Training Twists and Turns on the Way to the Balkans

My “about me” page of this blog, which I wrote back in 2014, describes me as a “mid-50s” person. Born in 1961 and about to turn 58, I’m hoping I still qualify. But one of the things I’ve noticed as I take this journey from swamp to summit – which started when I was 50 – is the subtle or not so subtle changes in my training activities over the ages. Some due to sheer boredom. Some, unfortunately, due to years, painful as that is to admit.

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When I first embarked on this journey, I was a regular yoga attendee, both Bikram and what I call “regular” yoga, two to three times a week. Then we decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011 for my 50th birthday and it became clear yoga alone wasn’t going to get me to the top of that mountain.  Hence, my now famous office building stair climbing regime. That’s the one thing that’s remained constant, even though my office has moved to a different floor and side of the building, which mysteriously is one extra floor in height.

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But the rest of it? Not so consistent. After our experience climbing Mt. Elbrus, I realized I needed way more heavy duty cardio. (See Steps on the Summit for our adventures on Europe’s highest peak.) Thus, I swallowed my disdain for running and embarked on a regime of a long (I worked my way up to 6-7 miles) run once a week, combined with a treadmill 5K at least once a week. But then my Wednesday yoga class was pushed to an earlier time and it became well nigh impossible to fit in a 5k between work and yoga. And then, after Stok Kangri, I realized I was all out so bored with running I couldn’t stand it, not to mention I was starting to obsess over my pace to the point it was becoming really stressful. Thus, my invention of the walk – run.  Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays – memorializes this latest training technique!

Bikram fell victim to the closing of the studio (which probably wasn’t helped by Bikram’s own fall from grace). Although I still love it, and there are a few classes here and there, the times are terrible, so I rarely make it. Instead I’ve picked up Barre to accompany my yoga classes. Of course, I do it at the Y, so there’s no real barre and we have to use chairs. I can only imagine what we look like to onlookers as we plié and relevee clinging onto the backs of our chairs.

Weights have been an off and on thing. Right now they are on – I learned after Kilimanjaro that the only way to strengthen your knees is to strengthen your quads and I think there is going to be a high need for strong knees in Albania’s Accursed Mountains.

But my newest invention is a treadmill variation that I discovered while watching mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards’ training regime on Instagram. He put the treadmill on its highest 15% setting, strapped on a heavy pack, and proceeded to walk uphill for hours at about 2.8 miles an hour, not holding on. At that incline, if you tried going any faster without holding on you’d probably fall off. Now, my dirty little treadmill secret had been that I was a “holder”. I reasoned it was all about the legs, right? But when I tried Cory’s technique , sans pack, no hands, I suddenly realized I was actually using a whole different set of muscles – and they were the ones you use on a real live mountain.

So I guess the whole point of this is ebb and flow and just go with the tide, to keep the metaphor going. Training is going to change depending on your age, the boredom factor, and where you’re going. I tend to be a creature of habit; at least I’ve learned a bit of flexibility on my swamp to summit journey.

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The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays

Mt. Elbrus from the Baksan Valley

I started running in 2014. We had just summited Mt. Elbrus, but I felt I was too slow on the descent and needed to increase my cardio training. True, some of it could have been due to the third degree sunburn I had managed to achieve. But, regardless, we knew there were a number of higher mountains in our future – the Ecuadorian volcanoes were on the burner for 2015 – so the cardio was essential.

Making our way up Cotopaxi

I started slowly; fast I am not. And over the next several years I worked my way from a 5k to a bit over 7 miles. There were times I felt I could have gone further, but I just didn’t. My standard was a 5k on the treadmill Wednesday nights before yoga and a 5 to 6 mile run on Saturday mornings.

But all things change. This past summer we actually achieved our goal of summiting an over 20,000 foot mountain – Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India. My Wednesday yoga class time was moved up to 7 pm, making it practically impossible to get a 5k in between yoga and work. And more importantly, I felt I was getting slower and slower.

For Type As like me that means that Friday nights started to be filled with an existential dread (ok, not quite that bad) of how my run would be the next day. Could I achieve under 12 minute miles consistently? Why didn’t I ever get an under 11 minute like I used to? What’s wrong with me? Can 4 years of aging make a difference? What does this say about my next climbing or trekking expedition? You get the picture.

Then, a few weeks ago, I just stopped. I simply made the conscious decision, somehow justified in my head, that what I really needed to improve was my general walking speed. So I would just become a fast walker.

I started with a very brisk three mile walk to meet a friend for (of all things) a stroll through a “fairy door” exhibition in a nearby park, and realized I could keep my “splits” at 15 minutes per mile or less. After a few sessions of that, I decided to “walk” to the Y before a Saturday yoga class. And as I took off down the road, on what felt like a crisp day, at least to us Floridians, I suddenly realized I wanted to run. So I did. And it felt good to let my legs move freely without obsessing about what my Fitbit was showing. I’d run to the end of the block or the next tree or whatever the mark was and then keep going at a walking clip for a while – and then run again, whenever I felt like it. And ironically, I discovered that when I run I’m running faster than I did and overall end up with 13 to 14 1/2 minute miles and a decently elevated heart rate.

I’ve been using this run- walk technique for a few weeks now. And I’m looking forward to my Saturday morning training sessions again. Friday nights aren’t filled with worry. As I wend my way through the neighborhood, I’m noticing more things – a new home renovation project, which trees are blooming, the latest development in the never-ending series of drainage construction projects by the lake where we live.

It was like letting the air out of a balloon. But not in a disappointing way. Letting up on all that pressure let me enjoy it all again. I’m going to try to remember that as we enter the upcoming Thanksgiving to Christmas marathon.

Seen on the edge of the lake

A Valley Between the Holiday Summits – Looking toward the New Year

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Mount Elbrus, Russia

I’ve always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is one of those odd no man’s land spots on the calendar. I nearly always try to take the full week off work; unfortunately this year due to the vagaries of the calendar and my work schedule I’m stuck working a couple of days of what ought to be a glorious week of nothing.

Christmas and New Years do make the close of the year a double peaked mountain.  The first peak comes accompanied by tremendous anticipation; by the time you descend to the pass and face the next peak you start wondering if you’ll make it up. It reminds me of Mt. Elbrus – a long slog up in the wee hours of the morning, hitting a high point – and then a graceful swoop down into the saddle (where I’m convinced I fried my face due to incorrect zinc application). But then you look up – only to see an equally graceful arced curve reaching up toward the summit.

We’ve been in North Carolina this week – not in the mountains but in the Piedmont – itself a spot between the summits of the mountains and the sea.  In fact, North Carolina has been called the valley of humility between the two mountains of conceit – Virginia and South Carolina. Apologies to any folks from there but the old saw fit nicely into my theme.

So as we venture through this no man’s land on our way to the next peak of New Year’s, I’m looking ahead to the summits and swamps of the new year.  June is the beginning of our Stok Kangri adventure. I read this morning that seven soldiers were killed near the Pakistan border today. That caused me to bring out the atlas attached to my parents’ ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica to confirm that Leh is not too close to the border (it’s not – although it is in and around Kashmir). For those who don’t recall – Stok Kangri is to be our first 20,000 foot mountain and husband J and I will be attempting it at what will then be the ripe old ages of 58 (J’s birthday is on day 2 of our travels) and 57.  Challenges for the new year abound; plenty of training yet to be done; and lots of summits out there to conquer.

Thanksgiving Reflections on a Blog (and Summits)

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When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s  Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.

It doesn’t really matter how many people read  it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that  someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.

Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet.  (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.

Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis.  But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.

The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own.  Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything.  Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older.  And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.

These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day.  There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.

An Announcement- Stok Kangri, India

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Stok Kangri is a snow covered mountain 6153 meters, or 20,187 feet, high. Yes, that is a reference to Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and I don’t expect to see a snow leopard, dead or alive, anywhere up there.  It’s supposed to be pretty arid.  And, it’s only partially snow covered. But Kilimanjaro is what started J and me on this summit journey, seven long years ago. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re off to Stok Kangri in the Kashmir region of India starting on June 24 of 2018.

To top it off – it’s not just the two of us, but our friend SB, from Alaska, is going too! I sent a casual Facebook post to him about our tentative plans, and within 72 hours he’d committed. SB is the person who gave me that last push – and I mean a literal push – to get up that last steep incline to the top of Mount Elbrus in the Caucuses region of Russia when I started this blog in 2014. Ever since, J and I have said how much we’d like to climb with him again –  and now we are! He’s climbed Denali and Aconcagua and actually knows what he’s doing. Provides a lot of confidence for J and me.

This is going to be a first. We’ve made it to 19,347 feet on Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2015. But we’ve never made it to that elusive 6,000 m/20,000 ft. peak. This is our one chance, before we go totally grey and spend our time sitting by the fire – although in Florida that would mean before a cool air conditioner. There will be a lot of more details to come.

The training begins.

Gear Check #? – The Scottish Highlands

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Ok, so Speyside Way isn’t much of a summit. In fact, much of it seems suspiciously close to a river bed, and it’s still unclear to me how much above the ocean rivers can be anyway. I mean, they run downhill, right? Where do they start?

Regardless, the Speyside Way is so darn far north on the globe that it should still count as a summit of some sort. I can’t rid myself of  this vague idea that things to the north must be higher  than things to the south. And, of course, if you live in  Australia you must get very tired clinging onto the earth for dear life so you don’t fall off.

Yes, there are true mountains for us in the future including Katahdin in Maine. And we hope Mont Blanc next summer.  But for now – it’s four weeks to our multi generational trip to Scotland and England. More on all that to come in future posts.

As six of the eight of our traveling party will be engaged in a 67 mile hike in the Scottish Highlands during week one …. there’s still got to be  a gear check. Admittedly, this is luxury back packing (glampacking?). Our luggage will be  carted along by a taxi between b’n’bs and  small hotels and we only have to carry daypacks. A far cry from the barrels on Mt. Elbrus. (Yes, for those of you new to this blog – you really do stay in converted (but large) oil barrels on Mt. Elbrus.)

Nonetheless, we’ve learned from experience – there’s still gear that must go with you even while glampacking   So what does this trip entail?

  1. Hiking poles. Everybody but me on the trip rejects them, but after day 3 they will be thanking me.
  2. Headlamps. Who would have thought you needed them in Mt. Washington in October but after a late start and letting all the French Canadians celebrating Canada  Day pass us, it was a pretty dark descent.
  3. Hard candies. I’ve sworn by these since Kilimanjaro. Cinnamon is the best but husband J swears by cherry.
  4. Everything waterproof. I have a strong feeling that there is is a lot of rain to be experienced north of Aberdeen. As we celebrate Tropical Storm Colin here in Florida this week the wet theme is definite front and center.
  5. Gloves. Need I say more. Cold hands. (Not small hands.)
  6. Ibuprofen. It will make everything feel better. Especially after a couple of 15 mile days.
  7. A kindle. Weighs nothing. Battery lasts for months. And you can cart an entire library with you. There’s a lot of down time on hikes. You need a good book to read.
  8. Less than four weeks now. Ready for vacation!

Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 180 Degree Turns

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

I’m still processing our Mount Washington hike. And I am increasingly struck by how little I actually want to go “real” rock climbing, which our present idea for a next adventure – The Grand Teton – seems to offer in abundance. I’m currently reading To the Last Breath – A Memoir of Going to Extremes by Francis Slakey.  It starts off with him and a climbing partner sleeping on a ledge on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite – roped, of course – only to have the webbing that held their “cot” fray and  plummet out from under them some 2000 feet down. Not for me.

But in contrast, somehow the idea of a 14 hour night into day slogging up and down a glacier on a volcanic mountain – even with the incumbent risk of avalanche, crevasses, and a slip that could turn into a never-ending tumble down – doesn’t read the same way to me.  I’m not sure I can articulate why a sheer granite wall feels so different than an expanse of deep white, but it does.  Perhaps the glacier seems something that simple determination can conquer; the other requires more innate physical ability and guts.

Whatever the case, all I can say is that narrowing our focus to a trip in June or July of 2015 to Cotopaxi, the second  highest mountain in Ecuador, with acclimatization hikes up Guagua Pichincha (15,696 feet) and Illiniza Norte (16,818 feet), is reinvigorating my training.  Today, having narrowly managed to dodge the paper avalanche currently threatened by thousands of documents on my desk, I climbed stairs for over an hour – seven times up and down my building.  Cotopaxi will be at least as hard as Elbrus, and there will be a sufficient amount of scrambling, especially, I think, on Illiniza Norte, to satisfy any inchoate desire to climb up a pile of rocks.

Cotopaxi is 19,348 feet, 7 feet higher than Kilimanjaro and about 800 feet higher than Elbrus.  Every time I have climbed a mountain I have always felt if I had a do-over I’d do it better the next time. But you don’t go backwards to a mountain. You just find a new one.

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 “What Nexts”

I’ve puzzled greatly what the next post topics should be post Elbrus. And as I am on what seems to be my never ending quest to climb stairs during the hamster wheel of my work day, I have come up with numerous topics, all of which are duly recorded on the notes section of my phone.

But I have resisted the urge for an in-depth examination of my sunburned lips (although an expose of the sunscreen industry may be forthcoming) – and I similarly am not going in the direction of laundry, dogs and calling the kids. Instead, I finally settled for some thoughts on what’s next.

The “what’s nexts” can come up any time – I’ve had it happen after a big case is finally over, after any milestone reached. But there’s something particularly difficult – yet exciting – about the what nexts after a climb.

For one thing, at age 53, there simply is no such thing as stopping the training. So that’s not a what next. Maybe I’m not lugging 23 pounds around on my back while climbing stairs at the moment, but if I stop climbing stairs altogether, I don’t think there’s any amount of time that could get me back to where I am. It’s like the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall – if a shark doesn’t keep moving forward it dies. OK, he was talking about relationships but you get the point.

But more than just that – there is a world of infinite possibility out there – tempered only by some reality of space, time, and physical ability. Time and space – I truly don’t see how, until I actually retire, I can take three weeks off work to climb Mt. Vinson in the Antarctic, for example. Two weeks is hard enough. As for physical ability – I have to recognize it probably is not within my being to carry 65 pounds and drag a 100 pound sled. Unless I quit my job, do Cross Fit everyday and invent some other form of training that presently doesn’t exist – that’s just out – which means Denali is too.

So – what next? There is Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Maybe trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco? And I am still determined to summit Mt. Hood one of these days. Mt. Adams? And we are seriously discussing a trip with friends to Iceland in March. There has to be some fine climbing there.

I just want to use my ice axe again. Right now the most likely near term possibility may be a winter ascent of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. And maybe I can even convince the daughters to come along.

I’ll throw it open for comments – from the north, south, east or west. Which summit next?

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