The lure of a mountain

Posted on September 30, 2012

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I came across this old blog post yesterday about my Aconcagua expedition, read it and found myself in fits of laughter. It’s exhaustingly long so not a quick expresso read but rather some words to devour over a massimo americano. It’s also terribly unladylike but hey, when scaling a huge mountain, some etiquette just gets left at sea level.

Whether you’re a budding mountaineer, an Aconcagua summit-eer or just highly amused by people and their bottom habits, I hope it raises a giggle or two … and perhaps even have you researching a mountain climb yourself … the S. American season is fast approaching too so no time like the present!

Standing on a mountain summit, way above the clouds and watching the sunrise, is simply one of the life’s most perfect pleasures and one that makes all the hard slog in getting there totally and utterly worthwhile.

Altitude

Altitude is, of course, no joke and it is always vital to listen to your body and be completely honest with your guides so they can monitor you accordingly.  Vital in all cases bar one that is.  There is a highly embarrassing yet wholly legitimate condition known as HAFE (as opposed to HACE or HAPE which are v serious indeed).  HAFE stands for High Altitude Flatus Expulsion.  Due to the different air pressure experienced at altitude, the body creates more gas and this in turn emits from your ass 24/7.  My funny observations on this are two-fold;

1)   At the beginning of an expedition, when friendships are new and manners intact, climbers tend to hold them in.  Give it a day or two however, and they begin to let rip as and when they please without even the slightest smirk of acknowledgement.

2)   Bad farts in open spaces are acceptable.  Bad farts in small cramped tents, especially if rooming with someone you did not previously know, is not acceptable.  But it has to be, as way up high when the wind is beating down the canvas and the cold could freeze a lolly, you ain’t going to stick your sweet ass out the front door.  I pity the poor sleeping bags which must bear the brunt of this phenomenon, the poor sleeping bags that by expedition end, smell of rotten carcuses’.

Friendship redefined

In addition to the HAFE and WAG bag / pee bottle issues, is the simple one of sleeping.  On Aconcagua, my girlfriend and room mate was unfortunately choppered off the mountain shortly after leaving base camp.  This left me sharing a tent with a hot young city trader, five years my junior yet a serious player.  Married or not married (in my case and at that time, the former), it is still a big jump, much like sleeping with someone on the first date, yet in this case you need to go back and sleep with them night after night after night.  My only advice is to borrow the words of Ed Visteurs; ‘Spooning is allowed; forking is not’.

Joys unexpected

Unexpected moments of pleasure are a joy anytime, anywhere in life, but somehow, on a mountain when experiences are intensified and hearts are raw, such moments are nothing short of precious.  Sharing jokes with base camp staff, dancing & laughter with kitchen porters, hours of endless card games with other climbers … at Plaza de Mulas, on the way back down the mountain, I discovered the world’s highest art gallery.  I found the artist in residence chilling out on a deck chair in his fixed tent, smoking ‘special’ cigarettes and drinking mint tea.  I spent an hour or so, slumped in the only other deck chair, enjoying a toke, whilst he and his friends just seemed to witter on amiably about the unexpected joys they experience day in day out.  Priceless.

Mountain Guides

What is it with the lure of the mountain guide?  Take the backdrop of the mountains, throw in some harsh weather and a sprinkling of altitude and suddenly any guide seems hot and any client (namely me) bothered.  I do have a reputation for this …. Mont Blanc, Nepal, Kilimanjaro … and come to think of it, I’ve not even managed to limit myself to the mountain in this respect.  Think past tennis coaches and ski instructors. The long and short of it is this … when spending long, long nights in a tent, sleepless due to the wind and cold, it helps to fantasise about your guides in an adjoining tent …. to flirt with them by day and create role plays by night.  All part of the overall experience, just make sure you don’t slip off your Thermarest!

Preparation

I always listen with open ears when the subject of pre-expedition training crops up as every member of the team tends to have prepared in a different way.  This is partly due to where you live; not everyone can scale hills at the weekend; and partly due to how you live; mountaineering is an expensive sport and arguably attracts a fairly professional bunch who will tend to be cash rich but time poor.  Twelve plus hour days spent in an office are, needless to say, not conducive to a regimented training plan involving the real thing.  One thing for certain however, is that there is always at least one member who has put no thought into the physical requirements of the trip and as such, as done little to prepare.  This is nothing short of frustrating; for the guides, the team and most of all for the individual him/herself as they are primarily wasting their own time and money and labelling themselves a twat in doing so.  One particular case springs to mind; a guy on Aconcagua who trained by going to his local London gym for Legs, Bums & Tums twice a week.  I say no more. Well just six more words then … fail to prepare; prepare to fail. Needless to say, he had an expensive chopper ride off the mountain when the going got tough.

She Wees’

When I first saw a she wee being advertised, I thought it a genius invention.  So genius in fact, that I ordered a bunch for the girls in my family; they proved to be much amusing stocking fillers.  I seem to recall my little sister and I even experimenting with them in the garden (not advised when living in a rather grand house in a prim and proper Scottish village).  Fast forward some time, when the contraption genuinely needed put to use, and the she wee became not so amusing after all.  If your flow is too light, it just trickles out the side, and if too heavy, it explodes all over the shop, the shop being the tent in this case.  On top of that, when you can’t shower for weeks on end and are subject to wearing the same trousers every day, it pays not to wear Eau de l’ammonia every day.

Pee Bottles

A nice simple tool if you are a boy.  Need a waz?  Emerge from sleeping bag, kneel (in tent as spillage not an issue), and then let loose.  Finish pee, screw lid, dump in corner (not literally) and then crawl back into hafe-infested sleeping bag.  The only point to remember is to label the damn thing so not confused with your water bottle.  An entirely different story, however, for girls.  Need a waz?  Emerge from sleeping bag, open tent door in gale force winds (weeing inside normally ends up in spills and tears), pull down several layers of trousers then squat.  Wee via the dreaded she wee or directly into the bottle.  Frequently, wee still in full flow as level exceeds bottle neck. Squeeze tight and pray that your pelvic floor muscles will behave as you grab anything else within arms distance to pee into.  This could be your roomies pee bottle (or their water bottle if they wound you up that day), your bowl, which let’s face it, hasn’t had a proper wash for weeks anyway so why not treat it to a urine rinse, or if all else fails, the stony ground.  If your tent is pitched on snow this ain’t a problem.  If on a slope and without snow, you may just end up with a steady stream of piss soaking your or your neighbours canvas.  No biggie, just pointing it out.

The WAG Bag

Now I fully endorse the whole leave no trace concept.  Many mountains afterall are now strewn with human faeces, and worse still, shit-covered toilet paper that seems to be highly attractive to birdlife.  Actually using the WAG Bag is really not so bad; only marginally different than craping straight onto a rock.  Where I do become a bit precious however is when I’m told that I’m only getting one bag per camp and therefore need to use the same bag for multiple poos.  And when/if I am told that we are not hiring a porter to do a shit load back down to base camp every few days.  I do not want to carry my own poo for weeks on end.  I repeat, I do not want to carry my own poo for weeks on end.  Lucky then, that what with a mountaineer’s diet being a carnival of carbs, one tends to be constipated for the duration.  This does however lead to intense bouts of HAFE (see above).

Staying pretty

Regardless of how much weight on my back or how restrictive I must be gear-wise, I find it impossible not to sneak in a few luxury items.  Call it vain if you will but on every mountain I’ve climbed, I’ve ended up sharing a little of my Clarins face cream with the toughest of boys and giving much-needed manicures to the hardiest of them all. And besides, you just never know when the camera will appear. On top of the Americas, at 6,921m, I had photos taken for a potential Starbucks Via ad. The cute Via beanie, I hope, looked that little bit better thanks to a dash of lipgloss and a dollop of mascara on the frozen head that it covered.

Amongst other sports, why mountain climbing?

If you have to ask, you’ll never know. I like to challenge myself, to set goals that require patience, endurance and preparation and the mountains are a stunning stage to act out these challenges.  Throw in the bonding, friendship and camaraderie and you develop a wonderful yet bittersweet mix between intimacy and difficulty.

Another pull is that mountain climbing is not competitive and as a whole I am not a competitive person.  Competitiveness in mountaineering is nothing but foolhardy and dangerous.  Climbing must be personally motivated and that suits me.  I like to push myself, compete against myself and if I exceed my expectations then I have won the race.

Mountaineering is all about pushing yourself to new physical, mental and emotional limits.  There is no question that such adventures are hard; but nothing can equal the sheer enjoyment that comes from achieving the perfect blend between challenge and reward.

What now?

Within days of descent, I begun to crave that fix once more so the research has commenced and the show will go on.

“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”

Ansel Adams, American Photographer 

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