Sometimes you think you know how a certain situation will turn out. Your intuition can give you a pretty good idea about whether or not your relationship will last, whether or not you will win this week’s Euro millions, or whether or not your Grandmother will survive the open-heart surgery at the ripe old age of 103.
I thought I knew how the climbing expedition to the Tien Shan mountain range in Kyrgyzstan would pan out. Nine British climbers all coming together to explore the remote region of the Western-Kokshaal-Too. Physical and mental challenges lay ahead and I thought I knew my strengths and weaknesses, when I would falter and when I would be strong. But I was wrong.
As I crouched down on the glacier on the last day of the trip, my bare behind exposed to the ice and spindrift, my stomach muscles screaming and straining, my head dropped against my chest in an agonised attempt to make myself smaller so my climbing team couldn’t see me, I realised the whole expedition had seemingly revolved around the one thing I had neglected to give serious consideration to – my bowel.
A bodily function has never reduced me to tears before in the same way it did on the Kotur Glacier. My friend Dave put a comforting arm around my shoulder as I returned from my epic struggle to empty my bowel, and I realised it was definitely the end for me. Partly because we were going home any way, but mainly because I knew our very non-fibrous diet had reduced me to a quivering wreck. In the last week of the expedition I had cowered in the corner of the tent the very moment someone offered me yet another bowl of pasta, and whimpered in my sleep as the peanut butter, cheese and crackers I had snacked on in the day turned in to nightmares and indigestion that awoke me screaming from my slumber.
But I digress. I suppose – for the safety and nutritious well-being of other climbers or trekkers heading for the Tien Shan – I should start from the beginning and divulge a few home truths about bowel management. There are clearly certain rules you need to follow when you embark on a climbing expedition to Kyrgyzstan.
Rule 1. Do not neck shots of fermented mare’s milk before a two day truck ride through the wilderness. This may seem like a forgone conclusion to most people, but what you must understand is that this local delicacy can present itself at the very start of a trip, when everyone is happy and healthy and looking forward to soaking up the local culture. In a restaurant in Bishkek all nine of our climbing party were presented with a complimentary shot of what appeared to be sour, liquidised goats cheese. I happily slugged mine back and – for fear of offending the waitress – decided it would be a good idea to have my pal Joel’s as well, as he refused point blank to touch it.
Consequently by 8am the next morning I was spending the majority of my time firing out the mare’s milk from the opposite end I had ingested it, but in the same liquidised form it had gone in. A seven hour drive in an old Soviet army truck began at 10am. Our driver Sergey’s cab was separate from our own, meaning we had no way of communicating with him. Less than an hour in to the journey Simon was hanging out of a window, waving frantically to get Sergey’s attention in the wing mirror. He eventually pulled the truck over in a cloud of dust and out I popped to dispense more mares’ milk in to the verge. It was the start of a very long day.
Rule 2. Avoid eating unidentifiable Kyrgyz meat. This pretty much rules out eating any meat in Kyrgyzstan, and this in itself is impossible as everything has meat in it. The concept of a vegetarian is incomprehensible to a Kyrgyz local, as we discovered when we attempted to explain it to one of our waitresses. Shopping for our supplies in Osh Bazaar we encountered an enthusiastic lady selling a variety of what appeared to be chorizo and salami sausages. I lost count of the amount of fatty gristle we were force fed, and was slightly concerned when we left with 10kg of the stuff – our primary source of protein for 20 days. On our way to the mountains we stopped overnight in a village called Naryn. There we were led to a local ‘restaurant’ and upon arrival saw that our meals were literally waiting for us. Beautifully laid out on the table were nine bowls of tepid, meaty broth. The flies that buzzed around the room were clearly delighted with this free meal and were helping themselves, as flies typically do. What was even more disconcerting was that on the way back from the mountains half of the team went back for more of the same. This idea was a repulsive one to Sam, Joel and I. Even though we were malnourished and starving after 20 days of pasta and noodles, we opted instead for one more night without proper sustenance and dined on Dairy lea triangles and beer. The memory of gurgling guts and washing pants in a glacial stream was still too fresh.
Rule 3. Take a plentiful supply of antiseptic wipes and hand gel. Again this may seem like a no-brainer, you are after all living in the mountains with very primitive levels of hygiene for a month. Dave looked at me sternly as I announced I had brought along packets of Boots own brand antiseptic wipes. “This is a climbing trip” he scoffed, “whatever happened to fast and light?” Two days later, during our acclimatisation jaunt, he was the first to get taken down by the shits. Miserably he stomped two-hundred metres backwards and forwards to a drop toilet on the moraine, and I offered him a wet wipe or two, cheerfully pointing out that maybe he was right about fast and light – the more he used the less I would have to carry. Perhaps if we had been more careful with our hygiene standards then the D and V would not have spread like wildfire through the group. Even when we were finally dropped off below the Kotur Glacier in the Western-Kokshaal Too, the team was still crippled by bacteria and belly ache. We waved goodbye to Sergey as he drove away and abandoned us to our fate. We busied ourselves setting up a base camp, during which time someone would make a mad dash for the distant boulders, wielding loo roll and alcohol hand gel. We felt we had already been through so much that we decided a little treat was the order of the day. Lentil dahl was on the menu and Libby and I set about cooking up a culinary delight, safe from the infiltration of rebel Kyrgyzstani meat. That night in my tent, after a delicious repast, I realised our fatal error. Having not actually soaked the lentils before cooking them, these tiny pulses expanded in my stomach and proceeded to blow wind through my digestive system like a force 10 gale. The fact that I was squashed in to a tiny tent next to Dave and Emily made the experience even more embarrassing and unpleasant – mainly for them.
Rule 4. Be prepared to poo anywhere. Beggars cannot be choosers as they say. When you commit to climbing in a remote region far from flushing toilets, Andrex and Toilet Duck, you also commit yourself to crouching and squatting in bizarre and often unplanned locations. For us ladies this can prove to be more of a challenge than for men. You end up weeing on your shoes and splashing the bottom of your trousers, and desperately trying to find a small ditch or a rock to hide behind. We discovered that the suspect restaurant in Naryn had no toilet, and consequently found ourselves popping outside to squat in the car park, which also turned out to be the driveway for neighbouring houses. Then there are the dreaded public drop toilets, in which the bottom of your trousers are dragged through a layer of other people’s excrement and the smell makes you retch until a small part of your stomach lining dislodges itself. But when you gotta go, you gotta go. Once, at 4,900m during a traverse of a beautiful ridge, the ground got a bit steeper and my climbing companion Simon pointed out where we were headed. I looked up, gulped, and felt my bowels grumble nervously. A few moments later I was relieving myself whilst enjoying an awesome uninterrupted view of the Tien Shan mountains….and Simon, who was stood politely with his back to me just a few yards away. Another occasion saw Cora, Simon and I attempting Pik Obzhorny at 5,100m. Sadly we had to turn around on the ridge due to the rather Scottish nature of the conditions. Our tracks from the way up were obliterated by snow, but I tried my best to follow the same route down. Cora kindly warned me to be careful as on the way up she had actually had a curly-sue whilst we had stopped to put our crampons on. I spent the entire descent terrified I was going to plonk my foot right through the offensive item, and was extra-careful with my probing for what I named ‘a poo-vasse.’
Rule 5. Ensure you include fibrous food on your shopping list before departing for the mountains. This is a tricky one, as non-perishable fibrous food can be hard to come by, and the consequences of not eating much fibre a very distant and minor concern at the start of an expedition. In fact you are so concerned about stopping your bowel motions and gobbling immodium and ciprofloxin that the thought of not being able to go at all gives you pangs of hope and wonder. Mistrusting every build-up of wind and clenching your buttocks and tummy muscles to stop passing any takes its toll psychologically. You long for a good old loud trump that isn’t followed by the feeling you have wet yourself. But after 20 days eating nothing but pasta, cheese, sausage, crackers, nuts, peanut butter and porridge, you long for the passing of liquid and less of the solid, painful lumps and piles that tear up your asshole and leave your eyes watering and your legs trembling. This, dear readers, leads neatly in to the final rule.
Rule 6. Be prepared to suffer. Alpine climbing is quite often type two fun. Which means it is retrospective fun. Only when you return safely and are fully ensconced in the pub with a beer can you fully appreciate your achievement and relish the splendour of your survival. You laugh out loud and say “hey, that was brutal man, those hot aches were so bad I thought my fingers were going to fall off,” or “That was so funny, the look on your face when your leg went through that crevasse.” But at the time, when it’s happening, you simply endure. You don’t feel strong or excited or fulfilled, you just grit your teeth through the pain and exhaustion and hope you make it out the other side. On the Kotur Glacier it took me three hours to pass a lump of poo that was the size of a baby’s head and as solid as the rock it landed on. Every time I tried to go it came out so far and then went back in again, like a curious but rather indecisive turtle. It was agony and I was broken. Dehydration and a poorly-balanced diet had finished me off. I longed for the liquid sensation I had experienced only 20 days earlier. The last straw came when I had to break off the offending turtle head with my bare hand, to stop it from going back in again. The rest of it followed shortly after, and I lay weeping with relief as the sun glinted off the surrounding mountains that were stoic, unchanged and oblivious to my suffering.
Looking back at the expedition I realise I was very lucky to have had the chance to explore not only a beautiful country, but also parts of my psyche that I never even knew existed. Kyrgyzstan was everything I had hoped it would be and more, so much more. I have climbed in a region where wolves and snow-leopards roam unthreatened by man and machine. I have washed my pants in glacial pools and rivers known only to the local shepherds and hunters. I have been deprived of ale and wine for nearly a month. I have been from one end of the bowel-motion spectrum to the other, and survived.
In summation I hope these rules and anecdotes will help many other people that venture in to Kyrgyzstan. If I can impart some final advice it is this – always be prepared for the unexpected, look closely to every step, and beware the curious but indecisive turtle.