Jul 22, 2014

The People You Meet: Alpamayo Expedition Wrap Up...

Every return begins where you finish. The journey in its entirety,  however seamlessly
straightforward, epically complicated, big or small is made more fulfilling and memorable by those people who you meet along the way - those who guide you, those with whom you share a smile, a laugh,a joke, a tear, an embrace, a lesson learned. There are journeys where these moments play out against a backdrop that is as spectacular and poignant as the moment itself. My journey began long before I stepped off the plane in Peru and long before the 2am 'alpine start' setting out for the summit on the south-west flanks of Alpamayo. 

It's hard to find the words that capture this particular expedition in its entirety. Whist the mountain is certainly one of the most beautiful I've ever seen and every sunrise and sunset seems to top the last in terms of jaw-dropping beauty, what really stands out has been the entirety of the journey itself and the people that I've met along the way. 

My Peruvian adventure started months ago through initial conversations with fellow mountaineers, climbers and guides around objectives -  climbing for aesthetics, building of skills, and personal discovery rather than a pre-determined bucket-list. Additional ingredients to the mix were elements of discovery, exploration and the pushing of personal boundaries... a stronger, more solid foundation of skills, fitness, experience. Yes, I'm 'high maintenance' and yes, one would call this a long 'shopping list' of requirements but with a solid foundation of experience already under my belt I knew that I'd soon embark on the journey that would best fit the bill. Thanks to Alpenglow Expeditions it wasn't long before I had the mountain in my sights. I'd never been to Peru, Alpamayo is aesthetically gorgeous, the team was small and experienced, and the terrain was the perfect ground to build upon skills and experience.

Staying motivated to train for any physical challenge and striking a delicate work-life balance can be as precarious as the challenge itself. Alpamayo provided the perfect testing ground to push physical boundaries and training discipline from the relative comforts of sea-level and prompted the opportunity to meet some fantastic people along the way. Working around a hectic work schedule, I trained for my climb at The Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club (ABC), a non-profit, charitable club, run by volunteers and supported by donations, grants and member subscriptions. The overarching aim of the boxing club is to offer a safe environment for boxers to train and compete in the sport of amateur boxing, by teaching boxing skills engendering discipline, respect, honour, self-control and a healthy life style. Without a shadow of a doubt, combined with an active mountain-lifestyle, boxing has provided me with a fantastic base level of fitness and the combined physical and mental strength to put one foot in front of the other on long, sometimes painful and seemingly endless snow-slogs. Boxing is perhaps not viewed as conventional 'mountain training' but the mental and physical elements between the two sports are not dissimilar. Furthermore, the encouragement, respect, and discipline that I have gleaned from the trainers and fellow boxers has taught me some tremendously valuable lessons that will remain with me forever and carry over into both work and play.

A fundamental part of every climb, project or challenge is the team itself - the sum being the whole of its parts. Those people who go from being strangers one minute to your closest confidents and friends the next - even when separated by the perceived barriers of language and culture. Our intrepid team on Alpamayo was made up of Americans, British, Ecuadorians and Peruvians... Certainly not to be overlooked and central to its success were our Peruvian team mates led by Alfredo (cook, interpreter, middle-man, father-figure, horse-whisperer...) and his side-kicks, Julio and Pablo who cared for us all the way to high camp and greeting us every morning from under their giant brown Peruvian hats and with the biggest and brightest of smiles calling out 'Buenos dias seniorita..!' Without their endless energy our individual journeys would have been significantly steeper and the mountains would have been much higher. 

Cashapampa is the small mountain village and physical starting point of the expedition and set the scene for our meeting with Tony, his wife and children and their burrows which would support us in our trek to Alpamayo Base Camp. Expeditions require a phenomenal amount of logistics support to get people and equipment from Point A to Point B. The carefully managed train of mules and horses leading us into and out of Base Camp in wind, rain, snow and sun provided us with a unique insight into life of local Peruvian farmers and 'living off the land'. It was beautiful to see the smiles on the faces of Tony's children as they proudly welcomed us into their home for a hearty and welcoming lunch. Growing up on a farm in Canada, it was fascinating to get this unique local insight and experience as chickens, pigs, guinea pigs, cats and dogs formed an integral part of 'country life' against a backdrop of maize in the rolling hills, stone-wall enclosures, mud-brick houses and warm smiles.

Upon our return from the mountain and back in Huaraz, we were fortunate enough to meet the wives and children of both Julio and Pablo and participate in a traditional feast of 'pachamanca'. Dating back to pre-Hispanic times, pachamanca comes from Quechua language: "Pacha", earth, and "Manca", cooking pot, which could be translated as "earth oven". Widely used in times of the Incas civilisation, Pachamanca is very related to ritual. Pachamancha is a dish (most often including potatoes, corn and meat (beef, pork, lamb, guinea-pig) buried under the ground and cooked over hot stones for about 2-3 hours. It is then eaten with a great fanfare of music, dancing and celebration - and a 'cerveza' or two..! More than a method of cooking it's a celebration in and of itself, a source of fertility and life. The feast was a fantastic way to celebrate the success of the expedition and draw our time in Peru to a close.

I will eventually write a more detailed synopsis of the climb, the teams success on the mountain, our route and the movement between camps but wanted to capture in this blog a bit about the 'essence' of why I love to climb, the basis upon which my memories are formed. In many ways, my climbing experience and passion is best represented as a quilted mosaic of people, mountains, and experiences. Climbing, for me, has become more of a journey and less of a destination and I look forward to adding yet another patch to that quilt. Onward and upward to the next adventure..! 

Photobomb by Jaime... Sunset at High Camp
A well earned beer back at Cashapampa with Julio
Chad doing the rounds for the evening briefing at High Camp on Alpamayo
Jaime leading the way as we move between camps
Because every blog needs a cat picture... Tony's daughter and cat in Cashapampa.
Trying out the local coca leaf brew in Base Camp...
Alfredo desperate to take the bright pink polish off of my hands (and amputate chronically cold fingers).
Without the awesome support of our guides the mountains would be much higher.
An alpine start setting out for the summit.
View looking back from pitch 6 or 7 on the face... bravely captured by Charles and Jaime.
Alpamayo in early afternoon light with perfect view of fluted SW face.
Acclimatisation walk around High Camp.
Climb up to High Camp.

Jul 8, 2014

Huaraz: The mountains are calling and we must go...

Yesterday I found myself hurtling, knuckles white with fear and exhilaration, down a narrow dirt track in the shadow of some of the most stunning scenery that I've seen in a while... snow capped mountains stretching far into the valleys below, paths lined with pre-Incan ruins on a radiant blue-bird day. I was in Huaraz - a village that I'd long heard about for its friendly mountain feel and its reputation as the gateway to the Cordillera Blanca and all that it has to offer. And I was on a full-suspension mountain bike... not quite the traditional acclimatisation process but effective none the less.

We had arrived in Huaraz on Sunday evening after a long 8-hour bus journey out of Lima. The early hours of the bus journey were monotonous (a term I don't use lightly) as the brown-grey colour of the shanty-towns and rural villages blended with the dull grey sky. It wasn't pretty but I knew that Peru was simply holding back, waiting to deliver. And deliver it did.

As we approached the foothills the sky suddenly began to break and the rays of sunlight began to add colour the ground below, bringing out vibrant greens, highlighting the pinks and illuminating the mountain streams trickling out of the rock which lined the road. Switchback after switchback led us to an altitude of 3800m where we crossed a mountain pass and another valley opened up below.

We were pressed to the windows of our comfortable van, taking pictures and getting increasingly excited about the adventure ahead. We'd only met that morning - a small team of 6 including 2 guides from Ecuador, US, Canada and the UK and yet our shared excitement and anticipation about working together in the coming weeks had already created a bond.

Huaraz is the restless capital of this Andean adventure kingdom and, as yesterdays morning breakfast revealed, its rooftops command exhaustive panoramas of the city's dominion: one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. It certainly lived up to its reputation as a trekking metropolis (think of a cross between Mendoza, Kathmandu and Chamonix) - dozens of adventure tour operators line the streets to help plan trips, rent equipment and organise a list of adventure sports as long as your arm. Adding to this (perhaps the icing on the cake) are dozens of fantastic restaurants which offer a global range of cuisine with Peruvian charm.

Our guest house is absolutely stunning. A small, spotlessly clean bed and breakfast called Olazas - friendly, cozy, beautifully decorated with a spectacular roof-top terrace. My heaven. And to make the guest house even more perfect, it offers mountain bike tours of the Cordillera Blanca... Even if I wasn't here to climb a mountain I'd certainly consider coming back just to relax, explore and soak in the spectacular panorama over one of their delicious breakfasts.

Being a team made up of 5 men (and me!), we couldn't help but let our adventurous side get the better of us yesterday as we loaded up a van with bikes and prepared to acclimatise by heading up into the higher altitudes. We cycled breathlessly through the amazing terrain and held on for our lives... a few of the boys went off to a slightly more 'hardcore' track but me, feeling particularly comfortable with the amount of risk I was already taking in advance of a significant climb, decided to take things easy and stay on the 'straight forward' terrain - which did have its share of single track sections, mud, and rock-laden downhills. It's been ages since I was last on a mountain bike - 6 years in fact - and this brief taster certainly reminded me of why I love the sport.

And here we are today - gorgeously sunny Tuesday morning. As the subject-line indicates, the mountains are calling. Our bags of kit are currently being loaded into two vans and in about an hours time we will head to Cashapampa (9000 feet / 2743m). The three hour drive will take us through beautiful farming communities as we head between the spines of the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca. Here we'll organise our burros (mules) and hike to Llama Corral (11,500 feet / 3,505 metres).

We are super psyched and really looking forward to the adventure ahead. This will be my last blog post for a while until our return from the mountain in just under 2 weeks time. Breakfast is now being served on the stunning terrace and once again we can't help but be mesmerised by the views.  And so, the mountains are calling.... and we must go.

Jul 6, 2014

Living Large in Lima...

'Stepping out of your comfort zone' is my personal definition of the word 'adventure'. Adventure means different things to different people because 'your comfort zone' is, by its very definition a personal boundary. On Thursday morning I found myself 'stepping out of my comfort zone' as I stepped on my flight to Lima, Peru...  For the first time in a long time I felt as though I was on a grand adventure -  stepping out of my comfort zone and being a guest in a new country, a new city, experiencing a new culture, meeting new people, trying new foods... It was the whole package.... the deluxe version, in fact. The very prospect of being out of my comfort zone made me feel incredibly alive. 

Landing in Lima about 13 hours later, I was suddenly more committed to the 'adventure' as I leapt out of my comfort zone with an almighty stride - Spanish instructions boomed over the airport intercom, baggage trolleys jammed haphazardly around the luggage belts, travellers from all around the world converging in a babel of cultural idiosyncrasies under the buzzing fluorescent lights... I felt lost but in a strange way, felt as though I was exactly where I was supposed to be. My sense of sight suddenly seemed clearer, my sense of smell sharper and my hearing seemed to pick up the occasional recognisable phrase in the midst of the cacophony of noise. It could have been scary and I could have worried about a million other things but for the first time in a long time I just 'let go' and let the adventure take me. I felt free... even though I was lugging around about 40kgs of baggage.

One of the initial 'ambassadors' to adventure in a new city is often a local taxi driver. Sometimes they speak English, sometimes they don't... either way, to me, the privilege of being driven around a 'new city' and having the opportunity to reflect on first impressions is intensely satisfying. I had no idea what to expect from Lima. My first impressions were that it was a lot cooler than I expected (about 17 degrees), that the traffic was chaotic (7.30pm 'rush hour), and that there seemed to be an abundance of hair dressers, casinos and gyms built into the box-like buildings generally built no higher than 4 stories. I learned later that this is because Lima sits right on a fault line and the last earthquake, a 4.8, occurred only just last week. 

My hotel, located in the Milaflores district was quaint, clean and quiet and provided the perfect stepping stone for exploring the city. A short walk away was the Pacific Ocean and a commercial hub with everything from Starbucks and TGI Fridays to local alpaca arts and crafts shops.  

As the formal part of my expedition wasn't due to start until Sunday morning with an 8-hour drive to the mountain village of Huaraz, I had two full days to see as much of Lima as time (and jet lag) would permit. Two key highlights stand out - stepping on a hideously fluorescent and touristy yellow 'Turibus' and secondly, participating in the world cup festivities (watching Holland make it into the semi finals... barely)

I was able to join the 'Turibus' near to the hotel... The first stop was in the bohemian district of Barranco (adjacent to the Miraflores district). Here I learned that the locals of this especially affluent district pay 43% tax for the privilege of their stunning ocean front views and high-end services and shops. The bus then continued on for 5.5 kms into the city centre where we visited The San Martin Square, the Main Square and the Convent of San Francisco and its Catacombs in which 70,000 people have been buried. The open topped bus not only provided a transient way to 'dip in and out' of the city's rich history, it also provided me with enough cold air and stimulus to combat waves of jet-lag.

The second highlight of my time in Lima was the World Cup. Knowing smiles were exchanged between strangers who were seen to support the same team. There was a man on my Turibus tour who was dressed head-to-toe in Brazilian colours and carried a replica World Cup into the catacombs. The priests and nobility buried there would have turned in their graves. And then there was the game itself. THE game. With my head of blond hair, fair skin and big nose I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible supporting Holland in a pub that was RAMMED full of Costa Rican supporters. Only the waiter shared my secret and kept offering me drinks that seemed to get cheaper and cheaper as the goalless minutes ticked by. To save my nerves I decided to leave the pub when the game went to penalty kicks and instead caught the winning 'goal' through a window looking onto the television. I celebrated with a smile and a local drink, a pisco sour. It was a good day.

My Lima adventure was a thoroughly enjoyable one and provided the perfect prelude to what I think will be a fantastic two weeks in the mountains climbing Alpamayo. I am so excited to meet faces new and familiar and to enter deeper into this adventure as I discover more and more about this stunning country and its people. Tomorrow begins the second chapter of this new adventure and I can't wait to go even further to the precipice of my comfort zone. Bring it on.

Jul 2, 2014

"Oh the places you'll go...!" Next stop: Alpamayo, Peru!

You're off to great places,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting, 
So... get on your way..!
-Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You'll Go

A few final thoughts as the count-down well and truly begins..! I've put my finely tuned project management skills into overdrive and my two bags are already parked at the front door waiting to whisked away on yet another this great adventure..! I have a number of different emotions and thoughts going around in my head - nerves, excitement, standing on the cusp of the known and the unknown... Soon this journey will 'formally' begin... and I can't wait..!! 

Before leaving a few "Thank Yous"…

Thank you to my amazing friends - for your emails, calls and words of wisdom. Thanks for your kindness and for making me laugh during those moments when I needed to most. You guys are the best and I really really can't wait to have a drink with you all on a very sunny patio this summer.  You guys rock. Literally...!!

Thank you to my family - for your patience and for the spirit of adventure that I am certain that I inherited from you.... although there is some argument which side of the family it actually came from..! I know how much you worry about me but, in the same breath, how much you totally stand behind and support everything that I do. 

Thank you to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and to my colleagues for your support and encouragement in managing  delicate work-life balance. Thanks also to the fantastic project team still plugging away while I go - will think of you heaps and will send text message reminders for status reports!

A final humungous thank you to everyone who has kindly contributed to Hope for Tomorrow and to Wellbeing of Women, two of the charities which I support through my outdoor pursuits. 

To those who have donated to Hope for Tomorrow today or in the past - thank you so much. Your donations will certainly help to make the lives of those people living with cancer and requiring chemotherapy much more comfortable, allowing them to have their cancer treatment close to home. 

To those who have donated to Wellbeing of Women today or in the past - thank you so much. Your donation will go toward improving the health of women and babies through research, training and education.

The People You Meet: The Excess Baggage Police

One of the critical people I’ve met since I started climbing is the Excess Baggage Police of most major (and minor) airlines. I have disturbing early childhood memories of my own parents panicking with an open, overstuffed suitcase in front of an Air Canada counter, demanding that my wide-eyed little brothers and I wear / eat / drink / sell the excess 5kgs that they were in danger of having to compensate for. Since that day, I decided that I would be more strategic in preparing for my run-ins with the Excess Baggage Police. I promised myself that I would never be forced to pry open my suitcase and lose my dignity in full view of my fellow travellers or be forced to wear 6 jackets, 5 pairs of socks whilst eating a giant 2kg dried bratwurst while traveling through security… 

Tomorrow morning I head off to Peru to climb a jaw-droppingly beautiful 6000m snow-covered peak called Alpamayo. I wish that I could say that my childhood lessons learned had taught me to pack ‘lite’ for such an expedition. Unfortunately clothing and ‘gear’ technology hasn’t reached the stage where everything truly is ‘feather weight’ and my delicate work/life balance has not afforded me my own private jet. Instead, I will elegantly lug about 40 kilos of ‘outdoor gear’ that I have packed and repacked into two large, 110L duffel bags. I will also pray that what ever friendly face I meet at the Excess Baggage Counter is having a brilliant day, enjoying the July sunshine, and believes in Random Acts of Kindness.

I’ve mentally prepared myself for the negotiations… smiles, tears, jokes, begging, pleading, bribery… anything to avoid the dreaded excess baggage charges that turn Duty Free Shopping Fun with a pre-expedition glass of champagne into a plastic cup of tap water in the stained seats of the departures lounge.

When I look at the ‘snapshot’ of my collection of ‘essential kit’ (ah-hem) I can’t help but admire (yet again!) early mountaineering pioneers such as George Leigh-Mallory and stand in awe of their achievements wearing wool socks, gaberdine jackets and leather boots as they plodded to heights significantly higher than Alpamayo. 

The true adventure will clearly start tomorrow as soon as I set foot outside my front door. I must admit, I’m really excited and can’t wait to see a new part of the world, step onto a mountain I’ve heard so much about, and meet friends, old and new, in the before we head to the hills..!  If the Excess Baggage Police is the biggest challenge that I’ll have to overcome in the next three weeks I”ll certainly count my blessings..! 

Onward and upward.