Friday, 22 October 2010

Trip Report - Mount Rolleston, 16th October 2010, by Paul Swettenham

I had wanted to climb Mount Rolleston from a young age after hearing stories from my Granddad or ‘Papa’ as we called him. He spent much of his time in Arthur’s Pass and would take my mum (and her sister) to the Pass, in August for school holidays to the family bach. He climbed many of the peaks in and around Arthur’s but his favourite and one of his most memorable missions was Rolle.

He told of returning after summiting, coming down and seeing the glow of his father’s cigarette in the dark waiting for him, of course they had no headtorches back in the day and this guided him back to safe ground.

My Papa had a great life and passed away some 13 years ago. Before his funeral I sketched Mount Rolleston on his funeral programme and vowed that one day I would climb the classic Canterbury peak in honour of my Papa – Albie Fehsenfeld.

After a stint of 10 years away in Bristol, Edinburgh and the Himalayas I returned to Christchurch for a year in 2008 only to be thwarted a couple of times but yet persevered, believing that one day I would stand on the summit my papa had, joining so many other keen climbers that had come before.

I joined the CMC after finally returning to ChCh in June of this year, after another stint in the Himalayas with my guiding company Sunstone. In the back of my mind that was always going to be the focus and after a couple of postponements I turned up at El Presidente – Nick Moyle’s pad in Ilam. After meeting up with Wayne and Nick we were off to the Pass, via Darfield picking up Mike on the Friday night.

Good banter ensued about climbing & mountain biking and Wayne & Mike had also been aiming to climb Rolle for some 3 years, so there was certainly some shared karma. We listened to Nick’s comments about the classic peak amongst spear fishing & free diving stories gathering kai and we were all excited, yet a little on edge about the ensuing weather forecast.

The NorWester threatened to come in on Saturday arvo – would we beat it?

We snuggled down in Kennedy Lodge and got up at 3am, some brekkie and started to hear some large gusts coming in up the Pass – had it arrived early? Would we be hammered on exiting the bush line?

We set-off at 3.40am from the car park and when we did stick our noses out of the top of the Coral Track – it was completely still. Unbelievable - clear & calm with thousands of stars above us. Suddenly it dawned on us that we were gonna burgle this peak – bring it on. We tramped up donning our crampons, and to our surprise the snow was firm and we weren’t even breaking through too much – another bonus.

The Sun started to rise and the day was going to be a cracker – as long as that bloody Norwester didn’t come in and gatecrash our party. We started to get into the rhythm and caught a party returning concerned about the wind. Jeech it wasn’t that bad we thought– are they crazy!?

The first steep pitch the boys cruised up and the snow had good purchase, a little soft in places but timing was looking good and we pressed on as things could only continue to soften. We came to the gap with Nick checking the route out and as we decided conditions & confidence was good, we decided to climb without ropes on this crux of Rome Ridge. We rounded this and got onto that classic ridge line with fantastic exposure over to the Crow Valley and with the Low Peak firmly insight – were we really going to nail this? – Yep it seemed so – bring it on.

More hard work and we maintained a good pace kicking on and taking in the sublime views as we gained height. Finally we made it to the Low Peak having fantastic views over inversion clouds out to the West Coast and Tasman Sea and the first view of the smooth Crow Glacier that borders middle Peak and leads to our final goal – High Peak and the Summit of Mount Rolleston at 2275m.

We pressed on to finish the job off, crossing the Crow Glacier. A last crux stepping right, making a small traverse with huge exposure, hundreds of meters below to crank the axe and gain the final summit ridge. Nick kindly offered the summit and I took the honour for my Papa. I finally topped out and looked around at the majestic 360 degrees views on a perfect bluebird day. The boys came up to join me and we toasted the old boy – Albie with a beer on the summit. An unusual brew a Mad River ‘Steelhead Extra Pale Ale’ that my Dad had flicked me.

9.30am summit – just under 6 hours. We had a good old drink and reflected how bloody lucky that we’d burgled it, but of course only half the job was done!

Time to cruise it down. A snack on Low Peak and we cruised down the lovely soft conditions towards the Otira Slide and once on it pulled out a few arse slides. Warm sunshine and that lovely feeling that you’re out of the danger zone and it’s bagged & tagged, into more chilled surrounds bathing in our glory.

A spot of lunch in the valley discussing the vagaries of life and we cruised on down the creek to the start of the Otira Valley as hints of the Norwester came in and the wind started to get up. We were home & hosed and it was off to the Wobbly Kea for a couple of pints to spin a few more yarns and plan the next mission.

Thanks to Nick Moyle for leading the trip and trip members Wayne Robertson (driving), Mike Jennings, Paul Swettenham.

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Sunday, 23 May 2010

(Part2) Annapurna Base Camp Trek (Annapurna Sanctuary), A benighted homestay with a farmer and return to Pokhara

We pressed on after enjoying the luxury of the hot springs with an early start and goal of trying to get all the way back to Pokhara. Normally you take a bus from one of the last villages ie Nyapul or Phedi but because of this preiod of 8 days Bandhe (political striking)there would be no movement on the roads today. A little ambitious tp try and push through the whole way and the day proved to have a few delays with an absolute torrential down pour that made for a longer lunch than planned.

We trekked on with beautiful views up to Deurali (another Deurali) as the big cumulus clouds were ever so cotton wool against the striking deep blue sky. A friendly dog joined us and as the sun began to set we were going to come up short for Pokhara. We pressed on (being well prepared with headtorches & tent if needed) but started to get very tired and with sore feet after over 11 hours on the go,frpm out of the shadows a local farmer offered to put us up for the night - we looked at each other and agreed - YES that would be lovely - not much debate there. We were fed beautiful Dhal Bhat and warm goats milk in the traditional Nepali kitchen by Grandma - and I have to say it was one of the best Dhal Bhats I've ever had!

A friendly dog decided to follow us for about 3 hours (not uncommon in Nepal) but it was rather embarassing as the farmer (and his family) presumed it was ours. We couldn't seem to shake him and so attached to us he even came and stayed in the room we'd been put up in for the night! The family seemed to accept this but I think maybe they thought there was something in it for themselves, evidence of which when they tried to shackle the dog to a pillar, but he duely escaped, as this dog seemed a bit special, a bit of a littlest hobo and he seemd to have his own agenda, calling his own shots!

The next day we awoke to a beautiful sunny day and headed off, thanking the family for there most generous hospitality and delicious chai for brekkie. The dog kept on our tail, outrunning some rather possessive local hounds until we caught a taxi past Palme. Rather odd, we'd thought the strike was still on, maybe an illegal ride, we piled in with 5 other people and a goat, which started nibbling John's collar to my amusement. We were on the home stretch and pulled into Pokhara discovering that yes in fact the strike had finished, and no we wouldn't have to walk, bike or fly to Kathmandu. We were back in Pokhara over and now could relax and celebrate our trek - lakeside style with a huge breakfast (eggs holandaise, pancakes, refillable coffee) at Mike's restaurant!

We met up with all the new friends we'd met from the trek and had a couple of days hiring a giant pedaloo (pontoon platform boat), kicking back eating & drinking and swimming in the middle of the lake where it's pristine clean with more gorgeous views surrounding us!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

(Part1) Annapurna Base Camp Trek (Annapurna Sanctuary) - Hotsprings, a Fishtail and a Leech!

I met up with John in the beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara before we set off on the classic Annapurna Base Camp Trek, made famous by legend climbers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal whom in 1950 climbed Annapurna I, Don Whillans and Dougal Haston climbed the very difficult 8,091 Annapurna South Face in 1970. Monty Python’s Michael Palin tackled the trek in his documentary ‘Himalaya’ adding a down-to-earth comical insight also.

John was introduced to me through a mutual friend Steve and had been living in Kathmandu for 7 months and had set out on some wild cycling adventures biking across Nepal and venturing down to South India on a 2 month riding soiree, an artist and self – confessed freak we were going to hit it off on our next adventure up to Annapurna Base Camp!

We headed to the local bus station and caught the local bus to Nyapul, where the trail head is situated to start our journey. This was good timing as the strikes or ‘Bandhe’ as they're known was about to kick off on the 1st of May in which the Maoists would use roadblocks to starve people of necessary resources country wide in their campaign to take over the government as the constitution deadline nears conclusion on the 28th May. A little background, the parliament has been made up of an MMP (mixed member parliament)style with all parties having to agree on certain policies to contribute in writing a new constitution. Most commentators agree there is no chance of the majority government making this deadline and this gives the Maoists the perfect opporuntity and justification to try and oust the current Prime Minister/Government and take power, most likely by force. Thus we were happy to escape the mayhem and head for the hills.

We followed the snaking Modi Khola River making our way up through the small villages to Kimche where we would stay, before trying to meet a friend (Saran) in Ghangdruk the next night. Great views down the river valley and a superb Dhal Bhat that had the zingiest fresh tomato, mint, chili sauce - divine to go with the huge carbo load. On to Ghangdruk over a large landslide and surprisingly this village is rather traditional and not a big town as it would seem on the map, no ATM and no internet working - this is definitely more down-to-earth and soulful than the Khumbu Region! We chilled out here for the day meeting our next groupie - Ray from the Nether regions and were lucky to get first views of Machhupachure - 'The Fishtail' peak amongst kids playing in the traditional village Good apple pie and chocolate cake with coffee in the afternoon too!

We awoke to a beautiful day and contoured around the hill to a small village before descending steeply nearing Jhimu (Chimru). A well needed swim was had as we braved the cold glacial waters and were surprised that it wasn't as 'ball-shrinking' cold as we thought. A lovely little waterfall and a 5 minute swim before heading to Jhimu for lunch and to our goal - the legendary Hot springs. A 20 minute trot down the path and we were stoked to see some nice girls in bikinis drinking beer - bonus! Jenny from Sydney and Suze from Dunedin were cool chix, although they did rub in the fact we'd made a critical schoolboy error in not bringing beer down as they quaffed there's down merrily. Great springs at a gorgeous temperature of about 38-40 degrees Celsius it had us jumping in the Modi Khola to cool down and get that tingling feeling through our well used bodies - great times! That night a few beers and we et the lovely French Girls - Constance and Fannie who would make up our group of 5 for a few days!

A beautiful morning with views of Annapurna South 8,091 and Hiunchuli 6,441m as we started the steep climb up to Chhomrung. A little over an hour and we were sipping chai on one of the most gorgeous spots - the view hotel looking right up the valley - just magic! Down the steep steps and a climb to Sinuwa for lunch, pulling in as a torrential downpour hit us, great timing and it only lasted to our 2nd cup of chai! On through the dense rhododendron & bamboo forest towards the village of 'Bamboo', as we rounded the corner we were hit with killer views of the 6,993 sacred peak of Machhupachure - rising hugely to our right with it's definitive double summit and 'Fishtail' profile! A party have only climbed it once in 1957, to 50m of the summit in respect as it is a sacred mountain and no longer is permission granted.

On from Bamboo, another gorgeous day through forest and small tributaries cutting across the path making lovely river crossings over smooth, carved rock. Again we stopped for some 'TrekAir' or 'TrekJumping' a bit of fun with the camera to embellish some small jumps with killer backgrounds - we had found a perfect place.

Check out:!/album.php?aid=180147&id=125604380964

Lunch at 'Himalaya' settlement, following the Modi Khola, up to Hinku cave and we started to get some huge waterfall action, stunning atmosphere as we pulled into Deurali. As we were having a chai I noticed a leach down by my foot, thinking it was rather odd, as we had gained height out of the jungle now and jokingly said 'it must have hitch hiked up on someone!!!! Little did I know that ride was me. Not until the next morning when we had set off in cloudy, rainy conditions had I started to get hot and pulled my woollen hat off, with Ray spotting something on the back of my head. Of course I thought he was joking, it felt like a big lump of dirt, but in fact was a mass of congealed blood. Unbeknown the leach must have attached itself to the back of my head when I stopped to rinse my face in a small but rapid, waterfall and clung on for the ride. It must have just fallen off at Deurali just before I put my hat on as I cooled off and because I had left the hat on all night, even when I slept, it had nicely compressed the 2 pronged wound rather nicely. it was very clean, as leaches are and as they release a local anaesthetic, very cunningly, you just don't feel it! Oh well 'onwards and upwards' we pressed on, with clouds and rain threatening, up through a beautiful valley, lined with waterfalls very reminiscent of the Milford Tramp in Fiordland, NZ. We made it up to Machhupachure Base Camp just as rain was starting, but it is often only for short periods, so we'd timed a chai break nicely once again! Our plan was to head up to Annapurna Base Camp after lunch and return to sleep at MBC.

The rain cleared offering us a small weather window, donning our wet weather gears,
we gave it a shot! It's a gradual climb from MBC to ABC, but be warned the altitude can catch you out if you aren't already acclimatised! With the old addage "climb high, sleep low" we thought we would take it easy and get up to ABC for a cup of chai and return to MBC! We cruised it, although Fannie did start to feel the mild effects of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness)being a bit nauseous and head spinning and she made the right decision to head down accompanied by Constance. The boys pressed on, feeling fine and it up to the 4180m Annapurna Base Camp as another front of rain came in - it wasn't going to be our day for views but fortunately we had tomorrow morning up our sleaves. We decided to keep it a short cuppa and run down to check on the French Gals. The rain was coming down and we arrived back at MBC in half an hour to meet the girls just pulling into the lodge. Fannie was still a little spun out, which can be quite normal considering the large ascent we'd made from Deurali (2700m)which meant we'd climbed some 1200m to MBC! My advice in this situation is to hydrate a lot (water, soup, chai etc) and not go to sleep as you may not wake up and often your body just needs those extra few hours to acclimatise and settle down! Always good for your mates to keep an eye on the patient too to observe any changes like vomiting, frothing at the mouth, irrational behaviour etc which may indicate a worsening condition into HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) which can be fatal within hours if not treated correctly. If in doubt get the patient down 300-500m ASAP!

A good night of cards and great momos ensued with an amazing sunset in which fishtail reared it's head a long with Gangapurna and an amzing inversion looking down the valley! Spindrift was licking off fishtail and the light became a photographer's dream exposing the sharp jagged peaks.

For more pics check out:!/album.php?aid=181117&id=125604380964

The next day we again awoke to atmospheric cloud action and John & I decided to head down, with Ray and the gals deciding to at least tag ABC and also give themselves the opportunity to potentially score some better views, if it did clear. John and I were focused on a big day, heading right down to Jhimu (to collect beer) and hit the hot springs for 5.30pm! We cranked it down, with lunch of Dhal Bhat at 'Bamboo' and motoring up the steep steps up to Chhomrang and hitting our hotspring date just nicely! That beer did taste great!

Check out some photos of TrekAir /TrekJumping:!/album.php?aid=180147&id=125604380964

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Lobouche East Peak climb 6119m

Monday 11th April - Approach to Base Camp.

We dropped down to Pheriche having some farewell beers and goodbyes to the Everest Base Camp Team of Mats, Emma, Steve, Om and Nima. A quick update on the excellent, albeit expensive Internet connection near the HRA (Himalayan Rescue Association) and we set off back up the Hill. Lunch at Thukla and we were heading our way to Lobouche Base Camp, a mere 1 hour after drinking chai. Low pressure with snow clouds really started brewing giving us the hebee jebees but things can change quickly in the Himal, and we were ever hopeful. It calmed slightly but the amazing clouds gave an incredible fiery red sunset viewed from a ridge above Lobouche Base Camp with views of Cholatse, Taweche and toward Ama Dablam were epic!

Check out the video:

Back to camp for a great dinner - broccoli soup with mini pompadoms. Main of rice, dal, mutter paneer (peas and nak's cheese), mini sausages, eggs that had been boiled & fried with a super interesting dessert of Aloe Vera cubes which were delicious! Reading the 'book thief' so off to bed to chill and await tomorrow's sunrise and chill out in Base Camp for a nice laid back rest day!

Sunday April 12th - Rest Day at Base Camp.

Awoke 5.30am - it just gets earlier and earlier - age!? or Environment!? Probably both! A superb super clarity bluebird day which had been the norm, disrupted by the low pressure last night and was great news as the snow flurry that signified an oncoming storm had passed or we had thought had past! We may just get the good weather we're hoping for but we'll have to wait and see. I walked up the ridge taking in views of Ama Dablam. Cholatse and Lobouche Peak as the sun started to dance on the high ridge tops. I was joined by a beautiful black Himalayan dog as I climbed higher on the ridge on the perfect morning perched over Lobouche Base Camp! Gotta love those Himal dogs - proper hardy dogs them. Don't build 'em like the use to in the West!

Monday 13th April - Trek to High Camp.

Another bluebird day after a clear starry night. A crazy little mammal running around which was either the yellow-throated marten or a mongoose!? Anyways provided much camp side entertainment as it circled around doing laps at a million miles an hour - but always staying close to the safety of the rocks.
We trekked up, slow & steady taking in views of the crags and spotted a Golden Eagle circling for prey! We arrived as they Sherpa boys were putting up the tents for us but again swirling clouds started coming in! Check out Pics from the Sunstone Face book Page:!/photo.php?pid=4589136&id=125604380964

I awoke to what sounded like slight drizzle about 11.30pm at night, but peered out of the tent and thick snow had started to gather. Again an hour later it wasn't stopping - I really thought our chance at climbing was over - due to avalanche danger, deep unaccessible snow or just a humdinger of a storm (visibility)! But I awoke at 3am to Mingma opening my tent with porridge (hot milk too) to starry, clear skies - wow - I had really given up - but the excitement and adrenaline was back on -we were going to climb - yee haa! However the snow had warmed and then started to freeze again causing the (normally dry straight forward, dry, smooth) slabs to become icy. I started slipping about a minute in and announced the crampons are going on, the Himalayan boys weren't use to this and I was of the thinking - if ya got 'em smoke'em I mean use 'em! From High Camp we made our way in the dark padding our way up the treacherously icy slabs, using the cracks and features for purchase and light started to slowly break. We made our way to crampon point and, as it snowed a foot of snow in the night the valley and surrounding peaks were beautifully blanketed creating an almost sepia or black & white effect giving beautiful contrast!

Check out picture:!/photo.php?pid=4589096&id=125604380964

We made our way up the 650m of fixed ropes (400m vertical) as the day broke into perfect weather and started to warm the bodies. Some good sustained medium steep climbing, really at about 40-55 degrees and some 60-65 degree cruxes in places. Three quarters of the way up the slope, the route kinks towards the summit ridge, I was behind Saran as he pulled around the corner with views of Everest starting to appear. Saran continued cranking it up the lovely sustained steep 55-60 degrees pitch, looking over the exposure you can see the small town of Lobouche right below you...between ya legs. We pressed on reaching the false summit and curved around to the real summit, one small jump over a crevasse (yeah great)which had the heart flutter and we were there - 6119m with epic panoramic views - just sublime! We had summited at 9am after leaving High Camp at 4am in the morning which was great going considering the added precarious smooth slabs and now it was time to parade the Sunstone Adventures banner before getting the hell out of there!

We returned down stopping at High Camp in great weather, as the wind started up throwing spindrift off the top of the peak making our way to Base Camp. We had a lovely greeting by the Sherpa boys whom had done a great job supporting us on our climb. We had chai and I was even made cheese & tuna sandwiches, chilling on the rocks as the sun bathed down on us. We retired to our tents, wallowing in the summit glory having a great siesta! We rose for a good dinner of spaghetti and fried chips. Pretty knackered and we all slept like a baby, knowing we'd bagged a beauty of a 6000m peak!

I awoke to a beautiful blanket of snow as we again had a couple of hours snow. Again bluebird day and time to pack up BC and cruise to Pheriche for lunch and update the world on the Internet. A surprisingly good connection at 4300m but a little pricey at 20 rupees per can pay 20 rupees per hour in Dolohiti, Kathmandu! A good lunch at the lodge and we pressed on to Pangboche, but before we did we stopped in for 'tea' which quickly turned into 2 jugs of the local 'chang', the millet beer from Mingma Sherpa Tshering, our climbing Sherpa and his wife. We cruised on, rather happily tipsy and pulled into Pangboche for cards, dal bhat and a few more glasses of chang! Nice to have a wee celebration in aid of summiting Lobouche Peak!

A few more updates on the Internet and soaking up the congrats emails was great as we made our way further down the valley. We walked to Phangetenge and had a killer chili tomato soup which not only cleared off the 'chang-over' but blew my head off! As we were dropping altitude some swirling clouds arose, creating an atmospheric walk back up the 3 hilly sections to Namche Bazaar. We reunited with team member Steve who had descended to Namche and done a side trip to Thame. Steve went up to a medieval Sherpa village called Taranga, mostly inhabited by Sherpa farmers producing spuds. He had enjoyed some good photography and relaxing after a top effort making it to EBC and up KP!

Made our way down to Lukla and were delighted to see Man U beat City in the local derby in the English Premiership with Scholesy finishing a tight game in the 93rd minute. A few beers to celebrate especially with spurs doing Chelsea suddenly the Red Devils are looking like winning the premiership! Awoke early and had a smooth transfer returning back to Kathmandu! Happy days and a zeeperb trip. Although how many frickin' motorbikes are in this town!? I swear I'll get my toes run over one of these's only a matter of time!

A big thanks to all the Sherpa support from Saran, Mingma, Nima, Om, Dai and Bhopal!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Everest Base Camp Trek & Kala Pattar

A good climb up the dusty steep track to Namche we honed in our first acclimatisation goal to stay 2 nights at the busy little trading bazaar. It was great to get there and have a decent espresso coffee and chocolate brownies at the Everest Bakery - yumlicious! The next day (a rest day) we carted ourselves up the relatively steep track to Everest View Hotel to let our bodies feel some altitude and return down to sleep. Lovely hot chocolate on the balcony with sublime views of Everest 8848m, Lhotse 8516m, Lhotse Shar 8386, Peak38 4587 and Ama Dablam 6812 - what a beauty of a day and great 'posi' for a drink or lunch!

The next day it was time to set off to the beautiful Monastery of Tengboche to see the Monks perform their Mantras. Again a steep climb after lunch but well rewarded as we pulled into town greeted by the beautiful chortens and rich coulurs of the temple. Again we found the 'Lavazza' sign and it was another last chance for real coffee. A great little guesthouse and an early rise to capture the first of the sun and the young monks welcoming in the morning blowing Conch Shells. For cool video please see:

We trekked on through Deboche and winding our way up to Shomare and nearing our next acllimatisation spot of Dingboche at 4420m where, as entering we received our first views of the 6119m East Lobouche Peak. Our group was divided into 3 whom were heading to EBC (Everest Base Camp) and a couple of climbers to make their first ascent of this classic 6000m peak.

Another 'Rest Day' although local guide and slave driver Super Subbaman had a half day trek planned up the Nankhanshang ridge fopr us which takes you up to 4800m although you can go to the peak at 5100m which was perfect acllimatisation for the Lobouche climbers. I was very lucky to see a huge Golden Eagle making an awesome flight right over me, searching for prey. A good climb in gorgeous weather and it was down to chill out, do some washing of socks/gruds etc and a spot of reading. For lunch I tried some unusual fermented cheese that was wrapped up in savoury pancakes with garlic & chilli and tasted like blue vein cheese - delicious! We were sharing the lodge with Russell Brice's Himalaya Experience group which was made of both clients looking to climb Mount Everest and trekker heading to EBC in support of them. Was nice to catch up with legendary Mountain Guide 'Woody' from Queenstown,NZ whom I met skiing in Gulmarg, Kashmir just a month previously! It's a small old world!

We cut across the hill, the next morning, overlooking Pheriche and a huge braided river valley which led up to views of Taweche, Cholatse and across to Lobouche Peak. Tea at Lukla and up through the Everest Memorials (in memory of past Everest climbers) and up to Lobouche, where at close to 5000m the air was beginning to thin rapidly. The next day it was all on, the push to Gorak Shep and onto the iconic Everest Base Camp. We toiled through the moraine, again with blazing sun coming down on us, sucking up as much water as possible to counter that thinning air. We were all on good form after some good sleeps and looked to be all on track! A final push and Mats, Steve and Emma and the rest of us looked in good form. We wound our way up through the moonlike landscape, undulating up and down with surreal views of the Khumbu Glacier that curves around past EBC and up into the legendary risky Khumbu Icefall. Views of Everest start (only viewed on approach to EBC nad are obscured when you are actually there) as we finally reached the 5364m cairn and start of Everest Base Camp - we'd made it and took some great celebratory photos/videos and a wee celebration ensued.

The mission wasn't quite complete with the fantastic viewpoint of Kala Pattar (5545m) yet to be tackled the next day. A lot of people get up for sunrise but I’m a fan of a little later, as it's less cold and the photos are a lot better with the sun rising over mighty Mount Everest and the huge Nuptse wall. Steve, my Aussie roomy (yes be careful of your wallet with those Aussies ;-) had a bad sleep but showed good determination to give it a crack. I was to climb Lobouche so decided to head off in front and give the body & lungs a bit of a push which proved great as I beat my 70 minute record getting to the high point in 62 minutes. The rest of the group did a great slow & steady effort reaching an hour later which was a good effort for veterans and rookie trekkers alike. The views were extremely rewarding and I would always recommend going to both EBC & KP as they each have their own unique, amazing features of mind-blowing landscapes.

Well done guys & gals what a great effort and Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar are certainly no walk in the park - just ask anyone who's completed them. It takes a tough, focused effort with many elements having to slot into place to get the result and achieve the goal. Now we just had to get down!

Thanks to all the team of Saran, Nima, Om and clients: Mats, Emma and Steve - a superb time had by all!


Friday, 2 April 2010

Helicopter ride to Lukla with some pre-flight sightseeing in Kathmandu

After catching up with friends Saran (Nepalese mountain guide) and Steve (ex-pat Aussie and Nepali language scholar) in Kathmandu for lunch it was great to meet the trekking group. A lovely traditional Nepali welcome dinner with great food (royal dahl bhat) and traditional dancing we all got acquainted with Emma (swede), Mats (swede) and Steve (Aussie) over some Raksi (local rice wine). The group were all planned to trek to Everest Base Camp, with Steve heading off to Gokyo Lakes, Emma & Mats returning to Namche and Sarran and I to climb 6119m Lobouche Peak with support from expedition Sherpas. Interestingly Lobouche is a classic 6000m peak used for acclimatising for Mount Everest expeditions and is one of the most technical trekking peaks with 250-300m of steepe, fixed rope ice climbing. I had bumnped into legendary Kiwi mountain guide 'Woody' who was working for Russell Brice's Himalaya Experience and they were planning to summit Lobouche in preparation for an Everest summit attempt. If successful this would be Woody's 14th Everest summit - pretty full on! 

A city tour was planned the next day and we met up 9am setting off in the mini bus to Boudinath Stupa, a short drive from thamel in Kathmandu. It's an amazing stupa with the characteristic 'buddha eyes' and huge white dome-like body surrounded by temples and yes the commerce side of things - tourist shops! We were given an excellent talk and tour by our guide Nabeen and learnt about the wider history of Buddha and how this related to Boudinath. We learnt about the traditional Thanka paintings - mandalas and the wheel of life and how they are painstakingly crafted over months and sometimes years! 

After a good look around it was off to Durbar Square in old Kathmandu. An ice cream and a look at some of the beautiful temples, one of which had some rather intricately carved sexual positions from what they call'lion style' (doggy style to us Westerners) to 'the wheel barrow' and so on - a good laugh had by all. That night we chilled out and made last minute purchases of supplies (snickers and bounty bars for me) and had a nice relax over a few beers.

The airport over the next couple of days was the usual chaos and we found ourselves waiting, being pushed back because of delays (the day before) and losing the 'calm weather window'. So by midday the wind had risen above the 12knots in Lukla(apparently this is the benchmark of wind knots they won't fly over). Frustration was starting to mount after being put on the runway bus several times and returning to the departure lounge. It was obvious it was not our day and better to try and secure a morning flight slot. Off to 'fire and ice' for the best pizza in Thamel and to Kilroy's that evening for more comfort food feasting! 

Take 2 and things went from bad to worse with a plane breaking down and not much action of planes flying to Lukla at all. Classic disinformation and time was ticking for clients on an agenda - we needed to get out of here! Mats (Swede) decided enough was enough and hired a helicopter (knowing the rest of us were not in a position to fork out the $600USD each) he spoke to us saying there was no obligation but there was however, 4 available seats on the chopper if we were keen! Of course we took up this very generous offer and bailed from the dysfunctional mess humming our way to Lukla on the giant mechanical insect. As thanks I bought him 'touching the void' by Joe Sumpson as I had discovered, in previous conversation he hadn't read it and he was delighted by the gift.

We were off buzzing over the dry, mountainous landscape with cut gorges from silky relecting rivers - what a way to start trekking to Everest Base Camp by an adrenaline filled 50 minute chopper ride! We touched down in Lukla and we were finally on the trail tramping our way to Phakding , sucking in the clean mountain air, taking on the dramatic environs of the Everest Highway and soon slurping on tea as we pulled into our teahouse! Thanks again Mats - hero of the day! Rock on!

Vids to follow on Sunstone Facebook page.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Crazy Indian VISA rule made in January – you must be out of country for at least 2 MONTHS before returning to India even if you have a multiple entry

Yes it would seem, after much investigation the rumours are true. Even if you have been granted a VISA with allowable re-entry, the Indian Customs can and will deny you entry back into the country if you have not remained outside for AT LEAST 2 MONTHS!

On exit Customs officials are stamping some passports with a stamp reading you may not return within 2 months and others, like myself seem to get no stamp which is adding to the confusion as I flew my way from Delhi to Kathmandu in Nepal.
Even failing to verbally pass on this vital information to myself or other fellow travellers just seems crazy.

This seems absolutely absurd as it seems to apply to travelers who have already been issued a multiple entry VISA and now they have just slapped down this rule to include EVERYONE without any kind of notice. Initially I thought this was classic Chinese whispers amongst the backpacker community and just applied to people wanting to leave the country, get a new VISA and then return to India. Ok I guess I was trying to use some logic, stupidly my friend Pete reminded me!

You can apply for a ‘Permit to Re-enter Within 2 months’ ‘This permit is granted only if the need is urgent, and not for Business Activities/Employment or pursuing studies/research, etc.’ Or ‘If the visa holder is traveling to multiple countries on the same itinerary, no permit is needed as long as trip follows the itinerary exactly. The visa holder must carry a copy of the itinerary to show the Immigration Officer.’

Again this is just added bureaucracy making for more hassle and lining up in unorganised government offices, where process is extremely unclear and officials unhelpful. The BBC article written in December states that the Indian Government are using this as a justification because of David Headley’s involvement (who was charged in connection with the 2008 Mumbai attacks) due to his travel back and forward to identify targets.

Rumour has it that even some foreign nationals now have to return to their place of origin to gain a new VISA to return to India which in some cases can mean timely and expensive travel, rather than shooting off to Kathmandu or Bangkok to get a renewed VISA.

I hate to think how this will affect tourism in Nepal, as many backpackers wish to just trek or climb for a month and pop back over to India, within their 6 month VISA, now this seems a little more difficult and may take some extra planning & thought. Good old Indian bureaucracy....when will the unbelievable cease to amaze?

Further Links:

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Overland Kashmiri Trip from Srinagar, Jammu to Delhi

After chilling on Nageen Lake in the excellent 'Lake Superior' Houseboat, owned and operated by Gullam Langoo, for 2 luxurious days it was time to head back to the hub of Delhi.

Watching the sunrise over the Himalayas, with the lake people coming to life is a great way to end a ski season, or for that matter a week or three, in Gulmarg skiing. I visited the Hazbaral shrine on Dal Lakeside which had many worshippers visiting, praying and chilling on the green lawns with friends and family. I returned to chillax for the afternoon, to be paddled around Nageen Lake, finishing off a Wilbur Smith novel as the water lapped up on the Shikara sunbathing in perfect 25-28 degree sunny weather.

I normally fly out back to Delhi but was keen to go 'overland' and try something new. For backpackers and dirt bags a like 250 rupees for the (hopefully 8 hour) jeep ride takes you to Jammu (the winter capital) from Srinagar (the summer capital) connecting you to the train that will deliver you back to Delhi. We set off and it wasn't long until we passed through the tunnel and started winding our way through the deep mountain pass, with a lot of traffic ie trucks and buses, it's a little nervy with the (typically) crazy passing manoeuvres and huge drops of hundreds of meters vertical. It was a good jeep, a Chevy Tavera and I was joined with 7 others crammed into the ride, albeit fairly comfortably as we listened to some 'classic' Indian music. Good spirits and trying a some great local food & snacks a long the way ie cashew nuts (that didn't cost the earth) and an interesting kind of Kashmiri Tea (unlike the Northern Kawa) that was more savoury in which you added sesame seeds and salt - very very palatable!

We winded our way down, watched my monkeys on the side of the road and then (the inevitable happened) with us breaking a front axel on the Chevy. A bit of surprise actually as it was rather a new vehicle. We limped a long, after much debate and made it to a mechanic, which was rather hilarious watching them get the crow bar and hammer out - clearly not having a scooby doo (clue) what they were up to. Oh well 8 hours turned into 11 and unfortunately I missed my 9.45pm train (380 Rupees) but made it onto the 11.45pm having to buy a general ticket (130 Rupees) but grabbing a 2nd class sleeper seat (luckily not a full train) and upgrading for an additional 120 Rupees, so not a bad result and time to bed down on the train and awake an arrival in Delhi. The 2nd class sleeper is certainly the way to travel, especially if you can score a top berth as this is fixed, and superb for longer trips as you have a seat and the option of having a little siesta should you feel.

We pulled into a roasting Delhi of 33 degrees + and I welcomed my crazy old friend, good old Delhi, it's always an adventure and something crazy around every corner!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The season finale viewing the beautiful Nanga Parbat and Nun Kun Peaks from the summit of Gulmarg Ski Resort in Kashmir.

Well the freezing level was predicted to rise to over 4000m by Tuesday so a last chance to enjoy the last of the silky powder up above 3000m in Gulmarg. I had a day’s guiding with Bangalore ex-pat Guillaume from the US and he was stoked to summit Mt.Apherwat at 4200m exclaiming ‘ This is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen’ and it was one of the most clear days I’ve ever had on the top. Perfect views of 9th Highest Mountain in the world – Nanga Parbat ‘the naked mountain’ standing at 8,126m. It was first climbed by Austrian legend Herman Buhl in 1953.

The first ascent was a bit of an epic by all accounts, and after 31 people had already died trying to climb it you can understand why. After his companions had bailed out on him, Buhl pressed on alone topping out very late around 7pm. It was a lot more of a mission than he expected and was further hampered when he lost a crampon on his descent downwards! When darkness arrived he was forced to bivouac standing upright on a narrow ledge, holding onto a tiny handhold with just one hand. Probably not his best sleep he’s ever had! He managed to hang in there balancing while dozing and was lucky to have a calm windless night. He returned to base camp some 40 hours after summiting, with no oxygen, Buhl is the only climber to make a first attempt, solo of an 8000meter. Incredible effort.

Another beautiful mountain we could see from the summit was the twin peaks of Nun Kun massif which is comprised of Nun (7,135m) and Kun (7,077m). The peaks lie 250km east of Srinagar in the Sulu Valley and are pretty outstanding as a huge white pyramidal massif. First ascent was in 1953 by Pierre Vittoz, Claude Kogan a French-Swiss-Indian-Sherpa team also in 1953.

A breakdown of the 10th Highest Mountains in the World (source Wikipedia).

Everest Sagarmatha (Nepali), "Head of the World",[7]
Chomolangma (Tibetan), "Goddess mother of the snows"[7] 8,848 29,035.44 1953 Highest mountain on Earth, on the border between Nepal and Tibet Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China.

K2 Chogo Gangri 8,611 28,251 1954 2nd highest mountain on Earth. Located on the border between the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County of Xinjiang, People's Republic of China and the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Kangchenjunga Kangchen Dzö-nga, "Five Treasures of the Great Snow" 8,586 28,169 1955 3rd highest mountain on Earth. Located on the border between Nepal and Sikkim, India.

Lhotse "South Peak" 8,516 27,940 1956 4th highest mountain on Earth. Situated between Tibet Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China, and Nepal, in the shadow of Mount Everest.

Makalu "The Great Black" 8,462 27,765 1955 5th highest mountain on Earth. Situated on the border between, Tibet Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China and Nepal.

Cho Oyu Qowowuyag, "Turquoise Goddess" 8,201 26,905 1954 6th highest mountain on Earth. Situated on the border between Tibet Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China, and Nepal.

Dhaulagiri "White Mountain" 8,167 26,764 1960 7th highest mountain on Earth. Situated in Nepal.

Manaslu Kutang, "Mountain of the Spirit" 8,156 26,758 1956 8th highest mountain on Earth. Located in the Gurkha Himal, Nepal.

Nanga Parbat Diamir, "Naked Mountain" 8,126 26,660 1953 9th highest mountain on Earth. Located in the Northern Areas of Pakistan.

Annapurna "Goddess of the Harvests" 8,091 26,545 1950 10th highest mountain on Earth. Situated in Nepal.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Sunshine Peak area backcountry tour culminates 2 epic days of light powder in Gulmarg, Kashmir

Another lovely 50cm snowfall came and produced surprisingly light powder for March. The freezing level dropped further than the forecast predicted and we were in business. A 5 day sunny period of high pressure allowed us to let loose hitting the cornices, bowls, banks and colouirs with reckless abandon. I was astonished when I joined a group of 3 to make the queue a total of 4 for the 2nd phase to open – it really is worth coming to Gulmarg in March with phat amounts of snow base and just a handful of skiers and riders. The gondola guy reckoned there was a count of 18 and our group of 4 riders struggled to see any skiers on the hill, although there was still lots if Indian tourists milling around the mid station and teahouses!

The second day of bluebird was the opportunity I’d been waiting for to branch out and get over to the legendary ‘Sunshine Peak’ area. Most people camp out overnight or iniaite a very early start (staying in G4 etc) but we reckoned we could get over there and back, knowing it would be a late one but with superb weather, lots of snacks, water, extra gear ie headtorches and down jackets (just in case) we set off from G4 at 10.30 (about as fast as we could get to the top and ‘get on the road’).
What an incredible day, we headed across the ridge and dropped into the south-facing bowls (warming up so some Avi risk here) where some snow had already released in slides so we chose a path that had already gone to be on the safe side! We accessed a ridge that would take us to a large bowl system right of the large jagged black pyramidal peak of ‘Sunset Peak’. The ridge was a lovely consistent 25 -28 degrees pitch pretty much all the way up and after 3 hours of skinning we gained some serious vertical. The US boys (Matt, Wes and Lee) were heading out to camp for 3 or so nights and it was nice to share the breaking of trail when they finally caught us up.

We broke for a quick 15 minute lunch as we were conscious of our time, as the slope we had come down to access the ridge was fairly large and I reckoned Mika and I would have a good 2- 2.5 hour skin back after our ski – depending where we decided to drop in. With time ticking we decided not to go all the way to the peak but take a lovely safe, mellow 25 degree line on the north face into the bowl which proved to be absolute perfect cruisey smooth, silky pow pow turns – just deluxe and understandable why Gulmarg Heliski want to access this area for their commercial operation next year. We put 2 beautiful lines down the fall line - skier and snowboarder in tandem, lapping it up making the hard work all worthwhile cruising a huge untouched bowl that had a huge build-up of snow! This led us into a drainage in which we had sussed out would bring us around to a line that we could skin back up to the Gulmarg ridge.

What a run, but time for more work again and I reckoned the 2.5 hour prediction back was still on track and then we could traverse back across to G2. If you had time you could ski down to Drang but this would make a massive outing with the snow deteriorating below 3000m vertical. The sun beat down on us but we made progress slowly and surely finally topping out on the ridge for sunset! We cut it a little short and should have skinned to the army hut but instead dropped in a bit too early to the drung bowls, I realised this and we took a high left traverse. On the way Mika pulled out a big release which to my horror, took him down 100m and as he luckily pulled up the avalanche kept going down the guts with large soft chunks of warm, spring snow, – my heart was in my mouth but he rode it out on top and was not buried, not hurt. I got down to him in seconds! This pulled him down past the ideal traverse line and with light fading we pulled out our down jackets and head torches to slog it back to the traverse out above the teahouses. By this time Mika was knackered (me too)traversing on the board was hard going so we were very happy to receive a hearty greeting by the teahouse boys (who stay over the night) normally servicing the daytrippers at the gondola mid station. They had thought we were 2 tigers with the scraping noises of the frozen crud from ski and board and were happy to see our torches, feeding us coffees, fortifying us for the night ski down the 1st phase of the gondola. I lead Mika down snow plowing with my head torch glowing as he followed using his skinning poles and we finally made it down to solid terra firma making the walk back to our respective lodges. A well-earned beer, dal and rice at 9.35pm and I crashed to bed.

What a finally to the end of the season!?!? Nah, it’s too good a snow and good weather to leave quite yet - Im hanging here for a while, get out do some more superb skinning – what a great time to be in Gulmarg with no crowds and great snow above 3000m! Rock on!

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Friday, 5 March 2010

Another epic day at Gulmarg, Kashmir and the Kiwis beat the Aussies watched by an injured powder hound!

After more snow we were back to that usual feeling of ‘Gondola Opening Anticipation’! The snow had consolidated somewhat and it meant the avalanche control crew could ski cut rather than having to bomb on this occasion. The day before I was mucking about at the Gondola bottom station trying to stick a rail that was a small bridge with some exposure – unfortunately the rail got the better of me and resulted in some badly bruised/ if not cracked ribs, back and arm – that’ll remind me that I’m a powderhound and not a park rat!

Dosed up on 4 large Ibprufens through the day and the 2nd phase was open just before 12pm. Being a Gulmarg Season’s Pass holder allows you the privilege to go to the front of the queue for your first run. It’s worth the 25,000 Rupees just for those golden few times to claim pole position in Gondola number 1, albeit being quite expensive as far as international standards go! And again I claimed that position and beat my mates to drop into the main gondola bowl first! It was fast silky, smooth chalky goodness. I managed 6 runs off the top finishing in an Afferwat Summit and skiing 5th bowl and the singing trees. We had some Kingfisher Premiums to wash down our Bakshi Burgers and mull over a sweet day, before jumping in a jeep to get over to the Avalanche Talk, held at Pine Palace on the Gondola side of strawberry valley. It’s always a very infomatitive catch up with the local crew and newcomers for that week. It gives a great overview of what’s going down and a perspective of how the mountain works and of course some great insights into Avalanche awareness from a localised point of view!

I decided to pull in a rest day after this epic and nurse my bloody sore ribs – coincidentally it was the first One Day International cricket match between New Zealand and arch rivals Australia playing in Napier. I kicked back all day and watched the action as the balance tipped back and forwards throughout the match. The Kiwis got there in the end winning by 2 wickets and 5 balls to spare – a close one indeed! I also won 150 ruppees from the locals, but they’ll have a chance to win those back as the Aussies are reknowned for their tenancious abilities to come back. C’mon the Kiwis and we’re looking forward to another 2nd phase opening Friday arvo or Saturday for sure!

Another epic day at Gulmarg, Kashmir and the Kiwis beat the Aussies watched by an injured powder hound!

After more snow we were back to that usual feeling of ‘Gondola Opening Anticipation’! The snow had consolidated somewhat and it meant the avalanche control crew could ski cut rather than having to bomb on this occasion. The day before I was mucking about at the Gondola bottom station trying to stick a rail that was a small bridge with some exposure – unfortunately the rail got the better of me and resulted in some badly bruised/ if not cracked ribs, back and arm – that’ll remind me that I’m a powderhound and not a park rat!

Dosed up on 4 large Ibprufens through the day and the 2nd phase was open just before 12pm. Being a Gulmarg Season’s Pass holder allows you the privilege to go to the front of the queue for your first run. It’s worth the 25,000 Rupees just for those golden few times to claim pole position in Gondola number 1, albeit being quite expensive as far as international standards go! And again I claimed that position and beat my mates to drop into the main gondola bowl first! It was fast silky, smooth chalky goodness. I managed 6 runs off the top finishing in an Afferwat Summit and skiing 5th bowl and the singing trees. We had some Kingfisher Premiums to wash down our Bakshi Burgers and mull over a sweet day, before jumping in a jeep to get over to the Avalanche Talk, held at Pine Palace on the Gondola side of strawberry valley. It’s always a very infomatitive catch up with the local crew and newcomers for that week. It gives a great overview of what’s going down and a perspective of how the mountain works and of course some great insights into Avalanche awareness from a localised point of view!

I decided to pull in a rest day after this epic and nurse my bloody sore ribs – coincidentally it was the first One Day International cricket match between New Zealand and arch rivals Australia playing in Napier. I kicked back all day and watched the action as the balance tipped back and forwards throughout the match. The Kiwis got there in the end winning by 2 wickets and 5 balls to spare – a close one indeed! I also won 150 ruppees from the locals, but they’ll have a chance to win those back as the Aussies are reknowned for their tenancious abilities to come back. C’mon the Kiwis and we’re looking forward to another 2nd phase opening Friday arvo or Saturday for sure!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Skinning out to ‘Great White’ in Gulmarg, Kashmir

With a beautiful weather window in Gulmarg, Kashmir after 60-70cms of snow there were some tired bodies but some great weather to again get motivated for. After peeps rested a day or two it was time to make the most of the gorgeous sunny weather and great snow above 3000m. The kiwi boys were keen to head out past the ‘Shark’s Fin’ and hit a beautiful summit called ‘Big White’ following the sharky references. We headed up the gomdola and started skinning from behind G4 heading across the slope cutting off the Apherwat summit aiming directly for the ‘Great White’ summit! We headed out into the beautiful back bowl amongst huge puffy cumulus clouds looking over to Sunshine Peak. We stopped at a beautiful quartzite rock and stripped off the shirts and did a little sunbathing as it was beautifully still and warm even up at over 4000m. Pressing on we zigged and zagged our way up reaching the ‘Great White’ summit and checking out the lush powder holding onto the 40-45 degree slope below.

Once the group had gathered, a small chai stop and we geared on up. I decided to line up a perfectly formed ledge on the cornice bordering the whole slope and huck my meat. Especially as the snowpack had been stable for some time! I lined it up and cruised down the ridge line with anticipation of a nice air into a beautiful open bowl. I swung left and hit the launch pad and actually find the lip boasting me more than I thought as I fly through the air the slope keeps dropping away as my air time is extended! Unfortunately I get aways back and hit it like a bombshell. Of course hucking your carcass off a cornice in the backcountry must be done when the snowpack is stable which it was and after bombing my full weight into it evidenced this. I bounce back up and get into my turns slashing the ridge in the deep 50-60cms of sweet sweet pow, cutting under the ridge and heading down into the flat of the bowl. Now it was Ted’s turn who hurtles into the bowl skier’s right of the summit and straight lines hitting a small cliff, launching & landing, hitting big GS turns on the way out – sweet line. Scotty decided to run it through the middle of 2 rock lines in which it steepens, he drops it and slashes the ridge below soaking up the good times. Kerry was next and we directed him by radio to ski the line skier’s left of me as it was a beautiful fall line that looked nicely loaded with the sick stuff. He dropped in at the small point of the cornice traversing across a little to hit the planned fall line cruisng big laid back turns into the bowl to oomplete 4 epic lines!

We headed across the flats swinging skier’s right to cut across the low col at the end of the Shark’s Fin bowl aiming to return to the ridge where bowl 5 is and return to Gulmarg. Skiing down in the setting sun we arrived at Hill Top restaurant for burgers and coke - what a great day touring out back and scoring the goods!

Friday, 19 February 2010

3 days of epic powder at Gulmarg, Kashmir!

After snowing for nearly 2 weeks I was seriously starting to lack vitamin D and needed a sound dosing of sunshine! The Gulmarg snow safety team planned to get an early start and avalanche control work underway in the morning, but as per usual it was contingent on the military delivering the explosives. They arrived late and bombing didn’t start until late morning and after some waiting we finally got the green light at 2.30pm as the sun was shining. As a season’s pass holder I was lucky to be able to go straight to the front after a lie in, and skinning up monkey hill from the police station it was poised to go off. The first gondola delivered us to nearly 4000m and we could see the acres of fresh light powder in the shadowy light, as it licked off from a light breeze, completely untouched and ready for us to purge. I hit the steep fall line leading me into the gun barrel and it was deep 60-70cms of pure smoke – the lightest powder we’ve had this season! What a run and with closing time normally 3pm the Gulmarg snow safety team did a great job, with plenty of sunshine left in the day, to keep the gondola open until after 4pm. I managed to get in 2 more sweet sweet runs into 2nd bowl which were steep and deep, some of the best powder I’ve skied in my life and a just reward for putting up with power outages, no internet, blocked water pipes and backeris over 2 weeks and we finally got what we were all waiting for – Super Pow!

Day 2 I was guiding Swiss clients Jerome and Laura – ex ski instructors from Champrey and really expert skiers – the perfect clients to go rip fresh lines with. We hit the ‘Shadowlands’ nailing 4 runs before lunch, including our first run in 4th bowl completely to ourselves then onto Shaggy’s face. Shaggy’s face is named after an Australian guy ‘Shaggy’ tragically lost his life on this face in 2007 being caught in an avalanche and dieing due to trauma. It’s a steep face that gets lots of loading and gets great north-facing snow. After lunch we hit the summit, to Laura’s delight, traversing behind the ridge to 5th bowl (skier’s left) and again not too many tracks down there, skiing the bowl fall line getting it fresh. Laura and Jerome were cranking turns and for the second time Jerome, pulled a front flip within his turn (not hitting any lip) and kept on skiing – just brilliant! Down to their hotel for a well deserved beer - what an epic day!

Day 3 I went riding with the kiwi boys and skinned in behind the Apherwat summit going direct to the Shark’s Fin Col. Kerry and Scotty dropped the bowl, while Ted and I climbed to the summit and headed down the ridge to the ‘Bananna Chute’. A very steep 50-55 degrees colouir that is rock walled and needing full commitment. We had a great ski and skinned up to the ridge making our way over to 6th bowl (skier’s left). We climbed through the rocks to access a chute in between 5th & 6th that leads back into 5th bowl and it was super light powder - again. We traversed across skier’s left getting absolutely primo and just let it rip all the way down into the forest coming out above the High Altitiude Warfare School, where they had set up camp with igloos, little pine huts and snow made pot plants. Gulmarg always seems to come up with little surprises!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Tragedy strikes with huge avalanche and a visit from Kiwi High Commissioner to India

After a huge snowfall of over 4 meters on the top of the gondola in Gulmarg snow conditions were treacherous. During the storm a group of soldiers from the High Altitude Warfare school ventured into exposed terrain on an exercise. A large avalanche came down and buried some 35 soldiers and 21 were not able to be revived resulting in fatalaties. Our thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of these tragically lost lives.

The storm kept raging and as a result the very weak layer described as ‘ball bearings’ was crushed by the heavy snow fall, which for powder hounds was a great result to have the deathly weak layer removed. After a very cold night the snow lightened and we hit the ‘Baba Reshi Temple’ run for a couple of days spinning loops being picked up by Jeep while we waited for snow control to take place and the 2nd phase of the gondola to open. This is a great ‘storm skiing’ or ‘gondola closed’ option as it provides some 1000m vertical of 40-45 degrees if you take the right guide to show you the right lines. It was great smashing the powder mushrooms and cream caked rocks, trees and logs making for some extreme powder jibbing and road jumps! Quite a unique environ and very different than skiing my home field of Craigieburn in New Zealand. Kerry, a fellow Kiwi couldn’t stop saying ‘champagne, it’s bloody champagne mate’ which is often what the Himalayas provides, the cold and altitude often retain or create very dry snow conditions!

We were privileged to have a visit from the New Zealand High Commissioner to India – Rupert Holborow, his wife Polly and 2 children. Rupert has been instrumental in helping Billa Bakshi (ski guide extraordinaire from Gulmarg) to bring a container of donated skis for the New Zealand Ski Club of Kashmir providing equipment for local Gulmarg kids. Often Kashmir has a reputation of a slightly edgy place to travel to and it was a great testament to have the High Commissioner visit showing that Gulmarg is a safe place to travel, although caution in Srinagar should be taken. This is a big step in the development of Gulmarg as a world class ski destination, the snow is some of the best in the world and now if we can look to improve facilities and infrastructure it is a very positive outlook going forward.
The opening of the 2nd phase was keenly awaited and when the floodgates opened riders took full advantage of the main bowl. Slightly wind consolidated and sporting huge cornice s on the ridge again, you always have to play it safe in Gulmarg and ‘ratchet it down’ a level! Although the north and north-east faces were to be wary of the south faces were lovely skiing and consolidation meant for safer riding. More snow in the late afternoon – does this place ever stop snowing!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A 400m ride of my life in an avalanche in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir

With more snow falling on a very sugary layer of snow, conditions have turned lethal in Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir. The layer is sitting on what could be described as ball bearings and is creating a layer of friction that is setting off slides on all aspects. Gulmarg ski patrol kept the field closed for 2 days, and rightly so, after the storm performing essential avalanche control work ensuring the main bowl was safe for snow riders.

I was guiding 3 clients - ‘The Love Party’ when we decided to score some cheeky turns above 1st bowl skiers right which was advised as considerable risk in the backcountry. I could see 5 tracks that h and been made in this area and then the skiers had traversed back – still room for a few and to bug out back into the controlled area of the main bowl. We headed in and I stopped skier’s right close to the ridge anticipating to traverse back before the bowl steepened into the critical 35 degree + zone. Rich was loving the sweet 40-50cms of fresh powder as we all were hitting the wind lip and carving it up. He’d already been nicknamed ‘The Loneranger’ as he’d strayed a couple of times, but nothing serious and this time he kept going further near to the entry into the guts of the chute. I thought to myself ‘bugger we’ve gone too low and this feels sketchy’ and headed towards him going far lower than initially planned to start a traverse out and get the hell outta there. The 3 clients Jules, Rich and Michele were at a safe point so I started to traverse, as we were going to go one-by-one. The next I knew the slope cracked in front of me and before I could do anything, I shouted ‘Avalanche’ I was accelerating down a narrow couloir being tossed and turned upside down and feeling that drowning feeling I’d felt twice some years before.

The weight and strain of the snow was draining as I struggled underneath the snow fighting with my arms and every ounce of strength I had, I felt like giving up but thought ‘you either fight to get on top or you’re a gonna’! The Taylor omelette with 2 pouched eggs on top for breakfast gave me the energy to really fight but suddenly I was accelerating and must have reached between 50-60kms per hour (observed as one of my skis flinged meters into the air) it became a blur of blackness and suffocation, ‘must kept fighting’ I thought but at this stage with the gaining speed I thought I was toast, the speed just kept on increasing. I kept fighting and struggling thrashing my arms and suddenly after the 30 second ride I slowed up with the weighty snow compating around me and with my head coming to a rest just out of the snow as I was buried horizontally. I gasped for air and realised I’d come to a stop finally which seemed like an eternity. I gained my breath as my heart tried to burst out of my chest and struggled to raise my hand out of the snow to signal to my clients. Rich was on the scene within about seconds it seemed and pulled me out – good job he had gone straight for a visual search and had spotted me very quickly. I was 2 skis and I pole less so if anyone finds some K2 King Fujas with Craigieburn and Sunstone stickers on them please let me know. I couldn’t care less about the skis – that's what insurance is for right? I was a live and had a real close call - life had flashed past me but I had grabbed it and had the survival instinct to not give up but to fight to the end - but I had got lucky as I had just missed rocks on both sides of the narrow choker in the couloir travelling at speed and walked away with no injuries!

My 3rd avalanche in my ski career one at Craigieburn, Chamonix and now Gulmarg. I was thankful that the clients had taken on board the Sunstone avalanche training at the start of their 10 days and were already experienced backcountry riders. A very slick response indeed. We made our way back to the main bowl as I shared a ski with Jules to get across the exposed slope as quick as possible to avoid further risk. I had ended up 400m down 1st bowl near the very dangerous ‘Shaggy’s Face’ so named because ‘Shaggy ‘ an Aussie guy was taken by a large avalanche back in 2007 and had tragically passed away.

This is a real reminder to take maximum care and precautions when approaching backcountry terrain. In hindsight it was never my intention to ski this slope but putting turns above it and putting ourselves in that situation, in hindsight, was risky and we should have avoided this area altogether. As the saying goes ‘the last powder turns are often the best’. Fortunately I’ve still got loads more to come!

Friday, 15 January 2010

First clients for Sunstone at Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir for 2010

A good pick up from the airport in the lush ‘scorpio’ with super driver Manzoor at the helm and we scooped team Sissons - father and son duo who were venturing not just to India for their first time but Kashmir. After a quick stop to Dal Gate to pick up a few boxes of Kingfisher Premium beer and some cash from the ATM we headed o Gulmarg passing the villages with classic driving antics that were certainly an eye-opener for the newly initiated! We checked the boys into Sahara Hotel and ordered a feast of full tandori chicken, sheesh kebabs, tomato paneer, rice, chapatis and washed down with traditional Kawa and sharing a cheeky beer to finish.

We headed over to Gulmarg Powder Guides to sort out rental skis, poles, transceivers, probes and shovels from the ever helpful Rashid. Dark was upon us and an atmospheric power cut ushered the boys back from the market to the legendary cosy Bakshi’s restaurant for a pre-brief of Gulmarg Ski Resort and a look at the trail map that was on the sunstone laptop. A few beers later and Terry was off to hit the hay having travelled from Wellington in New Zealand, Sam and I old school friends, of course had a few more beers as we chatted with a few of the local westerners who were here for the season – Roland, Kerry, Toby, Cindy and Kat. It was soon bed time and great to have the first clients arrive with no delays or hiccups – sweet as!

Day 1of skiing and I picked up the guys from Sahara meeting Mustaq, our Kashmiri ski guide and legend ski racer having won the Gulmarg top-to- bottom ski race in 2009. What a time he nailed it in – 6 minutes 26 seconds from top of the Gomdola (3950m) down to Pine Palace Hotel (2600m) in variable conditions to win the race and be crowned ski champion of Gulmarg! We walked the 15 minutes to the gondola and headed up to ‘Kongdoor’ mid station to get the guys briefed on avalanche safety and have a practice with the avalanche transceivers finding a buried transceiver and practicing with our shovels and probes. All went well with the guys getting the hang of it very quickly and Sam even finding a transceiver on our last practice in 29 seconds – a superb effort.

It was time to head up the gondola and have a run down the main bowl. Mustaq & Terry hit the chopped up powder while Sam and I carved turns on the chalky gun barrel carving and getting some nice pockets of windblown. A quick rest and up for another ski on the top ridgeline skiers right, with Mustaq & Sam heading down to hit the sheltered, deeper snow in Mary’s shoulder and Terry and I hitting the lovely wind lip in half bowl. We had some lush pow turns, as not too many people had been down there, particularly because it runs out of snow and the option skiers left is bush waking but we headed down a small steep colouir and out right bush waking into bowl 2 which led us to the traverse around to the teahouse to meet the guys for lunch in the sun! The Kiwi boys got stuck into Chicken Biriyani, Chicken curry and parathas washed down with Kashmiri Kawa. We cruised down the 1st phase in the lovely forest and cruised back to Sahara Hotel. A great day to ease the boys in. In a few days once they’ve acclimatised we’ll grab the fatter skis with Alpine Touring bindings set-up & skins and head out for some adventuring into the backcountry – good times!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

High End Rescue at Gulmarg Ski Resort and a trip down to Srinagar

Well no more snow since arriving at Gulmarg and with lots of solar about there’s definitely a few rocks poking around especially on the exposed ridges. There are still lines to be found for the adventurous on the north-facing aspects and especially where snow is sheltered and kept cold by the tree line. It’s a super cool crew of old and new faces in Gulmarg and everyone is using the time to hone up on essential avalanche transceiver skills and techniques, trying other snow disciplines and partying it up with DJ Alex throwing 3 great parties (including a Russian Christmas Party) where the house definitely ‘went off’.

Brian Newman, Gulmarg’s Avalanche Forecaster runs an avalanche class every Tuesday from 7pm at The Pine Palace Hotel which is both a theoretical look at avalanche risk and some excellent practical insights into the huge terrain offering that is Gulmarg. Already we have had some incidents at Gulmarg including a Russian women fracturing both legs about 8 bowls skiers right of Mt.Apharwat in the ‘Drung Bowls’ that lead you down to the village of Drung in an amazing 20 something kilometer ski and over 2000m vertical. The alert was raised around 8.30pm and she was located at 10pm with an amazing effort of some 30 ski patrol and gondola workers it took 6 hours to retrieve and a successful rescue was made. In appreciation we all donated a bunch of rupees towards the guys who put on an amazing effort – government workers (Gulmarg Tourist & Development Board) who don’t get paid over-time let alone double time and still had to work the next day unlike other western resorts in which a day off in lieu would certainly be mandatory. A Big thanks goes out to this superhuman effort. We all signed a t-shirt for the women who is recovering in Srinagar hospital and our positive thoughts go out to her for a speedy recovery.

A fellow kiwi Kerry and I headed down to Srinagar on the local bus which was 15 rupees from Gulmarg to Tangmarg (the village below Gulmarg) and a further 18 rupees to Srinagar which is great value for a 2 hour ride mixing it up with the locals! We were heading to a houseboat and wanted to give the body a little break from riding and soak up some of the exotic local culture that is Kashmir. We headed to Cafe Arabica (in front of Grand Mumtaz Hotel) for a latte and some pizza. A bit of a treat as a little expensiony coffee was 65 rupes and pizza started from 200 rupes but not a bad pizza on my ‘Indian Pizza Scale’ NOT my ‘World Pizza Scale’ probably a 7/10 as it was from the wood oven.

With full bellies we headed to Lal Chowk where there was a bit of ‘action’ a couple of days earlier where 2 militants had been gunned down after being holed up in a hotel – the Indian Army taking care of business so we were a little cautious but this is not particularly unusual for Srinagar. When accessing Gulmarg Ski Resort it is relatively safe as the route from the airport to Gulmarg skirts the outside of the city and has Indian Army lining the road all the way up – which of course they have foreign & Indian tourists within their interest to protect. As we came across the bridge walking towards Dal Gate there was a heavy police presence and the shops in the outer market roadside seemed to be closed which was odd, it not being a Friday (a day of worship). We peered into the market and saw a barrage of rocks and stones being hurled at the police by locals. Apparently a local boy had been killed by the police and a 3 day strike ensued in protest of the police barricade intimidating the local community. Well the first bit of action I had seen, so it was head down and around the corner to Dal Lake. We had a good wander down the shores being badgered for Shikara rides and had arranged to meet Gulum our houseboat host. We met Gulum who is a lovely laid back local from Srinagar and is helper shokot who paddles us over to the ‘Highland Queen’ houseboat which would be our abode for the evening. We had the customary Kashmiri Kawa tea (made with saffron) and biscuits as we took on the locals paddling past in Shikaras and smaller vessels coming and going as the sunset. As it cooled with the departure of the sun we headed inside to the beautiful living room which was rather like being in your posh grandma’s house with chandeliers, intricate wood panelling, carved tables, exquisite couches and chairs set on the finest Kashmiri carpets. We sat down to roast chicken, potatoes, carrots and green beans – wow just fantastic with a fruit custard dessert a welcome change to curry. We planned an early morning rise to visit the legendary ‘floating vegetable market’ which kicks off at first light. We snuggles up in a bed fit for a king with a hottie (hot waterbottle) into dreamland.

We awoke to masala chai and headed out on the shikara at 7am, wrapped up in our down jackets, covered with a warm blanket, more hot tea and sharing the ‘winter wife’ – a flax made bucket that holds hot coals taken from a fire that the Kashmiri men place under their pharans to keep warm. We paddled through the frozen lake wonderland as it came to life arriving at the site of the trading. Probably over 100 small vessels were pulled up and the vegetable haggling, bartering and selling began in what is probably one of the more unusual markets in the world. The vegetables were all types of carrots, haq & palak (types of Kashmiri spinach), onions, potatoes and so on. We also had a little brekkie snack of Kashmiri bread with a lovely (not too sweet) sugary coating which was delicious. 200 photos later and with the sun coming up over the lowland Himalayan hills we paddled back for breakfast via the local bakery. The sun hit the frosted snowy Lakeland creating beautiful crystal reflections in the water – a photographers dream! We were again treated to great food -omelettes and Kashmiri bread washed down with Kashmiri kawa tea. After good conversation we left Gullum and hiked up the opposite hillside to the Shankaracharya Temple. You can’t take mobiles or cameras in due to security and unfortunately it has a military base surrounding the beautiful Hindu temple. 243 steps up and down was good cross training for skiing that’s for sure! Great views over Dal Lake really put the huge body of water into perspective and I started to hatch a plan of a lake circumnavigation! A mission for another time.

Some beer shopping (it’s located about 200m after Dal Gate opposite the lake front on the left side of a group of a shop front complex) and it was time to track down some Momos at Ying Yang restaurant (near Cafe Arabica towards the market before the bridge on the left). Awesome Momos made by the Nepalese crew and it was another mad tuk tuk ride to the local bus station to re-trace our steps back up to Gulmarg watching village life from the bus and arriving back to our peaceful little haven.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Journey to Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir, India

Edinburgh – London – Delhi.

After an overnight stop in Delhi it was great to pick up some last minute things before flying the 1 hour 20 minutes to Srinagar in Kashmir, India to make my way to legendary ski resort of Gulmarg! I always stay in the Main Bazaar of Parha Ganj in Delhi as its good value, a well placed location for connecting and there is always something to see. A pomegranate & orange juice followed by a superb masala dosa and a full head shave was just what the doctor ordered. The main bazaar is a hectic backpackers spot but always full of action and interest with storage facilities, cheap shopping, some great local food haunts and some nice places for a quiet beer!
I arrived in Srinagar airport and travelled up to Gulmarg ski resort in good time (2 hours) as there was not too much snow about on the roads. Passing villages with people going about their day-to-day business, shopping, playing cricket, building and travelling in all sorts of vehicles from large jeeps, trucks, buses and even by horse & cart – a step back in time. We wind our way up past the village of Tangmarg on the Gulmarg road through the beautiful forest and finally pull into the valley arriving at the legendary Bakshi’s restaurant at Gulmarg ski resort. Gulmarg literally means valley of flowers and in summer is a riot of colour in which the Indian middle class come to retreat, play golf and take in the spectacular views from the gondola and around. This is how the ski resort has developed on the back of this summer retreat and with the extension of the gondola from 3000m to the top elevation of 3950m. it has opened up access to some 20 huge bowls across the Pir Panjal range offering some of the best steep, powder skiing in the world off the highest ski lift in the world.
A warm welcome from all the boys at Bakshi’s restaurant on my return and it’s a traditional cawa Kashmiri tea to settle in. I unpack and come down for dinner feasting on their signature dish - Afghani chicken with potatoes and green salad. Reports were that snow was needed and waking up the next morning it started dumping. Sunstone had bought the snow – but to be honest for a resort that gets over 20 meters of snow per year – odds are fairly good that snow is never far away! The Gondola was closed with white-out conditions and it was a good day to get my bearings again, sorting my room out (above the ski shop again) getting my gear ready for some fresh powder tomorrow – yee haa! We walk over to Pine Palace Hotel and say hello to the staff there and Brian & Tim who are snow safety this year. Brian returns for his 3rd season and has been a real asset to Gulmarg Ski Resort putting in sound processes and safety procedures with a remit of training & developing the Gulmarg ski patrol. Some tea, coffee and ice cream hanging out with Tara (Canadian), Momo (French) and Cindy (Indian snowboard instructor from Manali) while we watched the snow continuing to fall and build to 15cm at 2600m. It must be getting twice that up top at 3000-4000m, morning would soon tell!
I awake the next morning to a beautiful sunny day and looking forward to some freshies. We take the gondola up to the mid station and Brian is heading up to the top to perform the safety control work as there is certainly potential for slides with new snow on a firmer base. We decide to skin up Mary’s shoulder to get some exercise start the acclimatisation process. The sun streams through the trees hitting the beautiful snow glistening and sparkling in a thermonuclear explosion. Yanik, Tara, frank and I arrive just above the trees, gear up and head down in some sweet deep powder – 30-40cms. A two minute ride I score 5 face shots and get the heavenly floating powder feeling again – welcome back!
The top is now open so we take the Gondola to the top station at 3950m and skin up to Apharwat summit at 4200m. A glorious day with a huge cloud inversion offers stunning views of Nanga Parbat – just spectacular. We head out far across skiers left in between bowls four and five to the ‘singing trees’ where we score some deep deep powder, silky sugary light pow in which we sink into the layer before the snowfall which gives a depth of at least 50-60cms and I’m back in the sublime! We ski a 1500m vertical line and with only 2 runs for the day taking close on 6 hours is evidence of the huge vertical that Gulmarg offers. What a big day for my first so it’s back to base and a solid dose of Ibuprofen , a long hour stretch for the calf muscles and a hot shower before some more Afghani chicken to celebrate the first day skiing. I bump into an old ski friend - Roland from my home ski field of Criagieburn in New Zealand – gotta love the worldwide ski bum community! We have a couple of beers catching up and then play the crazy card game ‘spoons’ which is a little like musical chairs but played with dessert spoons spread across a table in which there is one less than the card players. Whoever feels to grab a spoon loses the round. This sees me dive across a table and then upside down curve under it smashing into a Finnish guy to snaggle the last one but unfortunately the Finnish guy falls back on his chair in the fraca breaking a chair in the process – doh. 500 rupees between us all as it was a combination of about 10 people in a huge ruck! Fortunately I didn’t lose but Toby a Londoner (now claiming to be a kiwi as he’s living in Ruapehu) spelt out the word ‘club’ after losing 4 rounds and has to dance like a ‘night clubber’ for one minute - which is a long time in front of a packed restaurant with no music – good times - Gulmarg style.