Mastering Mountains: A Mountainous Pursuit

Last year, we shared with you the inspiring story of Nick Allen – one of our Palmerston North staff members, and an advocate for getting people with Multiple Sclerosis into the outdoors. Nick himself has MS – a diagnosis that devastated him back in 2010. An avid adventurer, Nick found himself unable to enjoy the outdoor pursuits that once looked forward to.

After making some radical changes to his lifestyle, focusing on fitness and diet, Nick was  able to manage many of the symptoms of his illness. Determined to get back outside, exploring more of New Zealand and the world, he set up the Mastering Mountains Charitable Trust. The aim is to enrich the lives of people affected by MS by helping them get back into the outdoors.

Late last year, Nick headed off on the adventure of a lifetime – the first Mastering Mountains expedition in which he explored Northern India and Nepal, trekking through the Everest region, climbing Island Peak, and an attempt to climb Stok Kangri.

Having returned from his incredible trip, Nick is continuing on the Mastering Mountains journey, and has set some very exciting plans for 2016.

Heading up towards Stok Kangri Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Heading up towards Stok Kangri Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

The Journey

I feel hugely privileged and blessed to have been able to achieve all I was able to in 2015. If you had come to me 18 months ago and told me that I was going to climb a 6,000m peak, I would not have believed you. Needless to say, I have been blown away by the end result.

I had to do a lot of training in preparation for the trip. Because fatigue management is a pretty crucial part of outdoor pursuits with MS, I did as much as I could to prepare before I left New Zealand, in hope that it would reduce the stress of acclimatisation as much as possible. To do this, I spent nine months training with Massey University’s School of Sport and Exercise, using an altitude training mask to build fitness and stamina. In that nine month period, I also did lots of tramping and climbing in the South Island – I managed to get down there every six weeks or so, which was amazing.

Donkeys coming down from Stok Kangri Base Camp Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Donkeys coming down from Stok Kangri Base Camp
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

My little jaunt overseas was two months long, with equal time spent in Northern India and Nepal. I went to Ladakh in Northern India with the intention of spending only a week there to climb Stok Kangri – a trekking peak just over 6,100m tall. However, a nasty bout of food poisoning and a general love of the area led me to stay for three weeks. During that time, I did a good deal of exploring around Leh (the main city in Ladakh), both on foot and with a motorbike – I had such an amazing time. Towards the end portion of my trip, I made an attempt on Stok Kangri, but had to turn back at 5,800m.

The kitchen at First Camp, on the way up Stok Kangri Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

The kitchen at First Camp, on the way up Stok Kangri
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

This was definitely one of the most challenging moments of the trip. It was about -20 °C when we were sheltered from the wind and we were just below the ridge that would have taken us the last 300m to the summit. The wind was racing across the ridge, but due both to my Indian guide’s poor management and the fact I had totally emptied my stomach on the glacier at 5,500m, I was very cold and a number of people had gotten badly frostbitten in the few days prior to our climb. While, in many regards, the decision to turn around was an easy decision to make, it was difficult because we were so close to the top and it was so frustrating to be thwarted by a stupid stomach bug. Both my guide and I were feeling very ill from some untreated water we had been given (from the one lot of water I did not treat with my Steripen!). It was also difficult because I knew that I could have pushed it to the top and made it, but without the energy to safely return. Turning back was definitely the right decision though, and as we got back to base camp, it began to snow quite heavily.

Stok Range, above Leh Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Stok Range, above Leh
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

I then headed to Nepal to trek up into the Everest region and climbed Island Peak. I had a great trip up with an awesome Sherpa guide. He did a great job acclimatizing me and we made a mad dash up Island Peak (6,189m), summiting in 4.5 hours at 5:30am, just in time to see the sun come up over Makalau and the face of Lhotse. The morning was just perfect, without a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind, and being so high, all the peaks and faces felt eminently close, like you could just reach out and touch them. I had the most amazing sense of just being caught in the motion of time as the sun moved across the face of the earth, lighting up peaks further and further away. It was just incredible up there, watching the sun rise over the Himalaya – the most memorable moment of the trip by far, and the most amazing moment I have ever experienced. We were up there for about 45 minutes. My guide did an absolutely excellent job of monitoring me and ensuring I was warm.

Sunlight hitting Ama Dablam, from Island Peak

Sunlight hitting Ama Dablam, from Island Peak

We then made it up to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar. We were hoping to complete the famous Three Passes Trek, but a couple of days after reaching Everest Base Camp, I developed a chest infection. We decided to head down lower, in hope that my condition would improve. Unfortunately, the chest infection persisted so we decided to head back to Kathmandu a week earlier than planned. Nevertheless, it was a totally fantastic time in Nepal, and I loved the people and landscape. It was truly amazing!

I met so many inspiring people on my journey. One of them was the Sherpa guide who has summited Everest more times than anyone else in the world and has the world record for the most summits over 8000m, so I was stoked to meet him – he’d also worked with Kiwi guide Russell Brice. I met lots of other great people along the way too. I loved the Ladakhi and Sherpa people in particular as they were so friendly and hospitable.

Sunrise over Mt Everest with the Sherpa, from Kala Patthar (5550m) Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Sunrise over Mt Everest with the Sherpa, from Kala Patthar (5550m) Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

I had mixed feelings upon leaving Nepal. I enjoyed the trip so much, but at the same time I was really looking forward to getting home again. Overall, I’m really stoked with how things went. I have spoken to a large number of people, both in person and through email, who have been encouraged to continue pursuing the outdoors, even with MS.

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The Gear

Walking up Everest to Everest I came across a good number of New Zealanders and Australians who were also decked out with Macpac gear – so it was cool to compare our kit. There was a father and son from Tasmania that were particularly memorable with their Minaret Tent and Cascade Packs. They were walking over the Three Passes all on their own. It was great meeting people like this as you instantly had a connection with them, knowing they were likely to be from the same part of the world (it was a fun connection to make with the Aussies, as it was the time of the Rugby World Cup).

I did a lot of planning around gear before I left. I took the Ascent 65 as my main bag, and an NZAT Pursuit 45 as my day bag. I love the Pursuit as it weighs so little and can easily be thrown into the top of your larger pack. I also found that it was the perfect size for carry-on luggage, so it went everywhere with me.

In terms of clothing, one of my most used items was the Mountain Fleece. I wore the fleece all the time in both India and Nepal. It is one of my all-time favourite garments as it is so comfortable, dries fast, and is very warm. It is great even when there is a bit of a breeze – you just stay beautifully warm. When I really needed a bit of warmth, I used it in conjunction with a ProThermal. I chose this combo instead of a down jacket (my Supanova, for example), as it handles the sweat better.

Writing my journal just below Changla Pass Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Writing my journal just below Changla Pass
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

For general wear and trekking in Northern India, up on the Tibetan Plateau, I wore the Fitzroy Pants. These were fantastic: warm, wind resistant, and so comfortable. I did a bit of motorcycle touring in them, along with my climbing, and these were great. The pants are mostly constructed with a softshell material, but around the ankles they are made out of a stretchy, water-proof fabric. The ankle section can be a little bit cool on the skin, so you do want to wear long socks with them. That being said, the ankle section of the pant have an awesome feature: a little hook built into the cuff of the pants, complimented by a zip down the outside of the ankle. With these, you can clip the cuff onto the laces of your boot and zip the pants down over the neck of the boot, using the pant in the place of a gaiter. The cuff fits firmly around the Salewa Rapace, for example, and I never wished that I had a gaiter during those times where I was trekking and travelling.  However, I did wear them on the plane to save weight. Although they were comfortable, they proved to be a bit hot in this situation – particularly when worn with my four season climbing boots, traveling through Central Asian Airports! Also, they were a bit too warm for the lower portions of the trek up to Everest Base Camp. Otherwise, they were great.

During the trip, I wore only three shirts – a short sleeve Warp, a long sleeve Warp, and a 210 long sleeve Merino top. The Warps were amazing – they don’t smell, they’re easy to clean, dry fast, and always feel great. I found that they were work well in both the warm in the cold, and most practically, they are SPF 50+, providing great sun protection. The Merino top was great for sleeping in – it kept me warm at night.

Everest Base Camp (5364m) Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Everest Base Camp (5364m)
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

One of the big items I took was the Equinox: It’s a totally awesome jacket. Although I did not use it much in India – only during my ascent of Stok Kangri (the rest of the time  was not quite cold enough). In Nepal, trekking up to Everest Base Camp, it was superb, and I wore it every night. You wouldn’t really need it in the lower altitudes, but up a bit higher, it was the envy of many of the other trekkers. What was fabulous about the jacket was the fact that you didn’t have to work to stay warm. In the cold tea houses, I was always warm as toast, whereas others with lighter jackets were not necessarily so. Climbing Island Peak, it was the ideal climbing jacket. The large pockets inside the jacket enabled you to carry your water and electronics close to your body, keeping you warm, and the water from freezing. The hood is great, fitting over the helmet. I found the jacket breathed well as I was sweating during the climb – a fact evidenced by the layer of ice that developed on the outside of the jacket. The Equinox also packs into one of its own external pockets which is great, but I did find that it is a tight fit and that it put a bit of stress on the material around the zip. Next time, I will probably take a stuff sac to pack it into.

I also took a Minaret Tent which was absolutely fabulous to use. Prior to the Minaret, my tent of choice has been the MSR Hubba Bubba. This too is a brilliant tent, but with a few problems. First, I have always found it a bit tricky to set up in the wind. Because the fly and inner are separate, high winds make it difficult, particularly if you are on your own. When it is raining, it is almost impossible not to get the inner wet, as it is exposed to the weather while you put up the poles and stretch the fly over the top. Second, while the tent is very light – accomplished through the largely mesh inner and light tub – the tent is always cold when windy, and always needs a footprint when wet. If you do not use the footprint and kneel in the tent, for example, moisture comes through and the floor will become damp. Finally, I have found that the tent does not ventilate well – it’s always wet with moisture on the inside. This is annoying when you have used the tent for days in a row, often making the inner wet as well.

Breakfast Lake Pangong (4249m), Ladakh Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Breakfast Lake Pangong (4249m), Ladakh
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

I was very impressed with how the Minaret overcomes these problems. First, with Macpac’s multi-pitch system, the fly and inner are attached, enabling you to pitch the tent without exposing the inner fly to the rain. Again, because the two are attached, once the base is pegged down, nothing can fly away. The pole system is also less complicated than the MSR Hubba Bubba, making it easier to pitch on your own. Second, while the Macpac tent is slightly heavier than the Hubba Bubba, the tent is beautifully warm and fantastically watertight. The tub does not allow any moisture through, even when you are kneeling on it, always remaining dry. Because the inner uses fabric rather than mesh, the tent remains warm even in the cold, high winds that I experienced up on the Tibetan Plateau. In fact, I was stunned at the temperature differential as I moved out of the tent into the wind. Waking up with the sun streaming in, it was really warm. Finally, the tent ventilates very well, helped by the closable vents in each corner of the tent. Even with two people in there on a humid night, there is not too much moisture. When it was just me, in the dry air of Northern India, there was no moisture on the inside of the tent whatsoever.

View from Chukhung Ri (5550m) Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

View from Chukhung Ri (5550m)
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Where to next for Mastering Mountains?

The purpose of the trip was twofold. First, I wanted to raise awareness for MS. In particular, I wanted to challenge some of the common perceptions around what you can and can’t do with this condition. When I was diagnosed with MS six years ago, I thought it was a death sentence and I only wish that someone out there had told me – or shown to me – that MS, while life-altering, did not need to mean the end of life as I knew it. Second, I went on this trip to raise funds for a scholarship that I have set up with Multiple Sclerosis NZ. The scholarship fund, which will be administered by MS NZ aims to assist people with MS to overcome obstacles that are preventing them from getting outdoors.

This year, I have three main goals. First, I have signed a book deal with Massey University Press and I need to get that written – another mountainous pursuit! Second, I will resume my PhD in July, looking at the concept of alpinism as it has developed over the years in the New Zealand Alpine Journal. Finally, I hope to climb Mt Aspiring, a goal that will challenge my current levels of stamina. Watch this space!

For more on Nick and Mastering Mountains, check out the Mastering Mountains website.

Chemrey Monastery Nicholas Allen - © Mastering Mountains, 2016

Chemrey Monastery
Nicholas Allen – © Mastering Mountains, 2016


Macpac was stoked to get behind Nick, providing him with gear to keep him warm in the chilly mountain environments on his first Mastering Mountains adventure.