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Friday, 31 May 2013

Day 3 - Anchorage to Kahiltna Base Camp (2,200 mtrs)

I wake up early again (2am) presumably out of concern for my bags - not that there is anything that I can do about them now - and read until about 05:30 which is when the hotel gets its daily delivery of luggage from the airport! I found this out when I arrived at 2am and was too exhausted to ask any more about it. I head downstairs to ask at reception and unfortunately encountered someone equally confused as to why there might be a daily delivery of luggage from the airport. Just before this gets farcical / Pythonesque I manage to persuade her to have a quick look behind reception just in case there are any large bags there. I  am not sure if a shuffle can be sceptical but she certainly put her all into conveying that as she shuffled off to have a look. Lo and behold, and much to her surprise and my relief, there my bags were. I have never felt so pathetically grateful to a receptionist or an airline for such mediocre efforts but they managed to avert a pretty tricky situation for me!

After that it was a hasty sort through my things and a quick shower before heading out to Talkeetna from where we fly onto the glacier. On the way we popped into a supermarket to pick up some sandwiches. In addition to the deli counter for made to order, there was a selection of some that were already made. This included one that had to be almost 3 feet long and the width of a load of bread. As if that was not enough, you also got some fried chicken free if you bought one!

At Talkeetna we organise and weigh our bags and change into our mountain gear before getting into the small planes to fly to the glacier.

Getting organised at Talketna International Airport
Runway at TIA
Last pic of the team before setting off for the mountain

Taking off at TIA

The scenery is stunning on the flight in:



The scenery is stunning on the flight in and the landing amazingly smooth. The weather has been fantastic for a while and we have blue skies and sun for our first evening on the glacier. We organise our bags and prepare some of the various ropes and harnesses that we will need for the trip and have an early night ready to head off early in the morning. It tends to get coldish at night here which means the snow/ ice is crisp and hard in the morning which is the best to travel on. As the sun warms it up it can start to turn to slush which is much harder to push through.
Sorting our bags at Base Camp
An organised Base Camp


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Day 2 - Anchorage

Unsurprisingly, having had very little sleep for a while, I wake up early at about 5am local time.
The sun is pouring through the window and I am getting my first chance to see my roommate in some light. To my alarm there is a very definite female nature to the form there. Usually sexes do not share hotel rooms on such trips so my immediate reaction is one of concern that there has been a mix and that the poor lady is about to start screaming when she finds a strange man in her room.

This leads to some consternation as to not only what a chap can do in such circumstances but just as importantly what he should do. Quite luckily, my moral quandary is resolved when she wakes and gets up leaving without screaming. It turns out that this is Smiley, a Chinese girl studying in Kansas, who has chosen her name very suitably.

From there it is down to the lobby to harass BA staff in the UK to see what progress I can make. At first very little as I am bounced round the various automated systems getting the wonderfully helpful answer "there is no new information, please call back later" despite the fact that nowhere can I find the current position or even the starting position. Anyhow I finally get through to customer services and some excellent chap confirms that in fact my bags have been put on the flight and that he will message the team in Phoenix including the managers there (none of whom get into work until lunchtime!) to make sure that they know my bag is arriving and to be ready to pull out the stops to get it onto the flight to Anchorage.
In amongst this is catching up on all the things I have not been able to do over the past couple of days - working right up to (or being honest a couple of minutes after) the start of the first meeting of the expedition. This is an introduction to the team and a bit of a quick overview of the next few weeks.
This is followed by a kit check - mine is obviously pretty brief and then a trip into town for some Tex-Mex lunch and last minute shopping. I get the good news phone call from the BA Phoenix office that the bags are on their way and they will do their best to get them onto the flight to Alaska in the evening - the big unknown it seems is US customs who may be kind and speed the bag through or (which is just as likely unfortunately) decide to go through the contents in detail in which case the bags may not make the connecting flight and will have to come on a later one! Since we are flying onto the glacier in the morning this will be somewhat of a problem!

We also select our lunch food. Breakfast and dinner will be in camp with lunch eaten as we walk - a similar format to most expeditions. We head out to the van in the parking lot where there are 5 large plastic storage boxes filled with all sorts of chocolate bars, energy bars, dried meats, dried fruits and nuts. We need to take 17 days worth which ends up filling an 8 litre bag! Given I have not eaten most of my power lunches on prior trips I have decided to go for a selection of fruits and snacks to vary my diet as much as anything else.

This is a US trip (non-Alaskan guide companies are not allowed to operate here) and as such it will be run very differently to British trips. This has its ups and downs with the defining feature being that you generally treated as being incompetent and inexperienced.  An upside at times is that the guides cook for you. This is great if you are tired and they usually bring different food to the freeze dried packs I have been having so far. On the other hand catering for yourself makes you feel much more involved in your own expedition and not just like a passenger being led round the mountain. The real downside is that the treatment is carried into general camp activities and also the freedom, or to be more specific, lack of it that is permitted whilst trekking. This will be a real challenge for me; probably more than anything the mountain can throw at me itself!

Having not slept for a while it is time for a bit of a nap in the afternoon before going for a wander round the outskirts of Anchorage in the early evening. It is an interesting place and probably similar to many other US cities. A vast sprawl of a town on a grid system with unfortunately little effort on the charm front. This is a town based on the oil exploration in Alaska and increasingly tourist business. There is a lovely outside bar in the hotel and I have a nice salad on the shore of the lake there as the sunsets and then back to bed as I have to wake early to see if my bags have arrived and then sort myself out for departure at 07:30.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Day 1 - Flights

And so to a really rather tricky day. Perhaps the start of all the troubles is the fact that BA (no longer my, let alone the world’s, favourite airline) cannot manage flights bought through them but being undertaken by a different airline. As a result I was not able to check in on line.

Anyhow, when I get to Heathrow, it turns out that the flight has been significantly overbooked and there are no seats left in any class! One option (!?) is to come back in a couple of hours to see if some people have not turned up. Wanting to avoid the usual institutional uselessness, I turn this down and get them to start finding an alternative route for me. The best that can be done apparently is a flight via Phoenix (South East of the US as opposed to the North West). On the one hand at least this is moving in the right direction on the other this means a long flight on a US airline – these are very much flights to be avoided; imagine and aged and even more budget version of Easyjet!

Anyhow for some reason this takes a long time to process via the various systems and then I notice that the flight is actually 20 mins earlier than my original flight and in fact time is running out for me to catch it. Oops, you’re right is the response! So I head off to departures to find that my ticket does not work! Another 5 mins passes and then someone remembers that your ticket is automatically invalidated 35 mins before departure. More phone calling and messing about with the system and eventually I am let through having clarified that my bags will not have suffered the same fate and been taken off the flight. Anyway, I run through the airport (no time to put my big mountaineering boots back on after security) and just catch the plane.

All well and good, or so it seemed until I received a message saying that there was a problem with my baggage and that I would need to speak to the ground staff at Phoenix to resolve it. As I should have guessed, my luggage had not made it onto the plane. More disconcerting was that it was not clear whether my luggage had just missed the flight or was actually lost – differing BA systems provided information that that did not really correlate. Obviously no one here can to do anything here to help ensure that my bags are found and forwarded to me before the group leaves for the mountain! Then it is a rather miserable frills free 6 hour flight from Phoenix to Anchorage getting in at 2 am rather than the 21:30 that I had arranged.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Training in the Alps

This was meant to be a week of snow and ice training and an ascent of Mt Blanc. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible with virtually no visibility and a huge amount of snow.
This is one of the main webcams in the area:

This meant that it was dangerous to be up in the mountains and at the same time not possible to practice any skills.

We tried to get to one of the lower ridges but after wading through waist deep snow on the way up to the nearby hut, found that it was just going to be too dangerous to continue on the next day given the now very high risk of an avalanche. To make the week productive, we spent most of the time down in the valley working on climbing and rope skills.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Training in the Lake District

Perhaps the least favourite part of mountaineering for me is the actual climbing - vertigo being a longstanding friend of mine! Quite fortunately there is not that much actual climbing on most of the expeditions apart from the Carstenz Pyramid. So this week is spent in the Lake District under the expert guidance of Paddy Cave - one of the UK's leading climbers.

We started out doing some normal climbing however this was complicated by the fact that it was raining and that we were wearing winter mountaineering boots rather than rock climbing shoes. We started on a routes that were graded as 'difficult' and then moved onto 'v. diff' routes.

We also practised techniques for upcoming expeditions:

 jumarring; climbing using an ascender

Tyrolean traverse (using a length of rope across a large drop between two high points);and


A lot of fun and we did make some good progress - just hope I can avoid a relapse before the expedition in August.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Training in Thailand

After the rather cool temperatures at the North Pole it is off to Thailand for a coupe of weeks to warm up and do some training at the Tiger Muay Thai camp (link).

One piece of advice that is often given before an expedition is to eat a lot as people always lose weight on long trips. It sounds sensible and so I have followed it. In fact, I found that I put on weight as well as losing muscle mass! Thailand is an opportunity to reverse this!

A typical day starts with an hour of fairly physical yoga at 7am with circuit training / cross fitness from 08:30 until about 10. Bit of a break during the heat of the middle of the day before more circuit training / cross fitness at 14:45 followed by a session in the gym and then a run or night yoga before an early night to get ready to start all over again on the following day.

The morning circuit training / cross fitness takes place on the beach or on a long, steep hill on Tuesdays and Thursdays just in case the sessions at the camp are not strenuous enough.