Everest Base Camp Trek – It’s A Long Way to Katmandu

It felt as though we’d already had a full day of activity – after all, we’d just peered at Everest from 18,200 feet at the summit of Kala Pattar – but we had hours of trekking ahead of us. After breakfast in Gorak Shep, we headed off to Pheriche, via Lobuche, where we had stayed two nights ago. We had lunch at the same tea house – the Oxygen Altitude. Such an appropriate name – M and S suffering a little bit – sometimes the way down is actually harder than the trek up.

After lunch in Lobuche, we traversed again past the memorials to the dead Everest trekkers (this time getting a photo of the one in honor of Scott Fischer – after all, his old company, Mountain Madness, has been responsible for a lot of our adventures), and then down what had been a very long uphill on the way to EBC. After a bit, we made a right turn and headed into previously unhiked areas toward Pheriche.

We descended into a wide flat valley with spring grasses and flowers sprouting up. The monsoon was starting early this year, and we experienced a bit of hail, followed by rain. The wind picked up, and we marched along stoically, picking our way amid puddles and piles of yak dung.

We finally reached the village of Pheriche and our abode for the night, the Himalayan Hotel. It was the nicest place we had stayed for a while. Each room had its own bathroom and there was a huge dining room.  I had dahl bat for dinner. J and I were both exhausted after climbing Kala Pattar and then hiking five plus hours mostly in rain. But we were at a lower altitude and it’s amazing how well you can sleep lower than 16,000 feet – especially with an en suite bathroom.

I awoke without a headache for the first time in a while. For me, at least, altitude just does that. You learn to live with a low grade headache each morning –  but two ibuprofen and two cups of coffee typically take care of it.  We took our time and finally departed about 10. There was a lot of downhill and then up along the side of the valley with the milky river below.

Stopped for some bathroom breaks at various small villages; we were moving back into village culture. Mani stones and stupas were the order of the day again. At the Wind Horse Lodge – the elderly owners sat outside in the sun. The man had a mala in one hand and an individual prayer wheel in the other – as he spun it the mala beads slipped through his fingers, effortlessly counting his prayers. His wife wore the traditional apron over her brown skirt – topped by the ubiquitous down jacket that everyone wore.

This time, instead of Upper Pangboche (home of the flying monk – recounted in Everest Base Camp Trek – Tengboche and Dingboche (or Lost Horizons)) we went through Lower Pangboche. It was an active little village, with juniper incense burning outside many of the tiny shops. By now blisters were running rampant and I was the cause of the next stop for foot care issues.

We had descended to the tree line now, and wild purple iris were starting to reappear. We crossed the river a couple of times, and then made our way up a long uphill through the rhododendron forest back to the placid setting of Tengboche. It truly was a Shangri La moment, and even more pink and purple spring flowers had bloomed since we were last here. We had lunch and hung out in the dining room, watching the grey mist settle in over the grazing cows and horses. Despite this, a group of monks in their crimson robes made their way across the meadow into the neighboring field for an energetic game of soccer. We did nothing so energetic. Instead, our little hiking group engaged in a lively game of snakes and ladders on one of the many board games in the dining room.

The next day we had to make our way to Namche. We’d walked this path before. But it looked totally different from the opposite direction. I think this is possibly the most beautiful part of the whole trek – and possibly any trek. It was nearly all rhododendron forest – crimsons of all shades, steep snow-capped mountains, clouds, and blue skies. The rhododendrons were so bright you could see splashes of colors in the distant mountains like fall leaves.

At one point we saw a musk deer, unusual for this area. They are hunted for their musk glands, and grow long canine teeth.

It was a relatively short hike to Namche and we were back at the now familiar Himalayan Culture Home by lunch.  It seemed warmer this time. In the afternoon we climbed a series of hills to the rather dilapidated National Park Museum (most notable for the Tenzing Sherpa statue) and the Sherpa Culture Museum. It is an odd place. Owned by a man who had lost his hearing to meningitis, didn’t go forward with his education and instead opened the museum. He’d hosted Sir Edmund Hillary in his later years. We were ushered into a dank and moldy basement where we sat on folding plastic chairs and watched a 20 minute slide show about Sherpa culture projected on the wall. And the inspected the very impressive – but not updated – photos of every Sherpa Climber who had scaled Everest.

We had an early night that night (not that any weren’t early).  The next day we had to make it all the way to Lukla. On the way, this had taken  us two days and now we had to do it in one.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Under the Eaves of the Roof of the World

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It had now been eight days since we left Orlando, and we were finally ready for our trek to Lobuche at 16,180 feet.  This took us well above the tree line into a very barren area, through valleys occupied only by grazing yaks (who seem able to eat anything), and what can only be described as a stone hobbit house for the yak herders. Everest peeked through clouds and mountains in the distance.

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We had lunch at a tea house on the other side of a slightly less scary swinging bridge, which was followed by a very long uphill, culminating in the many memorials placed in honor of those who have died on Everest. They reminded me in some grim way of the above ground tombs you see tthroughout New Orleans.

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From there, it was more up and down and finally into Lobuche. We were by now completely out of village culture and into trekking culture. We kept running into the same people everywhere – the guys from India, the nurses from Florida who were working in Nepal, the Australian couple. And I think I forgot to mention that he who hogged my seat on the flight to Katmandu ended up staying across the hall from me in Dingboche!

The Oxygen Altitude Hotel was our next residence and one of the worst bathroom experiences yet – even though by then we had adapted to the fact that the existence of an ostensibly normal looking toilet meant nothing about flushing. Instead, flushing was correlated to the barrel of water with the plastic jug floating on top that was placed next to the toilet – and usually in just a spot to make it hard to close the door. But when you realize how difficult it was just to get that water there it becomes much more understandable. At that height – despite the surrounding glaciers – there’s no easy water source. There’s also no source for fuel. Yak dung fed the one stove in the dining room – and it was the only source of heat.

After we arrived,  J and I went with our guide for a short acclimatization hike up the nearby ridge to look at the Kumbo Icefall. I forgot my poles and it was dicy on the way up and started to snow on the way down. The Icefall itself looks like someone took a big bag of snow covered ice cubes and dumped them down a slide.

None of us slept well that first night at over 16,000 — and the next day was to be the trek to Gorak Shep and EBC. We started at a reasonable hour but the team wasn’t moving very fast – it’s a lot harder to get oxygen at that altitude – and we ended up going first to Gorak Shep, checked into our tea house and had lunch. This was a much smaller lodging – our rooms were up three flights of completely uneven stairs – some almost 20 inches high – and I found getting to the room as hard as the trek itself. To add insult to injury, due to the water issues the inside bathrooms were barricaded off during the day!

The trek to EBC – theoretically the talisman of the trip – is challenging. You hike alongside the glacier – mostly stone-covered but with deep divots through which you can see tens of feet of blue ice and frozen lakes.  Lots of rocks to pick your way between and finally you reach what feels like a natural levee between two valleys that you hike along.

 

IMG_0410The creepiest part of the experience was to hear avalanches and rock fall by Everest and the surrounding g mountains. J and I were hiking by ourselves ahead of the team. At first I heard a sound like thunder – a slow roar, a rush, and then I heard someone yell from across the valley. I think it was on Lhotse. We heard several more similar soundtracks – and on the way back I saw a huge rock become dislodged and start a slide.

We waited for M and S at the levee just before base camp so we enter together surrounded by prayer flags. It’s very spread out and I wish we’d had the time to poke about. Weather had been terrible at the summit so most of the climbers were still at base camp.

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After photos, we headed straight back. Exhausted and early to bed – especially since J and I were rising early to climb Kala Pattar – 18’200 feet – which was our main mission.

We got up at 5, had a coffee and a Cliff bar, and met up with our guide. Our tea house was very close to the beginning of the trail. Very steep dirt for the first part and my fingers were absolutely numb. The ground was frozen solid. Then, there was sort of a tundra area and another steep uphill, this time through black stone (which is what kala pattar means). A tiny bit of scrambling, especially at the top – and we were there. Surrounded by the panaramic view of the highest of the Himalayas – I finally I had that over 18,000 feet of altitude nothing will get to you feeling that happens only  at serious height and after days of trekking. I was happy.

Descended, and had breakfast with M and S. We headed back to Lobuche, for lunch at the Oxygen Altitude. We were about to start the trek for the long way home. (More to come in that front.)

M and S had never done anything like this before. They did great. But it’s nothing to do with the training or  physical discomfort you endure. The outcome of trekking at high altitude takes a while to sink in.  The reality is – no one and nothing can ever take away it away from you. We had stood in the attic just under the roof of the world.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Tengboche and Dingboche (or Lost Horizons)

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After two nights acclimatizing in Namche Bazaar, it was time for the march to continue. Sleep patterns were by now most peculiar – I found myself asleep by 9 pm, awakening at 1 am or so and reading, and then returning to sleep. I seemed to have reverted to the Middle Ages concept of first and second sleep.

The day we left Namche was the day before Buddha’s Day. We walked clockwise (of course) around the monastery where prayers had already started and along the trail that we had looked down upon the day before. At first it was relatively flat, with some gradual ups and downs. After some time, we entered the Sagamurtha National Park and the altitude where the rhododendrons were still in bloom. Pink, white, red – forming an arcade over the trail. Another swinging bridge – I can feel myself start to sweat – and then time for lunch in a small cafe. The walls were covered in tapestry and all the food was prepared by two women over a wood burning stove. It felt as though we were in an old fashioned gypsy caravan.  After, we were backed against a wall by one of the many yak trains coming through. This was S’s first of many encounters of the not good sort with a yak.

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A couple of hours of up through layered jagged mountains, overhanging fog, framed by rhododendrons.  These mountains are new, geologically speaking, and a young world appeared around each bend in the trail.  Light green trees interspersed with dark pines, creating a textures that clothed the mountains.  We made it to the top in a respectable time, turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the Tengboche Monastery.

Checked in to the Tashi Delek Lodge and then visited the monastery. Tengboche is centered around the very old monastery – there were a few tea houses for trekkers and a bakery, but we were now far away from the village culture we had previously experienced. It is bucolic. There’s an open meadow area where cows roam, the gate to the monastery and some low buildings where the monks live in numbered rooms, and a few grey stone tea houses.

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Six of the 12 resident monks sat in the center, chanting in a low drone. They spend their lives here, in very small rooms.  When we stayed at Tengboche on the return, we saw the younger ones going off to play soccer, crimson robes flapping in the wind.

The fog rolled in, slowly covering the small dwellings.

The next day we trekked to Dingboche, where we were to spend two more days acclimatizing to to over 14,000 feet. We could hear prayers chanted in each of the villages as we walked through.  The wooded part of the trail soon opened up into a stony valley – the milky river below and some serious rock slides where I did not want to linger. Ultimately we ended up in Upper Pangboche. Most trekkers go through Lower Pangboche only, but it was clear that our guide wanted to make a special stop at the monastery for Buddha’s Day. This is a 400 year old structure, founded by a monk who allegedly flew there. Various people were coming in and out to pray for Buddha’s Day. Z lit a butter lamp, incense was burned, and he prostrated himself three times. A lay monk poured water in all of our cupped hands to drink and smoothe on our foreheads as an act of purification. He also showed us a niche in the wall of the monastery that housed a relic of the flying monk – a bone of some sort.

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Hiked on and on, including a stop for lunch, and then another couple of hours to Dingboche. Trail normally about 2 feet wide, sometimes with very steep drops on each side. Across the river the stones were white with splashes of red. We were above the tree line now. Small junipers, yaks, and a lot of helicopters making their way to base camp.

in Dingboche we stayed at the Good Luck lodge. It was packed. We had a nice little room where the sun shone through the window and it was almost warm. The last few have been cold and damp. We are now at the point where yak dung provided the only fuel for the fire in the comunal dining area (which is never ignited before 5 pm). The middle of Dingboche is all privately owned potato fields – to get anywhere you have to walk three sides of a square.

The next day we did an acclimatization hike to the Chukung Valley. We followed the milky river. A wide, stony expanse, with Ama Dablam peering at us from the right, Lhotse to our left, and Island Peak in solitary splendor straight ahead. We stopped at a cafe – and who was there but the guy from the plane. This time he explained that his seat hogging actions had been fueled by a few too many pints after he unexpectedly ran into a cousin at the Dubai airport. He and his friends were doing the three pass EBC route.

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There was a piercing wind on the way back and we went much faster.  Once safely ensconced in Dingboche,  J and I explored the village while M Andy S made friends with some fellow trekkers who were happy to share the very exotic salami they had brought from France. A nice change from gu’s! The dining room was packed because the rooms were so cold.

We were now acclimatized to over 14,000 feet. Next up – two nights at over 16,000 feet – EBC itself and Kala Pattar!

The Final Frontier – Sedona – Part 4

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Sedona – Bell Rock Trail and Courthouse Butte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t have had one without the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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J on the Tonto

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

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

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

 

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

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Getting ready for the Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Niddrie Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ending Up in Aviemore – Finishing the Speyside Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Ballindalloch and Beyond – Hiking the Speyside Way

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As a reminder, this summer’s adventure was a 70 mile hike along the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, followed by a week in Scarborough on the North Yorkshire Coast. By day 3 of the hike we had sampled lots of scotch, eaten some very interesting food, and were getting in the groove of plus 13 mile days.

Day 3 was supposed to be easy, and it was mainly flat, even though the distances were longer than promised.  This is the point at which I became convinced that a Scottish mile is simply longer than an American one. But easier walking didn’t mean there weren’t other issues – this time of the directional variety.

After a nice breakfast at the Craigellachie Lodge – which included a “wee dram” of scotch in daughter A’s porridge – we got a late start and stopped for lunch only two miles later at a small town called Aberlour. By then my sunglasses had broken so we went to a chemist’s – where the only women’s sunglasses resided in a plastic box in the depths of the shop – which took the sales girl about ten minutes if not more to ferret out. Apparently there’s not much call for sunglasses in the Scottish Highlands.

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After dilly dallying around, it was time to make some miles. Scents distinguished day 3 from the others. They ranged from honeysuckle to breath of wild rose to anise to the yeast into sharp spirits smell of the distilleries.

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There were quite a few distilleries along the way, but tourist friendly most of them weren’t. These aren’t anything like the welcoming wineries you find throughout California and elsewhere. The distilleries are definitely a product of the Industrial Revolution and they maintain a stern factory like appearance – replete with lots of metal, brick, tubes….quaint, they aren’t.

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Distillery close to Ballindalloch – the ones on the river were even more forbidding

By mid afternoon we’d spread out, with daughter S and boyfriend P well in the lead. That meant that when we arrived at Ballindalloch after many miles of hiking, expecting to find our next hotel immediately, they were the first to discover that there were simply a few holiday cottages by the trail, none of which was for us. Ever resourceful, they asked directions and finally realized it was another two miles, off the main trail and on what’s called the Tomintoul Spur. Needless to say, all this had to be conveyed back to us stragglers, which required much use of our free texting on our close to dying phones.

As we were all somewhat dubious about where we were going, it was a relief to find the Delnashaugh Hotel, a very nice small hotel just off the A 95. No, the last couple of mile weren’t particularly scenic – for much of them we clung to the side of a two lane highway hoping the speeding cars wouldn’t sideswipe us.

An added benefit of the hotel was a really excellent restaurant and a very nice bar.

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Day 4 involved the two mile trek back to the trail, and another thirteen miles (that is, a Scottish thirteen miles) to Grantown-on-Spey.  This was possibly the most beautiful scenery of the entire hike. Along the river and between fields, past a huge bull with a ring in his nose – separated from us by only two strings of barbed wire- baby calves and lambs, and deer.  S and P even met a large and friendly horse near a farm, following which they took a wrong turn down what turned out to be a driveway where they were pursued by a very small and yapping guard dog.  We then traversed forest and more fields into a magical hidden valley, complete with babbling brook and wild flowers. Lots of uphill today – even one section steep enough that steps had been kicked into the grassy incline.

After a very nice lunch – at the edge of a forest with a view over the valley – more fields and forest. We must have gone through every variety of metal gate in existence.

I especially loved crossing muddy fields with little portable bridges and stepping stones over the muddiest bits.

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At Cromdale we crossed the river and collapsed in front of an old railway station – only to learn we had another 3-4 miles left. They seemed neverending – especially those through a forested park with very few directional signs right outside the town. But eventually we made it to Dunallan House, where we received a warm welcome from the owner, a native of Northern Ireland, who offered scotch and lots of stories. Incidentally, the interesting bridge below turned out to be another of our wrong turns!