Come join me in my misadventures at altitude!

I'll be blogging about all sorts of shenanigans from my everyday life.
From mountains to running.........
From tales at altitude to fundraising............

Places I explore and places I love from all over the world.

I hope you enjoy reading.......

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Auschwitz, Poland

"Whether or not you choose to go to Auschwitz is up to you to decide. However it should be understood that Auschwitz is not a site of Jewish concern, Polish concern, German concern, Gypsy concern, historical concern... It is a site of Human concern. As such, everyone should visit...."

I can't say that Auschwitz has ever been on my 'list' of things to do, places I want to visit, things I want to experience. Of course I've heard of it, who hasn't? I've seen films and documentaries about it and read disturbing accounts, but nothing could have prepared me for the day ahead.

It's late January 2012 and I'm in Poland with close friends to see in my 40th birthday. We're staying in Krakow and depleting the city of vodka fast, so it's a welcome relief to escape the city for a day and make the journey 70km west of Krakow.

It's a bitterly cold day. A biting, viscous cold that I've not experienced before. The temperature is -16 and the city and surrounding areas are carpeted in a blanket of snow which makes a beautiful contrast to the piercing blue sky.
Our little tour bus chugs out of the city and into Polish suburbia. A small screen plays a documentary briefing us on what will lie ahead. There is a sombre mood onboard. I look out of the iced window, shivering in my expensive tri-climate clothes and try to imagine just how bad it's going to be. I'm an emotional person naturally and find it hard to shake thoughts and feelings that upset or affect me. However, I remind myself of something I read the day before...

"Until you've actually visited the site, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who has made the trip and recommends against going"

After an hour we are here. I step off the bus and I'm faced with what over 1.1 million people would have seen first over a period of four and a half years. 

Auschwitz I is built on the site of the former village of Oświęcim. The Nazi's chose the site as there were already former army barracks in place. These red brick buildings each served a purpose, some buildings (10 and 11) more notorious than others. 

We meet our guide Syzmon (Simon) and I warm to him immediately. He is factual, passionate and unassuming. You'd be hard pressed to find a better chaperone.
Syzmon starts with the bare facts.
The deaths: (approx)
1,000,000 Jews
70,000 Polish Political prisoners
21,000 gypsies
15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War
1000's of Catholics, Jehovah Witness' and homosexuals.

And then the tour begins.
We see the railway line and where it ends...inside the camp. There is a sign in place warning of danger if you do not halt on disembarkation. Here the innocent victims would have stepped off the train with just one bag of belongings each in the pitiful belief that they were to begin a new life here. Why did they believe that? Who knows? Perhaps when you have nothing, have been stripped of everything, you just want to believe. They brought with them pots and pans, the children brought toys... 

The majority of people to perish here were Hungarian Jews. Some journeys would have taken up to two weeks, crammed into a cage in sub zero temperatures. I shudder, but this really is the tip of the iceberg.
There were many ways to die at Auschwitz, not just the gas chamber.
Upon arrival people would be divided into two lines. Strong men and women and children aged over 10 who were healthy, were sent to the 'right' and prison cells. They had escaped immediate extermination by the gas chamber. But I think perhaps their fate was worse.
If you were sent 'to the left' you first had your details recorded, were then stripped and then gassed. 

Death by the gas chamber was a fairly new experiment in 1940 and quite often the unskilled and untrained SS soldiers got it wrong, very wrong. It was not unusual to still have people alive after hours and hours. Sometimes it would take the entire night to kill them. This method of execution was designed to take between 20 and 30 minutes to kill. It was used because it was cheap, quick and efficient. It was also one of the most painful and wretched ways to die. Suffocating and burning from the inside.
So what happened if you were 'sent to the right'?
Your average survival rate at Auschwitz was to be 4 months. You would most likely die a slow death of starvation, exhaustion or hypothermia.
If someone should escape (and about 10% of escapees were successful) then 10 random prisoners would be drawn from morning roll call and either shot at the 'Wall of Death' between blocks 10 & 11 or hung from the 20 ft of steel scaffolding in the central courtyard; and then the Nazis would visit the escapees relatives and bring them to Auschwitz to die. Could you live knowing that others would die because you had escaped? There were also various torture chambers; sickening vile rooms that housed inhumane atrocities.
We walk from barrack to barrack and on each wall there are photos upon photos of prisoners. Their heads shaven, their eyes pleading at the camera, some just stare in sheer terror.
I'm drawn to 13 year old Klara. I stand and stare at her picture. Large tears sit in her eyes, too afraid to cry. Her head is cut where the scalpel has cut too deep when shaving her hair off. She arrived in April 1941 and died in August 1941.
There are pictures of families being marched to the gas chambers. Mothers cradling their babies, toddlers holding hands, old people struggling to walk fast enough. Pictures taken just moments before impending death.
We see glass cabinets full of hair. Tonnes and tonnes of hair mainly in plaits. I plait my daughter’s hair each night before she goes to sleep so it's no surprise that I have to step away. Then there are the shoes. Thousands of pairs and then a separate glass cabinet full of children's shoes.

Tiny little leather boots. Little scuff marks where children played and tripped. A tissue is passed to me by my friend Jacqui. She couldn't see my face so I assume she just guessed.
I look at their clothes. Children's clothes. Toys, hairbrushes....
Syzmon warns us that if we are parents then this room is particularly hard. But I don't think you have to be a parent to find this harrowing. Just a human with natural compassion.
The Nazis deported to Auschwitz 232,000 children; including 216,000 Jewish children, 1100 Gypsy children, 3000 Polish children and 1000 plus children of other nationalities. The majority of Jewish children perished in the gas chamber immediately upon arrival. Altogether about 22,000 children of various nationalities were registered as prisoners at Auschwitz. On the 27th January 1945 The Red Army soldiers liberated at the camp just 650 children. 

I step out into the icy air and realise that this is worse than I thought it would be. Much, much worse.
And then the gas chamber itself. There is only one gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I. It was only used for 6 months when it became apparent that something much bigger was needed. Cue Auschwitz Birkenau.
So here I am standing in a dark gas chamber, with scratches still etched into the wall. It's strange because there is a sense of emptiness here. I thought maybe I would sense something. But I sense nothing. If ghosts do exist then there are none here. A place too evil, too harrowing even for ghouls. The chamber leads directly into the crematorium. Four giant furnaces menacingly greet you. The floor, although a pale concrete, is dusty and dry and mimics ash. I feel suffocated and need to get out.
We then make our way over to Auschwitz II -Birkenau. A small polish village a short drive away ripped down and rebuilt to house and murder the increasing number of deportees. This place is built with efficiency. A large rail road runs to the centre. It stops half a mile in. A platform is then split into two. Those to the left and those to the right. Two huge crematoriums would have lay ahead. They have now been destroyed (by the Nazis in January 1945, days before the liberation on the 27th), but their remains lay in the snow untouched. 

Whilst one chimney would have been churning out black, acrid smoke another train would have been unloading and stripping its victims naked. By 1942, the volume of Jews to be murdered was so high the Nazis stopped registering and recording them. These humans were meaningless to them.
I'm glad we are here in the winter. Had we visited in the warm summer it would have been hard to imagine just how cold and deathly trying to survive Auschwitz would have been. I'm shivering, cold and actually in pain with the cold. No wonder some didn't survive their first night here in thin striped overalls.
We stand on the spot where Josef Mengele's had his laboratory. Here he conducted his experiments on twins, triplets and pregnant woman. All so that the Arian race would multiply at a rate faster than most. He was never brought to trial, he escaped to Argentina. In fact 7000 SS Soldiers served here, yet only 800 were brought to trial.
We spend time at the memorial. 

A large sculpture funded by the people of Poland and Italy. Candles burn, wreaths are placed, tears are shed.

The tour is over.
The Auschwitz Museum and Tour presents one of the most horrific acts in human history with a level of tact, passion, poignancy and professionalism that it is so profound, it almost makes as lasting an impression as the site itself. 


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Vertical Chill

Vertical Chill
London Friday 13th January

I first spied Vertical Chill back in November. I was killing some time skulking around Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden before a North Face talk featuring Simone Moro and Cory Richards. 
"That looks like fun", I thought. 

So I made some enquiries and spoke to a couple of fellow tweeters about it...I got some advice...."Don't get an ice axe in your face" (Cheers Colin) and happy that I knew what I was getting into I set about recruiting some friends (Ben, Nick & Richard). 

I chose Friday 13th for no other reason than I thought it would be fun. The others weren't too impressed. 
"I broke my back on Friday 13th" mumbles Nick. 
"My plane had a near miss on Friday 13th" chips in Ben. 
"ach...ssssshhhh" I order them. 

We gather in t'basement to sign our lives away. No-one bothers to read the small print. Yeah yeah yeah.....just get us on the wall. 
A small crowd is beginning to gather around the viewing windows and I suddenly realise that for the next two hours we will be like creatures in a zoo. Marvellous. 

We kit up and meet our two fab instructors Ed and Sam. 
Poor Ed and Sam have their work cut out with us today. Before we've even entered 'the fridge' the smuttiness and innuendos have begun. They are unable to use such phrases as "follow through" or "make sure you're nice and wide" without their childish students sniggering. I'm sure they both thought that it was going to be a long afternoon.

I don't like my helmet very much (helmet was another no-no phrase!). 
I have chubby cheeks and don't want it on too tight. So I perch it on my head and loosen the straps, but Sam says it has to be secure and gets me to pull it tight around my porky jowls making me feel like a sperm. I sulk a little as I know I'm going to look crap in any photos taken. I ask Ben how I look. We've been friends for 16 years and I trust his opinion. 
"Honestly?" he gently says. 
"Honestly" I repeat. 
"You look like a skateboarding squirrel Karen".

Once inside 'the fridge' it's time to climb. Ben and I stare up at the dominating ice wall and it's clear we're thinking the same thing. That this is going to be harder than it looks. A lot harder. But we're used to hard. Just two months previous we scaled Mount San Antonio together at 10,063ft. If we can summit her we can summit an 8 metre wall in London God dammit. 

We let Nick and Richard go first and second. They manage it but it's still clear it's not easy. Ben has now decided that he won't be able to reach the top and ring the cowbell. 
"Positive mental attitude" I remind him. 

And then it's my turn. I'm surprised by the amount of adrenaline charging through my body. Too much methinks, as my arms have suddenly turned to jelly and my legs have gone all wobbly. 
I'm aware that the boys are watching and with a steely determination I charge up. 
Except I don't charge per se. More of a creaky, wonky, geriatric ascent. 
The boys try their hardest to put me off but I'm having none of it. Ice is splintering, my crampons are slipping, my axes are too high, too I let out a big "Oh F*** off!" and the fridge falls silent. Ha!

I'm about a metre from the cowbell when panic suddenly sets in. I'm thinking too much. Ed is belaying me but he's chatting away to the lads about boy stuff below. I think I hear the word 'tits' and resign myself to the fact that if I slip and fall I shall probably die. And all because of someone else's tits. 
But I don't and I ring that old cowbell with full force. Yee haw!

Ben is up next and he does pretty darn good. Very good for someone who says he "stands no chance". He is literally a few feet from the top when he begins to struggle. The fridge falls silent and all we hear are Bens puffs and pants and groans. It's a bit uncomfortable to listen to so Rich breaks the silence with "Ben. Are those your sex noises?"
We laugh but it finishes Ben off, so with an almighty groan (yes it sounded like a sex noise), he pulls out his axe (no pun intended) and sighs "I'm done" (typical man). 

I'm gutted that he didnt ring the bell but he knows his capabilities and if he felt he couldn't then so be it. I think he made the same mistake as me and put all his strength into hanging from the axes and didn't trust his crampons. If you place the weight through your core and down through the legs the job almost becomes easy as I found out on my next climb. Flew up that wall I did. 
                                                                 Yeah Baby

The atmosphere is fun though. We take loads of pictures, have plenty of banter and genuinely hit it off with our instructors. We admire Eds axes and recoil at them being £400 per pair. I don't even think my car is worth that. 

Richard and Nick tackle the overhang and entertain us using up the last 30 minutes. Richard is last on the wall and about 2/3rds up the tough route when he shouts "whoaaaa"! 
We then see the top of the axe falling to earth. He's only gone and broken the bloody axe. The £400 one. So he's suspended up there with one axe and thinking fast of what to do next as his crampons are telling him to move. 
I decide to be a smart arse and yell "What would Ueli Steck do?"
He doesn't really respond. More of a smattering of mumbles under his breath that sound a lot like "f*** Ueli Steck, dont give a shit, get me bloody down....." and he is immediately hoisted a big cheer of course. 
                                           Before their untimely death

And then it's all over. 
                                         Yes I'm aware of his las tminute tit grab!
We're gagging for a drink and dash to the nearest pub to guzzle Guinness whilst bragging at what amazing mountaineers we are. It's time for food and the evening is rounded off perfectly at Wong Kei's in Soho. Famed for being the rudest restaurant in London. Sadly our waitresses are very polite and cater our every whim. 
Perhaps they heard some hero mountaineers were in town........

Monday, 9 January 2012

Lords Rake

Monday January 2nd. Still in the Lakes and about to
embark on quite an epic day.
Through Twitter I have established many online friendships and today I’m about to meet two fellow Tweeters and do some serious hiking. I’ve been told to bring crampons and an ice axe as we’ll be tackling the daunting
Lords Rake enroute to Scafell. I research Lords Rake to see what I’m getting into.  Yes it’s a steep old gully, but seems rather ‘do-able’.

After brief introductions (yes they seem pretty normal) we gear up and we’re off. We’ve met at the NT campsite at Wasdale and the original plan is to summit Scafell Pike via the Brown Tongue route. It’s a route
that I know quite well. I’ve summited Scafell Pike twice in the last six months taking this route, so I know what to expect…….

Alan, then pipes up with “Why don’t we take in Lingmell too?”
This pleases me enormously as I’ve set myself a goal of ten years to complete all 214 Wainwrights. These should ideally be completed by my 50th birthday in January 2022….so watch this space.

The path up to Lingmell is steep and grassy, very different to the Brown Tongue path. I notice that I’m quite out of breath quickly and kick myself for drinking far too much alcohol throughout the month of December. I also seem to have forgotten about exercise of late and instead I've set up home with CHIPS. I make a promise to myself that CHIPS will have to move out.
The company is good. Alan has completed all of the Wainwrights and has a sound knowledge of Lakeland. Davie too has vast experience of the Lake District and the ‘moontains of Scotland’. He’s also an ultra runner who runs up and down mountains for ‘fun’. Well today there will be no such running I bossily tell him.  Alan tells me that he's slow on the fells. But that’s a fib. He’s not. I am!

We reach Lingmell summit pretty quickly. It’s a little claggy and damp but otherwise the views so far have been pretty good. Ice is just forming on the rocks and the temperature has dropped to minus 2. I’m glad
that we stopped earlier to layer up as a thin frost starts to cover my jacket.
 A quick check of the map and we are dropping down into Lingmell Col before scrambling up to Scafell Pike. As the temperature drops so does my energy a little. The boys have slowed their pace for me but its clear that I’m still slowing them down. They are very polite though and reassure me with ‘hey we’re a team’ etc etc. I wonder if they really mean it!

We discuss the death of a 19 year old on Scafell Pike two days earlier. He was experienced, a fellrunner and dressed appropriately. His body was discovered in Piers Gill on New Years Eve after getting separated from
his friend at 3pm during a whiteout. It looked like they were taking the corridor route off Scafell Pike when the weather changed. Piers Gill is an accident black spot. It’s a tough scramble on a clear day and can often be mistaken for a path in poor weather. Sadly it looks like this may have been what happened.

Soon we are at ScaFell Pike summit. Its very white up here and the temp has dropped to minus 5 plus windchill. We huddle down and eat our packed lunches. Well I don’t, as I’m an idiot and have forgotten mine. I do find some old expedition food in my rucksack though. A museli bar from an old hike round the Mosedale Horseshoe back in October. It’s a little stale but for now it will do. The boys gallantly offer to share their sandwiches with me, but I have this huge aversion to butter so I politely refuse. My stomach scolds me.

I now notice that my backpack, Alans eyebrows and my bladder have iced over so I cant get any water from it. Luckily I carry a spare bottle and gulp this ice cold water down. I know the next part will be tough and decide that I may need to use my poles now but the ruddy things have iced up and I cant get them
open. Plan ditched!

So off we set to Scafell a mountain not yet ventured onto by
myself. I’ve wanted to ‘do’ Lords Rake since June. Justin and I were heading up the Brown Tongue path to Scafell Pike when he pointed out some hikers attempting Lords Rake. I could barely make them out and remember thinking that it looked rather steep, vertical almost. We then spied a couple also heading there and
laughed as the boyfriend marched on and his poor, helpless girlfriend trailed behind, clearly having had enough. I’m not sure if they ever made it to Lords Rake, but something tells me they may have turned back as many hikers do.



We take the Mickledore route to Scafell, dropping down into it from the Pike. The boys pause by the stretcher box as I see Mickledore up close for the first time. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat on the mountains so it
comes as no surprise to me that the narrow ridge of Mickledore has unnerved me somewhat.

However, nothing and I mean, NOTHING could have prepared me for the sight that was Broad Stand. I couldn’t see her at first as visibility was poor and then suddenly and dramatically she appeared before us. Clad in ice with clouds swirling around her but not daring to touch her she was in total command. I think back to something that Jim from quoted “You never conquer a mountain. You climb it, spend time on it but you never conquer it. It can defeat you in minutes"

The more I stare at Broad Stand the dizzier I become. I’m aware that I’m on Mickledore still, its windy and its snowing lightly and its covered in ice. I cling to the rocks to the left of me and pray that the wind doesn’t
change direction. The boys are ahead ever so slightly. Its best to keep moving.
I round the corner and see that they have stopped  and are chatting and pointing. I’m glad that I’ve
left the ridge behind and start to sigh with relief when Alan shouts “Hey Karen, that’s Lords Rake”. I look past him at what I can only describe as a near vertical gully of ice and scree. Its impossible that this is Lords Rake.
No way.
I reply to him almost instantly with........
“F*** OFF!”
Yes its crass, but my brain spoke before I had a chance to reign it in and compose myself. I’m in shock. I momentarily think the boys are playing an evil joke on me but they're not. This is Lords Rake and its worse than I had ever imagined.

I need to wee suddenly. A panic wee. Theres nowhere private on this ridge so I tell the boys to look away and do it there and then. I don’t care anymore. I decide that when I get home I’ll just delete my Twitter

And so we start. Alan goes first with me in the middle and poor Davie behind me. I’m used to climbing in scree. Mount Fuji and Mount Kenya are full of the blasted stuff, but this scree is different. Big, brown loose
and heavy scree. Its almost impossible to grip with your feet as you just slide back and trust me no-one wants to do that with that drop at the end.

We reach the top and I attempt to crawl on hands and knees under the chockstone rock. ‘Nooooo” the boys chorus. “Go around it”
“Nobody cough” I beg.
There are three sections to the Rake and by far the first is the worst. Section two was relatively easy or maybe I was just getting more confident. Section three was a bit hairy in places but I moved quicker and it
was calming to know that I had Davie behind me.
                                                              Don't look down Karen

Alan waited at the top, patient and encourging. "We’re nearly there now Karen, not far now"
"Yeah right" I think, he's probably one of those people who stand at mile three of a marathon cheering "you're nearly there".

I’m pretty whacked now but the adrenaline is pumping and I’m excited about Scafell. We trudge upwards as the weather worsens. Big skiddy boulders make the path. I’m slow. Terribly slow as I try to manoever and hop my way around and over them. The boys seem to skip over them like puddle jumping. I’m jealous, how can they have so much confidence?

The summit is a welcome site and again we have it all to ourselves. We congratulate each other and start to make our way back before darkness creeps in. We take the Old Victorian Route off Scafell aka as Green
How. Its unpleasant at first as its relentless boulders but Alan reassures me that it will soon be big, sweeping grassy banks and he doesn’t disappoiunt.
I'm  feeling very elated and rather pleased with myself at this point and then suddenly the path changes into what I would call a bloody great zig-zag scree chute made of big ugly boulders. Yet again the boys skip down it but this isn’t for me so it leaves me only one option…to do it on my arse.
                                                                  Burnmoor Tarn

Yes its slow, yes my lovely Berghaus trousers were shredded, yes my bum was black and blue…but you know what? I’m alive.
Photo's courtesy of Alan without his permission.
Link to Alan's great pictures