Pain and Endurance

Off the back of my previous post on Expedition Behaviour, I want to share the following video of the failed 2008 expedition by Americans Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renen Osturk on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalaya.

The video boasts some beautiful artwork, inventive camerawork and incredible scenery. However, the power of the sequences comes not from technical ingenuity, but the rawness of human emotion portrayed.

The pain and grittiness of their experience are evident, and despite the smiles and joking, the emotional toil is plain to see in their eyes and expressions. This human element running through the film is, for me, what stands it apart, and the artistic craft of Renan Osturk frames it beautifully.

The trio returned recently and successfully ascended the compelling, but technically demanding, line.

Here we go:


Exploring the Ardèche

Looking across the old course of the Ardèche river at Pont d'Arc

Unfortunately there was no sport climbing for me last weekend, but I did get out for a little outing with the family. We drove into the Ardèche gorge itself and took a quick look at Dent la Rez, which was helpful for getting my bearings and better orientated with the area.

In the gorge

The obvious destination was the town of Vallon Pont d’Arc and the nearby Pont d’Arc itself, a magnificent natural rock arch, which was created when the Ardèche river eroded and finally broke through the neck of the meander.

The natural rock arch of Pont d'Arc

Standing at river level, the eye is continually drawn skyward by the cliff faces of limestone. As I did so, it was hard not to wonder where the rock climbing routes were. In fact, the whole area is full of outcrops, gorge walls and clean, blanched limestone – a veritable climber’s paradise.

Pick your line and climb...

Expedition Behaviour

I came across the following recently while bimbling around on the internet, a bulleted essay, outling the ten most important rules of expedition behaviour.

It makes me laugh, especially rule #6 and #7. There should be another added to that – never ask what the time is. Given the proliferation of devices that tell the time these days, there is no excuse for asking the time.

A leader has better things to do than act as a time keeper!

Anyway, here it is, courtesy of Howard Tomb.

Expedition Behavior

The Finer Points

Howard Tomb

A good expedition team is like a powerful, well-oiled, finely tuned marriage. Members cook meals together, carry burdens together, face challenges together and finally go to bed together.

A bad expedition, on the other hand, is an awkward, ugly, embarrassing thing characterized by bickering, filth, frustration and crispy macaroni.

Nearly all bad expeditions have one thing in common: poor expedition behavior (EB). This is true even if team members follow the stated rules, such as Don’t Step on the Rope, Kerosene and Food, No Soap in the River, No Raccoons in the Tent, Keep your Ice Axe Out of My Eye, etc.

Unfortunately, too many rules of expedition behavior remain unspoken. Some leaders seem to assume that their team members already have strong and generous characters like their own. But judging from a few of the campers we’ve encountered, more rules ought to be spelled out. Here are ten of them.

RULE #1 Get the hell out of bed.

Suppose your tentmates get up early to fetch water and fire up the stove while you lie comatose in your sleeping bag.  As they run an extensive equipment check, coil ropes and fix your breakfast, they hear you start to snore.  Last night you were their buddy; now they’re drawing up list of things about you that make them want to spit. They will devise cruel punishments for you.  You have earned them.  The team concept is now defunct.  Had you gotten out of bed, nobody would have had to suffer.

RULE #2 Do not be cheerful before breakfast.

Some people wake up perky and happy as fluffy bunny rabbits.  They put stress on those who wake up mean as rabid wolverines.  Exhortations such as “Rise and shine, sugar!” and “Greet the dawn, pumkin!” have been known to provoke pungent expletives from rabid wolverine types.  These curses, in turn, may offend fluffy bunny types.  Indeed, they are issued with the sincere intent to offend.  Thus, the day begins with flying fur and hurt feelings.  The best early morning behavior is simple:  Be quiet.

RULE #3 Do not complain.

About anything.  Ever.  It’s ten below zero, visibility is four inches and wind driven hailstones are embedding themselves in your face like shotgun pellets. Must you mention it?  Do you think your friends haven’t noticed the weather?  Make a suggestion.  Tell a joke.  Lead a prayer.  Do NOT lodge a complaint!  Your pack weighs 87 pounds and your cheap backpack straps are – surprise!, surprise!, – cutting into your flesh.  Were you promised a personal sherpa?  Did somebody cheat you out of a mule team?  If you can’t carry your weight, get a

RULE #4 Learn to cook at least one thing right.

One expedition trick is so old that it is no longer amusing:  on the first cooking assignment, the clever cook prepares a dish that resembles, say, Burnt Socks in Toxic Waste Sauce.  The cook hopes to be relieved permanently from cooking duties.  This is the childish approach to a problem that’s been with us since people first started throwing dead lizards on the fire.  Tricks are not a part of a team spirit.  If you don’t like to cook, say so.  Offer to wash dishes and prepare the one thing you do know how to cook.  Even if it’s only tea.  Remember that talented camp cooks sometimes get invited to join major expeditions in Nepal, all expenses paid.

RULE #5 Either A) Shampoo, or B) Do not remove your hat for any reason.

After a week or so on the trail, without shampooing, hair forms angry little clumps and wads.  These leave the person beneath looking like an escapee from a mental ward.  Such and appearance could shake a team’s confidence in your judgment.  If you can’t shampoo, pull a wool hat down over your ears and leave it there, night and day, for the entire expedition.

RULE #6 Do not ask if anybody’s seen your stuff.

Experienced adventures have systems for organizing their gear.  They very rarely leave it strewn around camp or lying back on the trail.  One of the most damning things you can do is ask your teammate if they’ve seen the tent poles you thought you packed 20 miles ago.  Even in the unlikely event you get home alive, you will not be invited on the next trip.  Should you ever leave the tent poles 20 miles away, do not ask if anybody’s seem them.  Simply announce, with a good-natured chuckle, that you are about to set off in the dark on a 40 mile hike to retrieve them, and that you are sorry.  It’s unprofessional to lose your spoon or your toothbrush.  If something like that happens, don’t mention it to anyone.

RULE #7 Never ask where you are.

If you want to know where you are, look at the map.  Try to figure it out yourself.  If you’re still confused, feel free to discuss the identity of landmarks around you and how they correspond to the cartography.  If you A) suspect that a mistake has been made; and B) have experience in interpreting topographical maps, and C) are certain that your group leader is a novice or on drugs, speak up.  Otherwise, follow the group like a sheep.

RULE #8 Always carry more than your fair share.

When the trip is over, would you rather be remembered as a rock or a sissy?  Keep in mind that a pound or two of extra weight in your pack won’t make your back hurt any more than it already does.  In any given group of flatlanders, somebody is bound to bicker about your weight.  When an argument begins, take the extra weight yourself.  Then shake your head and gaze with pity upon the slothful one.  This is the mature response to childish behavior.  On the trail that day, during a break, load the tenderfoot’s pack with 20 pounds of gravel.

RULE # 9  Do not get sunburned.

Sunburn is not only painful and unattractive, it’s also an obvious sign of inexperience.  Most green horns wait too long before applying sunscreen.  Once you’ve burned on an expedition, you may not have a chance to get out of the sun.  Then the burn gets burned, skin peels away, blisters sprout on the already swollen lips.  Anyway, you get the idea.  Wear zinc oxide.  You can see exactly where and how thickly it’s applied and it gives you just about 100% protection.  It does get on your sunglasses, all over your clothes and in your mouth.  But that’s OK.  Unlike sunshine, zinc oxide is non-toxic.

RULE #10 Do not get killed.

Suppose you make the summit of K2 solo, chain-smoking Gitanes and carrying the complete works of Hemingway in hardcover.  Pretty macho, huh? Suppose now that you take a vertical detour down a crevasse and never make it back to camp.  Would you still qualify as a hero?  And would it matter?  Nobody’s going to run any fingers through your new chest hair.  The worst thing to have on your outdoor resume is the list of the possible locations of your body.

All expedition behavior really flows from this one principle:  Think of your team, the beautiful machine, first.  You are merely a cog in that machine.  If you have something to prove, forget about joining an expedition.  Your team will never have more than one member.

Autumn sport climbing – St. Montan, Ardèche

It can safely be said that the heatwave has broken and autumn is here now in the south of France. I have seen cloud for the first time in weeks – strangely comforting after years of British weather – and the Mistral is starting to cut through the clothing.

Not bad for cragging in October

However, a bit of cloud and wind can hardly stop an Englishman from venturing into the great outdoors, so Matt and I travelled down the road to La Sainte Beaume, a small, quite crag on the outskirts of the sleepy village of St. Montan.

Local ethics leave something to be desired...

Bizarrely, the limestone, with its quirky pockets and niches, was strongly reminiscent of Boiler Slab on the Gower. Clearly, I must be missing Wales and the liquid sunshine…

Good, compact limestone, although you can't see all the bolts glinting in the sun...

Anyway, the southerly aspect and with the Mistral flushing the cloud down the Rhône valley meant cragging in the sun – gotta love it! As I’d not climbed for a while, I thought it would be best to take it easy, so used the opportunity to work on footwork and state of mind.

Matt at work

I had a go at a 6b, but the crux move got the better of me, so I escaped right. As has been noted of Brits abroad on, I climbed like a trad climber on a sport route – scared to death of falling. Need to get back on that one sometime. Otherwise, I lead a 5c clean, so for me, not too bad a start. We didn’t have the guidebook with us, and as most of the routes were in low grades, you could pick any line and have a go.

More bolt clipping to follow.

Mountain Leader Award – check

ML finally in the bag

I’ve been a bit busy of late, but the sticker for my ML logbook finally came through a few weeks ago – basically means I have completed the award – so this is really a footnote in the whole process.

Bit of an anticlimax and all, but I’m just relieved to have got to the end of the process. Obviously, there is continuing development and refreshing of the skills, but the assessment stage is over.

It’s good to be able to concentrate on other things now, and I have work lined up for Morocco and Scotland in January and February 2012, which will help me work towards the Winter ML award.

Climbing is still very much an objective too, and I’m planning to visit St. Montan tomorrow for my first outdoor sport climbing session in France. Although summer has now broken and the Mistral is bringing in much cooler air, it’s pleasant out in the sun, so it should be  good introduction.

More to follow, hopefully.

Quality Mountain Days Revisited

My post last year on QMDs has attracted the highest number of hits on this site other than the home page.

It’s understandable given the relatively large numbers of people now undertaking the ML award. This perhaps reflects  a number of factors: increasing appeal of outward bound type activities; more education centres offering hillwalking; downturn in the economy leading to UK based holidays etc.

However, I was reminded again recently of the perennial QMD question by a thread on (sister side to The question for the ML candidate, of course, is ‘what is a QMD and how do I get one?’ The debate on UKH surrounded whether days in the Peak District, Dartmoor or other more low-lying areas qualify as QMDs compared with the Highlands, North Wales or the Lake District.

My reflections on the discussion are that unfortunately a lot of the emphasis was on navigation alone, rather than a consideration of all the factors that contribute towards a QMD. Having spent some time on Dartmoor, I wholeheartedly agree that the lower hills do stretch the navigator more with their subtle, rolling features, which in low cloud or bad conditions, are all but obliterated, making orientation that much more difficult.

However, the criteria for QMDs include much more than navigation and map reading, which is precisely why a logbook should contain significantly more days in Scotland and the other ‘proper’ mountain areas. Here one finds steep, rocky ridges, sheerer drops and plenty of exposure. When the leader is required to take into consideration safety on steep ground with its exposure, as well as navigation of a party, the weight of responsibility and challenge increases considerably. In an emergency it is suddenly not so simple to walk on a bearing to the nearest road, to generalise slightly.

I sympathise with candidates who live in the South of the UK, from where travel to Scotland is that much more time-consuming and costly. However, any time in Scotland or ‘the North’ is well spent both as an investment in the awards and for the pure enjoyment of being in great, open mountain areas.

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