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Monday, August 18, 2014

Mount Elbrus - the great summit

I liked the dome that we slept in at high camp. Very warm and compared to a tent, a lot higher and provided much needed room to manoeuvre. For the first time in days I was able to sleep inside a sleeping bag with a single layer of clothing on my body, no glove and glove inners, no sock layers and no hats.

The first morning at hike camp was the acclimatisation climb to 4600m – a climb of 800m all on snow. The climb was very hard from the word go. We had to be roped in most of the hike because of the many crevasses along the trail. To walk on a single file for too long and paying attention to the rope is an additional distraction you sometimes did not need. The last 100m of the climb was the most difficult and because we arrived later than the guys, we did not have enough time to recover; we had to get on with the ice-axe and rope training. The view were breath-taking.

It was not as cold as I anticipated and hoped and prayed for good weather the next day. After training we descended back to high camp for dinner and much needed rest. The question from some of the team was how we were going to recover in time for the summit climb in 30 hours time. We all resolved to minimise movement during the period, we had no other choice.

The next day was a “lazy” day but there was not much sleeping – our anxiety had peaked and as my mother would say – we suffered from excitosis. So it was breakfast, sleep (or try to), lunch, sleep (or try to) and then after dinner we had to make sure all gear and equipment were packed and ready. Andrei our chief guide announced that the weather was looking good and that we will be woken up at 12am as planned. He would wake up at 11pm for final check before waking us up at midnight.

In no time, we had to get ready to leave. We finished earlier than anticipated and left shortly before 2am. The first 800m were all too familiar – we completed the same hike the previous day. The question was how our legs were going to hold up for another 1000 gruelling metres. At around 4800m a decision is made around whether we summit the east peak (5621m) or the west peak (5642m).  Although the east peak is a recognised summit normally used when weather is bad, amongst climbers this is seen as a “no-summit”. After a fierce debate that might have lasted for about half an hour, we headed for the west summit. That meant an additional 2 hours of climbing that I personally felt we did not afford. But I was democratically silenced. This decision proved to be costly in a way, and there were regrets. At 5000m the mountain was asking us questions and we were fumbling for answers. I have never been so tried in my life. The weather was great, all our prayers were answered, but we were taking huge strain. We were down to doing about 100m of altitude in an hour and the legs were heavy. The 2pm cut-off at the summit was looking a bit dicey.

We got to this resting point where we could clearly see people coming from the South joining this climb so steep that it reduced movement to slower than snail pace. We could see big strong men resting every few steps, assuming almost foetal position as they hung onto their trekking poles. Our guide afforded us the longest rest to prepare for this climb. We removed our back packs, sat down on the rocks and try to eat some of the sandwiches and chocolates in our packs. There was not much conversation at this point, it was tense and very scary. There was also not much left to offer, we had dug deep and we were asked to dig some more. At no point did I entertain the thought of turning back though – punishing as it was. As an endurance athlete I know the power of visualising the end state. The climb from 5300m to 5642m was the steepest and on fatigued legs, there is no way to describe what it took to make each step.

The closer we got to the summit, the worst the weather became. That meant that we literally had to make a run for the summit. After 12.5 hours of climbing that was no mean feat. The adrenalin kicked in though, but for me not nearly enough. I could see the summit but my legs were simply not responding to the frantic call from Natasha the guide to "go-go-go". The weather got so bad that we could not spend even 5 minutes at the summit. What was most scary for me was this electric-current like phenomenon that was attacking every few seconds. When that happened, Natasha’s calls to descend would get loud and more incessant. After taking photos, we had to literally run down to safety, to a level where the weather was a lot calmer.

The entire descent took us in excess of 5 hours and at exactly 20:00 on 3 July, we arrived back at high camp. Completely kaput but hugely relieved. We were called super girls for the fight that we put up – but great fight it was. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mount Elbrus - the fun begins

The first encounter with snow was on our first hike to High Camp (3800m). This was the day we hiked from Base Camp to High Camp, an altitude of 1300m, with half our gear and equipment. We dropped the luggage at high camp, had lunch and hiked back down to base camp for the final night ahead of summit.

The hike was hard – to put it in perspective – from high camp at Barafu to the summit of Kilimanjaro is about a 1000m of altitude. It was not the luggage we were carrying as none of us was carrying more than 13kg. The terrain is just testing. It has 5 tough climbs, some of them very technical and requiring upper body strength and loads of concentration. The ultimate test though was the last 100m of altitude on deep, soft snow. The hiking boots we had on were obviously less than adequate for the terrain but to go through the process of putting crampons on would have been a hassle. It took a few falls and a lot of energy to get to the top. The thing about this section of the hike was it comes late when we are already fatigued, not just from the hours we spent hiking that day but from previous days too. After taking a tumble, it takes a lot to get yourself back on your feet and to continue with the drill - first pull trekking poles out of the snow with some reasonable force and thereafter lift the legs.

The nightmare, though, was the drastic change in weather just as we were leaving high camp to start the descent to base camp. It started to snow and it got very cold. We took off with the understanding that we would be leaving the snow fall behind. That turned out exactly true, except the snow was replaced by rain. To hike in cold, wet conditions is really a challenge and unfortunately we had to take a less dangerous route that took a lot longer and was very slippery. The idea of getting to base camp, wet and cold, with no hot shower to get into or a hot bath to run was a bit difficult to accept. We slept in tents at Base Camp and you can’t get into a tent with wet, muddy gear. The logistics of preparing to sleep that evening was a challenge - even the tastiest meatballs that were prepared for dinner only managed to put half a smile on my face….. The discomfort was rather deep.  

The next morning was sunny and warm, just the ideal weather to dry gear and clothing from the nightmare of the day before. So the hike back to High camp was delayed by an hour as we watched the gear dry. I was in no hurry for the 1300m climb anyway but there was no running away from it. Took us a lot longer than the day before as fatigue was seriously setting in and so my concerns around how we were going to climb 1800m on summit day on tired legs were growing fast.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mount Elbrus - Early Days

Russians like to drive very fast, especially on open roads. Our drive from the airport at MineralInye Vody airport to Kislovodsk town was not exactly a joy ride. We were in two vehicles and the two drivers (obviously on retirement for some time now) were pretty much racing against each other. And so a couple of near-misses on barrier lines later and in pouring rain we arrived safely in town!

When we did the long off-road ride to base camp on the 4X4 the next day we were pretty much used to rough rides. Besides, the snow-covered twin peaks of Mount Elbrus and the views of the surrounding mountain were providing some needed distraction. I would have loved to ride in the formidable, “Old Russia”, never-die, hard as rock machine, but watching it in action from a bit of distance was not a bad compromise. The guys in the team got the honours.

We did not waste time. We arrived at base camp, had lunch and packed our day packs for the first acclamatisation hike. It was pleasant and not too long – on fresh pair of leg the 300m we ascended did not feel like we did any climbing. Over the next two days, acclamatisation hikes from base camp (2500m) became harder, led us to the most amazing terrain and took us to through some of the most challenging trails I have ever been on.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mount Elbrus - The Housekeeping

My trip to Mount Elbrus started off rather shaky. I might have dropped a ball or two on the logistics side of things, but fortunately, the expedition overall was not severely impacted. For anyone planning to make their way to Russia, I have a few tips:

Make sure your Russian Visa uses your flight details to determine valid dates and not the dates indicated in the invitation letter provided by your host. When you apply for a Visa, you need to indicate arrival and departure dates in the application form and include tickets but it turns out these are not used in determining visa valid dates. The result was that I had to leave a day later than I planned because I was going to arrive in Moscow an hour before my Visa was valid. The Visa was valid from 24 June and I was due to land on 23 June at 23H00. This would have been avoided if I double-checked the dates before I left the embassy.

Get a small English/Russian phrase book to assist with getting around and settling down into a hotel quickly in Russia. Valuable time was wasted sorting out problems that originated from miscommunication. Very often people cannot recognise some of the alphabets that we use, so it might not fully assist to write things down. We missed our flight from Moscow to Mineralnye Vody because the driver dropped us at the wrong airport, and we could not read the name of the airport ourselves to correct that mistake early.

Moscow has three international airports that are fairly far apart. So when booking flights, especially if you are booking your own flights at or similar sites, makes sure you connect to the next flight at the same airport. You might have enough time to connect but the hassle of collecting luggage and getting a taxi to the next airport can add hugely to travel discomfort.

If you prefer to buy a local sim card (as opposed to roaming) to keep in touch with people at home, ask the expedition company for the cellular phone operator that covers the area of the mountain where you will mostly climb. When I travel I prefer getting a local sim card so I can make local calls when necessary and still be able to send messages home if I need to.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ending a season on a Bronze

Completing Comrades Marathon on the 1st of June 2014 marked, for me personally, an end of a rather successful running season. 
I set out to run Bronze at both Two Oceans Ultra and Comrades Marathons and that is exactly what I delivered. Bronze at both races has become my new standard and that sort of gives me the comfort that I have the extra hour to still complete the races on Plan B or Plan C if necessary. It takes a little more training and focus but as a competent ultra-marathon runner With 6 Comrades Marathons and 6 Oceans Ultras in the bag, it is not too big an ask.

When I completed, quite a few people asked me my secret to completing all the Comrades Marathons I have ever started, so I thought I could put the answer down in writing. I will, however, state right up front that I am by no means an expert and that I am not about to discount the knowledge and skill that my seniors with multiple green/blue numbers have to offer. There is obviously nothing secret about what I am going to say, nor is it rocket science or novel, but of the many lessons I have learned, I would like to highlight only 3.

·      For me Comrades is almost like a numbers game. If you run a marathon at average 7.1 min/km, the qualifying pace, you are already in a difficult position to complete. You need to run Comrades at about 1 min/km slower on average than your marathon time because it is long. 8.1 min/km is what you need to finish, if everything works out perfectly. But it does not always turn out this way because it is the longest distance you will run in a season and you do not run that long every weekend. I completed my marathon qualifier at average 6.04 min/km and completed Comrades at 7.3 min/km, this with excruciating pain on my right calf that I, as a typical ultra-distance runner, just chose to “work” with.   The point here is are able to complete a marathon in 6.75 min/km without too much effort, then you are more than half way there. Prepare for a qualifier very well and run it once. Never try to improve your seeding, you lose more than you gain in the process. You could get a G seeding but it does not help if you get to the starting line up with fatigue from running many races at relative fast pace.

·      Then you need to run Comrades on a fresh pair of legs. For me, overtraining is one of the most painful experiences you can have as an ultra-distance runner. You have trained hard and you know very well that you can do a lot better, but on the day, your legs just do not cooperate, you feel tired and as a result, psychologically you are taking strain. Overtraining for me is too many long runs. I often hear of people running marathons and ultra-marathons almost every weekend. That gives a false sense of preparation at its best; and at its worst you start getting injuries. The best way to run Comrades is to train very consistently, incorporate speed and strength and run a maximum of 28km long run on a weekend. My longest runs this seasons were a 2 X 42km and Oceans Ultra. The last time I did a 60km or 66km “long run”, also called the dress rehearsal, was in 2010.

·      On Comrades race day start slow. If you tend to walk a lot in the second half, rather start walking early when your legs are still fresh. I pass many good runners at less than 15km to go simply because they start too fast. For a bronze finish on a down run, you need to reach half way between 5h20 and 5H30. Any time faster will likely see you walking the downhills in the second half. Then on the steep hills whether up or down, go easy.  

What I have said here will not benefit a Comrades Bill Rowan or silver finisher- obviously they run according to rules I will never get to learn. I am looking forward to the Up run next year – but I have other objectives that include mountain biking. I will see how things all fit together.

But for now, preparations for our Mount Elbrus climb is in advanced stages – 7 days to go. I will give a run down in the next few days before we leave. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On top gear

I might have left the task to organise all the gear for Mount Elbrus rather too late. One reason is that because I bought all the gear I needed to climb Kilimanjaro, I initially thought I was only looking at a few additional items – maybe boots and gloves.

I got a rude awakening when I visited a renowned outdoor shot to test this thinking. My main objective was to go and fit boots and get a down jacket specifically for alpine extreme sub-zero temperatures. Initially I was going to rent boots but after reading about climbers that had issues with boots, especially those that are rented, I reluctantly concluded I would have to part with a few thousand rands to buy my own pair. I have learned that in climbing, what you put on your feet could make a difference between a successful summit or not. I settled on the Boreal G1 Lite not only from a comfort and fit point of view, but also from a safety point of view. They are light double boots (have a removal inner) and have advanced synthetic material (not plastic) that completely keeps the feet protected from the cold.

I would also be able to use the same pair to climb Aconcagua and perhaps even Denali – If I heed the call. That I am afraid, can never be ruled out. They are rather extra large in size and so a big chunk of my luggage space is going to be taken by this pair! 

The next task was to resolve the down jacket item - the one I had in mind (of course the cheaper one) was not going to be adequate, and so I added the First Ascent Malumute Jacket to the cart.
I watched as the cart grew bigger - the glove inners, summit pants and socks that I used at Kili were not going to cut it and although I have a 75l backpack, I doubted it was of the quality that would protect my back after hours of climbing. And so the backpack, at roughly R2000 to R3000, is another “must get”. Fortunately, I will not need to get any inner layer items as well as fleeces, soft shell jackets, hats and balaclavas. At this point I feel I have managed to get on top of the gear task – the rest of the items such as crampons, ice axe, harnesses, carbineers and ropes I have elected to rent.

It is exactly a month before the start of the climb – and I must still get a visa. I have completed all the paper work and have compiled all required documentation.
Flight tickets are booked but accommodation in St Peterburg and Moscow is yet to be finalised. The political situation in Russia is still a concern, but the expedition company will keep us posted if we need to reconsider the dates. I would prefer to stick to the summit week we have booked because at around -25° as worst case scenario at the top of the mountain, it is about the warmest in the calendar. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

And so we took off....

It has been a long while since I overcame the injury that brought my running to a scratching halt. A lot has happened – life took over, new challenges presented themselves and so I have plenty of experiences to share.

Recently, it was put to me (in line with the style of questioning on the Oscar Pistorius trial) that what if I resumed my blogging….. and along with that challenge, a carrot was dangled. And so long story short, here we are.

I am working towards two or three goals at the moment – but will find space to relate the experiences of the past – randomly as they come up and as I use them to complete the full picture.

In 2012 I completed one of the 7 summits – Mount Kilimanjaro - and would like to resume blogging by relating details of the second summit that we are planning – Mount Elbrus in Russia. After returning from Kilimanjaro, and many months afterwards, I told everyone I was not going to climb again. I swore I would do Comrades twice a year before attempting another summit of that kind. The low temperatures, knee pain and the altitude sickness tested me completely towards the end of the climb. I will relate this experience in full in another post.  But I’ve had to eat my words. Mount Elbrus is colder and here I am working on an advanced plan for the trip in June 2014. I get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about this.

The friends we keep. If you want to quit drinking, maybe you best avoid your friends that enthusiastically indulge. We are about 7 weeks from the Mt Elbrus trip and I am already seeing Aconcagua emails going around this way and that way.

Something else gives me even bigger butterflies in my stomach. I have accepted another challenge to do Absa Cape Epic in 2015, less than a year from now.

If this does not make sense to you – be comforted by that the fact that I am also just as baffled. In the meantime, I take my mind off by preparing for the Comrades Marathon in a month’s time.


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