One of the first public talks I gave was at my Mum’s school. The talk I gave was predominantly about climbing El Cap, and afterwards I asked if anyone had any questions. One kid asked how high I’d been. I said that El Cap was 1000 meters. He then proceeded to tell me that that wasn’t even very high, and that he’d been higher because he’s been up Ben Nevis, which is 1344 meters. I didn’t really know how to respond, or even begin to explain the difference.
I’ve never been massively interested in snow slogging my way up mountains; I’m a rock climber, not a mountaineer. But it’s amazing what two months of no exercise followed by a ten-day silent meditation course can do to change one’s mind.
Getting all Zen in India
The meditation center I attended consisted of a few half-erected buildings stuck onto a barren patch of sunbaked mud, but from the center I could see straight across the valley to Stok Kangri, an aesthetically pleasing 6000-meter peak. During breaks, I would sneak off to try and stretch my broken body, and I would stare longingly across at the mountain. Even on the days where the mountain was clothed in angry grey clouds I would wish to be up there. I just wished to be somewhere with a little adventure and clean, cold air, moving my arms and legs, feeling my lungs. Everyday I looked at the mountain and I made a promise to myself that I would climb it, just as soon as I escaped the self-inflicted internal hell of endless meditation.
As I left the center, I learned that, unfortunately, it had been a bad July. “Too much snow,” the local people said, “no one is going up there.” Instead, I begrudgingly decided to do a four-day trek on my own. It would still be moving my body I told myself, and it would still be great compared to the last two months.
Then I met a Swiss Guy. Despite being from Switzerland, a country with more mountains than people, this Swiss Guy didn’t know the first thing about mountains, yet he was determined to try and climb Stok Kangri. It felt like luck was on my side though, and like things were happening for a reason, so I decided to go with him. As it turned out, we ended up with perfect conditions for climbing the mountain, and the trek I’d wanted to do was impossible because of flooding.
As a climber, you mostly complain about approaches. Usually a long approach is a turn-off rather than a turn-on. (If you’re looking for a cure for this malady, I recommend a shoulder injury and a meditation course.) But I was in love with walking in India. Feeling my lungs and my legs hurt was a true gift. I realized that even though I’d put on a brave face after shoulder surgery, sitting in Sheffield in my room, my body had grown stale and so too had my disposition.
As we headed up the mountain, it became clear that the whole affair would be quite relaxed. We didn’t need to bring any tents or food or sleeping bags because there were homestays in convenient spots most of the way up the mountain. This was especially nice for me, because my shoulder was not ready for carrying heavy bags. The locals who ran the homestays were a special caliber of people that I’ll never forget. In fact, the Ladakhys in general are a special caliber. I think the combination of Buddhism and mountains make them especially peaceful. They have a strong character and vibrancy and they refused to be pushed around, yet they will happily lend you their own shoes with no expectation of anything in return.
Climbing with a non-climber turned out to be a bonus, especially since the Swiss Guy turned out to be a chef. He spent the entire climb shouting out, “Wonderful!” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that my Grandma might be the only other person I know who uses the word wonderful. Instead, I would shout, “C’est magnifique!” with my best French accent. It was refreshing to be up there with someone who was actually excited to walk, to climb a snow slope, or even to wear boots and crampons for the first time (which he then, of course, got excited about taking off).
On summit day, we woke up at 11 p.m. for our summit bid. Setting off in the dark, headlamps on, I was reminded of all those alpine starts where all I wanted to do was crawl back into my sleeping bag, having no idea why I decided the day before that my climbing objective was a good idea. But when the first light touches the land, those negative thoughts dissolve with the darkness.
It wasn’t until we reached the summit ridge at 5:30 a.m. that we got that first touch of light. Up until that point I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it to the top. The only advice anyone had given us about altitude sickness was that if I started to feel like vomiting, then I should go down. Although I’d felt like vomiting for the past few hours, it seemed so normal to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I reminded myself that the nausea was just a sensation, and as a sensation, it wasn’t half as bad as what I’d felt in the mediation course. Then the first light hit the summit ridge, and as the clouds cleared, my nausea also cleared, a little bit like magic.
I’ve never been much of a fist-bumper or a high-fiver, but with Pakistan to our West and China to our East, 6000- and 7000-meter peaks as far as the eye could see, it was hard not to be jubilant. I looked down at the spot in the desert where the meditation center was, and I decided that I was much happier to be up here than down there.
Breakfast about to bubble up..
Having a shoulder injury has taught me that no matter how good you have things and no matter how hard you try to keep it that way, there are just some things you can’t control or protect. Stok Kangri isn’t El Cap, or Ceuse or even Stanage, but that’s OK. More than OK; it’s wonderful. More importantly, I can now say I’ve climbed (much) higher than Ben Nevis.
Survived the mountain but will you survive a motorbike adventure?
hello hazel….... maybe you don’t remember me but I was a good friend of your mum’s back in 2002 when we went to creative writing classes. I’ve been trying to find your mum to get back in touch with her but I cannot seem to get any contact. I remember you when I used to go to your house in grappenhall and you used to come down the stairs along the walls using your fingers to grip it…..haha it was so funny. we had some great times together. I thought I’d look for you because I knew you would still be a climber. that’s all you wanted to do as I remember. would you please let me know your mums mobile number or address so I can contact her again. I hope you have a great life hazel, cos it looks like you are already enjoying a very active life already. thanks a lot. cheers Barbara roblin