As you're probably aware I've been busying myself over these last few months with all things to do with stand up paddle boards and mountain trekking. With this being the case, I have completely missed the phenomenon that is: Pokemon Go, a mobile phone application/game that sees the player wander around the streets finding and capturing Pokemon characters. Being that I was an 80's born child then I'm aware of what Pokemon is even though at the time I barely took any notice. Being of University age, I had other things on my mind then cartoon characters! However, I'm not completely out of touch to know that this new game has swept the world like wild fire. There are stories of people so transfixed with the game that they are putting themselves or others in dangerous situations. The extreme ones include a man who almost stood onto a live railway line but realised before it was too late; and, a couple in America who left a toddler home alone whilst they went driving around the local neighbourhood in search of Pokemon characters. Thankfully these stories are the extreme and are few and far between with the vast majority of people playing with an awareness of what is around them. As with a lot of new trends or fads I was quick to dismiss the idea and barely gave it a second thought. However, I was sat in a pub earlier this evening chatting to a friend (who is somewhat obsessed with the game) about the positives that it can have. Some of what he said actually did make sense and did give me food for thought.
"...childhood obesity is one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st Century..."
In July, I took part in an expedition to stand up paddle board from Bristol to London to raise funds for the Youth Adventure Trust and to help develop Explorers Connect founder Belinda Kirk's initiative to create a dedicated day of adventure once a year, aptly named: 'Wild Night Out'. The idea behind this initiative is to encourage as many people as possible, adults and children alike, to turn off there electronic devices (whether that is TV, smart phone, tablet etc...) and to explore the great outdoors. It could be a new walking route, a wild swim or just a camp out in the back garden, anything that involved getting out and about and, hopefully, re-discovering the local area.
During the preparation for the paddle board expedition we were astonished to hear that those numbers who actually spend time exploring the great outdoors had dropped drastically over the past couple of decades. When I was a child we used to play from dawn until dusk whether that was climbing trees, exploring new areas of the village/town, building dens and general exploration and adventure on a local scale. It saddened me to hear that fewer children are doing the same and are choosing to consume content on digital media platforms instead of making use of what is around them. This is leading to more and more children battling weight issues than ever before. The World Health Organisation 'regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Obese children and adolescents are at an increased risk of developing various health problems, and are also more likely to become obese adults'. This can only really be put down to our somewhat sedentary lifestyle and our addiction to the digital world.
The only way to reverse these obesity figures is to encourage more and more people to ditch this sedentary lifestyle and to encourage activity and fitness. I hadn't realised before but games like Pokemon Go may actually help to achieve this, The whole essence of what the game is about is to get the player to explore the world around them by searching and capturing Pokemon characters. It does this by mixing the virtual and the real world. It encourages players to walk many miles in order to incubate new Pokemon and challenges them to go further to find rarer breeds. On top of this, it is encouraging a social aspect as people arrange to meet up in groups to search for Pokemon characters together, thus encouraging social relations and group exercise. It may only be scratching the surface of what is now seen as an obesity epidemic but it is a start. This maybe the small step that people need in order to get active, lose some weight and become fitter. If by playing a mobile phone game can help an individual realise that by keeping active can have a positive affect on the body and mind then it may spur on future positive changes. We didn't get into an obesity crisis overnight and there is going to be no quick fix. If we can find small steps in the right direction, even in the most unusual places, then that has to be a positive. An active body is a happy body. So, the next time you see someone walking around the streets holding there mobile phone aloft in front of them, don't judge, see it as a positive (yet small step) to making the nation fitter and hopefully, in the long term, reducing the obesity rate the world over.
The biggest challenge of attempting to summit Mt Kilimanjaro apart from the physicality side of things is how the body reacts to being at altitude. As human beings we were not designed to function at the levels of altitude that it takes to scale the biggest mountains in the World whether that is Mt Everest in Asia, Mt Blanc in Europe or Aconcagua in South America; however, this doesn’t stop people from trying and frequently succeeding. Ever since I signed up to trying to complete one of my oldest childhood ambitions the whole altitude factor has been preoccupying my mind. There is so much information out there concerning this topic and yet no concrete answer as to how a person can prepare for it. The fact that it can affect each individual person differently and on different days really baffles the life out of me. For instance, I can trek/climb the same mountain twice on two separate occasions and be affected by altitude only during one of those times even though nothing has changed between the two attempts. It just doesn’t seem to make much sense to a layman such as me. I’m sure that there are scientists/research fellows out there who could offer up a theory but that doesn’t help my preparation for possibly one of the hardest challenges I’ve set myself to date.
Being at altitude essentially means that the air is thinner and there is less oxygen for your heart to pump around the body in order to carry out the tasks that it’s being faced with. As a climber/high altitude trekker you’re not only asking your body to do this but also giving it the extra pressure of some immense physical activity. Your body is working harder with less in the tank. There is research to show that by exercising at artificial high altitude (i.e. in a reduced oxygen chamber or with a face mask connected to a controlled oxygen tank) that your body will someway become acclimatised to functioning at those reduced levels. It can become more efficient with using less oxygen to perform the tasks at hand. There must be some truth in this otherwise why would Olympic-level athletes and sports teams the World over migrate to areas of higher altitude to train for their pinnacle events? The argument is that by returning to sea level after training at higher altitude means that the abundance of oxygen should give their performance an extra boost.
Altitude: the height of an object or point in relation to sea level or ground level.
Being that I currently live in London where the idea of high altitude is Box Hill in Surrey (224 metres) then training at altitude is not an option. Also, being that this is the most expensive city in the country to be in the idea of training in an oxygen chamber far outstrips my bank balance. By reading that you would be wrong to think that I was out of options; I may not be able to train at altitude (artificial or real) but I can get tested for my current susceptibility and feel how the body reacts to functioning with less oxygen. There is a company located near Mansion House in London aptly named: “The Altitude Centre” that provides a service called: “Mountain Consultation”, this is an hour-long session of tests including blood pressure, heart rate, lung functionality, AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) susceptibility and finally low oxygen level tests that are meant to simulate being at altitude.
On arriving at the location of my consultation I was welcomed by a modern style building, clinical in appearance and sparsely populated inside. Being that I arrived early for my appointment I took a seat in the waiting area, which felt more like the depiction of Langley’s CIA headquarters in the film: ‘The Recruit’ starring Colin Farrell then somewhere of exercise. There were no large posters depicting the ‘perfect’ physique but there was the familiar sound of a lone treadmill reverberating through the adjoining glass divide. The entire room was decorated in a light colour that was illuminated by a blue daylight hue coming from the sunlight shining in through the large tinted windows. In the centre of the room was a large circular table that was occupied by what looked like the company’s receptionist who was typing away in an unobtrusive way. Before I became too comfortable I was approached by a guy introducing himself as my consultant for the session; confident in his demeanour and eager to get started. I was led off to a consultation room not far from the reception area that was equally as clinical and devoid of any distraction. It was at this point that we had a discussion as to why I made the appointment and what to expect. By chance the consultant had himself within the last 12-months successfully completed Mt Kilimanjaro. This was the perfect opportunity to discuss any concerns I had with regards to tackling the highest peak in Africa. After a pretty in depth conversation it was time for the tests to begin. We started with the standard blood pressure test to determine my systolic blood pressure, that’s the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats; and, diastolic blood pressure, the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart rests in between beats. This was then followed by the resting heart rate and body composition/BMI tests to give the consultant an overall picture of my basic health. There was nothing different here that I haven’t done umpteen times in the past. My results showed the following:
Blood Pressure: Systolic 124 (Normal) / Diastolic 74 (Optimal)
Resting Heart Rate: 75 beats per minute (Normal)
Body Composition: 23.72 (Normal)
The next round of tests would be the most interesting to me because these would measure my lung capacity, hypoxia and AMS susceptibility. The lung capacity test was similar to the breath test utilised by the Police on the side of the road to test for alcohol. It involved blowing into a large tube attached to a machine that would measure the amount of air (in litres) that was expelled. I was instructed to take a long, deep breath in order to fill my lungs completely before blowing as hard as I could on the tube attached to the machine. This was a new experience for me having never been stopped and breathalysed by the authorities before. I took an almighty deep breath and started to expel the air through the tube, repeating this process 3 times, in order to get an average reading giving a more accurate idea of what my lungs are capable of. During this test the consultant was taking two readings and a percentage between those two figures in order to ascertain my actual lung capacity. These were:
The results, although not perfect, are not a cause for worry. Yes, there is some mild restriction in the lungs capacity but nothing so drastic that it would affect me at altitude. The advice that was given to improve this was to practice breathing with the diaphragm. A test to see if you are in fact doing this is to sit on an upright chair and place one hand on the chest with the other hand on the stomach. The hand on the stomach should be moving in and out with every breath whilst the hand on your chest should stay put. Each breath should be taken through the nose and not the mouth to avoid a dry cough materialising during exercise.
...You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you've climbed a mountain...
Once these tests were complete I was led into an oxygen-controlled exercise space that was accessed through a double door ‘air lock’. It felt like we were entering a scene from Star Trek moving between compartments on the USS Enterprise. The room was large but not massive and was home to ten treadmills and five bikes. This is the room that hosts low oxygen exercise classes. In the far corner of the room was a white bucket seat that looked like it had been modelled on an eggshell with one third removed to create a bucket-type seat. Next to this strange egg-like seat was a computer screen complete with oxygen mask and pulse oximetry instrument. This was where I would experience what it would be like to breath at altitude. As I sat in this somewhat comfortable seat with an oxygen mask attached to my face I watched as the numbers on the screen in front of me started changing. At sea level the oxygen level in the blood usually rests around the 95% mark. The test was to see how quickly the oxygen level in my body dropped to 85% at 5093 metres (16,709 feet). The result showed that it took 100 seconds in order to do this, which is deemed as a very good result. This was depicted on the screen as a gradual curved decline that signifies that the body is adapting well. As the oxidation in my body decreased there was a distinct physical change to my breathing, I would take deeper breaths to compensate for the thinner air and my heart rate was noticeably faster in order to push that oxygen around the body to the muscles that needed it. The feeling wasn’t uncomfortable and I didn’t feel like I was short of breath but there was a noticeable difference in how my body was reacting. The second test was the time it takes for the body to recover when the mask was removed. As with exercise, the quicker the body recovers the better. My body took 60 seconds to recover, which is deemed as an average recovery time. The longer it takes to recover the more affected by fatigue the body is over time. The great news is that my heart reacted well to the affects of low oxygen (hypoxia) even at 74% oxidation. To put these oxygen levels into perspective it is said that if the body was reading levels of 85% or below at sea level then you would be admitted to hospital and kept under stringent observation and medical care. After multiple tests at different simulated altitudes it was reported that I do not seem to be susceptible to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). However, this doesn’t mean that I should become complacent on the mountain and care is still needed to continually monitor how I’m feeling to make sure that AMS does not take hold. As stated previously, I may not have been affected by it today but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be tomorrow.
This process has been interesting to find out a little bit more about altitude and how low oxygen levels affects the body in a controlled environment. I do believe that by feeling these affects that I am already a lot more prepared than I would have been if I had not taken part in this consultation. This has given me a good base to build upon with plenty more preparation still yet to do in order to get fitter, stronger and mountain ready. With only 8.5 weeks to go until I am looking up at the steep slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro I am more eager than ever to take my training up a gear.
A month ago I received an invitation to trek Mt Snowdon in Wales as a part-training/part-team bonding exercise with some of the folks I will be attempting to summit Mt Kilimanjaro with - an offer I couldn't refuse. As Mt Snowdon is located in the northern tip of Wales then it's challenge just to get there in the first place: a whooping 9-hours from London in Friday afternoon traffic, horrendous rain; and, once crossing the border, tiny single track roads weaving there way through some of the most stunning scenery on the British Isles. Luckily, as soon as I crossed into Wales the rain stopped and the Sun was shining low in the sky causing the mountainous region to be draped in an orange/yellow glow: a juxtaposition to the urban landscape I've become accustomed to over the past 6-years of living in London. By the time I rolled into Rhyd-Ddu, my base for the next few days, it was in time to catch the final glimpse of the Sun dipping below the horizon welcoming in the night.
The next day we woke to the most breathtaking view of Mt. Snowdon that I've seen to date. Every other time I'd ever visited the region it had been blighted with thick fog covering the top third of the mountain; it was like navigating through a cloud. On this occasion, the sky was blue with white fluffy clouds, the mountain was topped with snow and the cafe located at the summit could be seen clearly. It felt more like I was staring at a photograph or painting than the real deal. Seeing snow on the upper slopes of the mountain surprised me as I was under the impression it would've thawed by mid-April, shows how little I know. As I looked upon the mountain from the warmth of our farmhouse accommodation I found it hard to envisage that I was about to trek to the point that can be seen towering high above the ground. People just seem so insignificant in comparison to the landscape and the thought of standing on top of this mountain doesn't seem to compute in my mind. I've scaled a few mountains in my time but this feeling still resonates. It took a short while for us all to gather the things we needed for the trek and to get going but after a hearty breakfast we set off to tackle the mountain.
The plan was to ascend the Rhyd-Ddu Path and return on the Ranger Track. This was the quieter side of the mountain so we were hoping for blissful peace throughout the journey. The Rhyd-Ddu path was easy to begin with; the incline was shallow and took us along a track that used to serve the old Bwlch Cwm Llan Slate Quarry before getting relatively steep and rocky as we headed towards Llechog Ridge. It was between these points that we were introduced to the snow; a dusting to begin with but quickly deepened until it hit my knee height (approximately 2ft) a short time later. As it happens the snow was particularly prominent along the ridge and without cramp-ons or an ice axe the route became serious. I haven't had any experience with trekking in the snow and I suddenly became aware of the steep drops on either side of me and how close I was to the edge. It didn't help that I had no clue about the terrain below the snow, I could happen a guess but what if I got it wrong? Instead I opted to just take my time and to make sure my feet were planted before moving onto the next step. To say I was 'bricking it' was a vast understatement. This bit needed all my concentration if I was going to get across this ridge unscathed. My pace had slowed to a snail pace and the dark thoughts of slowing down the rest of the team were going through my head. However, there was no way I was going to let that get to me, instead I ended up muttering to myself, taking deep breaths and ignoring the fact that I was inches from certain death - I must have sounded like a complete maniac. It was at this point where I realised that my walking poles were disadvantaging me instead of aiding me. At many points throughout the ridge ascent I really wanted to use both of my hands and feet to traverse some of the trickier spots; but, having the walking poles stopped me from utilising my hands properly and as I was so close to the edge, I really didn't want to faff about with taking my bag off and putting them away - so I struggled on. It was at this moment I understood the advantage of planning ahead, knowing your terrain and what equipment is best used when. The snowy ridge almost beat me but I'm happy to say I persevered and through motivation from the team I got through. In hindsight, it was the snow that had thrown my confidence; having never trekked in those conditions before I was in completely new territory. I have been 'on the edge' of rather steep drops in the past and it hasn't phased me one bit, but in the snow it got to me. I felt uneasy on my feet and that gave me unrelenting nerves. Cramp-ons/studs are definitely being added to the kit list for Kilimanjaro.
Once we got to the end of the Llechog Ridge, the space opened out a little and the icy cold wind galloped to a pace, nothing that could affect balance but enough to feel it bite through your clothing. At this point I realised that my trekking trousers: craghoppers were not suitable for cold conditions as I could feel the wind cut straight through the material. At this point, I took a moment to stop and to check out the view. I had been concentrating so hard on where my feet were going on the ridge that I didn't realise how high we had come. We regrouped and made our final push for the summit and after 2.5 hours we had made it: we had taken on the mountain and won! A feat we can all be proud of. It was at this point we were met by a huge amount of people, it was so busy up there. Where had all these people come from? There was even a queue to the plinth that marked the highest point; and, as we looked down the 'tourist' route (aptly nick-named due to the busyness of it) there was a string of people going in both directions - also described as the motorway of the mountain - a sea of colours, lots of chatter and some questionable trek wear. This was the perfect place to stop, have a bite to eat and re-hydrate before descending down the Ranger Track and back to the pub.
However, once we had crossed the train track and were actually on the correct route it was smooth sailing from then on. In approximately 5 hours we had done a return trip of the mountain. Later on that evening, as we were sat at the pub looking up at the mountain, it was hard to imagine what Kilimanjaro would look like; towering 6-times higher than Snowdon. An eye opener of fear and excitement.
This trip was invaluable to judge how the next 4-months will be shaped in terms of training and physical/mental preparation. It also highlighted current kit issues, missing kit and how to utilise it in the most efficient way for the terrain expected. I for one have learnt a lot from this weekend and plan on rectifying the issues as quickly as possible. There is still a lot to do before stepping onto that flight in August but I already feel better prepared than I did a week ago. I will try and keep this blog updated over the next 4 months with my preparations for Kilimanjaro. If you would like to follow my progress then don't forget to favourite www.memoirsofascribbler.com and/or follow me on social media: Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I am also trying to raise as much awareness and funds for Cancer Research UK, should you wish to donate then please follow the link: www.justgiving.com/marcus-to-the-top
All these are fantastic qualities to have in a paddle board, however, when this is only the third time stepping onto a board then it throws up an issue - they're not very stable for the novice. The thinner, lighter and more agile the board, the harder it is to stand up and find that neutral grounding to provide a decent balance. That first half-an-hour was precarious for most of the team with a couple almost ending up having a face-to-face meeting with the canal (me included). I'm not sure if you're familiar with city canals but they're not exactly a swimming pool, it wouldn't be a nice experience falling in. Surprisingly none of the team did end up meeting the canal face-to-face, a feat we're all very much proud of.
...there is a life away from the screen and, as a nation,
As we passed Little Venice the whole team had found their 'water-feet', or as Mr Pilate's would say: "the neutral spine", and were beginning to work 'as one' with the board. The sure-fire way of noticing this is that the general conversation between the teammates moves on from the stability of the board compared to previous experiences to general chit-chat and team bonding. It was a pleasant evening with a breeze that was light to moderate depending on the direction of travel. At one point we were greeted with a head-on gust, not too strong that it endangered our balance but enough that it caused the surface water to ripple in a consistent motion towards us. It was astonishing how much more effort was needed to keep the paddle board moving in a forwards direction and in a straight-line. It was a realisation that a head-on wind could drastically slow-down our progress on this trip. On the flip side however, if we experienced a tail-wind this could make life a lot easier and propel us at faster speeds counting down the miles as we go: it's swings and roundabouts.
This was a fantastic training session and team bonding exercise. We were still one person down from the team but hope to rectify this in a couple of weeks when he returns from Myanmar! But, as sessions go this has definitely gone a long way to help us realise that we can actually do this and that it could be a whole lot of fun along the way. Still so much yet to organise but the team are well into it and looking forward to the challenge!
Don't forget we are doing this challenge to raise awareness and funds for the Youth Adventure Trust, a fantastic charity that aims to give children the confidence and ability to take on life and to battle it head on through the use of free adventure. Teaching them that they can reach their full potential to take anything that life throws at them. So, feel free to follow this link: www.paddlecrawl.co.uk and click on the donate button at the top of this page to help them, help children. Thank you.
Image by: Active360
It took the best part of half-an-hour to find my river feet and eventually stand up. Frustratingly - for me - I was the last person to get onto my feet and as a result I was drifting way behind the rest of the group. Being at the back always brings up those dark thoughts of: "I'm slowing down the rest of the team". During that first half-an-hour all that was going through my head was: "If I can't get to my feet now, how am I going to do 165 miles on the challenge", feeling like I'm letting myself down, the team and everything we've worked towards so far.
I was beginning to really enjoy the art of stand up paddle boarding and a huge smile was appearing across my face; how have I never discovered this before?! During the latter part of the session the sun began to set, taking with it the warmth of the spring day. This gave the river a beauty that I've never witnessed before even though I've been living near the Thames for the best part of 6-years. There was something rather magical about floating in the centre of the river as the sun dipped below the horizon with the background sound of chirping birds and quacking ducks. I had forgotten that I was within a bustling metropolis and, not only that, the capital city of the UK. The beauty was astounding.
Stand up paddleboarding:
The return leg of the session was easier to paddle as we were now travelling down stream, going with the current. This was fun and allowed us to cover the same distance in a fraction of the time. On this return leg, I felt invincible and a little over-confident to the point where I almost went head first into the river. Luckily, I regained my balance and stayed on the board. It was enough to put me in my place and to respect the river that I was on.
Overall, it was a successful first session and I look forward to getting more and more confident on the board before loading it up with equipment and beginning the challenge in July. We will try and keep this blog up-to-date throughout the preparation and the challenge itself. Don't forget to subscribe to avoid missing out.