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.

Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike

Cue the spooky music.

Our adventure at Rock Springs Run Preserve started off benignly. Theoretically, the trail ran along the side of a major river, which, again theoretically, seemed fairly straightforward. Credit the location to our hiking partner in crime, S. But before we finished (and made our way to Celery City Brewing in Sanford), it wasn’t clear if we were playing Hansel and Gretal or the Blair Witch.

Rock Springs Run Preserve is a well-known canoeing and kayaking spot. Apparently not so much for those who want to hike.

We set off in good time, armed with directions that I’d downloaded from a Florida Hiking site to my phone. I should have been suspicious there wasn’t a map. Our first clue that things might not go smoothly was when the parking area was on the opposite of the road than what the directions specified. Come to think of it, is it possible we hiked the entire thing backwards?

Despite our trepidation that the written directions were already inconsistent with what we were seeing (this little hiking team consisted of three lawyers and a college professor, and dammit, we like things to be clear), we nonetheless plunged forward into a sea of saw palmettos, dutifully following the white blazes that were supposed to mark the trail. According to our trusty directions, a bench on top of a “hill” should have marked the start of the trail – not sure what was intended by the hill reference as everything looked pretty flat. But there was definitely no bench. Cue the spooky music again.

Undeterred, we kept on going and reached an oak hammock where the white blazes simply petered out. After a couple of false starts down rabbit trails, the only other people we saw on the trail that day located a faint white blaze a few hundred yards away, and we all took off in that general direction. We lost them pretty soon – I think they were doing the 3 mile “pond hike.” We had the 12 mile “challenge hike” in our sights – except the few signs we actually saw on the trail indicated it was only 9. Whatever.

The trail continued on through classic Florida wilderness, with just enough similarity to the directions we thought we must be going the right way. That said, the entire trail was totally overgrown (we thought this was the part where the directions said you’d be walking on a narrow path like the Seminoles did). For a couple of hours we hiked through fields of saw palmettos, on six inch trails that looked as thought they’d been designed for rabbits, and across Florida prairies – low waving golden grasses, thick as a carpet, with occasional long leaf pines looking serenely down. We thought we were in good shape, despite some decisions we’d had to make at a couple of forks where the trail merged with fire roads. Oops. In retrospect, not sure those were the right choices.

After a quick lunch, it was time to find the white blazes again. Once again we took off through the saw palmettos – but now what we thought was the trail took us into a heavily forested boggy area. The directions referred to a “dank and earthy smell emanating up from the earth.” That seemed consistent, right? This is the point where M realized she should have worn her high top hiking boots.

After fording a couple of streams and fighting with some very thick over and undergrowth we finally found what we believed to be some white blazes. But these led us back to a white sand road. We walked along it and then saw blazes on a tree way across another field of saw palmettos. But as the trail, according to the directions, was going to rejoin the sandy road we thought were on, we decided not to bother with that particular scenic overlook and to stay on the road for a bit. Turned out the road wasn’t any easier walking as you sank several inches into the sand with each step.

By now we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about where we were going and I was thinking we should have left a trail of bread crumbs as we certainly could have been headed to a witch’s house somewhere in the depths of the Florida woods.

Problems compounded as we faced a series of intersecting sand roads, none of which, by now, bore any resemblance to anything in the directions. At that point we suddenly heard a truck, and a ranger pulled up, clearly wondering what our small band was doing in the middle of nowhere. Alas, while I’m sure well-intentioned, he had not a clue about any of the hiking trails and instead suggested we walk down one of the roads to the “horse barn.” Needless to say, we rejected out of hand his offer of a ride back to civilization.

Our meager sense of direction told us we should also reject his directions. And it was a good thing we did, as we later realized that would have added about another six miles to our journey and it was already mid afternoon with. 5:30 pm sunset.

We took off down one of the sand roads that we thought would lead back from whence we’d come. We did run into some “no vehicles allowed” signs, mentioned in the directions; the problem was, there were multiple such signs! By now the thoughts of a Blair Witch scenario were kicking in; time was passing; we were getting nowhere; and the sun was a couple of hours from setting. Those are the moments when you contemplate how much food is left (count: half a sandwich, apple. hard candies) and wish you’d actually bought one of those foil blankets that are supposed to keep you from hypothermia. Yes, it was in the sixties, but we are from Florida.

Finally, in a stroke of what I will modestly describe as genius, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I could type the general trailhead location into Maps on my phone and get walking directions. Lesson learned – why didn’t I drop a pin when we’d parked? In any event, a blue line miraculously appeared and we seemed to be going in the right direction, this time along a horse trail.

After another 45 minutes or so, we realized we were near a road and a parking lot area labeled number 3. A trail runner was just starting what I presume was to be a quick run given the time of day. He assured us if we walked down the road – we were now on asphalt – we’d get to the our parking lot. Mysteriously, parking lot 3 was on the side of the road specified in the directions….but there still was no bench and certainly no hill.

The car was sitting just where we’d left it, oblivious to the travails of its occupants. We piled in, realizing we were caked in dust, mud, and general Florida grime. Deciding we deserved some reward, off we went for beers at Celery City Brewing. I’m just hoping there wasn’t too much of a dank and earthy smell emanating from us.

Here’s a map I photographed from a bulletin board at the last parking lot. Don’t think it would have helped.

A South Coast Weekend – Massachusetts

Indigenous People’s Day, as Columbus Day is known in Somerville, Mass., has been a regular time for J and me to venture to Boston to see daughter A and boyfriend N. Lots of times we’ve combined it with a summit or two in the White Mountains, but this time made it more “swamp”-like with a weekend at the South Coast. Not to be confused with the many South Shores of multiple other states (including Massachusetts itself), the South Coast is an area of coastal farmland south of Boston. It’s got a complicated coastline, bordered by Buzzard’s Bay and Rhode Island, which makes orienting yourself quite difficult, and is the starting point for people taking the ferry to the much better known Cape.

We were fortunate that our Spirit flight to Boston was on time. Flying Spirit is always a gamble, as proved true on the way back when our flight was not just delayed but canceled! Following a nice evening in Cambridge, which included a brisk walk, dinner at Craigie’s On Main, and breakfast at a well known bakery, we took off for the South Coast, Dartmouth, Mass. to be precise.

N had put together an extensive itinerary, only a portion of which we completed, despite a valiant effort. First stop was lunch in Westport at Back Eddy. It’s a beautiful setting, right on the calm bay – blue skies and lots of boats. It’s also quite expensive and is frequented by lots of New England ladies.

Next stop was Gooseberry Island. I’m not sure if it’s an actual island or a peninsula, but it is a stunning area of uninhabited shoreline. A trail wends its way around the area; we were tempted to go bush whacking but didn’t for fear of getting stuck at some inaccessible point. The weather was superb. Lots of wildflowers and birds; seas of tall golden grasses.

Topped off our afternoon with beers at the Buzzards Bay Brewing Company. We’d been there once before, and it’s always a scene. There’s a farmers market, live music, a meadow packed with families — some of whose parents seemed to be quietly drinking themselves to oblivion while their kids ran around like banshees. I’ve always wanted to use the word “banshee.”

Our AirBnB was advertised as an “Artist’s Farmhouse”, located outside Dartmouth. It is owned by a rather well-known ceramicist, whose enormous, three chambered kiln occupies quite a bit of the back yard. His studio is next door. All the tiles in the house are handmade, as are all the dishes, and interesting collections of memorabilia from different places furnish the rooms. There’s also a fire pit, and an extremely large and friendly cat lives close by. And there was enough room for frisbee playing and for A to hone her new-found skill of juggling.

The Kiln

After dinner at Little Moss and breakfast at the Farm and Coast Market, both in Westport, we were fortified enough for our adventure to Newport, Rhode Island. We arrived just as a marathon was ending, but nonetheless were able to find a parking spot near the beginning of the famous Cliff Walk.

The Cliff Walk runs several miles along the shore – needless to say, along the top of the cliffs, past huge and ornate Gilded Age mansions. I was staggered by how many there were. Some occupied, some now museums. We stopped to tour The Breakers, which is the Vanderbilt mansion. The opulence is overwhelming.

The walk itself ranges from smooth paving to scrambles over some large areas of rock toward the end. Apparently there has been a fair amount of damage from various storms. As you near the end, the mansions took on a spookier feeling, and I could imagine an ancient widow sitting in her rocking chair, looking out the window at the ghosts of long passed guests.

We stopped at Red Dory (not sure where that name come from) for dinner on our way back. We arrived just as the sun was setting and were treated to a psychedelic light show of reds and pinks and oranges. It was a fitting end to a weekend filled with art and color and sea and shore. And almost made up for that canceled Spirit flight on the way back to Orlando.

You Have to Have a Goal – Balkans Here We Come!

Since starting mountaineering travel in 2011 at the age of 50 – I’ve realized that keeping up with the non ending stair climbing, walking, strength training, and the rest (note the use of the Oxford comma), requires one thing – and that’s a goal. Without that, why the heck am I spending my lunch hour climbing up and down on an interior unairconditioned staircase in Florida. But once that trip’s picked out – game on!

And for the last few years, it seems that each fall is the time to announce the next adventure. This year, credit to Felix Bernard and Richard Smith who wrote Winter Wonderland, it’s Walking in the Balkan Borderlands. Everyone start humming.

This trip is not high altitude but promises to be steep enough. We’ll go through the Accursed Mountains (true name) and through lakes and byways of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and end up in Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s remarkable to think you can visit Albania. When I was growing up, Albania was completely sealed off behind the most sturdy of iron curtains. I’m wondering what the will be revealed when the veils are pulled back.

This will be an 8 day trek, 10 or so plus miles a day, staying in three guest houses, three small hotels, and a home stay.

And it’s not just us – daughters S and A, A’s significant other N, and M and S of Everest Base Camp fame are all signed up.

There are eight months to go and it’s time to get my walking legs in gear. Yesterday we did a 7 miler at the Black Bear Wilderness Preserve here in Central Florida with M and S (that’ll be the subject of a separate blog post; let’s just say there was a snake involved). Great time – but there are a lot of steps ahead of us to get ready. But, at least, now it’s eyes set toward Kosovo!

Traveling in Style on a Greyhound Bus as a Hurricane Approaches

FromSwampToSummit has one of those rare treats this week – a guest blogger! But not just any guest blogger – someone who’s been one of my mother’s closest friends for over 60 years….and made her way to North Carolina from New Mills, near Manchester, England, just as Hurricane Florence approached. Her adventure involved a boutique hotel in Washington DC, a Greyhound bus, and a truck stop. Now in her eighth decade, M has had many occupations, from working in journalism to teaching. There are both swamps and summits here! Bracketed commentary is mine.

It’s a long way from the North of England to North Carolina

Here I am back in England and ready at last to give you the story as promised of my over-eventful trip to visit M and E [my parents].
The plan was a flight from England to Washington D..C., two nights in a hotel and a train to Durham N.C. The first hiccup was when Amtrak cancelled my train, but that was O.K., I booked a Greyhound bus. [My brother T was horrified at this thought and offered to drive to DC to rescue M from the potential dangers of a Greyhound bus. Being more naive, I just thought it was a cool idea.] I also heard that there was a hurricane around, but not to worry.
I arrived at my hotel in D.C. – an interesting old building called The Architect – at 7 p.m. on Tuesday the 11th. I phoned M and was told the hurricane was about to hit and I must get out of Washington on an earlier bus. My phone wouldn’t work so the helpful young man on Reception got me a taxi and I went to find the Greyhound bus station. The Greyhound office is two floors up in what seems like the roof space above Union Station, a great dark cavern of a place with a small glassed-in office in one far corner. The only earlier bus was at 11.30 p.m. the following day and I had to change at Richmond, Va., so I booked it.
Back at my hotel I started to get a series of messages, from my neighbour at home I – you must come back to England, a hurricane is coming; from M that it was not safe travelling on a bus at night; yet another message from I that I must stay in Washington because the hurricane was going to hit Durham; then again from M saying I must sit near the bus driver. So after all that I went to bed and slept quite well.
The next day was hot and humid, the sun beating down, fairly normal D.C. weather I think, though I found it exhausting. I had a walk about, not easy to find something to eat though eventually I found a few restaurants near Dupont Circle. I made sure I had breakfast and some lunch. I wandered down to the White House and back. Back at the hotel I had a shower, packed my bag again, and checked out of the hotel about 9 p.m., my helpful young man downstairs getting me a taxi again.
At Union Station I ate a slice of pizza on the main floor of the station, before going up to the great shed above where in the dark corner was a lit-up glass waiting room. I was about to go to the rest room before boarding at 11.10 when I looked up at a clock and found it was already 11.10 and my watch had stopped.
This whole journey was a chapter of accidents and miracles. I got on the bus, I had a seat to myself though not near the driver [as my mother, no doubt at my brother’s urging, had encouraged], and off we went into the dark still night, no sign of a hurricane yet.
At Richmond it was a proper bus station, a big hall with a cafe and toilets at one end and a desk at the other. I sat down and looked up at an indicator, which said that the Atlanta bus – my bus – was cancelled. I went to the desk where a very large man with dreadlocks was impassively fending off a crowd of chattering people. I found it difficult to understand his very strong accent but he seemed to say that the bus was not cancelled but it would not stop in Durham, my destination.
There was a young girl who I had noticed in the bus queue at Washington; she stood out because she was blonde and pretty, looked like a student.
She told me the bus was stopping at Greensboro and that was not too far from Durham.
I sat down again.
There kept being announcements which I could not understand, but then I found the bus was not stopping till Charlotte. I was miles from anywhere in the middle of the night, Richmond was unknown to me and I couldn’t go back to Washington, so I got on the bus. I only managed to do that because the young girl saw me sitting and came to tell  me a line was forming at the other end for the Charlotte bus. She was another of the miracles that happened to me that night. And I was lucky with the bus driver who was a helpful young man whose accent I could understand. I sat at the front of the bus this time.
Off we went into the dark again. I slept a bit and whenever I woke I saw a dry empty road stretching ahead between a wall of unmoving trees and I wondered where the hurricane was. Then I woke and began to see words I could recognise – Raleigh-Durham Airport one mile, Chapel Hill, then even Durham. And on the bus went. A woman passenger came to front and spoke to the driver. He said he was looking for a rest stop, so she got out her phone and directed him to one. We stopped at a gas station with a shop, and we all got off and went in to use the toilet. I saw that the young girl was getting her bag off the bus and she said we were not far from Durham. So I asked the driver to get my suitcase off too. He wrote down for me on a piece of paper:
Exit 165 off I-85 BP Station County Road.
The girl lent me her phone. I rang M [my mother] and read out the direction. It was 5.30 in the morning. The girl was going to Greensboro to a wedding but the friend she phoned was still in bed and did not answer. So we stood there outside the gas station as the odd car and truck pulled up and went away. A woman came up and asked if we were stranded and  could she help. I hope she stayed with the girl because I felt bad leaving her when she had been a lifesaver for me. The next car that came up had familiar figures in it and M got out. I nearly wept on her shoulder, I was so glad to see her.
It was not far to drive. When we crossed the Eno River I realised how close I had been to safety. Very soon we were sitting down having breakfast. We spent a few days waiting for Hurricane Florence but she did not trouble us much.
Sorry this has been a so long. I got a bit carried away remembering it all.
[Should we all have such adventures when we make it to our 80s!]

And back in England, At long last.

The Adventure of the Red Fort – Another Day in Delhi

 

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Our departure from Delhi was not until late evening, meaning that we had a full day of adventure ahead of us. S’s flight was even later than J’s and mine. So on the advice of the concierge at the Ashok Country House we decided the Red Fort was the appropriate destination. By now we had realized how little we really knew about the history of India so we were prepared for anything. But the Red Fort truly was like something out of the The Arabian Nights.

We took an Uber (talk about creating a continuity of experience in any culture…) along beautiful boulevards, interspersed with crumbling shopfronts and people camped in every little open space. After 40 minutes, we arrived in Old Delhi, facing a long and high red brick wall that seemed to go on forever – especially in the 102 degree F heat. Now we had to find the entrance, which we presumed was somewhere behind the numerous military checkpoints. There were very few Westerners, and seemed to be no Americans at all. I located one European looking man in a pastel shirt who vaguely looked as if he knew what he was doing. We followed him up to the ticket counter and through even more checkpoints into the Red Fort itself. Once again, men and women were separated into two queues, so I proceeded along in solitary splendor as J and S veered off in a different direction until we’d gone through metal detectors, pat downs, and bag checks.

The Red Fort was built in the 1600s by one of the Mogol sultans, and destroyed by the British. It’s now undergoing a major reconstruction. You enter through a large gate into an arcade filled with small shops selling everything from scarves to curios to jewelry. So overwhelming we didn’t even attempt to buy anything. You then arrive at the main campus, which I can only describe as Aladdin-like. A throne room for public audiences; a spectacular mosque with delicately inlaid red jeweled flowers on white marble. The whole area is about 2 kilometers in size.

After several hours recreating the world of the sultans in our mind’s eye, we were ready to fortify ourselves with a 21st century lunch. I’d read about a Mogol restaurant that dated back to 1913 that was supposedly run by the descendants of a chef to the sultans. We tried to walk there from the Red Fort, through reams of people, beggars, salesmen, and just occupants of the city. We eventually figured out Google Maps was taking us in circles, and I was still dealing with a swollen and numb foot – so we swallowed our adventurers’ pride and hailed a motorized rickshaw type thing. I showed the driver the address on my phone, and along we went though narrow streets only to be dropped off at what appeared to be a literal hole in the wall, but turned out to be a warren of interconnected restaurants. Yes, it was a little Alice in Wonderland-like.

To call it informal was an understatement. There was a sink at the entryway for washing up; we were then ushered up a short flight of stairs to a small and blessedly air conditioned room with five tables. Once again – we were the only westerners. I had mutton Muglai – a stew that was remarkably hard to eat with only a spoon and nothing to cut with. Plus, I felt so filthy by then that eating with my hands didn’t seem like a good idea – nor was I convinced that washing up with Delhi water was going to assist with any standard of cleanliness. Nonetheless, we managed. J had a superb chicken tandoori and S roasted mutton. Really good rice and nan and I don’t think a Coke has ever tasted so good as it did on that hot day.

We were worried about getting back to the hotel in sufficient time to get our transfer to the airport especially given some of the challenges of getting around Delhi. We walked past a man carrying what was (at that point) a live rooster, spice shops, a live bird market – and miraculously were able to connect with our Uber driver.

S still had his hotel room for another night (it turned out his flight left at 2 am that night, not 2 pm the next day as he had thought!) so we were able to shower off some of the grime from the 100 degree day before heading off for our flight to Dubai and then onto Orlando.

We’d traveled up 20,000 feet by foot to get to the top of Stok Kangri. As our flight took off I looked out the window at the puffy clouds as we topped that height. Had I really climbed there, into that level of the stratosphere? I had–into that cotton, light, hard fought, rocky, grey and white, jagged, damp and dry, foot upon foot, part of the world. Usually you only see 20,000 feet from the window of a plane. But to reach that altitude on foot meant every inch had a special meaning. From the horses that carried our bags, their bells clanging as they looked toward their home villages, to the shrines with the yak skulls ashen in the hearths, to the rainbow colored prayer flags sending wishes into the winds….20,000 feet now evokes an infinite number of memories.

A Couple of Days in Delhi – The City Tour

It’s now the end of September and about two months since the wrap up of our Stok Kangri expedition. I’ve described much of the trip in a circular fashion – I started with the trek, the summit, and descent, returned to the acclimatization days in Leh when we first arrived – and now I’m the point to conclude with the trip’s real ending, our stay in Delhi.

After the death march down Stok Kangri, one fell swoop from the summit to Base Camp to Stok Village, we ended up back at the Hotel Mogul in Leh at 10:30 pm, with a 4 am wake up call for a 5 am flight to Delhi on Go Air. We said good bye to our patient guide R, and were off to the airport, rejoined now by our three fellow trekkers who hadn’t made the summit attempt. So our ranks were back up to 10, if not the original 11.

The flight over the snow covered mountain ranges was spectacular. Once in Delhi, we were met promptly and were back at the Ashok Country Resort by mid morning. After catching up on emails, we had lunch and then seven of us went off on the Delhi City Tour. Three of us had had enough and spent the afternoon touring various bars!

Feeling scholarly, J, S and I took the tour route. Unfortunately I decided to wear shoes that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be exactly what you shouldn’t wear following 21 hours of trekking. By the end of the day, my left foot was the size of a melon, and I’d managed to compress a nerve on the top of my left foot (an injury that is still plaguing me even today).

That afternoon’s tour, led by a very enthusiastic tour guide, started with a trip to a monument, whose name I failed to memorialize, built by the Moguls atop a destroyed Hindu temple. The Moguls had defaced the eyes from the intricate Hindu carvings of men and women, but ironically, left intact their bodies, all carved into positions of the Kama Sutra. Next up was India Gate, a 20th century war monument. It operates as a free park for Indians and was packed with people picnicking in the red hot dirt, with very little grass. It was supposed to be the monsoon season, but the rains are getting later and later, and not a drop of water did we see.

We finished up with a drive through the “White House” area of Delhi. This is where the British and Indian governmental officials lived. The dusty streets of Delhi suddenly shifted into something that all but resembled a gated community here in Florida. Wide, tree-lined boulevards with low slung white houses behind fortified walls. You could imagine the governmental elite, all drinking gin and tonics, oblivious to the world a quarter mile from their doorsteps.

We made our way back to the hotel, where our own gin and tonics awaited by the pool. There was one last day ahead of us. The adventure to the Red Fort awaits.

The Oracle and the Stok Kangri Odyssey

The first night in Leh – our night’s sleep was punctuated by the sounds of very loud people in the hotel courtyard, followed by a heavy rain storm and a cacophony of barking dogs. I quit trying to sleep at 5:30 a.m. Breakfast finally started at 7:30 – eggs to order, poori, chick peas and corn.

That day, Tuesday, our second in Leh, Ladakh, involved a two hour drive along winding roads cutting through the mountains and following the river to the Alchi Monastery. A few villages along the way but the main outposts of civilization seemed to be multiple military bases.

The oldest parts of the monastery were 1000 years old, and show Mogol influences – before conversion to Islam. Our guide R gave an interesting description of his brand of Mahayana Buddhism. We had a typical lunch at a restaurant at the monastery – cheese in red sauce, potato curry, dahl, local vegetables.

Along the way was the remarkable view of the Indus River merging into another – the Crest toothpaste like blue into the murky brown. Especially notable were the carved signs of the road construction companies advertising their work.

After we returned from the monastery we had some down time until 5:30, when we met up with R for a short acclimatization walk to the big stupa at the edge of town. After a climb up 500 stairs, we were rewarded with a great view. And to reward ourselves further we ventured to “Food Planet,” a roof top bar where people who weren’t worried about their VO2 levels could order hookahs.

Wednesday started off on a sad note as one of our trekkers, V, encountered some medical issues that resulted in his having to return to the UK. And two others, M and M, were off at the doctors for colds! A bit daunted by the early reduction in our ranks, we took off on yet another acclimatization hike. Wove through crowded streets and alleyways by very large houses, many of which were under construction. Because of the weather, construction can occur only during the summer months. Spent quite a while watching the outdoor assembly at an elementary school.

Finally we broke from the road and went up a very steep trail, with switchbacks up to the top of an over 13,000 foot mountain. There are so many such peaks here they don’t even bother to name them.

I was steady but definitely the slowest – felt the altitude a bit. We were going rapidly and I felt I did ok. There were actually two summits with some fun scrambling in between. And coming downhill was great.

These early hikes are so odd – you can tell the guide is continuously evaluating you- not just to make sure you’re ok at the moment but to get a sense of how you’ll do when you are really at altitude and facing the summit and whether you’re ready.

We re-entered Leh by the 16th century Ladakh palace. A very plain, large fortified structure now empty. The current “king” of Ladakh – who no longer has any official status – is still alive and lives in a nearby village. Stripped of power but apparently not money.

That afternoon J and had our one splurge and purchased an old, intricate kilim (woven rug). It tells a story – you can see where the weaver started to run out of wool and and misjudged the layout of certain motifs.

One more day in Leh before our trek was to begin….and a day we’d all been looking forward to – a drive to the second highest drivable pass in the world. I was sitting in the front (motion sickness doesn’t improve with altitude). Many Indian tourists who had no acclimatization at all on motorcycles heading up to the pass. And many T-shirts promoting it as the highest drivable pass in the world – with lots of motorcycle graphics. The higher we got the more hairpin turns there were and the less the visibility. I simply didn’t look out the window for large parts of it.

The pass was highly militarized and we had to show our passports to move forward, even though we were still in the same country. We also learned that satellite phones and detailed maps were completely banned in this part of India. So much for my rescue plan at the summit.

We were now at 17,500 feet and it was freezing with light snow. I was grateful I’d dressed warmly and had my hiking poles – those who hadn’t were pretty miserable. After we stopped we struggled up a nearby hill – quite icy and couldn’t go as high as planned because it was simply too slippery.

But what was near the top was a small hut, lots of burning incense – and an oracle – a woman in a purple and yellow shirt dancing around the hut screaming and chanting. It turned out the day was a holy day – the one time a year that the oracle – from a local village – comes to this spot. Other villagers were there to light the butter lamps and pay appropriate homage. I think C from our trip has video. If he reads this he should add it to the comments.

After a very quick tea at the crowded small tea house – where most were huddling to stay out of the cold – we drive back down through a steady rain that only occasionally cleared.

Once back, we had a delicious lunch of momos (dumplings) and listened to R give our trek briefing for the next day. J and I went back to town to pick up some last minute things – amidst the pouring rain in what was supposed to be the dry season.

In the meantime, S had somehow managed to run into a rabbi doing evangelical work in Leh. He got into a conversation about the synagogue his wife attended in Alaska and ended up with a dinner invitation for 10 pm at night. He may be the only American/Alaskan to experience a Lubavitch Jewish dinner in Northwestern India. Just another example of the unexpected things that can happen in Ladakh.

The next day – the true Odyssey started. The one to Stok Kangri- where I started this series – Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition.  But there’s still more left- after the trek, Base Camp, the summit and the Death March down – there was still our stay in Delhi. That awaits.

FromSwampToSummit Goes Snorkeling

And now a brief detour from adventures in India to some time spent snorkeling in the Florida sun. If you can call what I did snorkeling. During the four weeks since our return, we’ve been to the beach three separate times for various reasons. Sort of remarkable, given it had been about a year since our last beach visit.

Most recent was my foray into the world of snorkeling. As you can probably tell from this blog, as a good Taurus I am an earth as opposed to a water person. Even swamps have some dirt in them. Embarrassing though it is to admit, it took about two years of lessons for me even to learn to swim.

Note the boat – the reef was somewhere out there

But we found ourselves on the beautiful shores of Palm Beach for a firm retreat, and the afternoon activity we signed up for was a “guided reef tour.” Now from that innocuous description – wouldn’t you expect a boat to drop you off at a reef, where you could gently bob about above the fishies to your heart’s content? Not so! I started to get cold feet in the morning when it was explained to me that we would be swimming out to the reef, which was “just off shore.” And my feet got even colder when we got to the meeting place and learned that not only was there no boat but the only resting spot would be one little yellow buoy hauled along by the guide that only two people could hang onto. There were a lot more people than that in our group.

Nonetheless, I waded into about 3 feet of choppy water, struggled into my flippers and got the guide to help me with my mask. I could tell he was regarding my lack of proficiency with a certain degree of trepidation.

We “took off.” I tried to relax – remembering from past snorkeling trips where I really was dropped off by a boat that was key. But with the waves continuing to roll, my mask not clear, and my arms flailing even though I knew I was only supposed to use my legs – I could feel myself starting to panic and gasp for breath.

So you know what? After about seven minutes of this, I told our guide – probably to his great relief – that I was going in. One of the things I have learned from mountain climbing is that you have to know when you’re maxed out. At a certain point you’re not proving anything and you’re not having any fun. Stopping isn’t giving up – it’s simply exercising some good old fashioned common sense.

It’s one thing to train and suffer a little. It’s one thing to suffer a lot when you’re on the way to hitting that 20,000 foot altitude goal. But it’s another thing entirely to be miserable doing something you don’t even like that much. I’m glad I escaped this one with only a crick in my neck and a sore hip from my underwater gymnastics!

I like the hilly parts of the beach!