Looking Backward, Leaping Ahead – Travel Planning

 

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Where it all began – Summit of Kilimanjaro, July 2011

I couldn’t miss at least one allusion in the title to that rarest of days last week – leap day! One does wonder if anything that happens on that day really counts – or perhaps all the events of leap day fall into some alternate universe that contains only four days each year, or that takes four years to create a year….but enough of such ruminations.

It’s time for a brief retrospective and for a glimpse into future trips. It will be five years ago July that J and I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro – an experience that, as cliched as it sounds, changed our lives forever. Call it mountain fever – or as a friend puts it – mountain head, we couldn’t wait to reach another summit. That trip led to Mt. Hood, the Grand Canyon, the Inca Trail, Mauna Kea, Mt. Elbrus, Mount Washington, the Ecuador volcanoes including Cotopaxi, Pico de Orizaba, and even the little known Puzzle Mountain in Maine.

And a lot of these trips remain to be written about, especially Kilimanjaro. This blog was born when we decided to go to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus in 2014 and I thought it would be a convenient way to update friends and family. Little did I know that two years later I’d still be blogging.

So what’s on the horizon, both near and far? Well, in the short term, we have a visit to the swamp coming up in about three weeks – that is, a weekend in New Orleans. It’s only one of my favorite places of all time, and of course is home to daughter S (who has wholly rebelled against being referred to as daughter #2, Dr. Seuss allusions notwithstanding). And we follow that with a trip to Boston, more specifically Cambridge and Somerville, where daughter A and a 30th year law school reunion await. Ironically, we were preparing to climb Kilimanjaro when we attended the last reunion and I still remember our visit to Eastern Mountain Sports.

The mid horizon reveals the Whisky Trail in the Scottish Highlands, and there will be much more to come on that. We’ll see if I develop a taste for scotch as part of the training for that hike. It may not be a “summit” per se, but the last day is an ambitious 17 miles. And that will be followed by a week in Scarborough.

As for the distant future – I think there are still more mountains in me. Perhaps another attempt in the Cascades – Rainier may have my name on it.

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Books for High Places – What to Read at 18,000 Feet

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The “Old” Library

When most people think of climbing gear, they have in mind ice axes, crampons, helmets, and the other accoutrement needed to maintain life and limb at high altitude. But to me, an equally vital piece of equipment is whatever book I’ve selected to accompany me in whatever arduous spot I find myself in.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of opportunities to read while climbing high mountains. You’re typically going to bed as early as 7, especially if you are aiming for a midnight or 1 am departure for the summit. And that’s just summit day. On a lot of acclimatization days you find yourself collapsed in a hut or hacienda by mid afternoon following your first few forays over 14,000 feet. And, if you’re like me, you can’t sleep unless you’ve first consumed at least a few pages of a novel.

Now books for such trips must meet certain requirements, at least in my mind. First and foremost, they have to be available on a Kindle. ¬†When every ounce you carry can make a difference, lugging paper around doesn’t seem like a particularly wise choice. They have to be of sufficient length to engage you. I love short stories but somehow they seem more suited for an evening jaunt in the neighborhood – not a multi-day expedition. And they have to be engaging. If your goal is to blot out an altitude headache, to forget how cold you are each time a part of you inadvertently slips out of the sleeping bag, and to screen out the assorted snores and noise of your fellow hut dwellers, you need something that transports you into some alternate world. The odd thing is that life on a mountain can be so surreal that the imaginary world of some novels can seem a more likely reality than the one you’re in.

The
The “New” Library

So, what are some of my top choices for high places?

Our first trek, in 2011, to Kilimanjaro, was accompanied by Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. The story of a doctor and his twin brother it globe trots from Africa to New York, and kept me enthralled at Crater Camp on the Western Breach, where we camped at 18,000 feet. It’s 690 pages long. Of course, I would have been in no shape to write a scholarly analysis of it at that altitude, but it was a good read.

On this summer’s trip to Ecuador I relied on the fantastic creatures and characters of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld to get me up the steep slopes of Cotopaxi. Yes, I do like science fiction and some fantasy, and the alternate reality of Weaveworld and its 768 pages (now you see why a Kindle is essential) fit the bill. Years ago, on a much tamer trip to California I read Barker’s Imagica, and I think it would be a equally suitable high altitude choice.

Some others? Consider:

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – a story of a family in Afghanistan and elsewhere, covering multiple generations and places.

The Dust series by Hugh Howey – a post apocalyptic world – or is it? Be prepared.

The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner – I will never forget the opening description of speed racing on the Bonneville salt flats.

These are only a few. What do you take with you on your travels? Let’s share.

Summits of All Sorts

The Swamp - not sure how thus translates to climbing granite cliffs -
The Swamp – not sure how this translates to climbing granite cliffs –

I’ve been in the saddle the last couple of weeks – that is, the place between summits. Actually, that’s not true at all. Instead I’ve been climbing one of those sudden summits you encounter in your professional world – and, happily – have scaled it.

Which brings me to the point – there may be summits in all parts of our lives – but none quite the same as the true top of a mountain. Once you’ve reached the top of a mountain you have it forever. No one ever, ever, ever can take it away.

But even on mountains there are lots of different summits. When we hiked Kilimanjaro surviving seven straight nights of sleeping in a tent was its own summit. It is remarkable how you can put something down – your headlamp, for example – only for it to disappear 30 seconds later. And that’s not to mention getting up every day knowing you would hike, and hike and then hike some more. Elbrus was different. It was 14 hours of sheer determination and physical exertion. For me it was saying no to those snowmobiles at the very end who were just dying for us to pay them a bunch of money to save the final two hours of hiking. It was the counting in fours the last hour just so I knew I could continue to put one foot in front of the other.

But now we are thinking of a really different sort of summit – climbing the Grand Teton, the highest mountain in the Teton range. It’s only 13,775 feet but it involves rock climbing, not just bouldering, and is a class 5.4 – something we have never done before. And what most don’t know is that I historically have a pretty good case of fear of sheer vertical drops. In 1985 I froze walking down the Eiffel Tower and it was good long time before I made it to the bottom. So, if we really do decide to do this four day, three night trip it will be a summit of a type I haven’t reached before.

The more You Tube videos I watch the more intriguing it seems. There’s a practice rock climbing wall near us. Maybe it’s the next stop?

The Last Minute

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One of my law partners suggested that I title this post – only one week out – “the morbid post,” focusing on all that might happen should I not return from Elbrus. It was a tempting subject. Who can forget Tom Sawyer standing in the back of the church as he watches his own funeral unfold, and becomes overwhelmed by his own hitherto unknown virtues. For years I have treasured a Shouts and Murmurs column from the New Yorker that consists solely of the author’s self-satisfying rant as he imagines the accolades he will undoubtedly receive when his time comes from his ex girlfriends and others who never appreciated him enough during his short, but now clearly worthy, life. Something like, “It was not until now that we realized [insert your name]’s true talents, skills, generosity, and overall wonderfulness.”

But, alluring as morbidity may be, as an eternal optimist, instead I will simply observe the last minute activities of the week.
1. Tickets – Since flights have already changed departure times on numerous occasions I have no doubt they will do so again. Cross fingers two hours really will suffice for a layover in NYC.
2. Cram gear in duffel bag. Having already unsuccessfully tried to convince Delta we should get two free bags each instead of one due to the way the baggage fees were described, we are stuck with one bag each plus carry-ons. Somehow I don’t think the ice axe can go in the carry-on.
3. Practice with gear. Although we had the best of intentions to really learn our equipment, my motivation was gravely affected by the zipper debacle. See post – Gear Check #2. Although said zipper was fixed, the much anticipated practice session still hasn’t taken place. The pointy things on the crampons go down, right?
4. Get psyched to leave work behind and shift gears to preparing to climb!

The Fear Factor

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One way to alleviate the excruciating boredom of climbing the fire staircase as part of my training routine is surfing the internet on my phone. (Yes, it can be done, although it is easier on the way down than up and it is certainly not possible while going backwards.) As part of that practice, I have possibly read every blog ever written about Mt. Elbrus, ranging from the missives sent by the ubiquitous Pilgrim Tours (who publish success ratios for each of their almost weekly climbs once the season starts) to past worldwide wrestling pro John Layfield’s diary of his ill fated attempt to summit a couple of years ago. I
haven’t ignored YouTube either. I have stayed up many a night viewing other people’s clips of the Barrel Huts, the snow, and sometimes, the summit.

What all these have in common is their utter lack of consistency. You go from the cheery Canadians planting their flag at the summit under almost clear skies to the blog from the South African woman whose group gets caught in a storm just meters from the summit and who has to struggle for hours through deep, deep snow to get back down. There’s one video that seems to consist of nothing but climbers collapsed in a heap while snow pelts down on them.

Last Thursday I watched and read enough of these that I awoke Friday wondering just what the heck I was I actually planning on doing. How do we know whether we are going to encounter blue skies or will we fall victim to the truly dangerous mountain gods? But, it didn’t take much more than remembering how I felt when we reached the top of Kilimanjaro in all its icy splendor, or the views of the wind whipped rock and stone of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, to get me going again. Two weeks from today. Countdown is on.

How It Began.

Four years ago this past April my husband asked me what I wanted to do for my 50th birthday, then a year away. And unhesitatingly, I blurted out, “let’s climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.” Now, I had always had a penchant for high mountain adventuring; I had gobbled down Into Thin AIr and the Seven Summits by Dick Bass and Frank Wells, and watched all the movies on TV about K2. Why, I didn’t know. There was just something that drew me to those tales of adventure – so separate and apart from the more mundane peaks and valleys of my daily life as a lawyer.

So in June/July 2011 we did indeed summit Kilimanjaro with a small company called Serengeti Pride Sararis. We took the long 8 day route, Lemosho via the Western Breach. More on that later. But that experience was enough to get us hooked. Since then, we have hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, trekked up and down the Grand Canyon, tried to summit Mt. Hood (another story for another day), and climbed Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. And this summer, in about six weeks, we leave for Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe and what we hope will be our second of the seven summits.