Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tenerife Day 2: What doesn't kill you...

Where do I start with this one? Even now, just a week later, I struggle to recall all of the details of that day. I read somewhere once that the brain 'forgets' traumatic experiences. I think that happened here to some extent.

You are going to need to kick back and get comfortable, this is a fairly long post, sorry.

A few days before I flew out, as most people do, I checked the 5 day forecast. Tuesday and Wednesday were shown as cloudy, with a little rain. I was a little disappointed, but thought no big deal. I was going to be in Tenerife, it's hot all year round, I can survive a shower. I had packed in my rucksack: a waterproof jacket with hood, several layers of clothes (primarily to combat the cold I would experience on day 2 climbing the volcano Mount Teide), included full length running leggings, a warm Berghaus hat as well as my Raidlight desert cap, and some very expensive 'Windstopper' gloves. This was amongst all of the other kit I carried for the 3 day camping trip. My backpack weighed around 12kg, including 3 litres of water. I planned to top up with water at the half way (A place called Las Lajas: 10 mile) point that day, to provide sufficient to last out the first day, cook, and enough to see me through to a water stop the following day.

I got up at 6:30am and made breakfast in the apartment. I ate my MDS breakfast of Porrage oats, banana chips and powdered milk, all prepared with a pint of boiled water. I washed this down with 50g of PSP22; a carbohydrate-loader drink. This is a fairly big breakfast; around 900 calories. I had 100g of salted cashew nuts, 45g of SIS Go electrolyte and a Peperami to snack on as I ran/walked, and then a Mountain House 800 Kcalorie meal in the evening. This would be the same menu I would eat every day. This is around 2700 kcal total. I drove my hire car to Adeje in darkness; about a 20 minutes drive, and sat in a car park waiting about 15 minutes for dawn. I knew the path was rough, and despite having a head torch, it was not safe to travel the rough trails in darkness. Adeje sits about 250m (800ft) above sea level. My half way point would be the recreation area of Las Lajas that I visited the previous day. This would be after 10 miles, and at 2100M (7000ft). I always knew that this would be a hard day. That is a lot of altitude to gain in a short time, with a big pack, over very rough terrain. I had calculated I would need to cover 2 miles per hour over the day to enable me to reach camp (20 miles). Below is the route for the first 10 miles to Las Lajas.

The first 5 miles (shown in blue) is, for the want of a better phrase, an established footpath. It is reasonably easy to follow if you keep your eyes peeled. The second 5 miles (shown in red) is a path of my own design. In other words there is no path. I would be cutting cross country through a steep uphill pine forest for about 2.5 miles, but hopefully locating what looked like old dirt road on Google Earth, for the last 2.5 miles and following it as it zigzagged sharply up the mountain to Las Lajas. This section is shown below.

I had agonised about this route choice for many hours before I left. I knew it was risky, not following a path and just trekking through a forest, but there was no other realistic way of reaching the 2000M plateau in a single day if I stuck to paths or roads. I had Google Earth on constantly, zooming in, and altering the viewing angle to try and find a route. I eventually settled on the one you see. I hoped to gain a ridge top and walk it's entire length to Las Lajas as hopefully this angle illustrates.

The green cross is where I would leave the path after 5 miles of trekking; at 1040M. The red cross is Las Lajas where I would meet a road at 2100M; after 10 miles.

So, scene set, I'll get back to the story. Dawn eventually cast enough light for me to make out detail on the hills and cliffs above. I strapped on my pack and walked up the very steep road to a (closed) tourist information stand at the entrance of Tenerife’s most famous walk; Barranca Del Inferno (Hell's ravine). Here I took a sharp left, away from the Inferno walk, and then a right to join a rubble strewn path. I was on familiar territory here, having walked these first 5 miles back in March of this year as blogged here. I would be gaining 800m in just over 2 miles as I followed the zigzagging path to the cliffs above. The weather was a little overcast, but there was a little blue sky. I was dressed in a long sleeve Under Armour Metal HeatGear compression top, and Raidlight shorts. I knew I would be generating a lot of body heat on this day with the considerable ascent and was dressed for the part, but I had my extra layers either on top, or in the webbing of my rucksack.

I set off walking up the hill. I knew there was no possibility to run this steep bouldered path with the weight I was carrying (or even with no rucksack!). Glancing at my Timex speed/distance watch (GPS-driven) I was just about averaging 2mph. I climbed steadily resisting the temptation to push for a better pace, conscious that I had to cover 20 steep and tough miles that day. I reached the cliffs above (1100M) about an hour and 10 minutes later. It was here that I paused for 5 minutes. I first sent out my position to the tracking website to update my live-tracking blog post (click satellite view). I had the intention to update once per hour, but as it turned out the position you see was the first and only update I managed to send.

I took this photo at this point.

The wind was a little gusty up there, and you can see it was a little cloudy and I think it was drizzling slightly. I pressed on ahead, taking a wrong turn and having to cut back cross-country onto the right path. This lost me a little time and I hurried to catch up, managing to run parts of this section. The next 3 miles were undulating, gaining and loosing a couple of hundred metres but overall remaining around 1100M. The weather seemed to brighten up as these next two photo's show.

Those were the last photos my lovely ultra-lightweight doomed Casio Exilim S3 would ever take. I was going down into a ravine on the left side, and then climbing up and back out of the ravine on the right side. You can see the nice inverted V shape on the first Google Earth view of my route. As I climbed out of the ravine it started to rain. I wasn't sure if it was a shower or not, but I took off my rucksack and got out my waterproof jacket and put it on. The temperature was a little cooler now, but my legs were warm from the effort, so I left my shorts on and continued. Shortly afterwards I emerged from heavy forest, into lighter but still covered forest, near a small village called Ifonche. There are signs of agriculture all around and I saw a few farms and knew that a road was but a few hundred metres away.

I had reached the point on my map where the blue line ends, and I was to go cross country and make my own path up the mountain for 5 miles. The rain had a got a little heavier, and I think I briefly considered heading for Ifonche and seeking shelter and safety. However, I had no reason to suspect that the rain would not just stop any minute so I looked down at my PDA/GPS which was showing a Google Earth screenshot and a flashing dot with my location on it. It had a faint red line showing my planned path, so I headed off vaguely northerly back into the heavier forest. My path was initially in a shallow ravine, wide enough to drive a car up, and to my surprise there were small cairns now and again way marking the path. This was comforting, knowing that maybe I wasn't the only person to have attempted this route. The climb became steeper as I reached the source of the ravine and climbed up to my ridgeline. The wide path vanished but small cairns still persisted from time to time even though any kind of path had gone. I was perhaps 1 mile up the mountain when I came across an old narrow (8 inch wide) aqueduct going in the same direction that I was heading. Again this was comforting; it was like following a little road.

It got colder, the rain got heavier and visibility got poorer as I headed into low cloud. It was at his stage that I first got concerned. I weighed up my options of turning on my heels and going back down the mountain to Ifonche, continuing, or even pitching camp then and there. However the hill was steep and boulder strewn and besides I thought I was just being silly. I mean, imagine pitching camp because of a bit of rain? I compromised, took off my rucksack again, and put on a North Face fleece on top of my compression top, then put my waterproof jacket back on and pulled the hood up. I put on my Windstopper gloves and fastened my jacket sleeves over the top of the base of them, to keep out the cold. My legs were getting wet but I wasn't really feeling any cold on them because of the workload and heat they produced.

I continued on, but the aqueduct started to veer off to the left as though to contour a particularly steep hill ahead. Comforted by its presence I decided to follow it. I did this for perhaps half a mile, before glancing down at my PDA and seeing that it really was not going in the right direction. I was forced to backtrack on my route exactly and then head up the very steep section. It was getting hazier but I still had reasonable visibility. To illustrate the terrain and visibility at this stage I have this photo which I took with a disposable camera a few days later. I encountered similar cloud conditions, but no rain. So you will have to use your imagination here. Terrain the same, but add heavy rain.

Now, the next couple of hours are hazy. I don't remember every detail. I may have to keep coming back and adding more if I remember any, but this is where things got bad.

The rain got worse. Imagine the heaviest rain you have ever been in, or driven in, and this as it. I had my hood up, so this amplified the sound and was really demoralising. The cloud got thicker, but I was clinging onto some stupid hope that I would gain so much altitude that I would emerge through the top and into fine weather. These shots show the poorer visibility and rock strewn ground quite well.

Because of trees, rocks and large boulders it was impossible to follow a straight path. I constantly had to weave left and right to contour obstacles as I headed upwards. Visibility became so poor I only had 10M at the most. It was like walking in thick, but more tangible, fog. A little while afterwards I found myself walking downhill. I looked at my PDA/GPS and it seemed think I was still going in the right direction. But that couldn't be right I thought; My route is all uphill, and steep uphill at that? I veered off to one side a for a while to see how this would affect my illustrated course. Then the GPS said I was walking back the way I had come? I got very worried very quickly. I had a real concern that the cloud and terrain was affecting the GPS signal, as I read it can, and I was getting 'bounces' sending me off in the wrong direction. In fact I could already be well off course and lost. I literally walked around in circles trying to get the GPS to show me which way to go, but which ever way I walked always seemed to be the wrong direction. I began to panic now. I was lost and in the middle of nowhere. There was thick forest and ravines all around me for miles in every direction. I stood still in the heavy rain and wind, my mind in overdrive panic. I looked around in every direction at this kind of scene, but with the heavy rain on top.

I thought I should pitch camp here and now and briefly scanned the forest floor. It was useless, there were boulders everywhere and I was getting colder as I stood still. I had only pitched the tent once and what If I could not get it up in time and lost too much body heat? No one was going to find me in this remote location, especially not in this weather. I remembered my compass and that I was heading almost exactly due north. I took it out but in my confusion and panic I realised that I needed a more precise bearing or I could just miss the road and head miles into the forest. I put it away and fear gripped me. I was cold, my legs were wet and red from the lashing rain and wind, and I had no idea which direction out of 360 degrees I should go in. I don't know for how long this persisted, but at some stage I began to fear for my life. You realise just how insignificant you are under the power of Mother Nature. I was not under; I was right in the middle of a storm cloud. I could not see anything, I was cold and scared. I had visions of my body being found weeks later, or worse never been found at all because of the remoteness of my location. It's not a nice feeling more or less being convinced you are going to die. I remember taking down my hood to ease the drumming sound from the rain to try and clear my thoughts. Then I put it back on to stay warm and dry. I must have done this dozens of times in the next couple of hours in my confused state of mind. My heart was racing as I panicked and I knew I had to calm down.

I crouched down, resting one hand on the ground and took a few deep breaths. bizarrely then I remembered a phrase from the book/film 'Dune'- "Fear is the mind-killer." How right that was. I had no clarity, I was scared and panicked and had no idea what to do. I repeated that line in my head a few times, taking deep breaths, and some semblance of calm returned. I had to start moving and get warmer, or probably eventually die. I needed to get to a road. I had no path to follow the way I had come from, and was probably exactly in between my start and destination. I had one chance and that was to put all of my faith in the PDA/GPS. I didn't think about this until afterwards, but a past training incident had made me buy a piece of kit that proved crucial. My PDA (I had two PDA's; another spare in my rucksack) was in an Aquapac, a waterproof bag. If it had not been in that bag, the PDA would have been destroyed over the next hour or two along with my other electronics that met that fate. Several times over the next couple of hours I pondered just dropping my 12kg backpack and enabling myself to move faster, but my better sense stopped me. All my water (probably not an issue given the weather!) clothes and provisions were in there. All the time I had been scanning for cover; a cave, anything, but there was none.

I stood up and just walked in a random direction, correcting my course until the GPS indicated I was headed back towards my red line and due north. I was hard to keep my head down looking at the GPS and move through the terrain. I tried to took ahead and make visual markers. I would think "yes, I'll head towards that tree". Of course I was in a forest and I would glance away momentarily, look back up and all the pines trees looked the same! How stupid I was. A couple more times I seemed to be veering off the wrong way and doubled back. More panic, followed by crouching and deep breaths and I would try again. I started to head steeply upwards again. This must be right I thought.

Mother Nature lent me a helping hand. I was glancing around and the cloud thinned out for a few seconds off to my left. The other side of a small ravine I thought I caught site of the dirt road I was looking for. I headed west towards it, dropping down into the ravine and climbed up the other side on all fours. I emerged at the top on my hands and knees with a dirt road in front of me. I think I experienced 2 or 3 seconds of relief, before I realised that I was still in trouble. Firstly I had no idea if this was the right dirt road, but I didn't remember seeing another on Google Earth, and secondly this was still only half way to Las Lajas.

At least I knew which way to head on the dirt road as it headed sharply upwards. The road could probably accommodate a 4x4 vehicle but was very rough. Worse though for me; it had practically turned into a river. I frequently just waded up to my ankles in rainwater. All around new mini waterfalls have sprung up as water gushed down from the higher ground. I was cold but now moving at a better pace on a better walking surface my body stayed warm enough. The dirt road zigged and zagged and seemed to go on for ever. I questioned many times if it was the right road, or right direction, still very scared indeed.

I don't know for how long it was happening but my back and arms were getting colder. I had a habit of hooking my thumbs under my rucksack shoulder straps when ascending, as do many people, and this proved to be a terrible error. My very expensive Windstopper gloves were not of course waterproof. Sure they could fend off a light shower, but this was no light shower. They had been patiently soaking up rain for some hours, reached there fill-point and were now draining water inside my waterproof jacket (I had fastened my jacked over the gloves base remember) down my arms and because of the angle I was walking up at, down my body, back and hips. At the time, because of my state of mind, I didn't fully realise this and just assumed my waterproofing on the jacket had eventually failed. I knew my hands were soaking wet and cold, but I did not make a connection. So, I continued on getting colder now. I increased my pace to try and compensate. I kept checking the GPS and did not seem to be getting closer because of the zigzag road. It always seemed like 'just half a mile now', but 10 minutes later it looked like it was still half a mile to go.

I hoped I was getting close and imagined myself coming into view of the restaurant at Las Lajas. I would stumble in, half frozen; drop my pack to the ground to a look of horror from the owner who I had met the previous day. He would then rush round his counter, and help me get out of my soaked clothes, ply me with towels and coffee, and sit me in front of the log fire. I replayed this scenario in my head, resting all my hopes on it and then I suddenly thought "what if it is closed?". Worry came over me again, but I knew it was dangerous to assume the place would be open. In fact I had to assume that it would be closed because of the storm. I made another plan. I would get to the road and phone my sister. She would panic of course, but even she would take an hour to reach me. I knew that as soon as I stopped moving my body temperature would drop even further. I remembered reading (or TV) about an experienced SAS operative training in either the Brecon Beacons or Dartmoor. Late in his career, he was by then in a desk-bound role but decided to take part in an exercise with potential new recruits. To cut a long story short he pressed on in a blizzard whilst others stopped and sheltered. He made a long ascent and was warm, but when it plateau’d his body temperature dropped too much and he just slowed, stopped and died.

I knew I was in this situation now. I was carrying a lot of weight, had gained plenty of altitude and managed to stay warm. But, I was wet. When I stopped I would be in big trouble. I was not sure my sister would get to me in time, but it was the best plan I had right then. After what seemed an eternity I rounded a corner and saw a red pickup truck leaving the recreation area. My first sign of civilization; it brought immense relief to me, but it vanished out of view and away. I prepared my mind for the restaurant being shut. It was, and shut up so tight with heavy log doors I could not have barged my way in if I wanted to!

I walked on and stopped by the road. I unzipped my rucksack pocket and took out my phone. It was off? It wouldn't switch on. It was destroyed along with all of my other electronics. However, I had another phone, my new one. It was in a light plastic case to stop it getting scratched, and was better protected I hoped. I hoped to swap the SIM card between the phones. I took off my gloves to give me better dexterity and looked in horror at my hands. They were waxy-looking; blotchy - big patches of yellow and blue all over. I peeled back my sleeve and my whole arm was the same, as was the other. They didn't even look like parts of my body. I could only imagine what the rest of me looked like. One word came to my confused and panicked mind; hypothermia. I looked down at my legs, they were no longer red, but pale, but not as cold as my arms. I dropped my pack and opened it to find that the contents were wet. A long sleeve Helly Hansen top soaked, spare socks wet through. I reached down to the bottom and found my Raidlight winter leggings. They were more or less dry at least. I quickly put them on, anxious to keep what warmth I had left in then. My hands were so cold I could only get the SIM out of the broken phone, but not into the other one. I managed to push the SIM card into my leggings pocket and put the phone away. I started to shiver more now.

Even if I could have got hold of my sister, she would not arrive in time. I needed help fast, I needed help now. A few cars came past on the road going either up towards the volcano Teide, or back down towards the coast. I thought I should thumb a lift from a car going down to the coast, and in the direction of my sister. I help out my arm to passing cars going down, but none stopped. It was pouring with rain, I must have looked terrible but they just flew by. I got colder and more scared, thinking of the state of my skin and what that meant. I was now desperate. A car came up the hill, going the wrong way for me. By now I just wanted to get in a car, any car, and feel warmth. I literally jumped in front of the car and waved my arms. I stepped back and it passed by, but pulled over on the road. I ran over to the car. Inside was a man and woman (in their late fifties or early sixties), they were German. I speak a little French and Spanish, but no German. I indicated that I was freezing cold and wanted to get in the car. The man understood and got out. He tried to open to boot of his hire car but was unfamiliar with how. Odd the detail I remember, but I remember it was a Seat car, because I just instinctively lifted the S badge on the boot and opened it (I drive a lot of rental cars!). I put my rucksack inside and also my water-soaked jacket and glove(s) (I lost one at some point, I don't know where).

I got in the back of the car and he set off saying he was going up towards Teide. I didn't care, I just wanted to be inside. I indicated for the heater to be turned on, which he did, although I didn't feel it. I took off my wet fleece and compression shirt, stripping down to my bare torso. I wasn't sure what was best, wet clothes or no clothes? By now I was shivering badly and chattering uncontrollably. I put the fleece back on, and then a few minutes later took it off. The man reached into his back and miraculously pulled out a towel and said 'make rub' indicating I should rub myself. I did just that. I rubbed so hard on my arms and body that it probably would have hurt if I would had had more feeling. I rubbed frantically, like someone crazed, all the time shivering as my body tried to generate warmth.

While this was going on the scene outside the car was like the scene from Dante’s Peak where a car is escaping an exploding volcano and rocks fall all around. The road up to Teide is steep and winding. The heavy rain had caused some pretty substantial rock falls and the German driver was not only unfamiliar with the roads, but also in poor visibility and having to dodge large rocks. He misjudged some hairpin corners, weaving onto the other side of the road and giving his poor wife heart failure. Fate conspired to spare us from a head-on crash on this 10 mile journey. There were accidents to avoid and park rangers were desperately trying to clear debris from the road to prevent further accidents. All this seemed unimportant to me though, as I tried to get warm. I was in a state of shock at my state by now, shivering badly, but still trying to rub my skin warm in the back seat. The occupants of the car hadn't registered quite how bad I was and pulled over in a lay-by to take photos of a famous rock! He went to take the keys out of the car, and I said no please leave them in for the heater. I was shivering violently and uncontrollably now, and they realised I was in a poorly state. I then remembered the geography of the national park and looked through the rear window and a building I could just see a few hundred metres away.

Hotel, I said, pointing at it. Please take me to the hotel. He understood and drove around to it. I got out of the car thinking 'hot shower'. I had my leggings and trainers on, and just a towel wrapped around me. He opened the boot, but I was beyond concern for my possessions and just headed for the door. He indicated he would bring my stuff. I pushed my way into what turned out to be a kind of canteen which was fairly full of walkers, or coach party members all sheltering from the weather. The looked at me in horror as I stood shivering violently and chattering (ff ff ff ff ff, you get the idea). I stood by the counter, dazed and confused. I didn't know what to do. I looked at people buying coffee, but could not bring my mind to step forward and push into the queue. I just froze, totally confused. The German man then came and guided me through a staff door and through to the hotel reception where I approached the counter. The receptionist was there with the manager as it turned out. I said please I need a hot shower. The manager took one look at me and just grabbed a door key. He guided me upstairs into a hotel room and into the bathroom.

I was beyond any body shyness and simply took everything off, pulled on the tap and set it to maximum heat. I didn’t notice, but the manager gathered up the clothes there and took them away leaving me alone. I stood with the water running over my head and body at first. I didn't even feel it being hot for quite some time. I've since read that hot water reduces shock, and it certainly did. It calmed me down fairly quickly. I think the towel that the German gave me to 'make rub' was absolutely critical to my recovery. I have since read that it's not a good idea to let anyone with suspected hypothermia to get it a shower because it can cause the cold blood in the limbs to go to the heart and cause cardiac arrest (It's called after drop. So please no one follow my example here. I was lucky and got away with it, but what I did was dangerous!). I think just maybe I had heated myself up enough with towel in the car, and also not warmed up my arms first in the shower, giving my body chance to heat up. Then again, maybe I would have been fine anyway, getting straight in? I just don’t know, I’m not a doctor. From reading the symptoms I'm sure I had the onset of hypothermia. The fact I was still shivering was good though, because you can actually stop shivering if you get too cold. I stayed in the shower for a long time. I'm not sure, maybe half an hour?

I warmed up, but was still very shaky and confused. I took this to be low blood sugar. The manager came back to check on me and I asked for something with lots of sugar; Coke maybe. He sent up a porter with a teapot full of hot chocolate; perfect. I put all the sugars in the first cup and drank it down. I poured two more cups, emptying the pot, and maybe 15 minutes later started to feel a little better. It was only at this point that I was sure I was going to be ok. The German guy came up to the room and dropped off my hat. I thanked him profusely, I'm sure he got the gist. I'm sure that if he would not have stopped and aided me how he did, I could have died.

I just lay down and rested for a while. The manager came back. He had dried my leggings and bought he a T-Shirt to use. Sadly the UK SIM card in the leggings pocket was lost to the washing machine. I dressed and went downstairs. My rucksack was behind reception and I checked into the hotel with my soaked (but still usable) passport. They were not even going to charge me for the room, but I figured I owed them and booked a night anyway. My sister’s boyfriend had given me his business card, and I had it with me for some reason. I called him, and then he got my sister to phone the hotel.

I relayed my story to her, and she said that she had not seen the weather forecast either the night before. However at work that day, colleagues had told her that an 'Orange Alert' had been issued to the Canary Islands; one state down from the worst. The worst storm in 2 years had hit Tenerife. All schools were closed (and stayed closed the next day) and there was flooding down by the coast. It turned out that this was the same storm front that caused the recent ice-storms in the USA. She had tried to warn me but could not get through to me, and was worrying because I had been out of contact. I told her I was OK and would stay at the hotel that night. I went back into the canteen and had a meal; Canarian potatoes and rabbit stew. Can't say as though I would normally pick rabbit stew, but wow it tasted amazing.

Afterwards, I went back to my room and fairly quickly fell asleep. Sometime later, I was woken by the phone. My sister and her boyfriend had braved the weather and awful drive up to Teide, to come and see me. The hotel receptionist told them that there was a local Red Cross centre that was dealing with a hypothermia case nearby apparently. If I would have known there was a Red Cross centre I would have gone there. As it turned out, it all worked out ok, by some mix of luck and judgement.

My sister convinced me to come back and stay at their house, so I checked out of the hotel (I did pay anyway). I tried to give the manager some money as well, but he would not have it. I realised I had dropped items on the floor of the German peoples car. I left a letter there, written in Spanish (by my sister’s boyfriend) asking if the items were returned to call. I checked a few days later and nothing, so I think they are gone. I just thanked everyone and went back to Adeje.

I left in their car:
A Windstopper glove (good riddance)
Under Armour Metal long sleeve compression shirt
North Face fleece
Raidlight desert cap
Timex Bodylink watch and GPS unit

Destroyed by the rain:
Nokia N70 mobile phone
Casio Exilim S3 Camera

Lost in the wash at the hotel
UK SIM card

Big pound value in losses, but frankly I don't care as I survived.

I will no doubt dissect this day further in a later post, but I have been writing it about 4 hours and it's late now.

The obvious big lesson is to watch the local weather forecast or ask a local. I was well prepared for cold or a normal rain shower, but ill prepared for what hit me.

Stay calm (easy to say I know).

Always have an exact compass bearing to use as a backup.

Waterproof liner for rucksack.

I can thank my fitness; any less fit and I may now have made it to the road.

Perhaps most crucial was my Aquapac. A waterproof bag that my PDA/GPS was in. It enabled me to use the PDA with GPS and get myself to safety. All my other electronics were destroyed by the rain, only the kit in the Aquapac survived. Highly recomended.

No doubt there are other lessons I learned, but it's late and I’m tired.

I'll post up the rest of the weeks story tomorrow, and over the next couple of days. There are more tales to tell.

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