Everest Base Camp Trek – Lukla to Namche Bazaar (or the Bridges of Doom)

ALERT – photos will have to be uploaded later. I’m writing from Nepal – and am seriously wifi challenged at the moment!

After we exited our flying tin can (also known as a Twin Otter) in Lukla and had a cup of tea, we immediately started uphill. The first part of the EBC trek is nothing as much as a human highway connecting numerous small villages. There are no combustion vehicles of any types – no farm equipment, no cars, no trucks – and correspondingly, no roads. Instead there are yaks, gakyos (1/2 cow and 1/2 yak), and humans. Regardless of their size, they are all carrying huge packs. Yaks were carrying sacks of rice and blue containers of kerosene; one very small gentleman was carrying a load of rebar and another a full size freezer. Apparently the humans are paid by the amount of weight they are carrying. I have never seen such strong people – including at  any gym I’ve ever been to.
Each little village has at least a mani stone – a large rock painted with mantras, frequently om mani padme hum. (I read a translation today at the Sherpa Cultural Center that said it meant “hail to the jewel of the lotus,” but I’m not sure how much stock to put in that.) You pass to the left of the stone, always clockwise. Many villages have prayer wheels, ornate cylinders also engraved with prayers that you run your hand along, turning them always clockwise. Some prayer wheels are powered by water. Sometimes bells ring as they turn.
A lot of places welcome you with a stupa. From the air it appears as a mandala. Generally, three terraces at the bottom represent the foundation of meditation. The dome is the womb of emptiness from which all comes. The box on top is painted with the eyes of the guardian Buddha. Some stupas, instead, have a statue of the Buddha in a glass enclosed niche. The 13 steps above represent the 10 levels of compassion and the 3 levels of tantric awareness. The umbrella is the sovereign sanctity of the Buddha mind and the crowning jewel in the top its wish fulfilling capacity. Buddhism is woven in to the fabric of everyday life here. On the return part of our trek I saw an old man sitting outside his tea house, running his fingers along his mala (a rosary of 108 beads) while spinning a handheld prayer wheel. His wife sat next to him, wearing the traditional long skirt with a woven apron on top, while their dog slept in the sun – all with the majestic mountains towering in the background.

Most fantastic – that first day at least – was Gauri Ghat monastery. An elaborate structure in the middle of the area, multiple prayer wheels under shelters decorated with paintings of the Buddha. A feeling of serenity throughout.

I had known before this trip that at some point I would encounter my nemesis – the swinging bridge of doom. It happened shortly after we left Lukla. For years my most frequent anxiety dream has involved a swinging bridge over a gorge where I can’t move forward or back. And that is exactly what I had to cross – following M’s white hiking shirt, feeling the bridge sway – at least 100 feet over the rapidly running river. I refused to look down or to the side (where I could tell the chain link fencing that formed the sides had been kicked out at the bottom, leaving a realistic possibility of slipping through). Saying mantras was a necessity.

After three hours we reached Phak Ding and our first experience of tea house culture. The tea houses changed as we worked our way up to EBC and away from village into trekker culture. More on that later. But typically there’s a dining room that serves as a communal living area, common toilets (although our first two tea houses had “en suite” toilets – little did we know what a luxury that was!), and very cold small plywood pine rooms with twin beds, sheet and blanket, and if you were lucky, hooks and a light that would work after 6 pm. Ultimately we realized we needed to regard the rooms as a sophisticated version of a tent.

After lunch, we took a steep acclimatization hike through a pine forest and small fields of potatoes and onions and spinach to a monastery that was being repaired. The monks were painting elaborate designs in geometric and representational patterns in colors for each of the five elements (iron being the one I didn’t know about). The paint contained a special resin to make it shine.

We had to cross a second swinging bridge to get there – which made me no happier than the first – when who should appear but the guy who’d sat (slept) next to me on the plane. We recognized each other and exchanged pleasantries. Given my bitterness over the seat hogging, this was a fitting karma experience to accompany all the monasteries we had seen. And it’s not over yet.

The next day we trekked to Namche Bazaar (originally Nauche) where we were to spend two nights. Much of the route was along the Milky River, a mint green blue rapidly running river that accompanied us most of the way to EBC. Today involved not two but five swinging bridges. Fortunately M continued to wear the white hiking shirt so I still had my driste to focus on. We had a lovely lunch by the river and the trail got progressively steeper. Fabulous views of the Three Sisters along the way. A yak herder following his yaks, while carrying his dog down the mountain.

We reached NB suddenly. A pretty village of square stone buildings with a interesting mixture of trekker culture and village life. Trekking has been part of Nepalese life since the 1950s. What’s amazing is that every last thing has been carried here – by human or animal. Namche does have a small airstrip for cargo, but even then – everything has to be moved several miles to the village.

A very nice tea house with some beautiful woodwork in the dining room but COLD rooms. There was even a version of a shower with hot water (the last one we would see for days). Probably the prettiest tea house we stayed in. Unlike the very crowded places further along the route, we were the only people staying there.

After we arrived, we went to the nearby monastery. A stupa is being rebuilt and the monks, all in crimson robes, were conducting four days of prayers to bless the items that will be placed in the stupa. Plus, day 4 is Buddha’s Day and there will be a big celebration. Because 12 monks were needed the prayers were occurring in the common area instead of the actual monastery itself. All of them sat in a row; the leader chanted in a deep sonorous voice and the others chimed in with various instruments- symbols, something that looked like a clarinet and bells. At one point plates of food were brought out as offerings – they would ultimately be left for the animals. There was a huge gold Buddha on one wall and a monk folding prayer shawls.

We visited the upstairs museum, near the rooms in the upper galleries where the religious objects are taken care of. A monk asked us if we wanted to go to the actual monastery where the prayers normally occur. 300 years old, the walls were painted with images of Buddha. There was a shrine with statues of the past, present and future Buddha. Butter lamps lit, colors and patterns on every square inch, but a sense of peace emanating from the sensory overload.
For dinner S and I tried yak curry, although I think it is usually buffalo. More of the local spinach, rice, potatoes, dal and apple pie for dessert (which was almost like an apple baklava).

During our full day in NB, our acclimatization hike to the viewpoint at the Everest View Hotel allowed us our first view of Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse. We trekked gradually at first and then steeply up to about 12,600 feet, from pines to scrubby pines. Then down the other side of the valley to Kung Jung (sp) – tranquil, uncrowned, green rooves, and the home of the school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary.

After poking around NB in the afternoon, we had Sherpa Stew for dinner. A thick broth with dumplings and potatoes, ginger, spinach and carrots.

Next move – to Tengboche and Dingboche.

I’m busy. I leave tomorrow. Everest.

No photo in tbis blog. I’ve been too busy. I started this post with five days to go. And now I’m staying in the hotel at the airport in preparation for a 6 am flight, followed by 24 hours plus of traveling.

I’ve faced my usual paranoia that the ridiculous hours I’ve been working in order to garner 2 1/2 weeks off will have so impeded my training I’ll find myself coughing as soon as I hit 10,000 feet, only to have a so far unexperienced asthma attack, get pulmonary edema, and expire somewhere at an unimpressive 12,000 feet. Matters have not been helped by the death of Ueli Steck a few days ago on Everest.

One can’t help but wonder about the possibilities. But more important than the possibilities – however tantalizing they may be – at least for those of us who have some great need for adrenaline – is figuring out why you’re going up the damn mountain  in the first place.

The busyness – business of our lives has taken over. I don’t know about you, but if one more person asks me to do one more thing, I might just combust. I’m called upon every hour multiple times per hour to make decisions. Some small; some large. Whether my recommendation affects one or thousands – you know what? It’s just as important if it affects one person’s working life as it is if it affects many.  Jobs are important to people.

Back to topic. I’ve been training for this trek since we came down from the last. And I really, really need to get away from that busyness – business. I’m hoping that somewhere in Nepal, on the way to Everest, there’s some fabulous lost horizon that’s going to give that sense of peace.

Namaste.

The Final Frontier – Sedona – Part 4

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Sedona – Bell Rock Trail and Courthouse Butte

It’s 18 days or so until we depart for Nepal, and the effort of training while holding down an intense work schedule has wreaked havoc with my blog. But I’m determined to finish up writing about our now four year old adventures in Arizona – because next up is a new and exciting continent…a new frontier.

But back to Arizona and our journey through time. I had always had a vision of Sedona as a mystical place that would provide a portal into an alternate universe, the age of Aquarius, or some such place or time. I have never forgotten going to take a deposition in Scottsdale, very close to Sedona, where I managed to stay for less than 24 hours in order to return to my very young children while opposing counsel stayed an extra day so he could go hiking in Sedona. Ever since then I knew something had to be waiting  for me there.

So you can imagine my disappointment when we drove our trusty rental car down the main street to find a swarm of timeshares and souvenir shops, albeit ones selling crystals. Our small hotel was right on the Main Street, and supposedly featured a fireplace and mountain view – which it did but only if you looked out the back window over an alley.  No matter. We weren’t there for the town but the hiking.

I don’t recall the exact time frame –  I believe we arrived in early morning and went hiking that afternoon. A friendly and talkative chap at the tourist information center suggested a hike on the Bell Rock Trail around the Courthouse Butte. I checked the brochures and found that indeed it was supposed to travel through the energy vortexes for which Sedona is famous. Not quite sure what an energy vortex was, but it certainly seemed like something one should experience. Plus the idea of the Courthouse Butte seemed particularly appropriate for someone of  my vocation. The landscape stood in sharp contrast to the greens and blues and greys of the Grand Canyon. Here a uniform peach and tan dusty sheen bathed everything.

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We were well into hiking mode and found it easy going except for one small matter – direction. After a couple of hours we realized we were hopelessly turned around. Whether it was the energy vortex or our own poor navigational skills I don’t know, but we went this way and that, with very little idea which way would bring us back to the trailhead and our car. The dusty trail looked pretty much the same everywhere and the Courthouse Butte itself – which originally looked like a square stone formation with four sides  – suddenly seemed to veer off into multiple random directions.

Ultimately we resorted to my iPhone for some navigational advice – after we had realized that the parking lot we saw in the distance wasn’t ours but one at the opposite end of the park area.

It couldn’t have been more different than the Canyon. There – there was a clear up, down, along the side and across. It was linear and direct. It was down into time and back out. But Sedona was a grand circle that spiraled and turned and tricked you into a trail here or there with any number of unexpected outcomes.

I wouldn’t have had one without the other.

Journey through Time -Out of the Grand Canyon and on to Sedona – Part 3

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I’m going to rush through our time travels  in the Grand Canyon because I’m eager to get to the last part of our story from four years ago (almost to the day) – and that’s Sedona. By the way, the time theme really didn’t come from Outlanders – despite the fact I’m now on Book 6 and know more about 18th century medicine than I ever thought I would, not to mention the battles of the American Revolution. But I digress.

When we last parted, J and I had survived an icy horseback ride in Flagstaff  and had made it down to the Colorado relatively unscathed.  After an easy night camping at Phantom Ranch, and encountering various Canyon dwellers who seemed on a perpetual hike through the Canyon, it was time to head back up.

We started with a couple of nice flat miles along the banks of the Colorado, stopping by some sandy beaches where we could touch the eerily turquoise water. Finally we turned upwards, each step taking us further away from the prehistory of the deep inner Canyon walls.

We hiked switchbacks up the Bright  Angel Trail  until we arrived at Indian River campground, about halfway to the top. Have I mentioned that the Grand Canyon has the most excellent toilet facilities of any outdoor area I have ever seen? Clean, eco friendly, non-smelly composting toilets. If you have followed this blog and have seen the facilities at Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia – or possibly worse – Pico de Orizaba in Mexico,  you’ll know what I mean. Pic0 de Orizaba is on the left below; Mt. Elbrus on the right with the barrels we stayed in just behind. And no, the black rectangle is not a shadow – it’s no door.

At sunset that night we hiked to a plateau overlooking the Canyon for dinner, where our talented guide managed to cook over a stove no bigger than a can of peas.  The stone formations cast shadows and the only thing marring the effect is that we weren’t the only ones there. Hiking back to our tents in the dark was an interesting experience but none of us tumbled off the steep ledge.

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The next day we hiked the remainder of the trek up. It was icy and we were just ahead of a storm. I was quite happy to put on the micro spikes our guide had stored in his pack.  As we crossed the Tonto we met an elderly couple who were spending ten days hiking the Hermits Trail and others equally remote.  Weatherbeaten and dusty, they apparently did a trip like this  every year.  They seemed like excellent role models.

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But all good things end, and before lunch we were back at the top and in the 21st century – where a ream of emails flooded our phones, anxiously awaiting our reading.  After a lunch of junk food – never did it taste so good- we made our way back to Flagstaff – where dinner at a cozy craft brewery completed this portion of the trip.

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And then? After the time machine travel of the Canyon, there could only be one place to go – into the vortex. Sedona is next.

Journey through Time: In and About the Grand Canyon – Part 2

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We awakened early for the drive to the Canyon.  The details are blurry but I remember it was quite cold, and after  we parked, we had to take a shuttle bus to the beginning of the trail. It was clear from the outset that most people were venturing down only for a quick peek over the edge and very few were as laden down as we. In fact, a number of people asked us if we were planning to move there.

Our route took us down the South Kaibab trail  to the river in one day. Once at the bottom we would camp at Phantom Ranch – in the campground; no cabins or hostel for us! The next day we were to go half way up the Bright Angel trail, camp at Indian Gardens and then hike the rest of the way up and out.

Soon into the trip it became apparent that we’d found the one type of terrain where my relatively short stature was a benefit. With a center of gravity a lot lower to the ground than the two over six foot males behind me, I discovered that I was able to practically jog along the switchbacks without losing my balance. In fact, for the first and one of the only times in my hiking career I kept having to stop and wait for the others.

The beginning of the hike was quite populated. There were bus loads of high school kids, many from abroad, swinging cameras and trying to hike in wildly inappropriate footwear. Apparently the packing list hadn’t included a section on outdoor gear.  It was actually terrifying to watch some of them teeter and totter next to what was a pretty steep tumble to the bottom.

The journey down was a trip back in time.  Starting with streaks of tan sandstone, moving down toward strips of an almost turquoise. Cell phone coverage soon (and thankfully) ceased. And as we went lower and lower there were far fewer people – although now and then we did have to move over to let the famous mule trains pass.

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J on the Tonto

About half way down there is a trail called the Tonto that runs along the side of the canyon. It’s like a green stripe running horizontally and I’ve wanted to hike it ever since I saw it. And when you get below that you can start to hear and see the Colorado. It’s a ghostly shade of blue green due to the effects of various dams. The rocks shift toward  black, almost like marble, and you feel as though you have returned to the bowels of the earth.

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The campground at Phantom Ranch was populated with a number of odd characters, some of whom seemed to spend their entire lives just hiking around the canyon. There’s a complex of cabins, a hostel of a type, and a shop where you can buy a postcard or a beer.

We hiked up the other side of the canyon for just a bit. The sun cast long shadows off of the black stone. As the sun set into the depths of the canyon, it took with it all the trappings of our 21st century lives, leaving us only with a pitch black cover of night, punctuated by the light of millions of stars.

 

Journey through Time – In and About the Grand Canyon, Part 1

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Getting ready for the Grand Canyon

One can only write about training so much before it doubtless becomes as boring for the reader as the writer. Yes, training may be the essence of preparation for long distance trekking and mountaineering – but it’s not always the most scintillating of subjects. Hence, a detour from the path towards Everest Base Camp – a week long trip to Arizona from a few years back.

When we decided to spend spring break visiting the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas I expected nothing more than the cinematic views from the classic 1960s “wish you were here” post cards. (To which the subtext was probably, “Not.”) But what we found instead was a textured and emotional place – a journey that descended through layers of earth and stone like time.

That’s not where we started though. It was very early March and we found Phoenix, where we flew into, surprisingly crisp in comparison to the Orlando spring.  Our first stop was Flagstaff. That’s where we had a free day before meeting up with our guide, who would shepherd us through a three day, two night backpacking trip down and up the canyon. We were going to finish the week with a couple of days in Sedona.

In Flagstaff we stayed at the Little America Hotel. It may have since been refurbished, but at that time the rooms were decorated in inexpensive, white and gold Louis XIV furniture. it had the feel of the home of a very elderly aunt who still served things like tomato aspic for lunch. But there was an excellent steakhouse style restaurant, which was filled with locals out for the evening.

Flagstaff itself was a funky college town, with multiple herbalists, vintage stores, and lots of iconic Route 66 paraphernalia.

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But we were in Arizona for outdoor adventure, not to buy crystals, so rejected the lure  of shopping in favor of a horseback ride. Now, we’ve ridden horses in a lot of places but are nowhere close to any level of real proficiency. And there was a lot of snow on the ground. Not to mention ice.  Undaunted, however, together with a college student who was serving as our trail guide, we mounted our rather large steeds and headed off into the remote canyons around Flagstaff. As we rode further, it became clear the horses themselves were having a hard time and were sliding all over the place. Holding on with your knees as hard as you could appeared to be the only way to avoid an ignominious slide into the snow cov red streams we were crossing.

At one point, while I was holding on for dear life, I glanced back – just in time to see J’s horse completely fall down on an ice patch – fortunately J had the presence of mind to slip gracefully off the creature’s backside – narrowly avoiding being crushed by however many pounds of horseflesh.

But our adventures weren’t over. Our trail guide was breaking in his very young horse. The horse got spooked and suddenly took off at a gallop. Not to be left out of the fun, our horses took off at an equally rapid clip, and we flew along under low hanging branches until the ringleader finally calmed down and they all resumed a more sensible gait.

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When we got back to the barn, the stable  made the decision that conditions were too dangerous and closed the trail for the rest of the day.

That night we met up with our Grand Canyon guide, a great guy from Georgia who also happened to be about 6’5″. J is almost 6’3″ and I’m barely 5’2″, so we made quite a picture.  He fitted us out with our technical packs stuffed full of camping equipment and food – mine towered a good six inches over my head. But more on that in the next post.

For now, we were just trying to get a good night’s sleep before our 5 am departure the next day – and trying to ignore the fact that we were starting a major trek already sore from our encounter with the equestrian world!

 

 

Trekking – Bridges Cross Gaps

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On the way to base camp – photo by James Hellman

I’ve been thinking about bridges a lot lately. Perhaps partly because I am living by a ten year construction project called the Ultimate I4.  So far it has manifested itself as a series of disconnected bridges to nowhere. There’s nothing quite as majestic as running under an overpass, only to be met on the other side by a 1000 foot strip of raised concrete floating on mid air like some sort of giant teeter totter.

But I’m also thinking of bridges because I’ve been looking at photos of the trek to Everest Base Camp and have suddenly realized there are a heckuva lot of suspension foot bridges that cross extremely high ravines. I think I read somewhere that there are 27.  Now, when I was much younger (and to be truthful, up to the present day) I used to have a recurrent anxiety dream that involved being stuck on a swinging bridge over a deep gully, absolutely frozen and unable to move either forward or back.

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Grandfather Mountain swinging bridge – even scarier in the 1970s

I’m sure this goes back to the kernel of a true childhood memory (funny how “truth” becomes relative when you’re talking decades ago) when my family went to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.  While I frequently recalled crossing the swinging bridge – from which you could quite definitely have slid through the side chains that were all that separated you from doom – I never admitted to anyone that I was absolutely terrified, right down to the white cotton ankle socks that I’m sure I had been made to wear.

Mountain climbing – or at least aspects of it – is like that. Regular readers may remember a post from a few years ago about training to climb Mt. Elbrus by scrambling  around on my roof. ( Training Up on the Roof ) We did have leaves to remove from the gutters but I also thought it might help conquer a fear of heights.

I guess bridges will be have to be my next such training location. Making myself go forward one step at a time without freezing in place – that’s something to which we can all aspire.  And these days, it’s a lot better to cross a bridge than to build a wall.

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January 21, 2017 – Artwork by A

Election Year – Hurricanes, Presidentials and Mt. Jefferson

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This wasn’t the summit but it looked just about the same!

For the last several years, we’ve spent that most politically incorrect of all holidays, Columbus Day, either in New Hampshire or Maine, together with Boston and New Bedford residents Daughter A and Boyfriend N.

And despite hurricane force winds in Florida, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew,  this year was no different.  Of course, we had planned for a Friday departure, but after even my office announced it would close for both Thursday and Friday, I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen.  But it still took our So Budget It Shall Remain Unnamed airline until 4 am Friday to cancel the flight. For some unknown reason I’d woken up almost at the precise moment of flight cancellation and hence was able to have rebooked us before 5 – after which I immediately went back to sleep, lulled by the 60 mph wind gusts.

Saturday we woke bright and early to inspect the debris in the yard. The wind had howled most of the night, but Matthew’s 20 mile jog to the east had made all the difference. We made it to the airport, our one checked suitcase within one pound of an excess weight charge.  All was going as smoothly as it could for a 24 hour delayed flight, until we learned that our Unnamed Budget airline had apparently forgotten to tell the first officer he was supposed to be on that flight. After about an hour, said Unnamed Budget airline snagged two pilots who had just arrived from Texas and who agreed to rearrange their schedules to fly us to Boston.

We finally arrived in Boston about 7 pm. After dinner at a nearby Peruvian restaurant (with Pisco Sours!), N drove us through the night in the old faithful Previa to Jackson, New Hampshire.

We had left our reservations late and knew we weren’t staying at a quaint New England B&B. Instead we were booked at an old style motel, run by a crusty elderly man who had clearly been asleep when we had to ring the service phone after we arrived at midnight. I must admit to a brief moment of panic when I saw all the lights off in the office and the no vacancy signs at every establishment in town.

But we managed to get ourselves checked in and even to wake up  by 7 or so. Well, 7:30.  Our original plan had been to climb Mt. Jefferson and then go over the ridge to summit Mt. Adams. But given the late start and the overall hassles of the last few days, even we recognized that perhaps that was overly ambitious.

We gave A the choice between a shorter and steeper climb or a longer and more gradual one.  Ever the pragmatist, she went without hesitation for the shorter one – Caps Ridge.

It was about an hour drive to the trailhead, which was quite well hidden down a dirt logging road. It was a relief when we finally found the small parking lot and saw other hikers getting ready to start.

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The trail starts with a fairly steep climb through thick woods. It was overcast and grey and proceeded to get more overcast and grey the higher we climbed.  After a bit, the trees turned into skinny short birches, their white trunks looking vaguely unclothed with ribbons of grey bark hanging off them.

From the birches we climbed through scrubby pines and finally above the tree line. At that point, the bit we hadn’t been expecting – some real scrambling and rock climbing – suddenly appeared. Frankly, I thought it was harder than Mt. Washington up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail – although it certainly was shorter.  There were at least three sections where we were looking for cracks to scale and I made good use of the shrubs growing on the sides as handholds. A had neglected to bring any gloves and J ended up doing it all bare handed.

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Toward the top there was a section of big boulders, covered in lichen, where you balanced along the edges of one rock holding on to the one above. It was like some crazy jungle gym that you had always wanted to try in kindergarten.

By that point it was all slippery and even greyer and A was showing tremendous resistance to the idea that a summit was really necessary, wisely reminding us all that what goes up must come down. But at that point, striding out of the mist, came a European climber who looked as though he’d just left the Matterhorn. According to him, the summit was only “10 or 15 minutes” away.  Despite the fact we were now experiencing sharp dry pellets of hail, that gave us the encouragement we needed for that final push up.

Of course, it took us 30 minutes, and the view from the top was as grey as the view from the bottom — but it was still the summit!

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Summit!

We had made a commitment not to waste time at the top because we had all those sections of rock to slide down. And slide we did. My favorite part was when I saw a foothold several feet below my legs, and figured if I just started the slide I could grab on to a nearby branch halfway down to break my fall. Not very elegant, but it worked.

I ended up climbing a good portion of the way down solo. As I’m usually the slowest going up, I feel I must make up for it on the way down. I had a good head start and it seemed a mistake to intentionally reduce my pace. But voices don’t carry well in the mountains; I couldn’t hear my fellow hikers; and I spent a fair amount of time worrying I had drifted on to a rabbit trail or a dry stream bed and would plow further into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.  And, I was without a phone since J had forgotten his and was holding mine to take photos.  Big  note to self. One group should not have all the phones!

Regardless, it was back through the scrub, the birches and the woods, and I was sitting on a log waiting for the other side when they reappeared not too long thereafter.

We were all absolutely filthy and wet. Back to our little motel, showers, and out for a short walk and dinner. The weather cleared and the brilliant fall foliage that we’d been hoping to see all day was finally reflected in the orange pink sunset.

And how better to conclude our climb in The Presidentials than by watching the presidential debate. Jeffersonian it was not.

Scotland to Scarborough – You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Low

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Niddrie Castle

Actually I’m not sure whether we took the high or the low road journeying from Aviemore to Scarborough – all we were certain of after six plus long hours of driving is that Google Maps had directed us in an incredibly inefficient manner.

Of course, some of it was likely our own fault. As we contemplated the comfort of traveling on four wheels instead of two legs – after 70 miles of walking that was the equivalent of a luxury jet liner – a side trip to a Scottish castle seemed in order. We had two in mind – the first was one that we found listed online and seemed to be on the way; the second, Niddrie Castle, was by reputation in the area S’s boyfriend P’s family hailed from in Scotland. But the best laid plans….

It turned out Castle #1, as I’ll call it, had, unbeknownst to the writers of the castle Internet site, been turned into an event venue. The rather imposing entrance into the grounds, was zealously guarded by a large sign welcoming all comers to Allie and Colin’s wedding. We contemplated having one of the young couples masquerade as Allie and Colin and make off with the wedding presents, but ultimately ruled it out as too risky.

So, on to Castle #2. It turned out to be in a small village just outside of Edinburgh whose main geographic feature was an enormous landfill hill set beside a golf course. Getting there required going completely off GPS and driving along remarkably narrow roads that permitted no turn arounds (and needless to say, we managed to go the wrong direction on several).

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Niddrie Castle is the first very old castle that I have actually seen inhabited. All that’s standing is a rectangular building-  but there were most definitely signs of dwellers. Outside the castle was a large, posted map of the castle plans, and we saw signs of some sort of renovation but of  what wasn’t clear. You could walk the entire way around the castle and that path linked up to a nature trail running through the golf course. We had lunch out of the trunks of the cars in a muddy driveway just by the castle – it felt a bit as if we were eating in someone’s back yard, but I think P was happy to have seen it.

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By then we had many miles left to go before we reached Scarborough, and somehow were routed through Glasgow which made little sense. Perhaps one of those occasions when an old fashioned map might have worked best? At least that would show us what was and wasn’t out of the way!

In any event, our route took us through the idyllic villages of the North Yorkshire moors…all of which required us to slow down to a crawl. And since we had heard of tickets by mail we were quite cognizant of obeying the traffic laws.  But the most slowed down spot resulted from our encounter with several wooden gypsy caravans pulled off the side of the road. The horses were taking a break, and the travelers, as they’re known in England, were sitting outside on lawn chairs. It was as though we had travelled miles back in time as well as along the road.

A few days later, we learned that there was a travelers horse show in Scarborough, where horses are bought and sold and traded, and presumably that’s where the caravans were headed.

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About 8 pm or so we pulled into Scarborough to our AirBnb. An Edwardian house, replete with a billiards table and multiple bedrooms. What more could one want than for half of us to get fish ‘n chips from a shop heated to about 900 degrees and the rest of us locate Indian food, also about 900 degrees. Life was good.

 

Ending Up in Aviemore – Finishing the Speyside Way

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The last four weeks have been the longest break I’ve taken from blogging in the two years since I started this journey. And to think I stopped right before the exciting conclusion of the 70 mile hike along the Speyside Way.

But as we all know, sometimes life gets in the way, and it’s important to remember a blog isn’t actually a thru hike that requires you to march 20 plus miles every day when the spirit simply isn’t there. Self discipline is one thing, but walking for the sake of just putting one foot in front of the other starts to seem a bit pointless.

In any event – I’m back! And with the Speyside Way still to finish up, I have lots more subject matter for the future. For one, there’s the second week of our Scotland and England trip, which will feature Niddrie Castle (whoever has heard of it?), an aborted trip to another castle that turned out to be an event venue where we almost crashed Colin and Allie’s wedding, and a gypsy caravan on its way to the travelers’ horse show in Scarborough. There are also plans for the future – including, dare I say it? Yes? The Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal in May 2017.  Seriously. And then there are my latest training adventures which involve discovering barre, a hip injury, new hiking boots….

But it’s important to finish stories before starting new ones, and when I last wrote we had just finished a lovely evening at the Dunallan House in Grantown-on-Spey socializing with our host from Northern Island.  Did I mention that I didn’t feel like scotch so was handed our host’s six week old baby to hold while he poured “wee drams” for the others? I’m not sure it was a fair trade.

Our final day started off with medical care issues, involving trips to the chemist for more blister care products (nearly all of us) and tape for shin splints (P) and a strained Achilles’ tendon (me). After we finally made our way back to the trailhead, S’s ankle started hurting, and she decided she needed to ditch her hiking boots in favor of tennis shoes. Since they were in the bag being transported to our next stop, this necessitated P running a quarter mile back to the guesthouse before the luggage was picked up to retrieve said shoes…not sure that helped the shin splints at all.

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Our last day was predicted to be the longest – over 17 miles presuming no wrong turns which was an impossible assumption for our crew. Our plan was that the three fastest hikers would forge ahead to Aviemore, check in at the hotel, take the taxi we’d reserved the 70 miles back to the beginning of the trail in Buckie, pick up the two cars and then drive back to Aviemore. All this because Aviemore was a good two hours closer to Scarborough, which was our destination the next day. It sounds a bit insane, but we couldn’t think of any other way to do it.

In any event, the morning hike was relatively flat. We were near the Spey for a bit but mostly inland.  We hiked more or less together in the morning and paused for lunch in a beautiful, solitary wooded spot – except for the ubiquitous Scottish flies with which we were well familiar by now.

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After lunch, J, P and S plowed ahead on their car retrieval mission. A, N and I continued on at a slightly more leisurely pace, made more interesting by A’s retelling of a Norwegian epic that recounted the life and legends of Od the Pointy. Really, that was the name – at least in her pronunciation. Anyway, she’d just listened to it on a podcast and proceeded to give a remarkable verbatim account. It lasted a while since Od lived to be about 300 years old.  Hiking mile after mile you start to realize how and why epics evolve!

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We crossed field and forest, finally encountering rugged moors that were more what I had actually envisioned the whole trail to be rather than the gentle farmland much of it was.  We were approaching the Cairngorn Mountains, many of which still had patches of snow, and their dark and brooding presence cast shadows over the moors.

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When we reached mile 16, there was, of course, a decision to make. We could blindly follow the sign pointing to “Aviemore,” or we could ignore it and instead take the road to the “town centre” where we’d already seen another couple of hikers go. Being a lawyer, I, of course, opted to follow the sign as precisely as possible – only to find that we’d put ourselves on a loop hike called the Orbital that added at least two extra miles to our trek. We finally found someone to ask for directions -a young woman walking two golden labs. Just as we’d finished our conversation another woman with a pit bull walked by and we were treated to a very messy dog fight.

In any event, our triumphant March into Aviemore ended with a traipse through a vacant lot near a housing development. That brought us out on the main road, and victory of victories, we located the Ravenscraig Guesthouse.

The  other three of our party had indeed already made it to Aviemore  and gone off to get the cars, so A, N and I cleaned ourselves up and found the Ski-Ing Doo pub. That truly was the name. There was a ski resort nearby and the whole place was themed around skiing – with some odd touches like lamb steak burgers. And I’m pretty sure haggis was on the menu.

J, S and P joined us about 7:45 pm after driving 70 miles back from Buckie. Our five day hike had taken less than two hours by car. But somehow I think we gained a lot more than just miles by walking.

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