Back in the Saddle – Mount Baker Part One

It was the afternoon before the trek/climb. After visits with family and friends – and an absolutely gigantic lunch in Gig Harbor (perhaps I am taking the idea of carbo loading too far) – we got an Uber and headed off to the Georgetown Inn in the Georgetown area of South Seattle. Known for being “gritty,” there are a lot of breweries and some interesting restaurants, but it is a long way from gentrification. The hotel had been recommended by our guiding company, but the desk clerk still seemed surprised to see our two very large backpacks walk into the lobby.

We located an Italian restaurant called Mezzanotte in what looked like a deconstructed building. Three levels of crumbling brick walls, ceiling tin covering some of them, and lots of people sitting outside. We were just as happy to sit inside and enjoy our fancy pasta – mine with king oyster mushroom Raghu and J’s with a very peppery sauce. We walked briefly around the neighborhood and back to our perfectly acceptable hotel – if a little noisy due to some bizarre mechanical noises that clicked and clacked throughout the night.

We woke up at 5:30 and met S, our friend from Alaska who was part of our Elbrus and Stok Kangri expeditions, in the lobby. We all ubered off to the Mountain Madness office, accompanied by three very large packs. The MM office is in a small house and there seemed to be at least three trips all packing up in various areas outdoors. Fortunately we found our correct group (I suppose otherwise we might have inadvertently gone ice climbing or something).

We met our fellow climbers – T, who is S’s friend and a pilot, two women from Canada (about my age or a bit older), and our guides, SH and H. Having nicely packed our packs, we now had to completely unpack, and lay everything out on the ground so our guides could confirm we had what we needed and left behind what we didn’t need. Apparently all of us had panicked when we got the packing video only two days before, which had led to multiple unexpected last minute purchases such as glacier glasses and sun hoodies! Two items, by the way, that I was very glad to have.

Everyone ended up leaving behind at least some items. I ditched my rain pants and second pair of pants. We reloaded our packs (my guess is mine was about 32-33 pounds), and met our porters, C, a Montana State student who was really serious about the mountains , and Z, a mid 20s exmilitary guy who was really serious about his sugar addiction. Z became best known on the trip for his hiking kilt – all he needed was a sporran!

After our packing and repacking extravaganza, we all loaded into the van, packs atop and in the back. We were enjoying trading travel stories with S, when just outside of Seattle he received a call to let him know there was a family medical emergency. S understandably felt he had to return to Alaska and pick up his wife so they could go where they were needed, so he ended up taking an Uber back to the airport. What a disappointment – this had been one of his bucket list trips. His friend T was a super good sport about it, and things were greatly eased by the fact that we really did have a congenial group.

We started off yet again, making a few bathroom and snack breaks. Z proceeded to sample every variety of junk food known to man (or at least available in Washington State), and I even found myself buying a large chocolate bar. Maybe it’s contagious.

Finally we turned off onto a series of dirt roads, gaining altitude over some teeth shattering potholes that sent the whole van rattling. We entered the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, and traveled along more dirt roads, ultimately meeting up with all the vans and cars of other Mt. Baker adventurers. Vehicles were parked way down the road, but we were totally lucky and someone vacated a spot right by the trailhead. One final bathroom break in our last real bathroom and we were off!

Our merry band

The trail starts off as an easy walk, even with a crushed gravel trail in some spots, but rapidly starts a somewhat unrelenting slope up. There are a fair number of dried out rocky river beds to navigate, tree roots to clamber over, and stone steps to climb. You first hike alongside the towering dark evergreens that stalk the trail; after some elevation gain the trees give way to shorter growth and meadows spotted with pink, purple, and white bell shaped flowers. I would have loved to use my plant identification app but there was no cell service and we weren’t stopping much anyway.

After a while, we reached the portion of the trail known as “Railroad Grade.” It’s a very skinny, straight ridge line that leads to Sandy Camp, which was to be our home for the next three nights. It is on an incline, although not particularly steep, but there is a lot of exposure. One side is a sheer drop down of rock and gravel caused by the receding Easton Glacier; the other side is a slightly less sheer drop into a wild flower covered meadow. I would definitely have preferred to fall meadow side, but neither option was very appealing. At times the path was barely a foot wide and you had to navigate over rock. At some point it must have been wider, making the trail look like a railroad track – hence the name, I presume.

Once we finished the Railroad Grade it was a short jaunt to camp (although maybe jaunt isn’t the right word when you’re lugging heavy packs). Sandy Camp is a small bowl quite close to the edge of the glacier and partly on and off snow banks. It’s somewhat sheltered from the wind – although wind was almost nonexistent while we were there anyway.

SH and H set up tents and we helped shovel snow to flatten out the foundation. As the temperature warmed and snow melted we ultimately found ourselves camping on quasi-islands. SH had to move his entire tent the next day because it turned out he was on a pond! C and Z, in the meantime, had to hike back to the lot to pick up their personal gear for the mountain and return again that same night. What a long day! Altitude gain was about 2300 feet.

After we settled in, we had a dinner of Mac’n cheese and smoked salmon and hiked up to a nearby bluff to see a spectacular sunset. On one side are the majestic mountains of the Cascades, on the other, the glassy ocean with Vancouver Island in the background. The setting sun backlit the clouds and snow capped mountains turning everything a soft apricot. It was a good omen for the next day and our upcoming summit attempt.

Iceland, Land of Tomatoes – The Final Chapter

Tomato greenhouse in Iceland
Tomato greenhouse in Iceland

After the adrenalin of our glacier hike and adventures in Vik, and the harrowing drive back to our Farmhotel – so much so that at dinner that night a couple from Sydney, Australia stopped by our table to ask what we had been doing that had engendered such excitement – we decided our last full day needed to be one of stark contrast.

We had seen an advertisement for lunch in a family-owned greenhouse that produced 18% of Iceland’s tomato crop, which seemed bizarre enough to fit well with the overall ethos of our trip. But first we wanted to sample one of Iceland’s famed hot springs, which we thought would be a good balance to the frigid ice of the day before. So we said farewell to the Efstidalur and set back along what was now our favorite snow covered road, heading, of course, in the general director of Fludir.

We had already decided to reject the more famous Blue Lagoon hot springs in favor of the much closer Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths. For a very reasonable price, you are given access to a series of pools situated at the edge of a lake, which is surrounded by snowcapped volcanic mountains in the distance.  The changing room was possibly the most spotless place I have been – two girls were diligently vacuuming the tops of the lockers themselves. The pools ranged in temperature, rising up to 50 degrees Celsius, and were adorned with rocks for resting your head, jets of varying water pressures, and benches to sit on. After steaming ourselves for a while, we started to resemble good New Orleans shrimp that has just started to turn pink. That was our sign to transfer to the Finnish-style, cedar lined sauna to dry ourselves out.  Once our shrimp-like selves had started to take on a slight bacon-like overlay, we felt that was a clue we had had enough. M and I retired to the previously empty women’s changing room only to discover it had been taken over by a bus load of middle aged jovial naked German women for whom this was clearly one of the highlights of their trip. We also realized we had probably violated most of the shower rules (don’t ask) but fortunately no one had been there earlier to observe our general American incompetence.

Keeping the red theme going, we then slipped and slid along more snow covered roads to the tomato greenhouse, Fridheimar.  And what a greenhouse it was! Masses of tomato plants, all growing from small boxes at the ends of the aisles, their vines entangled along string structures spanning the entire width of the greenhouse. Electricity is very cheap in Iceland due to the geothermal energy pulsing under everything, and no one would think twice about the energy costs of greenhouse gardening of this magnitude. Automatic on off light switches don’t even exist.  Tables were set for lunch, which was, of course, all you could eat tomato soup, or if you were a big spender like S, pasta with tomato sauce. There was also a hollowed out tomato filled with birch schnapps – Iceland was covered by birch forests until the Vikings cut them all down.

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Having had our fill of tomatoes, we returned to Reykjavik by way of a quick hike around and into the Kerid crater and a stop at two seaside villages.  Very empty in March – the small towns are best summed up by unpronounceable names, giant waves crashing on sand bars out at sea, black sand beaches littered with tiny shards of snail shells, and a solid 50 mph wind that didn’t let up. That wind pursued us the whole way back to Reykjavik, where even on the main road the local drivers had slowed down to a crawl due to the blowing snow. When we finally staggered back into the by then familiar Hotel Natura we were more than ready for a happy hour drink in the bar, together with the car mechanics convention attendees who seemed to have taken over much of the hotel.

Return to Reykjavik
Return to Reykjavik

Demonstrating some travel smarts, we enlisted the aid of the front desk clerk who was able to wangle a reservation for us at one of the city’s trendier restaurants  – the not particularly creatively named Seafood Grill.   All the food was good (although I could have passed on S’s whale and puffin appetizer) but the desserts were outstanding. I had an almond skyr cake infused with thyme….possibly one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

We headed back to the airport the next day. But adventure still wasn’t letting us go. Just when we thought we had already faced some of the worst driving conditions known to man (at least to Florida man), the road to the airport – exposed, flat open – was simply consumed by blowing snow. J could see absolutely nothing – occasionally the yellow stakes at the side of the road made a brief appearance, but much of the time we were simply in whiteout. We arrived at the car rental return place to the spot where supposedly you could refuel – only to find the pumps were closed and we had to drive yet another 10 km  to find gas. We did, eventually, only then to have to turn around and drive along the same terrible road we had barely survived before. And, if anything, it had gotten worse the second time around! To say we were happy to leave the car with the rental people is an understatement. We later learned the road had been closed right after we had driven along it following a six car pileup.

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But lest you think our happy travelers simply then boarded their plane for a smooth flight back to the land of sunshine and oranges….no, not indeed. We had been unable to book a direct flight back and were returning via Toronto. But our flight was delayed out of Iceland (I’ll leave it to my brilliant readers to guess why) and the airline would not hold the connecting flight from Toronto to Orlando the necessary 15 minutes – despite the fact there were about twelve of us on the plane who were missing that very connection. But this blog doesn’t exist to complain about the incompetence of airlines – by now that’s just part of the condition of human existence – suffice it to say that we ended up with an unexpected night in Toronto and a very early morning flight back to Florida.

I’m now sitting here listening to one of our first Florida wet season rain storms pelting down, and contemplating the next summits facing us in June in Ecuador. Iceland wasn’t really a summit, per se.  But travel takes all forms – and travel with friends is one of the highest.

 

Iceland Summits: A Glacier Melts – Part 3

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Day 3 of our Travel With Friends Trip was to be the Iceland version of a summit. We had peeled off from the more typical tourist sightseeing regime and made our way to Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, which is Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier. It offered the opportunity to don crampons and climb on ice for a couple of hours. And at least J and I could regard it as some sort of training for our upcoming trip to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (only three months from now!).  Because of our out of the way location at the Efstidalur Farmhotel, we were a considerable distance away, and had to hit the road bright and early for our 10 am rendezvous with the guide.

The theme of “the weather gets worse” continued. After surviving the narrow snowed over road on which the hotel was located, we ended up on a mountain pass. All we could see was a line of yellow tipped stakes outlining the contours of the road, and it was only on the way back we realized how close we were to the ocean. We finally turned off onto what was described on our map as a 3 km road that could take 20 minutes to travel. It was dirt and lava rocks, pocked with huge ruts. Eventually we reached the end, in howling wind and hail – only to find the long promised cafe where we were to meet the guide was closed and there was no other sign of human existence. In our excitement of getting there and maybe finding a bathroom, we had all jumped out of the car without properly fastening ourselves up against the elements, and accordingly were drenched. There was no bathroom either.

Finally, another car pulled up and out with it our erstwhile guide from Icelandic Mountain Guides. From New Zealand, he bounced between Aconcagua, the Alps, the Cascades – all the best climbing. I’m not quite sure how Iceland fit in, but there he was. He assured us that although conditions were not good now (read “you will be blown off the face of the mountain”), he’d been watching the forecast and the weather should clear by 2 pm.

One of the many churches dotting the Icelandic landscape
One of the many churches dotting the Icelandic landscape

So with several hours to kill, we drove back along the rutted road to the village of Vik. Supposedly a quaint fishing village, on that cold icy day all we located was a collection of warehouses and small homes with barely any commercial establishments.  We did find one hotel with a cafe and a sign stating it opened at 11. We rang the bell and eventually the owner shuffled down. After I inquired if  they were open, he went back upstairs to check with the wife, and following an onslaught of Icelandic argument apparently between the two of them, grudgingly returned and opened the cafe. We ate greasy pizza while another few drenched lost souls staggered in, all of whose plans had also been laid waste by the weather.

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Eventually we departed Vik to head back to our long gravel road, but on the way we took a detour to Reynisfjara beach. A black sand beach with tremendous cliffs and rock formations – brutally windy and cold but stark and beautiful. It didn’t require much imagination to visualize Vikings landing there in their long boats. There was a cafe there with a huge glass window overlooking the crashing surf – next time we will know where to go.

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The glacier hike, although not particularly challenging, lived up to our expectations. As you ascend, the ice has become so compacted that in the winter it is a startling shade of clear blue, varying from periwinkle to deep turquoise. It’s set against black lava, some of which is even banded into the ice itself. There’s an ice tunnel just sturdy enough to crawl through – not dark as the light from the tunnel opening is refracted against the clear glass of the surrounding ice. A delicate tall ice arch had formed in one spot – by the time we were descending, it had fallen. Sadly, the glacier, like all glaciers worldwide it seems, is retreating. Where we were standing on rock near the cafe had been glacier just the year before.

It was finally time to bring our day to an end, and we had several hours of snowy driving to get back to our hotel. We had one more day left, and it was time to make plans.

Live From Iceland –

Sitting at the airport about to return from solid white out in Iceland to sunshine in Florida – much more to come in succeeding posts when I’m not about to catch a plane. Iceland: Glaciers to windswept sea to white on white against grey skies, and blue ice pitched against black lava. In the meantime, a quick photo:

Blue ice on black
Blue ice on black