Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Yading Big Kora: lesson learned from my second circuit

I've just come back from Yading, where I did a 7 day circuit of Chanadorje, Jambeyang and Shenrezig. I originally intended to do this solo but had the good fortune to link up with Qin Rey and his colleagues from CCTV-9, who accompanied me on the trip so they could make a documentary about the kora - and its links with Joseph Rock's plant hunting expeditions. The documentary is part of a 3-part series on the Gongga Shan and surrounding area, due to air in 2017. Their assistance was invaluable - it made it so much easier to gain access to the Yading National Park (now a whopping 300 yuan entry fee) and also to hire porters etc.
The trek was great - we took 7 days to do the full circuit, and I will write a full track report in due course. However, it was marred by rain on almost every day - something I should have anticipated given that the 'monsoon' season starts in early June. So here are  a few lessons from the trek on what worked and what didn't.

#1 Don't go in the rainy season (June- end August)

My previous trip was in May 2010 and this was marred by ice and snow on the passes. It seems there is a very narrow window of opportunity to get clear weather in spring, but before the rainy season kicks in in early June. Lesson: go in Sept-Nov (but not Golden Week around 1 Oct).

#2 Take Diamox for altitude sickness

With average altitudes in the region of 4000m (and some of the passes at around 5000m), the big kora comes with a certain risk of altitude sickness. On my first two trips I suffered from the usual headaches, lethargy and lack of sleep, combined with dry throat and raging thirst at night. I also struggled to walk up very gentle slopes - and thought I would die of heart failure with any prolonged exertion. This time round, I started Diamox (acetazolamide) two days before departure and it made a world of difference. It basically allowed me to function as if I were at sea level - I allowed three days acclimatisation, and suffered no altitude sickness at all - and felt that hiking up the steepest pass (Yaka La, 4700m) was much like walking up Malham Cove in Yorkshire. My fellow trekkers had very bad altitude sickness, so I felt pretty smug about my performance enhancing drug results.

#3 Goretex rain jackets don't work - take a poncho

I thought I'd given my rain gear a pretty thorough testing in Sydney's heaviest downpours for years. I was wrong.  I found that my eVent rainproof jacket only stayed waterproof for the first day of rain (despite being recently re-proofed at great expense). After that it 'wetted out' and let in some water. My shirt was damp around the shoulders and arms. (I found the best solution was to wear my merino thermals as base layer, which though wet still kept me feeling warm and dry-ish. Everyone else on the hike had the same water leakage problems with their breathable rain jackets. We were saved by some cheap PVC ponchos. These were inelegant but kept us (and our packs) dry without making us feel clammy and sweaty - obviously because their is plenty of ventilation! My Patagonia soft shell trousers worked well at repelling rain and mud for a few hours, but also became saturated eventually (but to be fair they dried out very quickly). The best performers in the wet were my Scarpa Delta GTX boots, which kept my feet dry and warm despite being subject to a week of continual rain, stream bashing and ankle-deep sucking mud.
Lesson learnt - have waterproof bags for everything in your bag, especially your sleeping bag. (The waterproof iPhone cover also probably saved my phone from drowning).

#4 Don't rely on dehydrated meals for a week.

On most of my previous treks I have used the expensive ($11 a pop) Back Country Cuisine dehydrated meals for my dinners. These may be OK for a day or two, but I soon became sick of them - most seem to consist of tasteless meat, soggy rice or noodles, and loads of sweetcorn (which I detest). I found that pot noodles (fangbian mian in Chinese) were much more palatable and seemed to fill the gaps when combined with a bit of mashed potato and some beef jerky. And a lot cheaper too. For lunch I found myself very satisfied with Vitawheat and a mix of Babybel and Laughing Cow cheeses that I'd picked up in the supermarket - they didn't seem to go off over the week. I also learned that fun-size Snickers bars may be OK for energy - but it's impossible to walk and chew at altitude. A much better boost for getting up those 'up' bits was a pack of Werther's Originals (a bit like Murray Mints from the UK). Suck it and see.

#5 If you want to get ahead get a hat

The rapidly changing weather meant that I started the day with a fleece hat for warmth, switched this for a broad-brimmed, vented sunhat once I started walking in the glare, but then inevitably swapped this for a (polyester, quick drying) baseball cap to fit under my rainhood for the rainy periods.

#6 Other indispensable items: 

Sunscreen, teabags, spare torch batteries, Chinese Nescafe sachets, a bit of dubbin to re-proof the boots, some photos of family to show locals, photocopies of Google map 3D views of route (went down really well with local guides and helped route planning). A sponge ( for moping up water from tent floor after putting it up in the rain). Kindle, Thermarest, Swiss Army Knife, Iodine tablets, a waterproof head torch, some mementoes (baloons for kids), cheap sunnies (don't mind if lost or broken). Lucky batik scarf (acts as emergency towel, camera lens cleaner, eyemask, bandana and smoke filter).

#7 Don't forget to breathe

I find that breathing in and out helps me to get through the day, especially on high altitude treks. It may sound obvious, but at heights of 4000m or more there isn't as much oxygen in the air - and I used to find myself doing step counting to try achieve a manageable walking pace without becoming a gasping cripple. I now realise I was doing it the wrong way round. I now rely on my Advanced, Patent Pending 'Breathe-Like-An-Old-Geezer' method for going up hills when more than 4km higher than sea level. This involves breathing in and out slowly, a bit like Neil Armstrong on the moon. I set the walking pace according to my breathing rate, not the other way round. I find that this way I start out with a ridiculously slow pace, but this soon builds up a steady rhythm that allows me to keep plodding on for an hour or so while the 'hares' are having rest stops every five minutes.

In my next post: Why my Nemo Hornet tent surprised me. Why you shouldn't pitch your tent in a wind tunnel or potential river. And where you can get camping gas (butane/propane) supplies in Daocheng. Plus: why walking poles are for wankers.