Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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En suite

Comfortable as the IMG camp was, only so much is possible in the creation of convenient restrooms from scree, boulders and ice. The camp toilets were an impressive feat of civil engineering: constructed from rocks artfully piled into a seating platform over a strong plastic sack (to enable all waste to be packed out), topped with a fluffy seat cover – presumably for insulation rather than purely decorative purposes! – and covered with a roomy tent, the toilets were all a trekker could hope for from a campsite on a glacier.

The closest 'throne room' to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

The closest ‘throne room’ to my tent in the IMG Everest Base Camp.

They were, however, situated a hygienic distance from our sleeping quarters and getting to them was a bit of a palaver. As one climber quipped “We’ll have to repel to the bathroom!”. And when the distance and tricky terrain were combined with darkness and frigid temperatures only the hardiest soul would be game to visit them at night. The IMG kit list accordingly recommended bringing a pee bottle. But how are we women to get the pee into the bottle without the advantage of inbuilt apparatus, so to speak? Enter the pee funnel…

After some internet research, I purchased a Shewee, the UK’s top-selling brand, and practiced at home as recommended by the manufacturers. So far so good. But when I arrived at our first camp I realised I’d made a fundamental error in my preparations: all my practice had been done standing up but the IMG tents, while commodious, offered only enough headroom for kneeling. On the first night I lay wakeful in my sleeping bag, weighing the evils of getting dressed and hiking to the toilet in the freezing cold against the risks of making my first kneeling attempt in a tent full of essential (and difficult to launder or replace) gear. As nature’s calls grew louder and the temperature fell another few degrees I decided I had to at least give it a try.

The first obstacle was the uneven ground, which meant Viki and I had rolled together into the centre of the tent. I cringed as I opened my sleeping bag, jostling her all the way while an infeasibly loud ‘ziiiiiiiiiip’ shattered the silent mountain air. I clambered out, pulled on my head torch, and folded my sleeping bag out of the way as Viki (a pee funnel expert) had recommended. I assembled my apparatus, assumed what I hoped was the correct position…and was seized by performance anxiety. I waited…and waited…and tried to relax, but it was no good. I tried to think of something else, then tried some visualisations, and finally some reassuring internal monologues. Eventually the deadlock was broken, but what I would normally expect to accomplish in less than a minute took around a quarter of an hour.

But it was done! I carefully screwed the lid back onto my pee bottle, checked it, tidied up, checked it again, put it carefully away in the corner of the tent, checked it once more for luck, and prepared to get back into bed. A little shaky – though whether from the cold or the adrenaline I couldn’t say – I tried to straighten out my sleeping bag, but managed to somehow get it both upside down and the wrong way round. Impressive! Muttering to myself (very quietly) I flipped it over, only to clout Viki on the way past with the hot Nalgene bottle I’d forgotten was still stuffed into the foot box. D’oh! Finally getting it straight I climbed back inside, turned off my headlight and repeated the whole noisy, jostling zip procedure before settling back down, my heart pounding. I was relieved (in all senses of the word) but also mortified at the kerfuffle I had caused over a simple biological function. All in all, I reflected, it would have been quicker and less disruptive to have got dressed and gone off to the toilet tent.

In the morning, however, only the sight of my full pee bottle prevented Viki berating me for insufficiently hydrating (an essential part of successful acclimatization to high altitude): she had slept through the whole thing and thought I hadn’t needed to use the facilities in the night. While I am immensely grateful for all the advice I received about pee funnels from Viki (and other women on the trek and on the net), at that moment I was most appreciative of her ability to sleep through an in-tent commotion of almost Armageddon-like proportions. Thus reassured, and after a bit more practice, I am now completely converted to the benefits of en suite facilities I can enjoy in even the remotest corners of the planet.


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Home base

I’ve never camped on a glacier before, or even stood on one come to that, so staying at Everest Base Camp was quite an experience. I expected it to be cold and was not disappointed. Thankfully my sleeping bag proved up to the job, and the nights were not as cold as they could have been. Even so, by the time we went to bed (around 7:30 or 8:00pm) there was usually a thick layer of frost on both the outside and the inside of the tent fly sheet. During the night, my breath condensed on the outside of the sleeping bag in front of my face, the droplets freezing so that by morning the red fabric appeared to be adorned with a stylish sprinkling of rhinestones.

While I’d expected it to be cold I hadn’t expected it to be quite so noisy. Avalanches and rockfalls from the surrounding peaks were frequent, and sounded rather like a rumble of thunder. The often strong winds made a similar sound as they barreled up the valley, so that it was sometimes only possible to tell the difference when the wind buffeted the tent – or not. The shifting of the glacier itself made sounds ranging from the gentle creaks of an old house when the heating goes off, to the slam of a car door, to a gunshot – the latter more than a little disconcerting when it came from directly beneath my tent, and doubly so when I could feel it. I consoled myself that the Khumbu is a ‘dry’ glacier, so a crevasse was unlikely to open up beneath me. But there was still the regular sound of a ball smashing through a greenhouse whenever the movements of the glacier cracked the ice on one of the many frozen pools. With all that racket, I can’t say I slept well while at Base Camp!

But sound effects aside, the mere existence of the camp is actually pretty amazing. An estimated 1,200 climbers, sherpas and support staff will be staying at Base Camp this season, and the facilities provided for this small town are impressive – doubly so considering that every single item in the camp has been walked up the mountain, on the route we’ve just trekked, carried by an animal or a person, or helicoptered in.

The IMG Classic team tent area.  My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG Classic team tent area. My tent was the leftmost one of the four just to the right of the big green tent (behind the solar panels).

The IMG camp has separate tent areas for each climbing team, each with its own kitchen, (carpeted) mess tent and toilets. The toilets, paths and tent bases were works of art, constructed by the sherpa crews by hefting piles of rock and scree into position. There are also a couple of hot (gas-powered) showers, solar powered charging for all your gadgets and wifi, though it’s (understandably) not cheap. Shared facilities include a helipad and a medical clinic.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

A helicopter delivering medical supplies is waved onto the helipad at Everest Base Camp.

All in all, I was astounded at how an apparently inhospitable glacier in such a remote corner of the world can be remodeled into (relatively) comfortable living accommodation for so many people. As I walked around exploring, and admiring the spectacular ice formations, I was tempted to try a little remodelling of my own….

Attempting a little 'remodeling' of my own on the Khumbu glacier!

Attempting a little ‘remodeling’ of my own on the Khumbu glacier!


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Rise and fall

The hike up to Everest Base Camp got off to a bad start for me when I fell over in the first five minutes. The paths that had been soggy and muddy when we arrived at lunchtime were frozen and icy when we walked out in the early morning. One minute I was walking along admiring the views, the next a sneaky patch of black ice sent my foot shooting sideways and the rest of me sprawling in the snow. Luckily, my pride was the only thing hurt and, brushing myself off, I set off again with as nonchalant an air as I could muster given the rather large number of spectators.

Fortunately, as the sun came up any remaining ice on the paths melted and I made my way to Lobuche without further incident. Or so I thought… When we stopped for a break at the Lobuche Pass I realized I’d left my packed lunch on a wall some 90 minutes back. It now promised to be a hungry as well as a long day. I unearthed a food bar I had thankfully managed to keep hold of, and pressed on to Gorak Shep (5,140m / 16,865ft), the last stop before Everest Base Camp.

While the terrain had been getting progressively less lush as we moved up the Khumbu valley, there was a distinct change at Lobuche where the path begins to run alongside the Khumbu glacier. Villages, fields and high alpine moors gave way to a barren, rocky landscape, increasingly icy as we traced the glacier back to its source. The terrain underfoot also became more challenging, with rocky, dusty scree replacing the flat paths that were typical lower down.

A high ridge along the glacier’s edge gave us our first views of Everest Base Camp, perched on the first bend of the Khumbu glacier at the foot of the Western Cwm icefall.

My first view of Everest Base Camp - you can just make out the yellow splashes of the tents in the bottom left corner.  Everest is the dark triangular peak at the back trailing a small cloud plume.

My first view of Everest Base Camp – you can just make out the yellow splashes of the tents in the bottom left corner. Everest is the dark triangular peak at the back trailing a small cloud plume.

As we made our way down from the ridge to the glacier itself and I was inordinately excited to see Base Camp for the first time. In 2009, my trekking group arrived there in a white out and we could barely see the sign, let alone anything beyond. I was astounded by the view: a huge natural amphitheater with clusters of brightly coloured tents dotting the uneven surface of the glacier. I couldn’t wait to get a closer look and headed down the main path, goggling at the ice formations and glacial pools. The Khumbu glacier is without doubt one of the most dramatic and striking landscapes I have ever seen. But my enthusiasm proved my undoing. I trotted eagerly towards a particularly pleasing array of ice spires ringing the back edge of a frozen pool…and found myself sprawled on the ground again. I had failed to take account of the fact that the glacier is, fundamentally, made of ice, and what looked like a good patch if grippy dirt was in fact a thin film of grit over a melting ice slab. At least the rest if the group had gone on ahead so I had fewer witnesses this time. I hastily got to my feet, brushed myself off and carried on up the path towards the IMG camp hoping no-one had noticed.

IMG's Everest Base Camp.

IMG’s Everest Base Camp.

Finding the camp was just the first step, however. IMG has a large team and their camp covers a commensurately large area. Happily, it is full of friendly Sherpas who waved me cheerfully towards the hybrid team mess tent, in the manner of airport staff lining up an incoming plane with the right gate. I climbed the last few feet to the tent with relief and excitement – I’d made it!

I put down my pack down outside the door and began to straighten up when a strong gust of wind almost knocked me off my feet. Happily, I narrowly avoided a hat trick of tumbles – but I hastened inside before any further gravitational disasters could befall me.

Fortified with soup, tea and biscuits I felt sufficiently brave to venture back out to find my tent. The risk was entirely worth it: I can safely say I have never slept in a tent with such a breath-taking view before. And best of all, I can enjoy it while (intentionally!) lying down.

The view from my tent - not bad, eh?

The view from my tent – not bad, eh?


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Feeling the height

It turned out I was altogether too eager to get into my thermals. Although the air was cool when we set off from Pheriche, with the edges of the slower moving streams fringed with ice, the wind had dropped and the sun was hot. The valley – and I – quickly heated up, and half an hour after we started I had to stop and take off several of my tops or risk collapse from heat stroke. My long johns had to stay, however: the flip side of the unobstructed views of the valley that we enjoyed was that everyone else would have an unobstructed view of me in my knickers if I tried to take them off.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Leaving the Pheriche valley behind.

Slightly cooler, we made our way slowly to the top of the valley. At the bridge across the river at Dughla we waited for a dzopkio train to pass…then we waited for another…and another….and then several more. I had never seen so many dzopkios and yaks all in one place and lost count after the first couple of dozen. Ten minutes later they were still filing by. But eventually the seemingly limitless column of animals came to an end and we could take our turn, climbing up a short way on the other side for a break at the tea- house before heading off the main trail to Lobuche Base Camp.

The terrain became steeper and narrower on this side path, with a series if short switchbacks leading up and around the base of Awi Peak.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

The steep climb up to Lobuche Base Camp.

With one final glance back down the wide valley to Pheriche we turned the corner and headed into a much narrower one with the snow-capped Tabuche (6,495m / 21,310ft) and Cholatse (6,335m / 20,784ft) towering above us and the dramatic curl of the Chola Glacier sweeping down to the frozen Chola Tsho (lake) below. Another turn, and we made our way down a path slick and muddy with melting snow to Lobuche Base Camp (around 4,900m / 16,000ft).

A small cluster of tents tucked into a sheltered corner of a valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful setting, or a more peaceful one. With just our group there it made a relaxing change from the bustle of the peak-season tea-houses that we’ve stayed in since arriving in the Khumbu.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG's Lobuche Base Camp.

Home sweet home: the beautiful remote setting of IMG’s Lobuche Base Camp.

But the wonderful setting was not without cost. That night I developed my first altitude headache, the dry cold triggered a nosebleed, and the thin air interfered with my breathing and prevented me from sleeping. Come the morning I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle the acclimatization hike 300m (1,000ft) up to Lobuche High Camp. But after a slow start I felt better and made it all the way up to see the compact area by the side of a small frozen lake. It was covered in several inches of snow and I was glad I wasn’t camping up there – though our climbers will be back in a few days to tackle the peak as part of their preparations for Everest. I hope the snow has melted for them by then – although being much hardier than me they are probably less bothered by such trifles!

Meanwhile, after a better night’s sleep with my headache gone, and the tactical application of lotion stopping any further nosebleeds we set off on the final stretch to Everest Base Camp. After 12 days of hiking I can’t wait to reach our destination, and see where our climbers will be staying as they mount their campaign to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain.


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Halt!

My walk came to an abrupt halt today at the command of the Army. A mile or two on from our campsite the Coast Path enters the Lulworth Ranges. The home of the Royal Armoured Corps Gunnery School, they apparently had their own use for the firing ranges today.

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According to my guidebook “The ranges cover some of the best coast in Dorset and it is a great shame to miss it.” We therefore resigned ourselves to yet another day off but while we settled back to relax and enjoy it the Army were clearly hard at work. We ate breakfast to the sound of distant gunfire, the tanks making an altogether more intimidating noise than the rifles we’d heard from the Royal Marines Ranges at Straight Point.

It made a pleasant change to have a day off where it wasn’t pouring with rain. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who thought so. The upside of the terrible weather has been the deserted campsites. But the combination of an improved forecast and the start of the school holidays bought other tourists out in force. By the end of the afternoon our quiet pitch under the trees had become a melée of tents, cars, dogs, barbecues and children.

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We escaped the chaos and walked down into Lulworth Cove for dinner. Full of good steak and mellowed by a glass of red wine the sunset over Durdle Door was the perfect end to the evening.

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If only little Jacob next door could be persuaded to stop larking about – and periodically yelling – I could get some sleep…


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Size matters

More landslips, and consequently diversions, made for a vexatious start today. Having walked inland on the roads from Lyme Regis we finally regained the beach at Charmouth only to be signposted straight back inland. The brief glimpse of Charmouth’s sea front car park hardly justified the effort of walking out to the coast and back again and I’d have been just as happy to forgo that pleasure and link the two diversions together by staying on The Street instead. I’ll know for next time.

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But once we had climbed over Stonebarrow Hill and back to the cliffs I forgot my frustrations in my enjoyment of the views along the coast, spectacular despite the cloudy day. The most prominent feature was Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the south coast of Britain, although – ominously – we also had a clear view of the Isle of Portland in the distance, apparently a sure sign of rain tomorrow.

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After ten years in Calgary, a stone’s throw from the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies, Rob was unimpressed with a cliff just 191m high. But when faced with climbing over half a dozen of them in the day I think that small cliffs have their advantages. And, in addition to its height and distinctive two-tone appearance (with a base of dark grey mudrock topped by a triangle of Upper Greensand, a sandstone that turns golden as it weathers) Golden Cap had one other unique feature. In years of walking all around the UK I don’t think I’ve ever seen a double his ‘n’ hers stile before!

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By the time we arrived in Eype’s Mouth the sun had finally broke through, providing a great view back to the cliffs we’d just walked over.

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It was so exciting to see the sun for a change I decided to stop in West Bay for a celebratory cream tea. Taking the recommendation of the very helpful couple supervising the Eype’s Mouth car park we headed to Haddon House Hotel, which they told us served one of the best cream teas they’d ever had. It came on a ceremonial tray, doily-topped plates nestled on a bed of deep red napkins: undoubtedly the best-presented of the trip. But, while tasty, it wasn’t quite a prize-winner – the side plate of chocolate biscuits added variety but I would have traded it for a second of the lovely but rather small scones, and a larger pot of tea.

From West Bay there was just one more cliff to climb before our campsite at Burton Freshwater. Where my scone had been a little small, the camping pitch I’d booked turned out to be enormous. Promised “a small walkers pitch just big enough for a two man tent” the spot we were allocated would easily fit ten tents the size of mine. It makes me wonder just what equipment the other backpackers in this area are using…


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Silver linings

We stopped last night at Ladram Bay Holiday Park. Although it was voted Hoseasons Best Holiday Park in Britain 2011, when I read that it was one of the largest privately-owned holiday parks in the UK, together with a review praising “some of the best entertainment I’ve ever seen on a campsite” I was tempted to look elsewhere: it’s the not the type of campsite I normally prefer to stay at. But with the Coast Path running right through the bottom of the site the location was too perfect to turn down, especially once I’d negotiated their initial price of £26 down to a much more reasonable £15. And it had wonderful views over the red sandstone stacks in the bay.

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We got up eager to walk but our enthusiasm was quickly drowned by the heavy rain that started around 9:00 am and was forecast to last all day. We put on our coats and went back to Reception to pay for another night. The staff were incredulous: everyone else had come in wanting to check out early, did we really want to extend our stay in such terrible weather?! We explained that it was better than the alternative – and then graciously accepted their sympathy. But if we were going to be rained in it was fortunate we were on a big whistles-and-bells holiday park when it happened. With it’s own launderette, shop, cafe and pub on site we passed the day with only minimal outdoor exposure, although we drew the line at attending the evening entertainment programme (complete with a guest talent spot).

As darkness fell and the rain – finally – slowed to a drizzle, we headed back up the hillside to the tent. After a whole day of torrential rain the grass was disagreeable squelchy underfoot but my lovely two man tent had withstood the deluge without a single leak. It turns out a rainy day is much less miserable when you have a properly waterproof shelter to go back to, and somebody to spend the time with.