Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Waste by the Brooklyn BridgePassing by the Brooklyn Bridge just days after Hurricane Sandy struck New York. The rubbish of all the waste caused accumulating in the sidewalks.

Naty e Ben em John O'Groats

We did it!!! Completed the Land’s End – John O’Groats route, through the British winter! Tiring, but at the end of it all… great fun and I guess we are pretty pleased with ourselves!

First of all, however, apologies for the time it has taken to post this, and for the lack of photos: when writing this post, the hard drive with all the photos and video (300GB or so) fell on the floor just as we were about to make a backup and was damaged. Typical timing, really. That was almost a week ago – I wanted to post this with some video and pictures of the final day, so the morning after it was damaged, we took it to a place to try to recover the data (don’t really care about the hard drive; just want the photos and video!!), however, they are still working on it. Enormously frustrating. So no photos or video for a bit, though hopefully this week we will know something at least. So here’s praying that we will recover some/all of it. (The photo posted is one we just saved onto the computer earlier… at least it’s something, though!)

But anyway… yes! We did it!

Route to John O'GroatsThe last day was short and was meant to be a walk in the park, as it were. 15km… 7 or 8 miles… easy, huh?

It was… painful. Winds of around 35 miles per hour, occasionally from the side, occasionally tail-winds… and on the way back from the end point, directly into our heads… Painful. There was snow… it wasn’t falling: it was going horizontally. On the flats where we had a tail wind, we were cruising at 50 kmph without even pedaling… When the winds were coming from the side, we had to ride diagonally into the road in order to go straight as the force of the wind really was pushing us. Then the occasional gusts stronger than ever almost caused us to go off of the road a number of times. Thankfully there was very little traffic so we were not in danger of going under anything, and the cars that did pass us; well I can imagine that the drivers must have thought we were absolute nutters riding in those conditions… and they gave us nice wide berths so as not to kill us! Even more thankfully, there was no heavy traffic at all. In some regards, we were thankful that we didn’t stay at Wick for the night as that would have meant an extra 10km or so riding, though at the same time we regretted not having completed the entire thing the evening beforehand when the conditions were nice. Ah well.

So getting to the end… in the conditions we were more worried about staying on our bikes than celebrating, so I guess we were muted in our vocals! We were probably laughing more at the whole ridiculousness of riding in that weather than realizing that we had just completed almost 1,500km… 1000 miles of riding through often treacherous and very demanding conditions…

We kissed and gave each other a hug… laughed about the conditions a bit more… stopped for a few pictures by the John O’Groats – Land’s End sign… saw another couple of people who had come by car and were taking some pictures, trying not to get blown over, and then headed back into the vicious headwinds and snow that were impossible to look ahead into.

Natalia was exhausted, not physically, but I guess more emotionally as we had finished the course, but still had to go back into that wind a little to a place where we could rest. She ended up pushing her bike the 400m to an Inn where we would stop and have a celebratory soup and coffee; I just looked directly downwards and forced myself to get there. 400 metres of probably the most painful riding I have ever done.

But… while it hadn’t really sunk in when we were at the ending sign… we had done it! wooooohhh!!!

Map - Timsbury - Worcester

Day five, distance-wise, was a bit of a marathon. A long way to haul ourselves and our gear.

As with most of our previous nights, our stay from day 4 was with people we had met through couchsurfers was wonderful, this time with Alison and Jon who live in the small village of Timsbury, which is just south of Bristol. Great to chat with and they cooked a really lovely meal, and it was certainly nice and refreshing staying with them. The roads to and from their place are a bit hilly, coming and going through the Mendips, but definitely worth it!

En route to WorcesterWe managed to head out reasonably early at 8.30am, after we had spent ages getting our stuff together. The worst part of the ride was going towards Bristol and along the Bristol ring road. Not sure if cyclists are meant to be on that road as there is a cycle path that goes along it, but for some reason, we managed to leave this path and ride a good few kilometers along the road itself – not particularly pleasant. This part seemed to be the most hillyof the day as well.

After escaping the ring road, we got on to a nice flat A road working its way north and eventually to the west side of the M5 which runs north to south from Birmingham to Exeter. Our average moving speed seemed to be around 20kph, which was nice in comparison to our suffering aling the hillier roads! The weather wasn’t great, but it hardly stopped us all all, really. It was just incredible seeing all the flooded areas where rivers had burst their banks. Fortunately none of the towns we passed through had been overwhelemd (at least not today), though water levels looked dangerously high at least to me.

And so arriving at Worcester where we stayed with Caryl and Lyndon (met through Warm Showers). Again, a really nice couple who are cycling enthusiasts, who have had some great cycling adventures across the world. It was after dark by the time we arrived – again, never a particularly nice experience especially with the headlights from traffic coming towards us generally making vision even harder by blinding us… The road to Caryl and Lyndon’s house was also pitch black, though away from all the traffic and it was nice to find their lovely house through the trees.

The ride, combined with a delicious evening meal combined with a spot of wine left me pretty exhausted so I just about collapsed into bed at the end of the day, knowing that we still had three more days cycling before we would get our first day of rest in Lancaster…

On route to Timsbury, going through GlastonburyI will try not to write much today though knowing me, I will probably ramble a bit! We have completed another 65km, which brings us to around 300km in total – only another 1,200km to complete!

Am feeling quite exhausted as I write. even though today was relatively short – there were some long nasty climbs uphill as we got into the Mendips, and they took their effect on us. My knees are also still fragile from Day 2 when I stuck with my seat too high for too long. I guess it serves me right, though, for not having made any adjustments when I noticed, so I won’t complain further. The countryside was lovely, and we also went through Glastonbury, which was a nice little surprise. Not quite the time of year of the festival, but still… it was good, and because we were going a relatively short distance, we had time to stop off at a pub in the town, which had some great food.

It was an okay day weather-wise: it started off nice – overcast but not too much wind or rain, though in the afternoon it all closed in again and it got blustery with strong gusts of wind, and the rain got harder. Fortunately the wind was coming from behind us for most of the time, so we actually got a helping hand going up the steep hills, which was a nice change.

After having stayed at our in-personal B&B in Taunton, we are now with a family again in this small village, Jon and Alison who we met through Warm Showers. As with the other people we have stayed with, the couple have been extremely nice, supportive and friendly, and it was great being able to have a shower and some delicious food when we arrived. I also showed Jon the Garmin and the software, which I think he liked!

Tomorrow will be a much longer day – we will go about 120km to Worcester – but the website says that the amount of climbing will be much less than what we have been doing over long distances, so hopefully it won’t be too hard.

Am afraid my eyes are closing so it is hard to write much more! Am sure I will fall asleep as soon as I put down the computer (if not beforehand!!)…! But before I sleep, another note about our Charity, Cool Earth – please support us in donating to them! Any help you can provide would be fantastic! Our Just Giving page is at and remember that donations through this site go straight to the Charity and not to us!!

Day 02

In spite of being a good 16km longer than the ride to Bodmin, today was sooooo much nicer and better in general!

First of all, the weather. For the better part of the day the weather was perfect: cool, fresh and sunny with very little wind. Even when the weather did close in on us at around 4pm, it didn’t even come close to the treacherous, constant and strong wind and rain of the preceding day, and the winds only got strong when we arrived at our destination in Exeter. This was like paradise in comparison to the living hell of the first day!

Second, the traffic was also much better. I guess this had to do with yesterday being Friday and lots of people travelling particularly in the late afternoon though pretty much constantly throughout the day. As I said, the constant thunder of all the cars and lorries yesterday was not pleasant and left my right ear ringing. Today, again, was a paradise in comparison (though the road, the A30, was the same main road as yesterday). Yes, there were cars, but much fewer in number and less nasty.

The country roads, in all their glory, revealed to us after having cycled along them in the pitch black night

The country roads, in all their glory, revealed to us after having cycled along them in the pitch black night

So yes, in spite of the distance, it was a good day. It was good being able to see the country roads we had gone up in the pitch black the preceding evening (though a bit alarming going down as Natalia’s brakes had been destroyed by the mud, rain and sandy material on the road – we stopped off at a cycle place in Bodmin to get that sorted). Going through Dart Moor was great – pretty lovely countryside there (just a shame, from the environmental point of view, of the very existence of the massive highway we were going on… (though obviously we were using it so I can’t complain!… it was just nasty seeing a lot of squished animals here and there). Some snow still insisted on staying on the peaks of some of the hillier parts of the moor, but not much.

The distance was ultimately okay – though our bags are not getting any lighter. It was tough climbing and there was a total of over 1450 metres of climbing over the course of the ride, but the climbs were long and gradual and were coupled with plenty long and gradual descents which allowed me at least to get to a speed of 67kph without even trying to ride fast. With the road being a trunk road, there were no nasty curves that could have presented dangers of losing control into an incoming vehicle, and visibility was very good so you could see everything, really.

We made it, tired of course, and maybe am starting to feel a bit of the accumulated effects of the two days riding – the bags we have on the bikes are indeed heavy. But tomorrow should (distance and elevation wise) be much easier as I think it would be wise not to abuse our bodies too much so soon into the whole journey! Weather-wise, however, am not sure what it will be like… it is really howling and pouring with rain outside as I write this post and the weather forecast isn’t particularly pleasant… so hopefully things are not made too hard.

As a reminder !! We are looking to raise funds for Cool Earth – an organization that works with local communities to protect the rainforests; something that means a lot to us, especially coming from Brazil and seeing what is happening to the forests there. Our Just Giving page is at – please help us in helping them!!! 

Could think of better starts!

Posted: January 23, 2013 by Ben Weber in Cycling, English, Training
Tags: , , , , , ,

I have finally joined up with Paulo and Natalia in London and it is great to be back here and able to catch up with family for the first time in a year. We had a nice meal in the centre with my mother, three other siblings plus spouses and friends. So it was good. My flight from São Paulo was good – slightly delayed in São Paulo but no problems in London in spite of the weather. Managed to sleep quite a bit as well… Same with Natalia on her flight over here. Paulo, however, had a bit worse of a journey…
His flight was with KLM and as such was through Amsterdam with a change of flights there. Problem was that with the foul weather causing so much travel disruption in England, his connecting flight to London was cancelled. He had to wait six hours or so for another one. Even more of a problem was that when he was put on to another flight, they did not put his checked luggage, including his bike, on with him. Not quite sure what happened to it… He put in a complaint and for some reason they did not give him a reference number, and they asked for him to give them his baggage receipts so they could keep them with his file … And they would call him once the bags had arrived.
This was Monday. Yesterday, Tuesday, nothing arrived. The train to Penzance is today, Wednesday. So it’s not a great situation. We have a certain amount of flexibility in the route meaning that we can take one extra day in Penzance to wait and see if Paulo’s bags arrive later on Wednesday or early Thursday, and then start the main route on Friday, though this would mean losing one of our rest days. Not ideal but then it isn’t an ideal situation in any sense of the word. Another alternative is for Natalia and I to start the route on schedule, if we know for certain that his bike hasn’t yet come, and then meet Paulo one or two days down the route. Not ideal either as that would be us down a team-mate. If the worst comes to the worst Paulo would be able to borrow equipment from family here, but hopefully things don’t come to this as he has all his tools, clothes and everything for the ride in his bags.
Fingers crossed we will have some good news later today.


Two bikes to disassemble and reassemble again… fun!

Passport… tick… wallet… tick… warm clothes… yup, they’re there… bike…….

Dismantled and ready to go.

Finally took the pedals and wheels off the bike to put into the bike bag the other day. It was hard – not because of the physical effort (though taking those pedals off did take a bit of effort even with a big wrench), but because of the worry about how the bike would take to the airplane – or, more importantly, how the baggage handlers will take to the bike. We haven’t got the bags with the most padding so we had to improvise on this – I am most worried about the gears getting damaged, but hopefully everything will be alright. Natalia flew last night and is already in London – her bag had a big fragile sticker put onto it and got taken away separately, so hopefully it was treated well as well! (Incidentally, it was a hassle getting everything through the metro as the bike bag takes up quite a bit of space, and carrying to the metro, with the one strap across my shoulder… was painful! She got a taxi from the airport to my brother’s house in London, though the pre-paid taxi we got left as she took so long in the immigration queues at the airport…. typical. She could have gone by train but the size of the bike bag alone would have made this more complicated. Fun!)

So, am a little nervous, that’s for sure, especially as the weather seems to have taken a turn for the worst – reading about blizzards in England and Scotland is never great just before a bike tour through the country, and seeing pictures of towns like Bath completely white is slightly worrying. But as I say, these conditions of winter are exactly why we chose this route, so I guess the old saying “be careful what you wish for” particularly applies to us in this case.

Saturday, some last minute shopping to get some essentials, a few bike tools, batteries, clothing… bits and pieces that might come in useful. One more trip to the gym for a last workout; finish packing my stuff on Sunday; put in all the GPS coordinates into the Garmin, and then relax with one more day at the office before the midnight flight to the UK. Just have to say goodbye to the cat, and the sunny weather…!

Goodbye to cat

Farewell Mocha! See you in a month’s time!

Nat in one of our -40C sleeping bags - comfy!  Shouldn't get quite so cold, but once we are on the poles, this will be nice to have!

Nat in one of our -40C sleeping bags – comfy! Shouldn’t get quite so cold, but once we are on the poles, this will be nice to have!

So with this trip to the UK… hopefully the weather will let up: it was simply awful in the UK prior to Christmas with flooding in so many places and lots of damage done everywhere which is always terrible to see. It seemed  to have calmed down a bit, but now it looks like there is going to be some cold weather which will make our journey harder.

The main things that worries me are wind and then ice. The wind is more of a worry because you can pretty much depend on it to be windy in Britain during winter; when you are by the coast exposed to the Atlantic Ocean down in the south; then as you get further north into Scotland; when you are close to the sea in general… or if you are on higher land… so this just about covers 80% of the time we will be there! If we are fortunate, and the wind is behind us, then it will be a great help… if indeed we are fortunate. If not, and it is in our faces, then we will need to spend much more energy riding over the long distances – and so much more grateful to get to our daily destinations!

Weather UKIce is an increasing worry, and may soon take the place of wind, as the temperatures look to be plummeting. As the country is so windy and wet, it doesn’t normally get too icy, though the road gritters normally do a decent job in keeping the roads ice-free. But you can’t discount that possibility that the roads will be icy – especially on the eastern side of the side of the country and again, the further north you get such as in the Lake District and then the Scottish Highlands. The weather forecast for the next few days shows that the Highlands may get down to -7C… which will be tough to go through, as going fast through that kind of cold would be biting (the balaclavas will be essential!) and if grit hasn’t covered all parts of the road, or has been washed away in a previous thaw, then it will be icy. Icy roads are treacherous – on a bike you will easily lose grip and go flying if you try braking or turning, or anything really! A massive amount of care is needed to keep your eyes open for any black ice which can be lethal. Then of course you have to account for the cars passing who would have to face the same conditions themselves…

After that comes the rain with the general cold. This is something less worrying, as we think that we are pretty well equipped with the various layers, and water/wind-proof gear we have. Cold and wet conditions can be really demoralizing if you are not well prepared, and especially over long periods when you want to be in dry clothes, and even more especially together with the wind.

No matter how it does turn out, cold, windy or wet, it will be beautiful and it will be dramatic, and it will be hard. So here’s to hoping that we have done enough planning; and here’s to hoping that if things are colder than we expect, we will find good bike shops which will have extra equipment, and learn for the future!

It will be beautiful, but very tricky and hazardous

It will be beautiful, but very tricky and hazardous

Sao Paulo - Amparo - ElevationTo get into shape for the UK bike tour, we need to get used to riding long distances on consecutive days. What better way to do this than to go to Amparo – a small town north of São Paulo – via Atibaia, a town to which we already know the route pretty well? It would have been a good 170km if we had gone straight according to the route, but we added on another 30km or so with detours, so it was a reasonable way to go. It proved to be a good couple of days that had a fair few highlights: riding through scorching sun, a ridiculously strong rain storm, punctures, a broken baggage rack, endless steep climbs, nice smooth asphalt highways, cobble stones and bumpy earth and rock roads, and a really nice guest house in between it all… a lot of fun.

Sao Paulo - AmparoIt is amazing how riding in the rain (when it’s hot, at least!) is so much better than riding exposed in the sun. Starting off at 10am on Saturday morning, it was a little later than I normally like to head out – 7am or earlier is much better, so we don’t get completely fried under the tropical sun. Fortunately, while it was hot, it was a little overcast, which helped. As we climbed the steep Santa Ines road up in to the Cantareira mountains, it stayed hot so we stopped on a number of occasions not because of the steepness of the hill but simply because the heat sapped our (sorry for the cliché!) souls! However, the clouds started to accumulate and the sky became darker and darker.  It started to rain just as we got over the summit of the mountain. It wasn’t too hard, but going downhill and the rain was driving into our faces and it actually hurt the skin a little. You also really feel the difference especially when braking: Down this stretch I normally go around 50km per hour as it is steep but there are a few long curves that need to be taken with care, but going that speed in the wet would have been just dangerous – as soon as you brake a little hard and you can feel the loss of traction and it’s a bit scary, so I was pumping the brakes pretty much constantly to make sure I didn’t build up too much. Flying off those curves or losing control with cars coming from behind or the opposite direction would not have been good.

At the bottom we discovered that Natalia had a puncture – back tire again, which has the most weight on it with the panniers and body weight – though fortunately we got a break from the rain to be able to fix it. We are getting better at dealing with punctures and it only took a few minutes to change this time. I think Natalia will need a new one with slightly better grip as her tires don’t seem so thick. We found a small piece of glass (about 25mm) that had pierced the rubber – always good to check the tire, so as to reduce the chance of the same object causing another puncture in the spare tube.

Temperature - to AtibaiaSo on we went… one more big hill and then flat highway to Mairipora. That’s when it started to really pour down. I didn’t have my waterproof jacket on and I was soaked within seconds. There was no point putting it on after that so I just kept going. Large puddles began to accumulate by the side of the road, and visibility was reduced dramatically (a 100metres or so). We got sprayed by the cars and trucks passing by… but again, we were so wet it made no difference at all. At the same time, however, it was really great. Visibility wasn’t really a problem as we weren’t going fast enough for it to be so important; our lights were strong enough to pierce the rain and make so cars could see us. It was so flat, there were no braking issues… it was just refreshing. Looking at the Garmin route analysis and the temperatures dropped from a peak of 35C before the rain to 18C… nice and warm. There was a problem of drying once we stopped for lunch in Mairipora, but while the lycra clothes are skimpy and maybe not the most fashionable things to wear(!), one of the good things about them is that they dry quickly. It was just our cycle shoes which took a little longer to dry off and it felt we were walking with feet underwater for a while.

Plenty more to tell about the ride, but I think I have written enough for now..!

Cycling in Brazil vs the UK

Posted: October 5, 2012 by Ben Weber in Cycling, English
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Cycling along the canals in northern England – always nice, at least when the weather is good!

Coming from Britain, having learned to cycle up in the Orkney Islands, and cycled a lot around the north-western city of Lancaster, it is certainly a different experience cycling here in Brazil.

From what I remember from those days going around the beautiful country roads to Clitheroe, see in the media, cycling in England can be a dangerous experience – especially when you get on to the narrow back roads where the drivers know them pretty well and drive at ridiculous speeds; animals get in the roads, potholes are around, and when it gets dark… if you have no lights, you will be in trouble. The Guardian reported towards the end of this September that 13 cyclists had been killed on the roads in Britain in that month alone… not a nice thought, really, especially as we will be going back to cycle the length of the country this winter. At the same time, the countryside in the UK can make for lovely journeys, though the temperamental weather definitely increases the challenges.

Going to the maintenance road down to Santos…

Biking in Brazil is something that isn’t the most common sport and is only really taking off here in São Paulo at least. Now the city has got a reasonably good but limited network of devoted cycle paths which are open all week going along the River Pinheiros and a few other seemingly random locations. On Sundays, many of the roads are cut in half from 7am to 4pm for cyclists to stretch their legs along them. You can easily notch up over 100km riding along these lanes. As soon as 4pm comes, however, oh yes, those red cones that divide the roads soon go and the cars once again rule.

Being a relatively new sport in an area where the car dominates also means that cyclists do get very little respect from drivers (but then again, in São Paulo at least, it is pretty much a story of each vehicle-type for itself… motorbikes stick together, as do car drivers and well, bus drivers… they’re another story. It all depends on what kind of mood they were in when they woke up). Cycling either in or out of the city and getting closed off by a car passing and turning right in front of you happens on an alarming basis – riding to Itu this weekend it happened to me twice and Natalia once. You also get drivers who do deliberately set out to startle cyclists by either buzzing loudly as they get close, or getting too close (a motorbike rider going about 80kph got within one inch of Natalia whilst he made a very long and visible curve)… Not nice.

Aside from this, the weather is pretty much dependable. It will either be extremely hot or rainy with little of the winds that we get in the UK – and the heat can really exhaust and drain you, so care is definitely needed not to dehydrate or get sun stroke. In northern England at least, I remember that the hills are generally short but sharp, and there are plenty of them (though of course, there are plenty of flatter regions, especially down in the south/south-east). Here in São Paulo, there are some pretty long and nasty 15%-25% climbs that can be found to really take it out of you. On pretty much all of our 100km rides that leave the city of São Paulo, we have climbed over 2000metres in total, though looking at the routes of similar distances I did in England when I was younger, we didn’t really climb more than 1,200 metres in total over the course. Your legs can easily get tired, that’s for sure.

After living in the city and only journeying to other parts of the region by car or bus, it is also refreshing to escape the urban environment: living here for five years, it was hard to imagine the municipal of São Paulo as anything other than just a concrete mass… the place does, however, have its fair share of surprises that await anyone who wants to explore a bit. Ultimately, just as it is always nice to escape the cities in England, there are parts of São Paulo that I never really thought of as existing, and it is great to discover these parts.

Pic-nic along the Rodoanel highway

So we are in need of a little bit of help here and your thoughts would be welcome…

We will be doing a lot of cycling over the next couple of years to get to a level of fitness and technical awareness so that we are able to cycle the massive distances that we plan to. The cycling will be largely over weekends so we will work on various routes in and out of São Paulo, so that we are able to comfortably go on rides of 100km per day…

We are also planning a good 30 day cycling tour in December 2013… Yes, a long way away, but time is flying and already over 8 months have passed since this whole plan started to get taken from the drawing board and into a fixed plan… pretty much unbelievable really. The tour will also help us get used to cycling together for a sustained period of time.

The question is, however, where…?

The two places we have shortlisted so far (and we are open for more suggestions…) are: Patagonia and Britain.

Patagonia would most likely be less expensive to get to. It would be great to be cycle straight from São Paulo, though it would be over 5,000 kilometres and slightly impractical with our time constraints, unfortunately! So, the route we would (most likely) choose if we were to go here is a 700km journey from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, though it could be extended to go to some of the islands down there, such as south and over the channel to Cape Horn… could be interesting. Another option would be instead of going to Punta Arenas, going to Puerto Deseado – something that would add on a good… 600km of what would be largely flat land. Either way, definitely not on one’s normal every day calendar. Assuming 50km per day on average (a very generous and pretty slow rate – assuming that conditions are not going to be kind to us even though this would be summer there) plus a couple of days rest here and there, this would be a good 16-22 days depending on the exact route. Also, we would all love to go down to Patagonia (though of course we will be going through it when we come back from the South Pole).

Britain – something more familiar to me (and it would be nice to be able to see friends and family there again, that’s for sure!)… My idea would be cycle from the north of mainland Scotland down south to London – a 1100km journey. Or maybe even the longer route from Thurso or John o’ Groats to Land’s End (via London). I think it would be challenging: weather in winter in Scotland (and of course Britain as a whole) can be terrific – as in incredibly bad! And incredibly variable. I am pretty sure we will face many days in which there will be four seasons in one day. The roads would be in good condition and would most likely enable us to go at a reasonably pace.

Plenty other long distance rides we could do – perhaps São Paulo to Buenos Aires (2k kilometres but much easier flight-wise) could be an option, but it is pretty flat. United States would have plenty of good rides, I am sure, as with Canada… so anyone know good long, challenging rides, there which would be good, feel free to say!

We would want to do the journeys with bikes packed with similar weights to what we will be going with once the expedition starts, so pretty heavy (also helping to explain the slower than perhaps expected pace normally imagined). We will be looking at and discussing the two routes more closely over the next few weeks as we make up our minds, and your thoughts about the ideas would be extremely welcome. Who knows, maybe even be able to catch up with you along the chosen route!

Thanks to Casa de Pedra of São Paulo for your support! And thanks Augusto for the picture!

<—- Ascending the mountain

The guys helped calmed me down and I went on ahead with them securing me. It was now a scramble down a rock face about three metres wide, with crampons on  – something I had not done before. Fortunately, as I went down, José caught up with me and saw that I wasn’t a particularly happy chap. He asked if I had climbed with crampons on before and on receiving the negative answer, he took my crampons off and accompanied me down the rock face – something I was particularly grateful for considering my near panic after the thin pass.

Photo: Augusto Petacchi

We all got down the rock face eventually and now it was time to go up the slopes. Though much steeper than anything beforehand, it was relatively straightforward: using the ice axe to secure your upperbody and then a couple of steps up digging in the crampons, and then repeat this umpteen times until the top of the slope; another small platform to rest, then another steep slope. Straightforward, yes, but still extremely tiring – especially considering the altitude. The whole body just seeped away energy and everything seems in slow motion and takes so much longer than normal.

At the top, the views were beautiful, though I was too drained to really enjoy them. I probably managed a couple of pretty pathetic “wooos!” and just stayed sat down trying to recover my breath. Kirk, full of energy, stripped off down to his chest, much to the amusement of everyone on the peak. In the back of my mind I knew that we had to go back down the same way we had come, which meant crossing that horrible pass again. We must have stayed at the top for about twenty minutes or so, though we noted that dark clouds were forming over the summit – clouds which did not look like they boded well for climbers who would be stuck under them (we did meet a German and British climbing pair who were going to the summit an hour after we had got off it, and we hoped they would be okay).

Photo: Augusto Petacchi

In going back down… the first parts, the steep slopes, were very easy: Caleb belayed us down which meant we just needed to lean back with our full body weights, and enjoy the ride. Getting to the rock formation was straightforward. Unfortunately, José had already left and gone well ahead of us, so nobody was there to accompany me up. My rock climbing mindset from Casa de Pedra set in and slowly but surely I worked my way up. It is not the steepest climb in the world, and there are plenty of rocks to grab hold of, but the lack of security if one falls stayed in the back of the mind, and the falls to the side… would have consequences. Made it up and recovered my breath, and now for the hard part – the snow pass. Going down it was even worse than going up it as this time I was forced constantly to look at the falls. Onlookers who had already reached the other side looked on worriedly at the rookie crossing the pass.

Again, thankfully, no incidents and I managed to get across, pretty much by sitting down at some points and inching my way forward. My fear of heights (or fear of falling? interesting question – not sure exactly what, but ultimately it’s a fear!!!) pushed to the back by a very real need to concentrate. This was the last really challenging part of the climb and it lasted an eternity, and it must have looked like I was drunk once I had actually made it to the other side. Kirk was behind me, telling me to slow down as he was on the dangerous part and didn’t want me pulling him off! Fortunately I heard him, stopped and just sat down.

The weather really closed in when we were going back down the glacier and it began snowing quite heavily – by this time the two climbers we had met earlier would have been on the summit, and the hints of thunder in the air made us worry even more, though there was nothing we could do. We made our way down, knocking the snow out of our crampons and with me occasionally stumbling because of the fatigue. It was great getting off the glacier when we could take the crampons off, though it was even better an hour or so later when we eventually saw the tents of base camp with the mountain behind us completely obscured by cloud, and I saw Natalia there. We had made it.

Augusto’s headlamp shines as he walks past through the darkness

Waking up at 2.30am in preparation for the ascent of Pequeño Alpamayo, it was clear that Natalia was  feeling quite unwell with stomach problems, and as I looked outside, heavy snow had transformed base camp into a winter wonderland. The mountains around Pequeño Alpamayo were covered in cloud which glowed with the moonlight that managed to get through here and then. As I watched, the clouds were visibly speeding by – one moment the sky over us was clear, the next, clouds obscured everything. Celeb was awake and I asked him if we would be going ahead. Looking towards the mountains, he shook his head: if it was snowing down at camp, with the clouds over the mountains then the conditions up there would be considerably worse. I pointed out the shifting clouds and he said that okay, we would check again at 4am to see if the weather had cleared. I chatted with Augusto for a little and he helped me with a few photos as the camera was playing up.

4am came and I heard Celeb talking with José, our second guide who is local to the region and who has spent his life climbing the mountains in the Cordillera Real. I didn’t quite understand everything they said, but I  didn’t need to as shortly after I heard Celeb saying to us as we sat in the tents that we would not be going up today. Celeb later explained that whilst the clouds had broken, José thought the conditions would be too tricky for us, with us trail-breaking through deep snow. It was a relief in a way as it was clear that Natalia was feeling worse and wouldn’t have been able to make it. We went to sleep. More or less, as Nat was like me when I first arrived, waking up needing more water every few minutes. Not good at all, and I was worried if she would be okay should the weather clear for an attempt on the next day.

Morning light and the barren land around base camp is transformed

Morning came and the camp was brilliant bright with the snow: sun-glasses were well and truly needed. Caleb, Kirk and I were still the only ones who felt well – I guess I felt at around 90% so… good enough. Augusto still had not fully recovered and Natalia… not bad but not great. They decided to stay at camp whilst us three went off for a hike in the snow.

This turned into a hike that lasted six hours and saw us climbing Pico Austria – a 5,000 – 5,300m (not sure exactly how high as it is not clear) peak nearby which can be climbed without any technical equipment. It is a relatively easy climb, though I certainly felt the altitude: after a while, every step that I took was tiring and left me a little out of breath. The trail was straight forward and in São Paulo, down at reasonable altitudes, I would have had no problem whatsoever with the gradient or the terrain, however, after a couple of hours I asked how high Celeb thought we had climbed. He said… “hmmm…. I guess 100 metres or so”… I felt liked we had climbed a thousand. We kept going and got to the top of a pass from where we would approach the peak and chatted about whether I would be able to go on or not. I said that I would, but I would most likely be quite slow… Celeb agreed, though I decided I would give it a shot.

And I surprised myself in that not only was I able to keep going, I was able to keep a decent slow, but rythmic, pace and stay with the others. No headaches with the altitude, no stomach problems or other indications of altitude sickness aside from the occasional need to catch my breath. Slowly but surely, we got to the summit. Though I have been to Everest base camp, this was the first 5,000+ metre peak that I had actually climbed/hiked up and the views… were breathtakingly beautiful, and the sense of achievement was still pretty satisfying. It had been a good day.

Thanks to Casa de Pedra in São Paulo for all your support in making this happen!!

Seeing deaths in any sport is never good, and mountaineering is an activity that sees its fair share of fatalities. Last week has been bad when we look to see how there were four deaths on Mount Everest, near the summit. Happening just before our adventure into the Andes, the timing for us reading about these things isn’t great either in terms of making us nervous.

Photo by Lesley Weber at Alligin, Scotland. Beautiful region; potentially deadly without the right preparation…

Mount Everest might be the highest, but it isn’t the hardest mountain, technically speaking, in the world to climb. Hundreds of people climb it each year. Tamae Watanabe has become the oldest woman to climb the mountain, at 73 years old. Other mountains are much more dangerous – on K2 for example, around 25% of those who have attempted it have perished. But people still get killed climbing Everest, just like they do on lower mountains. The mountains in Scotland are by no means the highest in the world, but people still get killed climbing them. One of my sisters, Lesley and her boyfriend Billy frequently venture into the highlands – they can easily talk about how the conditions in the mountains can change from pleasant to terrifying there…

Things can go wrong, even for the most skilled and experienced mountaineer, no matter which mountain range they are going up.

Up in the mountains, the weather can change in the blink of an eye, and if you find yourself in a blizzard, you can quickly find yourself disoriented. Even with experience you will be in trouble, though with inadequate preparation, you could easily become lost, frostbitten or falling off the edge of an unseen precipice…

After 2,500 metres, the altitude starts taking effect. Though there are times of day and periods when the risks of avalanches are higher than others (fresh, heavy snow is always a high risk, and as the temperatures warm up, so does the likelihood of snow falling), you can always be unlucky to be on the wrong end of one….

Above 5,000 metres and you are reaching the extremes already. Couple this with the physical exertion of mountaineering, and you are taking risks. Going too high too quickly will make things even worse and increases the risks of disaster. Becoming fatigued and arriving too late in the day at the summit will increase risks of exposure to the elements… equipment problems won’t help…

A host of other reasons can contribute towards a tragic end.

Not the best thoughts to have as we start on such an expedition, huh? Maybe not, but at the same time we always need to remember how we need to always be as careful as possible. Huayna Potosi is generally considered one of the “technically easier” mountains, though in spite of this, we will not be taking it lightly in any way; we are there to climb, enjoy the experience but also respect the mountain; we are there to learn and to train for greater challenges ahead, not take unnecessary risks with our lives. Indeed, respecting the mountain and being aware of all of the risks and possibilities is a good way to start minimizing the risks as we are making our ascents.

… In the wet…

It wasn’t raining very hard: it was what Brazilians call “garoa” – a soft drizzle which got a little harder every now and then, but also occasionally had a few breaks in for a bit of soft sunlight to come through the clouds. Difficult conditions, especially for newbie climbers like Natalia and myself: we have been going to the climbing wall on plenty of occasions but on the rock itself is something else.

Ben, on the way up...!
Photo - Tatiana Pedra - Thanks!!!!

Up nice and early at 6am, we got to the cliff face at about 9am where we met with the Fabio, our trainer, and the guys from the gym who were organizing it. They had arranged six climbs along the cliff of varying difficulties along the face: with a few “grade 3” climbs and then a 4, 5 and a 6. Climbing grades differ depending on where you are – Wikipedia (as always!) has a good guide to the grades, but to be quick, in Brazil, grades 1 to 3 are very easy, 4-6 are “easy”, and then the hardest is 12 (for US-Brazil conversation ignore “5.” and subtract 4. (5.10=6)) At the gym, after four months or so, Natalia and I are at grade six and slowly but surely moving our way up! But yes, on the rock, things are different. On the rock, your fingers hurt more when you are holding on; you don’t get the big protruding rocks to grab hold on; and you will get cut and grazed a bit more than in the artificial environment! Even the grade 3 on this particular rock was technically quite challenging – they were grade three because they were positive angle making life easier, though if it wasn’t for this, they would have 5s or 6s – basically because of the lack of good holds for your feet and hands.

But in the wet, things were even harder. Rock climbing is normally done when there is good weather for a good reason – you don’t slip so much. In the wet, and on the positive aspects of the cliff, the water clings on and cleans your hands of any magnesium chalk pretty quickly. On granite surface your hands can slip much more easily, making the climb much more challenging. Even Fabio, when he was dismounting the grade 5 climb, had difficulties going up in the conditions.

In spite, and even because, of the conditions, however, I felt it was a pretty good day. For me at least, I found myself depending even more than ever on my feet in order to get myself into good positions – my hands were only useful to provide a bit of support – and I was pleased with this. Learning to trust in your feet is part and parcel of climbing. The grade 3 climbs all went well in spite of the conditions, and after a few minutes or so working out how to get past the grade 4 route, I managed it all right – slowly but steadily. Also I could feel my body being able to reach further than the last time we went outdoor climbing: my feet reaching up to just about where my hands were in order to get into a nice balance; looking for closer points to put the feet with more calm rather than panicking to get up and away… And we have to remember that the weather isn’t always going to be our favour when we finally leave São Paulo on this expedition.

I wasn’t able to do the grade 5 climb: it had stopped drizzling when I attempted it, although it was still a bit slippery; I must have tried about half an hour or so at one of the sections, though eventually after a fair few falls, scratches, cuts, and burning finger tips, I admitted defeat. It would have been nice to have been able to rest for half an hour or so and tried again, as I felt that I had just about worked out how to do it and I was almost reaching the key points, but the weather closed in and we were forced to pack up. But ah well! Am pretty confident that I will be able to manage it next time, and having that climb there waiting for me is a great reason to go back!