April 2015: Half way up a narrow, steep, crumbling, five hundred year old staircase is not the place to decide to turn around and climb down. It’s still less the place to switch places with your friend. But when I looked at the sagging lower layer of bricks and the loose sand around them, I decided that hauling myself over the top of the nearly two meter brick wall in front of me was too risky. It was the last obstacle before the top, but I didn’t want it to be my last obstacle ever. Cause of death? Crushed in a rockfall. No thanks.
Far to Beijing’s north, the Great Wall runs roughly along the border with Hebei Province. Just west of the well-known “wild wall” at Gubeikou is a little-visited but wonderful section of Ming Dynasty Great Wall called Beihualing – Beihua Ridge. It has everything: dramatic towers, ridgeline wall, remoteness, beautiful Ming stonework lying just where it fell centuries ago, and a really big fort. Just up the road is the equally impressive White Horse Pass, or Baimaguan.
Click through for photos of this incredible area.
The past is the past, there’s no going back. Not for the first time in this new existence called Fatherhood, I’ve had occasion to ponder that. Usually, it’s the middle of the night. It helps, for me at least, to understand things that way, the past as water under the bridge, its return impossible and therefore not to be yearned for.
But it turns out that this mental model works better for farewelling the past than fully embracing the present and the future. That takes a little extra help from a friend. By way of a thank you to the friend who helps me with that, and on this appropriate date, here then are some photos from that past. Let’s take it back almost to where it all began. Looking forward, too, may the Journeys, &c, continue. One day at a time.
After the jump: Our honeymoon, northern Vietnam, February 2004. Photographed with film (!)
“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*
George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.
I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
Two years ago I visited Longquanyu, north of Changping and west of Huanghuacheng. Recently I went back, to see whether the wall extended further westwards.
This was also the first time I took my daughter hiking without her mother. Because it was a test run, I brought my sister along. But the challenge arose from the fact little W is still breast-feeding. My sister’s great, but she couldn’t help with that. Instead, I had a bottle of frozen milk and my PocketRocket…
Frozen exhalation eyelash crystals. It’s trending, but you saw it here first.
Minus 21C doesn’t always look very cold. In photos, at least. But believe me, it is! We discovered this on what turned out to be Beijing’s coldest day in three decades. With wind chill, it was probably closer to -25C, maybe lower still, but -21C was certainly cold enough.
At that temperature, there’s no margin for error. Dressed well, and moving, you can keep your body temperature quite comfortable. But stop, or expose your hands for more than a minute, and you lose sensation in your fingers frighteningly fast. Sitting or even just standing around, you soon feel the warmth depleting. So if you fall and hurt your leg, say, you’re going to have bigger problems than that, really fast. Devices fail in that cold, too, as batteries and LCD screens die. Lucky we knew the way, because the GPS was cactus after less than an hour.
All in all, below about minus 15, I think it’s better to stay home and drink coffee!
Click through for more photos.
A hundred vertical meters beneath the summit of Stok Kangri. Would I make it?
Continued from Part One
Just past midnight. It’s Summit Day.
Someone bangs a saucepan and yells “Good Morning Base Camp!” I feel well rested. It’s not too cold, and I put on my clothes and go into the homestay tent. Thankfully it doesn’t smell too badly of cheap fuel. Breakfast is porridge and there’s honey and I drink some tea. We’re given a packed lunch, too, all wrapped in foil. The others seem tired and they reveal they didn’t get much sleep. Poor Tom is suffering from a churning belly. Of all the mornings!
I feel strong, and I think I might just make it.
^ With Ben (left) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou
Most navigation arguments have little real consequence. “You missed the exit!” “That was the exit?” “I told you to get in the right lane!” You might be late, but you won’t have to sleep outside in the cold.
But on the side of a cliff in failing light, they take on a different complexion. So it was in Autumn 2013 near Huangyukou.
There were four of us, but really we were two couples. My regular hiking partner Ben and I on one hand, and my German friend Chinoook and his hiking partner Hin on the other. A simple but understandable error with GPS had left us beating a path up a steep, scrubby and rocky slope as the sun sank inevitably towards the ridgeline.
Finally, it was crunch time. “We should turn around”, I said. “Well, I think if we continue across this face we can probably make it to that tower”, said Chinoook. I looked up. Far across the valley, on a high ridge, a beautiful tower glowed yellow in the setting sun. It was hours away, even if we could traverse the rocky wall ahead – much of which we couldn’t actually see from here. I have had some unpleasant experiences on steep Great Wall hillsides at night – I had no intention of doing it again.
“The sun’s setting”, I reminded everyone. Chinook consulted his GPS. “The sun doesn’t set for three hours”. At that moment, I lost my patience. “Look at the f****g sky, man. Use your eyes. We have ninety minutes of light, max. You do what you like. I’m going down”.
Sadness pervades the whole story of Skarð. A hundred years ago, 1913 to be precise, it was a hard-scrabble fishing village like so many on the Faroes. No roads linked it to larger settlements, just a dangerous walk over the rocky mountain ridge to Kunoy on the other side, or a path down the fjord to Haraldssund several miles south. The land scarcely supports the grass the sheep graze on, so fishing was the villagers’ main source of food and income. Just 23 souls lived here, and only seven were fishermen.
Two days before Christmas that year, the seven set out in their boats as usual. In those days of course, fishing boats were sailed or rowed. There was no radio, radar, GPS or EPIRB. Just a man, his wits, and his raw strength stacked against what Shackleton called “the ocean that is open to all and merciful to none, that threatens even when it seems to yield, and that is pitiless always to weakness”.
They never returned. Lost with all hands.