucksack, silk sleeping bag liner, ice axe, helmet, harness, 3 x karabiners, 2x prusik loops, 1 sling, crampons, one pair of light walking trousers, one pair of waterproof bottoms, waterproof jacket, thin down jacket, windproof jacket, down jumper, thick fleece. 2 x thermals tops, 1 thermal bottoms, 3 pairs of gloves of variable thickness, warm hat, sunnies, cap, 2 pairs of thick socks, 2 pairs of thin socks, walking poles, head torch, Gopro, Powermonkey, camera, wet wipes and tissues, toothbrush, toothpaste, snowshoes and Marni’s kindly donated walking boots.
I looked at the remaining luggage, a little surprised by what I actually needed and what I thought I needed and reprimanded myself for my poor back.
The start of the trek is at Cauterets resort where I became acquainted with snowshoes for the first time. We began trekking upwards, widening my step and easing my way in to this new contraption attached to my walking boots. Rolfe gave a talk on avalanches, the summary of what remained of the talk for me was remember to have your hand stretched up, allowing people to find you readily post avalanche. Suffocation, hypothermia and trauma were the 3 killers. I have a problem with having my head under a duvet, how the hell will I survive with a ton of snow on me raced through my head. Snow 1 -Raz 0. The second alarming statement: Fight to stay alive. I am a self confessed weakling in mountain climbing strength parameters, how would I physically fight to stay up? Rolfe then mentions a study which found the ones who were aggressive and would not allow defeat survived. Well mentally, I know I am strong but physically I had a long way to go. Snow 1- Raz 0. You get the picture.
Moving on, my snowshoes lightly pressed through the surface on the outskirts of a frozen lake, with a good 20m distance of rope between us. Even if it cracked underneath me, the water would have been knee high. I dreaded the thought of falling in and having wet clothes or boots leading to possible hypothermia. Thankfully we survived the lake. As the walking got steeper, the snow became deeper, snow shoes came off and we were now walking with just our walking boots through soft snow. Neil, 6ft 6, 90kg was in front of me and his legs were bulldozing the snow surface to leave large deep sinkholes. I saw him plummet thigh deep in the snow and watched him trying his best to ease out of the mini snow holes his body had created. These moments I was grateful to be of apetit nature, I edged in front to save some energy of swerving away from Neil’s deep snow feet imprints.
After 6 hours we came to our first mountain hut, home for 2 nights, no electricity, not much daylight as the majority of the hut was deep in the snow. Jo and Rolfe made dinner on a gas burner and then it was bedtime. After having relieved myself in the snow which took careful planning to save night visits, it was time for bed. The warmth and survival for the night was reliance on the 6 heavy duty blankets placed on top of me and one underneath. Greg, later described it as a morgue. I finally fell asleep after 3 hours of leg and feet aerobics desperately trying to warm up.
The next morning was an introduction to crampons and ice axe or in my case everything from helmet straps and harness. Getting the right comfort factor with hats and sunnies became easier with a personalized step routine later on in the trip. Crampons were a lot easier to work with than I had earlier anticipated. Stepping routines with crampons and holding my ice axe correctly up and down slopes were slowly mastered. We then moved to snow anchors, bucket seat anchors, tear drop anchors, T bar anchors, all involve digging and carving out deep snow trenches in order to belay someone up or abseil down. Again insightful, kick ass mentoring girl power Jo was empowering me to stop being so girly and carve this anchor device like a man. I gave it all I could muster to proudly display a great bucket seat.
My obvious failure on this skills course was the problematic lack of aggression on the self arrest discipline. Having my legs held, whilst I lay on my back with my head facing upwards, the fear had morphed as a sweaty back seconds before release on a steep snowy slope. I was lacking in focus and concentration, desperately trying to remember the technique for gripping the ice axe, quickly and aggressively hittingthe snow and instantly throwing my whole body onto my ice axe. In reality this would boil down to a life or death situation. My body was released by Jo and I slid at tobogganing speed, a whizz of white passed me, with no instinctive sense of a possible survival technique. I hit something and heard the words self arrest! Later on, I realized I had hit Rolfe who had tried to slow me down as I shot past him towards the bottom of the slope.
At night, I relayed the incident through my mind, an analysis for self development with a blatant catastrophic conclusion. I hate speed. I hate fast rides, fast cars, I am a self confessing Grandma Daisy in my little car. The sensation of being out of control was so shocking to my body that I found my sensory and nervous system unresponsive to take the next step, which was self arrest. Rolfe, tried to soften my failed attempt by saying “Raz is all love, peace and not war”, but it was evident that would not get me far in the mountains. I hit my ice axe aggressively many times in the snow to take out the passiveness. It was not working.
It was going to get tougher. Next training scenario, climbing out of a crevasse (which was a 4m rope tied to an upper metal staircase) using 2 prusik loops, one for the arm and one for the leg and hoisting myself up this rope, sliding the arm prusik loop upwards followed by a surge in leg power. On my fourth hoist up, I physically was zapped of strength. As I dangled in an uncompromising situation, undignified, my modesty falling away with my frilly underwear on display inaugurated the birth of “Man Pants” from Jo. I shouted out “I can’t do it” amongst painful screams as I tried my utmost to climb further. “The only way is up,” “There is no such thing as can’t” came back at me. Several attempts later in my sorrowful, pitiful state, savior Jo and Neil carried out a rescue attempt. Jo defaulted with an injured finger. Guilty of being responsible of causing her injury, I fought through my pain threshold and edged upwards and grabbed for Neil’s lifeline of a hand, who had for the last 15 minutes patiently waited to rescue me from this climbing nightmare.
The next day we moved on to our 6 hour walk to the higher mountain hut, walking on the glacier, looking straight at the daunting Vignemale Massif. I felt secured being roped up, especially with born anchorman Neil at the bow. The sun had not come out and I soon realized with all my warm attire that my hands within my gloves were frozen. I mentioned to Rolfe that I needed to put an extra layer on. He instantly felt my gloves and mentioned to the group another survival technique. Listen up, do not get your gloves wet whilst filling water bottles in the river as done by Raz yesterday as they will not dry and can lead to hypothermia and frostbite. I did a mental congratulatory bow to have saved their lives learning from my stupidity. Rolfe kindly leant me his dry gloves and soon the sickening feeling had gone as I warmed up.
Petit Vignemale, looked a little daunting viewed from the second mountain hut at 2,950m. It was covered in snow with a steep ridge. Disposing my trust into Rolfe and Jo’s hands, we were roped up and slowly we moved uphill, a loose rope span apart, we made our way up slopes, parallel to a 50m distance ridge edge overlooking long sharp, limb breaking falls. Ignorance and blanking methods were used to concentrate away from the death fall on the right to the varying crampon snow stepping techniques to edge upwards.
The most important aspect of the Expedition Skills Course is the level of team work required, working consistently at good speed and checking up on each other. On a trickier ice or soft snow terrain, I would have moments of slight panic with my mind in overdrive with the possibility of slipping resulting in a harmful domino effect, but those anxiety bursts were momentarily fueling my fear and I was aware that needed to stop. I quickly learnt to stifle those thoughts with constant remembrance to God.
Alhamdolillah (Praise to God), we successfully summited Petit Vignemale at 3,050m and rested for lunch surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Embarking downwards was a test of firmness and sure footedness with strong heel crunching footsteps and wide John Wayne legs. Hugo who at 25, had already proved his unfathomable courage and go getter attitude was right behind me. “You walk that catwalk” he encouraged as I slowly morphed in to crouching ball when the snow got softer or slippier. Staying upright, firm and bold was needed to venture downhill safely. The snow was like Styrofoam, the heel crunching made an inviting sound, firm, gripping and secure. It was very reassuring. Hugo had rowed the Atlantic at 22 with 2 others and walked across Greenland in 1910’s Shackleton type walking kit. I had watched him travel across the glacier solely with his Sony camera filming from various angles with such ease. If only I could bottle what Hugo had I thought. I would relish possessing such courageous spirit. His greatest, hilarious moment was his bravado penguin display, consisted of literally throwing himself on the snow slope, arms stretched out and whizzing down on his belly.
Watching other team members undertake various personal challenges, with their own learning techniques, combating fears and development was an educational tool for me. We all hold certain fears, apprehension about things that hold us back, however it was evident facing our fears and challenging ourselves continuously is the only way we grow and develop as individuals.’ Face the fear’ was a continuous mantra throughout the trip. The final day back to civilization was descending down slopes without being roped and glissading down on my bottom. Great confidence strategy by Rolfe, who categorically said it would be our own fault if we end up sliding down the hill and getting hurt or even worse, facing death. It was our judgement call and decision making on crampon placement, ice axe holding and balance techniques. We were on our own and thankfully we all did incredibly well.
Half way down in the valley was a quick lesson on ice climbing, holding an ice axe in each hand, body in a star like formation I edged my way up. Two eventful rising anchors led to both Mark and Greg’s surprising tumble. Thankfully it was not me, I had enough bruising to verify an eventful Expedition skills..
Thank you to Rolfe and Jo who are attempting Everest next week. Hugo for an excellent role model of Courage, Comedy, Cameraman, Sweeper, Stove Keeper, Wood chopper and countless other roles. Greg an older James Bond type, pilot, diver, CSI, interesting military stories, quotes and great confidence builder. Kam, stargazer, philosophical night debates, chief chef, continuously reassurance of my capabilities and soon Denali team member. Mark, for being my photographer and watching my back, confidence builder and offering snippets of valuable training advice. Final applause to born anchorman, Bulldozer Neil for saving me from my climbing moment and being the giant rock and savior if we were to get in to crevasse trouble. I salute you all.