What’s it like to volunteer with Crisis at Christmas?

Volunteering – spending our time helping those less fortunate – is probably something we’d all love to do more regularly, however, it’s often difficult to commit to it.

Volunteering with Crisis, the charity that helps homeless people in the UK, had been sitting on my bucket list for a while and what pulled me to its Crisis at Christmas appeal was that it only required me to commit to a minimum of two days of volunteering within the Christmas period – that’s it. Many people tend to book off the entire Christmas period from work anyway, so to spend a couple of days doing charitable deeds is a no-brainer.

The Crisis at Christmas appeal takes place every year for the two weeks of Christmas, where it feeds and in many cases, houses, homeless people as winter shelters are closed. It’s a gigantic operation split across various centres in London and the UK that relies on volunteers – doctors, opticians, seamstresses (to fix broken clothes) and more – to lend their time to give homeless people support. Just before the operation each year, the charity gets donations from supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and more – and then cooks up meals on the basis of what’s been offered.

How to sign up for Crisis at Christmas

It is quick and simple to sign up to volunteer – in late October last year, I registered my details on the Crisis at Christmas website (it’s different to the generic Crisis charity website, so do a quick Google search to find it) and chose which role I wanted to do – there was everything from being a kitchen assistant, a media assistant to a general volunteer. Each shift was approximately 8 hours long and you could choose between morning, evening or overnight shifts. Crisis has homeless shelters set up all over London (and a few outside it) so I found the one closest to me (Chalk Farm). My boyfriend and I applied at the same time and selected the same shifts, so we’d be able to do it together. You have to do a minimum of two shifts.

Despite having limited cooking experience, I chose the kitchen assistant role. [It’s not necessary to be an expert, just to know basic skills such as how to handle a knife and a peeler.] The Crisis online system then informed me that I had to book onto a food safety and hygiene course before I would get the stamp of approval to volunteer. Thankfully the certificate is valid for three years, so when I volunteer again in the next two years, I won’t have to worry about this little bit of admin.

The food safety course took place on a Sunday at the Crisis Cafe in Liverpool Street, a few weeks before Christmas. It cost £40, but this fee can either be donated to the charity or refunded back to you once you’ve completed your shifts. The course took a total of about six hours, followed by a multiple choice exam. It all sounds rather serious but it wasn’t too bad – the fail rate is very, very low. I picked up lots of useful nuggets of information I could use in my own kitchen: ie there’s no point washing chicken as the only way the germs are killed is through heating the meat to a high enough temperature.

In the weeks leading up to my shift, I was emailed handy information and a briefing form for what to expect on the day.

What happens on the day/s

As the shifts crept around in December, I was doing my best to remember everything I’d learned on the food safety course. We arrived and checked in at reception, picked up our name badges and dropped off our bags before heading straight to the kitchen. We put on our aprons and hair nets, and then met the chef, who told us what we’d be cooking and what needed to be done.

As it was an evening shift (3pm-11pm), we were going to be making a two-course dinner for 400 people. It was a mammoth task: I found myself peeling at least 150 potatoes (it’s not glamorous work!), cutting them into wedges and then putting them into gigantic industrial ovens. Next I was seasoning and boiling down at least 1kg of cabbage in a pan, then helping to make beef burgers. There’s a common misconception that Crisis is just a soup kitchen – I didn’t see any soup the whole time I was there – instead we were conjuring up elaborate meals.

Working in the kitchen, it was the first time in a very, very long time that I spent more than four hours without looking at my phone (phones aren’t allowed outside of pockets), but, incredibly, I didn’t even have a chance to miss it. The music was blaring in the kitchen, the vibe was busy but upbeat, and we were all pitching in to help with whatever needed doing next. In total there were about 9 of us cooking, so it was all hands on deck. Once all the food was prepped it was time to serve – but we didn’t serve the residents directly, instead we served the volunteers who then took the plates to the residents.

After serving we got to eat what was leftover, then came the clean up. Luckily, kitchen volunteers don’t do too much washing (other volunteers are sometimes brought in for this and there’s an industrial dishwasher), but there’s lots of grease to remove from hobs and jobs like that. Gloves are provided, so pop your hands in and get busy.

What I enjoyed most about working in the kitchen was the chance to get to know the other volunteers; the sense of teamwork was immense. One girl I met was bravely doing five days of kitchen shifts in a row. It got very hot in the kitchen so my advice would be to wear layers so you can take on/off items. As you’re on your feet all day, wear the comfiest shoes you own. Stay hydrated; it’s easy to get caught up in the business but take a few minutes to grab a drink and a snack from the stall outside the kitchen. I regretted having my nails painted the day before – by the end of the shift the paint was chipped and ruined! It was an exhausting eight hours, and by the end I was ready to collapse into bed, but it was very rewarding to hear that we’d fed so many people and feedback on the food was very positive.

The second shift I did (day shift, 7.45am-3.45pm), we were making two meals; breakfast and lunch. I knew what to expect this time around, and we were making a full English followed by a roast chicken dinner and macaroni cheese. Time flew even quicker on this shift, and it was nice to see a bit of daylight as we left that day.

It felt good to know we’d helped the residents in some small way, and given our time to a worthy cause. Of course, Crisis at Christmas is only a part of the charity’s work, and they are looking for year-round volunteers, but this is a good way to lend a hand at Christmas, to those that need it most. After Crisis at Christmas is over, the charity hosts a party to thank all the volunteers, so you have a chance to reunite with new friends, too.

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We made it to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal!

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Annapurna on the left, Fishtail mountain on the right

After months and months of preparing and training, I completed a relentless 9-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in November 2018, along with 26 others in my group. Thanks to the incredible generosity of all our sponsors, we have managed to raise approximately £430,000, which will help Sense International continue doing its amazing work for deafblind children and their families throughout the world.

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Getting closer to the top

Trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp was one of the best yet most challenging things I’ve ever done – it has helped me to discover the strength of my body, my mind, and ignited within me a new passion for trekking and a desire to push myself further. It has exceeded my expectations and rewarded me with great new friendships and treated me to the most amazing vistas, from trekking alongside rice paddy fields, through tiny villages, mountain valleys and within dark forests. It wasn’t easy, but the spirit among the group kept everyone motivated – and regular rest periods (I listened to my body), helped me through. Here’s a day-by-day account of what went down, illustrated by photos, plus a list of essentials to pack if you’re doing the trek yourself (bottom).

LOCATION & PERSPECTIVE

Annapurna is a group of mountains in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal. We trekked to Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130m, taking in its unique and incredibly spectacular setting, amidst the majestic peaks of Annapurna South (7,219m), Annapurna I (8,091m), Hiunchuli (6,441m), Gangapurna (7,454m), Annapurna III (7,555m) and Machhapuchhre (6,993m).

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Our hiking route

THE TEAM

Our group of 27 ranged in age from 24 to 65 years old, with more than 50% of the trekkers over 55 years old. There were 3 father and son/daughter pairs and 7 couples in this global team, which drew together trekkers from the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Italy and Liechtenstein. Our full entourage came to 48 including the 5 local guides and their assistants and 16 porters, all local Gurung people of north-central Nepal. We were under the able leadership of our local Nepalese chief guide called Basu.

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DAY 1 (18 November) – Nayapul to Ghandruk 1,940m

The whole group united in Pokhara for the start. We loaded our bags onto the roof of a people carrier and made a 2-hour car journey to the starting point of the trek at Nayapul (1,010m). The ride was so bumpy we wished we’d been given protective helmets! The rest of our entourage, including the assistant guides and porters, were waiting for us at the starting point. Everyone was muted and deep in thought as there was a sense of excitement coupled with a bit of nervousness amongst our group about the big task ahead and most probably the questionable living conditions we’d encounter over the coming days. We watched in awe as the porters used rope and rolled up old rice bags to secure two of our heavy 20kg backpacks on each of their own backs.

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The amusing, makeshift baggage claim counter at Pokhara Airport

We set off on a dust road at around 11.30am. The weather was glorious; the sun was out and so were the bottles of sun cream. An hour into the trek we stopped for a coffee and to reflect on the lush greenery surrounding the small townships and rice paddies that we had passed. Little did we know of the endless uphill steps that would greet us shortly after our coffee break.

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Leaving the village of Nayapul to start our trek

We followed the trail along the Modi River until we started hiking up a winding path to reach a place called Kimche for lunch; stir-fried rice with vegetables – subsequently voted the worst meal of this trek. Thankfully we’d packed a couple of mini bottles of Sriracha hot sauce, which helped the mouthfuls go down a little easier. Considering it was our first meal, we were even more nervous about what we’d be fed this week.

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Steps, more steps, and even more steps

After lunch the trek continued to ascend towards Ghandruk. Some of us found the first day really challenging and slow going which meant we ran out of daylight towards the end of the day. We had to complete the rest of the day’s walk in darkness – it was eerie, being in a completely silent forest at that time of the day, but provided a very good chance to test those head torches. All in all we had climbed an equivalent of 400 flights of stairs on the first day. The thought on everyone’s mind was that whoever classed this as a ‘moderately difficult’ trek wasn’t thinking very clearly. We were questioning what we’d got ourselves into. On the upside, we were astounded that the porters managed to do the exact same route as we did, but with at least 40 kg loaded on their backs, and in significantly less time than we took.

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Passing lush paddies and green fields

We arrived at our first tea house accommodation in Ghandruk having gained 900m on day 1, at approximately 6.30pm. Tea houses are essentially small, basic hostels in local villages offering both a place to sleep as well as a home-cooked meal. Most of the tea houses are owned, managed and inhabited by local families. They are all very basic, and the standards of service and facilities offered vary significantly between one tea house and the next. In the ‘bedrooms’ were three or four wooden bed frames with a thin mattress on each. Every night we would unfurl our sleeping bags on top of the mattress and clamber inside. The facilities got more basic and fewer as we ascended to villages at a higher altitude and the rooms got colder.

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The porters trekking alongside us, each holding two 20kg bags on their backs

Everyone was completely shattered following a tougher than expected day of trekking immediately after a long-haul flight; so after a traditional Nepalese thali dinner we all retired early.

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A traditional Nepalese thali

There were at least three people in a room (sometimes 5) – it was tight and there was definitely no space to swing a cat! There wasn’t any hot water coming from the shower so a few of us persuaded the owner to boil some water in a kettle for us – a bucket shower it was. The snorers in our group (each vying for the top spot) maintained their orchestral performance throughout the night depriving some of us from much needed sleep and rest – the flimsy, thin bedroom walls were no match against the nightly performance!

DAY 2 (19 November) Ghandruk to Chhomrong 2,170m

With the first day’s trek behind us and armed with a (mostly) good night’s rest in clean mountain air, we were ready to embark on our second day’s challenge, comforted by the knowledge that today would be easier than yesterday as we were only going to end up 250m higher. The early risers amongst us managed to catch a glimpse of the snow-covered mountains in the Annapurna Range far in the distance at sunrise, before the view was hidden by the clouds rolling in from the valley floor.

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Annapurna peeking through and Fishtail at sunrise on the right

After a hearty breakfast (a boiled egg, curried potatoes and pancakes) and a quick stretch and warm up to loosen the muscles from the previous day’s trek, we left Ghandruk at about 8.00am, passing many children getting ready to go to school in this little village. The trek ascended for an hour up to Ghandrukkot Hill where we had a mini-picnic over cups of black/ginger tea.

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A quick warm up before we set off

We prepared ourselves for a very steep descent down to the bed of Kimron River to our lunch stop. Having navigated almost 2,000 stony steps down to the river bed, almost everyone shared the view that downhill trekking was not much fun and strenuous on the knees.

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Steep climbs and descents greeted us on this day

After a couple of hours walking, everyone enjoyed the lunch served in a very pleasant tea house not very far from the river bed and valley floor. During lunch the discussion centred around the unexpected 600 metre ascent that we needed to ready ourselves for – so much for an easy trekking day that we had anticipated when we started off this morning.

Sure as night follows day, we were greeted by another steep ascent comprising of 2,500+ steps to Chhomrong, a quaint village located on top of a ridge.

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We frequently saw sheep, mules, monkeys and mountain dogs on our route

It was only day two – morale was low. The group was totally exhausted having laboured through thousands of steps and the mood for rebellion was in the air. There were no facilities on the trek so we’d all become accustomed to peeing in the wild or in a hole in the ground, and those trusty rolls of biodegradable loo paper were our saviours for the trip. Showers on this day were limited to a maximum of two minutes as there was not enough hot water for everyone, but very few people complained as it was just too cold to utilise the full two minutes – as soon as the sun went down, the outside temperature quickly dropped.

We got our first close-up silhouetted night view of the snow-capped Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare (commonly known as Fishtail Mountain) towering above the village of Chhomrong. It was a majestic sight, difficult to forget in a hurry. To warm up against the chill at night we decided to break open a bottle of local Nepalese rum to make a hot toddy. Before we knew it the beers and hot toddies were flowing and it became a party with everyone merrily singing and dancing around the dining table to local Nepalese songs, including the guides and porters. Letting our hair down allowed for a huge improvement in morale within the group.

DAY 3 (20 November) – Chhomrong to Bamboo 2,130m

It was 6.00am, dark and really cold outside but already the camp was stirring with a lot of activity. Everyone was out with their cameras and smartphones to catch their first real glimpse of the sunrise over Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare. There was a lot of excitement as people jostled for photo opportunities – it was a truly magnificent site. The temperature rose as soon as the sun was out; clear blue skies and 16°C were forecast today – perfect for the day’s trekking.

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The view from our room

Breakfast was another feast, consisting of a boiled egg, curried potatoes and the traditional Gurung fried bread with lashings of masala tea and black coffee – our tastiest breakfast yet. After breakfast, it was a challenge to get everybody to line up for a group photo but there was a distinct upbeat mood within the group today.

The trail out of Chhomrong descended via 2,500+ large stone steps to the Modi river bed which we crossed using a swaying suspension bridge. There was yet another uphill climb on a rocky trail to Sinuwa (2,350m) where we took a break at one of its tea houses to catch our breath over lunch.

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A chilly day of trekking under a deep fog in the forest

The trail continued uphill passing through a beautiful rhododendron forest to a place called Kuldi, which was once a British sheep-breeding project. It was all downhill from Kuldi across a long, steep staircase passing through a dense bamboo and rhododendron forest to arrive at a small hamlet called Bamboo.

DAY 4 (21 November) – Bamboo to Himalaya 3,000m

The trail continued to ascend through dense forests where we got to see troops of Langur monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Today we walked through thick fog so cameras didn’t see much action. We had not seen any motorised transport since we set off three days ago; the trail was littered with mule droppings, as mules are the main transport mechanism at this altitude; or sheer human strength.

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A local carrying a great load in his bamboo basket – and doing it in flip flops, mind you

After walking for 7 hours, and having ascended 900m in total today, we finally reached a collection of three tea houses in what appeared to be the hamlet of Himalaya. Our accommodation was grandiosely named the Himalayan Hotel but it was just another tea house with fewer facilities than yesterday. I hadn’t showered in three days – the thought of a freezing shower and stripping off in the cold was too difficult – so my biodegradable baby wipes saved the day.

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Time to chill after a long day of trekking

Although there was a chill in the air, we sat outside in the courtyard, under a corrugated roof shelter sipping tea and coffee; some of us playing cards over a beer whilst others content with having a chat about the day’s event. We were too tired to unpack our bags and freshen up before dinner.

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No room at the inn… our rooms only had space for beds – small ones

Dinner was the usual spread in a tightly packed and cosy dining area – 27 plates of Nepalese dal bhat thali, plus an extra 21 for the porters and guides. It is amazing what the chef was able to conjure up for dinner in such a small kitchen area in a remote location – but it tasted delicious.

Thali time again

DAY 5 (22 November) – Himalaya to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) 3,700m

We had been warned the night before, during the usual dinner briefing, to expect an uphill trek all the way to MBC which would be our highest overnight resting place on this trek. Today we had to ascend a full 700m. With heads slightly thumping (the first sign of altitude sickness), we set off towards MBC at 8.00am after the usual boiled egg and potato curry breakfast. The sun was out yet again to give us another gorgeous day, but it was not to last. The weather changed as we went up through the valley towards Hinko Cave with clouds rolling up from the valley floor making it very foggy. The trail passed over a couple of small precarious log bridges crossing a stream of ice melt from the mountains above.

After a 4-hour ascent we arrived at a place called Deurali, high above the cloud-line, where we relaxed for a couple of hours to enjoy an al-fresco lunch underneath a clear blue sky.

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Sunglasses are out and we’re eagerly awaiting our lunch

We were in for a treat – this place was known for the Nepalese Momo (a steamed dumpling with different kinds of filling – a bit like dim sum). Whilst lunch was being prepared, the game of cards continued; others relaxed and watch the world go by.

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Nepalese dumplings, known as “momo”, with a side of stir-fried rice

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A quick game of Monopoly Deal

After lunch, the trail ascended gently through a fast-glacial river bed rising steeply over the mountain side. We found ourselves surrounded by giant snow-covered mountains. The sun rays reflected off the snow on the mountain to create a stunning view. But we had just entered the “Avalanche Risk Area” and the path was treacherous as we navigated across rocks covered by fresh snow fall from a recent avalanche. It was single file only. The mood was sombre. One wrong footstep and the snow beneath us could give way causing an injury or worse, making one slide right down the mountain side.

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Team work makes the dream work

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The scary sign we trekked past in silence

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Entering the avalanche zone

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Traversing the snow-covered ground towards MBC

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The uphill snow struggle

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The weather kept changing as we entered the clouds

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The most rewarding views of the mountain valleys

We all made it across safely but the effort and concentration of ploughing through lots of deep snow and icy sections was exhausting. Every now and again we heard the thunderous clap of an avalanche and snow falling down the mountainsides around us – it stopped everyone in their tracks to try to spot the white dust storm in the sky indicating the location of the avalanche.

The trek felt never ending. We asked the guides: “How much further? Are we there yet?” to which they gave their stock reply, “Not long to go now”. We finally arrive at MBC around 5.00pm and the view that rewarded us made it all worthwhile. We were completely surrounded by mountains, every way we turned; it almost looked pretend; like it was created as a backdrop for a theatre production. The humongous mountains (including Fishtail Mountain right ahead of us) had a way of making us all feel so small and insignificant. Despite the freezing cold and biting wind we posed and took lots of photos; staring in awe at the spectacle around us.

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Almost at Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Although we were at a place labelled a base camp, it is not technically a base camp as it is forbidden to climb Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) for religious reasons.

The plan was to start trekking very early at 3am the next morning in order to get to Annapurna Base Camp just before sunrise. Some people had a splitting headache brought about by the altitude; most had mixed feelings of both apprehension and anticipation for what tomorrow would bring. We got busy organising and preparing ourselves for the early morning start. There was a sense of trepidation too: all that snow we’d just traversed would surely turn to ice overnight, and soon we’d be climbing back up it, yet it total darkness. Everyone was in bed by 9.00pm (today we were 4-5 to a room) although a lot of sleep was not to be had due to altitude, cold, anxiety and the ever-present night-time orchestra!

SUMMIT DAY 6 (23 November) – MBC to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) 4,130m

It was 3am – pitch black and freezing cold outside – in fact the temperature was about minus 10c but it felt much colder due to the wind chill. But we had no option – we had to get out of our cosy sleeping bags as today was the big day when we would meet Annapurna. There was no time for a cup of tea/coffee or breakfast before we headed of.

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The 3am struggle to get to Annapurna Base Camp – battling the freezing cold, darkness, snow and black ice

Although we had three layers of clothes on our legs, at least six on the top of our bodies, three pairs of socks, woolly hats, balaclavas and ski gloves, it still felt really cold standing in the biting wind whilst waiting for everyone to assemble before starting off.

To manage the safety of the group the guides split us into 2 groups, a faster pace and a medium pace group. Adorned with head torches we slowly made our ascent in a single file – wary as the path was covered with black ice – slippery and treacherous in some sections.

It was a full moon night with hardly any cloud cover to hide the millions of stars peppering the sky. Progress was slow on the icy surface and our ascent was c150m per hour. The wind chill made it feel colder, and our stops were limited to less than 2 minutes – to catch our breaths, clear our runny noses, grab a sip of water etc, so that we wouldn’t freeze – most finding it frustratingly difficult to accomplish these tasks in such a short time with so much clothing on!

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Just as the sun started rising, we entered an area called the Annapurna Base Camp Sanctuary. From here the views of the near-vertical south face of Annapurna towering above us were sensational. We had an unobstructed 360-degree panoramic view of Machhapuchhare, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Hiunchuli and a few other peaks towering close to or above 8,000m. Annapurna Base Camp is a small area with a couple of tea houses, some research huts and expedition tents all on a cliff edge above a huge glacier moraine. We had finally arrived.

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Obligatory team photo at Annapurna Base Camp

Everyone was on a high – hugs and high-fives all around; for some it was a very emotional moment – it finally sunk in that they had just realised their goal of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp having spent so much of their time in the last 10 months training and preparing for it.

There were 27 of us who embarked on this trek. 26 made it to ABC. It was a shame that the last one could not make it as he was about 45 minutes away from ABC but succumbed to altitude sickness, serious enough for the guides to make a call that it would be safer for him to turn back. All in all a great achievement for the entire group and for many individually it was one of the most rewarding day of the trek and a significant achievement of a lifetime. We took our time to watch the sunrise over Annapurna Sanctuary in the lap of the Himalaya range and let this significant achievement sink in.

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Spectacular view of the mountain ranges

Before setting off on our descent to MBC we enjoyed a most satisfying and much needed cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate each. As the sun rose in the sky, the trek down to MBC became even more treacherous as the ice had started to melt. There was little foothold for our boots on the icy path and there were many tumbles and falls on the way down – luckily there were no serious injuries or broken bones. We arrived back at MBC for a well-earned breakfast before packing our bags in readiness for the descent.

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Spirits remained high

The mood in the group was very different now – we were on our way down and everyone was on a high from a personal goal fulfilled! We still had a long day ahead of us in order to get down to Dovan (2,500m). We passed through the “Avalanche Risk Area” again to arrive at Duerali at around 2.00pm where we enjoyed another great al-fresco lunch under clear blue skies.

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Making our downward descent

We continued our downward trek to Dovan, having to don for the second time that day our head torches, finally reaching Dovan in the dark for our overnight stop at around 6.00 pm. We had been walking since 3.00am – 15 hours in our boots! At Dovan we all had hot showers – for many of us it was our first shower in six days – at a cost of 200 rupees per person (about £1.50). Today was also a special day as we had a birthday boy amongst us. We cracked open a few beers, exchanged animated stories of the day’s events and for the first time ate something other than dhal bhat for dinner; we got pizza and chips as a reward for our hard day’s work. Sadly, we were all so shattered and unable to keep the celebrations going for too long. Everyone was tucked up in bed by 9.00pm.

DAY 7 (24 November) – Dovan to Sinuwa 2,360m

After a leisurely breakfast in Dovan – our first fried instead of boiled egg; oh what a treat! – we continued our trail downhill towards Sinuwa. Spirits were high and everyone had a spring in their step. After a 3-hour walk we arrived at Bamboo for a lunch break. We reached our accommodation in Sinuwa in record time around 4.00 pm.

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Picturesque coffee/masala tea stop

DAY 8 (25 November) – Sinuwa to Jhinu Danda 1,780m

We decided to start off early today as we wanted to get to Jhinu Danda as quickly as possible so that we could relax our tired muscles in the natural hot springs there. We left at 7.00am and after a couple of hours arrived at a beautiful outdoor spot, high on a mountain ridge, with panoramic views of the valleys below.

We continued our descent to Jhinu Danda, arriving in time for lunch and beers. After lunch we got into our swimsuits and ventured down through the forest for a 30-minute walk to the hot springs to spend a couple of hours unwinding in style. The setting of these hot springs was surreal – to one side was the fast-flowing Modi River and to the other was a dense forest. The locals believe the natural hot springs would aid the healing of the aches and pains that our bodies had suffered in the last few days.

DAY 9 (26 November) – Jhinu Danda to Pokhara

This was the final day of the trek. After breakfast we had a short 2.5-hour trek down to Sauli. To get there we had to walk along the second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal about 350m long – it felt like walking down the aisle of an aeroplane in turbulence – for some it was unsettling. At Sauli, we thanked our porters for their incredible support and hard work, followed by an emotional farewell, before jumping onto our transport for the journey back to Pokhara.

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The second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal – walking along it felt like walking down an aeroplane when there is turbulence – it was unsettling

CLOSING NOTE

Everyone in the group is incredibly proud of their own personal achievement and journey over the last few months. We take away great memories forged along the Annapurna Base Camp trek together with countless stories and anecdotes to share with our friends and family. The best thing to come out of this trek are the new friendships and sense of camaraderie forged over the 9 days of trekking.

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Tibetan cloth prayer flags adorned many of our trekking routes. The practice of hanging prayer flags (which contain sacred text and symbols) pre-dates Buddhism. It was a shamanic medicinal practice to help bring balance and harmony to the environment. After some time the prayer flags will naturally fade and fray, symbolising the passing nature of all things

 

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Multi-coloured prayer flags sway in the wind above us

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A local carrying a bale of hay on his back

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Clothes drying outside a home in a village we passed through

Together, we have managed to raise an extraordinary sum of money, currently standing at £430,000, for the deafblind which would not have been possible without the immense generosity of our donors.

We left a small piece of our hearts in Nepal but taken with us a rucksack full of memories. Kaushik, one of the team members has composed this poem below which sums up our feelings at the end of this incredible trek.

ASCENDING ANNAPURNA

Step by step, rock by rock

Heart thumping fast, tick-tock, tick-tock

You gaze to the sky, crystal clear blue

There she sits, majestically, like few others do

She holds court, so begins the drama

As others pay homage, in humble panorama

The flags in colour, salute her and flutter

Whispering sweetly “Go in Peace”, they mutter

The sun rises, showering her in golden glory

So ends a chapter, in your life’s story

Your heart and soul in union, this is karma

It’s just amazing, Ascending Annapurna

 


What to pack for Annapurna Base Camp

The main bag (70-100kg), which porters carry (make sure it’s wheel-less) should be waterproof, and contain the following items:

I’ve highlighted in red the things that were absolutely ESSENTIAL and inserted a few web links.

  • Sleeping Bag – a 4-5 season plus (delivering comfort at -5C to -9C)
  • Travel pillow (optional)
  • Sleeping Bag Liner (silk or cotton) for extra warmth
  • Comfortable shoes or trainers for the evening
  • Good walking socks (1 pair for every 2 trekking days)
  • Underlining socks (1 pair for every trekking day)
  • Spare socks and underwear
  • Warm thermal or base layer (2 pairs)
  • Light trekking trousers (each one should give you 4-5 days wear)
  • A couple of trekking shorts (or trousers convertibles into shorts)
  • A couple of warm fleeces
  • T-shirts & long-sleeved tops (1 for every two trekking days)
  • Comfortable bottoms or spare trousers for the evenings
  • A small wash-kit including any personal hygiene stuff
  • Quick drying travel bath and hand towel (microfibre is best)
  • Warm pair of wind and waterproof gloves with thin liner (ski gloves are excellent)
  • An extra pair of lightweight fleecy gloves for lower altitude
  • Padlock or means of securing/locking luggage
  • Ear plugs
  • Playing cards (Monopoly Deal is amazing), books, miniature travel games or something for entertainment
  • Hand torch with spare batteries
  • Mobile power bank for device charging (most tea houses charge you to use their electricity) – some in our group used solar chargers
  • 1 spare re-useable water bottle
  • Biodegradable wet wipes
  • Medicine kit (see below)
  • Spare chocolate bars, snack bars, trail mix, sweets or other snacks (the tea houses do have them available also, to buy)
  • Colouring pencils/books/stickers/toys for the young Nepalese children you meet on the trek

Medicine bag comprising:

  • Painkillers (avoiding those that include aspirin)
  • Ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory (not for asthmatics)
  • Imodium or Lomita for diarrhoea
  • Dehydration mix such as Dioralyte
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseptic wipes and cream
  • Plasters
  • Elastic knee support
  • Moleskin and/or ‘Compede’ for blister treatment
  • Tiger Balm or equivalent
  • Olbas Oil or Vicks breathing stick
  • Throat pastilles or lozenges

Day rucksack (size 25-35 litres), which will be carried by you while trekking, containing:

A day in the life of a guide dog trainer

guide dog

It’s distressing to consider the thought of losing your sight, vision, or sense of balance – when I’ve got a mild ear or eye infection I’ll moan and groan – but for some people, living with visual and auditory impairments is a part of every day life.

Today is World Sight Day, a day that draws attention to and celebrates people who live with visual problems and blindness. There are plenty of services available to help people cope with sight loss, and guide dogs help to give freedom of movement and companionship to almost 5,000 people in the UK right now. I’ve always been intrigued by guide dogs when I see them about on the street, and so in aid of this special day, I caught up with former guide dog trainer Mark Richards from UK charity Guide Dogs, to ask him all about them, and what training involves.

Mark Richards, 50, worked as a trainer for 18 years, and is now an Events Demonstration Officer for the charity.

One of the questions we often get asked is ‘how does the dog know when to cross the road?’ It’s one of the common misconceptions that people have about guide dogs: the fact is, the guide dog doesn’t work alone – it works in partnership with its visually impaired owner. So a guide dog may walk the owner to the curb, but then it will stop. It’s up to the owner to say ‘forward’ when they think it’s acceptable to cross the road. The dog will be on watch to see if it’s safe to cross – if the dog sees a car, it will disobey the command and turn away from the curb, and proceed only when it is safe to do so.

As one of 17 trainers at the Leamington Guide Dogs site, I’ve got a pack of four dogs to teach (each trainer has four or five dedicated dogs), so my day is broken up into four ‘journeys’ as we like to call them – I spend a couple of hours with each dog individually, every day.

The dogs are about a year old when we start working with them. Before this, they’ve been working with volunteer puppy walkers who’ve introduced them to the sights, sounds and smells of the world in which they will soon play an important part. This could mean taking dogs on buses and trains and into shops and restaurants, so they slowly learn what’s expected of them.

guide dogs charity day in the life

To start the day, I have a training session from 9 to 10.45am. I’ll head over to the on-site kennels and collect the dog I’ll be working with. They’re cared for round-the-clock by dedicated carers who check them daily from nose to tail to ensure they are at optimum health – for example, to make sure they aren’t carrying too much weight. Some days a dog may be ill, so we won’t train.

The dogs typically spend 16 weeks in training with us, before they graduate to more advanced training with instructors, who will introduce the dogs to their new owners and get them used to their new environments. So, as trainers, we specifically focus on perfecting the dog’s behaviour. We’ve got a checklist of things we need to achieve with a dog before it graduates to that level, so each one has its own training schedule.

There are three main stages to the training: we start off by teaching obedience responses, for example, ‘sit’, ‘wait’, and ‘down’ etc. After these have been established, we’ll introduce the dogs to a harness walk, where the dog is put into its harness and taught basic guiding skills such as navigating a kerb and avoiding obstacles. A smaller dog will start off in a quiet environment where there are fewer distractions, but as it becomes more obedient and less distracted in its decision making, it will be taken to a more challenging environment. At this point you may discover that a dog is distracted by other dogs – he may keep pulling you toward them to say hello – so you may get a head collar for him to steer him away and break this habit. The final stage of training is blindfolded training – where the trainer wears a blindfold to test the dog’s guiding skills. It’s the ultimate test.

After training with the first dog, I’ll return it to its kennels before coming in for a warm up and a quick tea break before heading out with the next one.

Each dog has its own strengths and weaknesses; they’re a lot like us. So a dog could be fantastic at picking up the straight line principle – where it must follow a straight path, avoiding obstacles (both stationary and moving, such as trees and pedestrians), and pick up a straight line on a route indented with a kerb, perhaps – whereas when you attempt to teach it something else, it fails.

Teaching a dog the height obstacle is perhaps the most challenging part of training. This is when the dog is able to successfully judge the height and width of obstacles such as low-hanging trees or scaffolding so that its owner does not bump their head or shoulder. We have an obstacle course set up on site, and all the obstacles vary in height, to practice. For a dog to be able to take into account its own height as well as yours, it can be difficult.

We primarily use positive reinforcement during training – where you reward a dog for displaying the behaviour you want it to. Rewards can be in the form of treats and toys to start, but we quickly wean the dogs off this – instead using vocal praise, or perhaps a free run at the end of the day as a reward. Repetition is important too, as dogs are creatures of habit so the more you do something with them, and reward them for it, the more likely they are to remember and do it again.

Some dogs can be a real difficulty to work with – particularly those with a low concentration or low motivation. But it’s up to us to discourage these behaviours by building up a specific behaviour in steps with rewards.

It’s a real ask for a dog to go out and guide. In this role, they’re making decisions for a person: whereas everyone else’s dog is waiting for a command, this dog is in charge of commanding and negotiating a situation, so not all dogs make it through the guide dog training (about 20%). This could be because they are highly distracted, have health issues or confidence issues.

It’s always disappointing when a dog doesn’t make it through training. We put in so much effort. As a trainer, you often take it personally. You develop an attachment to a dog. But making a decision on whether a dog is not suited to this career path is important.

Dogs that do not progress through training go off on to other services such as hearing, dogs for the disabled, the police, army or prison services. We have a new scheme called Buddy Dogs where people who are interested in being guide dog owners can take in the dog and find out what it is like having it about the house.

At 1pm I’ll take an hour’s lunch before beginning training with the third dog in my pack. It’s non-stop, but a lot of fun.

A guide dog takes on a different demeanour when it’s got its harness on. It’s trained to think ‘I’m working now, no messing about’. We teach the dogs guiding tasks when in harness, and make sure there’s no silly behaviour – it’s time for the dog to be a decision maker. When the harness is off though, as a trainer you are more relaxed and so is the dog; you’re not asking anything of it – and that’s how it distinguishes between being on and off duty.

When on duty and in training, other dogs are the biggest distraction for our dogs. Dogs that are running around or playing with a ball are particularly interesting to our training dogs, who are encouraged to say hello but that’s it. Our dogs have little contact with balls from when they are young – they are purposefully not introduced to them, so those owners with ball launchers in the park are a big distraction. Our dogs think, ‘that looks fun, what’s he running after?’ when they see dogs playing with them. But we teach the dog to stay put (and not go after the ball) – and positively reinforce this behaviour.

Crowded places can be overwhelming for dogs too – they can make them stressed and result in errors, so the dogs are primed early by being introduced to busy in order to habituate them. As pups, dogs may also be taken into restaurants. When we later take them to these places for training, we ensure we are consistent – we ensure they are always obedient and quiet, and we don’t go into a restaurant encouraging bad behaviour one day, perhaps by saying ‘yes you can go and crawl and eat that chip someone’s left on the floor’, and the next day teaching the dog to sit quietly under the table.

We train in all weather, so we wear jeans and a Guide Dogs branded polo shirt as uniform. It’s particularly pleasant to train when the sun’s out in the summer, less so in the winter, but nothing deters us. We have to have the dogs prepared for all-weather conditions for when they go out with their owners. My day would usually finish at 5pm but sometimes I do night walks with the dogs, depending on whether or not they are ready for them.

I still get a buzz and bags of enjoyment when a dog performs something for its new owner that I taught it, and what I love most about working with dogs is that even when you’re having a bad day, they still treat you like you’re the best thing since sliced bread – they love you no matter what. I love being around dogs and have a good rapport with them. I fell into this job – I used train my collies for agility and flyball competitions as a hobby, when someone suggested I apply for the job. I got it, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m being paid to work with dogs – what could be better than that?

James Caan Foundation hosts charity screening of Jinnah

The James Caan Foundation (JCF) hosted a charity screening and panel discussion of the epic film ‘Jinnah’ on Wednesday night to raise money for victims of the Pakistan floods.

Approximately 100 people turned out for the film, which traces the footsteps, fortitude and bravery of the founding father of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The fundraiser, which was co-hosted by Mara Pictures, took place at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London.

The film follows Jinnah, the man who forced the partition of India in 1947 after the British withdrawal. He was responsible for the birth of the nation of Pakistan. He died a year after the partition and unlike Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi; his name has faded into obscurity in the West.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion with entrepreneur James Caan, Jamil Dehlavi, the writer, producer and director of the film, Richard Lintern who played the young Jinnah and Robert Ashby who played Jawaharlal Nehru. The discussion was moderated by actor Art Malik.

The event aimed to raise awareness of the floods which struck Pakistan in July. Over 20 million people were affected, and 1.9 million houses were damaged or destroyed.

All proceeds obtained from the evening are being donated to The JCF’s Build A Village Project, which is building villages in the flood affected areas of Pakistan to help the survivors by providing them with shelter, clean water, healthcare facilities and sanitation.

Trustee of The Foundation, James Caan, said: “The JCF is committed to restoring people’s lives after the extreme devastation left by the floods. We chose to screen Jinnah because it teaches people about the foundations of Pakistan, which is very topical, considering what we’re doing to help those affected by the floods.

“The Build A Village project provides a model to rebuild homes, to provide clean water, education and healthcare facilities, which will be implemented by the best organisations in each component.

“The model will deliver new standards in transparency, credibility, cooperation and collaboration giving supporters access to see exactly where their donations are going, and assurances that their money goes directly to helping those who need it.”

For more information about the JCF, please visit http://www.thejcf.co.uk.