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.


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.


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.


Looking Backward, Leaping Ahead – Travel Planning


Where it all began – Summit of Kilimanjaro, July 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Old” Library

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

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

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

The “New” Library

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

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

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

Some others? Consider:

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

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

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

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

A Brief Musing on Mothers and Mountains

Sunset over Kibo, Kilimanjaro
Sunset over Kibo, Kilimanjaro

Today is Mother’s Day, at least here in the U.S. And since the theme of this blog is from swamp to summit, a brief shout out to all mothers may be appropriate.

Of course, there’s my own personal experience of motherhood – both as mother to my two daughters and as a daughter and granddaughter myself. I was fortunate enough to know both my grandmothers – one from South Yorkshire in England, and the other from a small town in Alabama. Yes, I know it’s an unusual combination, but that’s a story for another day. Both of them worked, one as a career teacher and the other as a registrar at a college. They were both determined and fiercely independent women. I still wish I had seen them together when the Alabama grandmother and the Yorkshire grandmother went sight seeing together in London. I can only imagine.

My own mother shares all those characteristics. She took up running in her late 40s, after discovering she had a natural talent for it, and ran for many years – including winning her age category in quite a few 5Ks. To this day she still walks a good two miles daily. I sometimes wonder if her sudden shift to become a runner helped inspire my decision to take up mountaineering and trekking at age 49.

Being a mother certainly encompasses both swamps and summits. And since the younger daughter – known as S – graduates next weekend from Tulane University in New Orleans, I’m looking forward to experiencing a summit in the swamp.

And just one more musing on the topic of mountains and mothers – the earth itself is described as Mother Earth, Gaia…maybe we’re all looking to return to the mother of all of us, to reach back to something primal and life giving, and that’s what leads us to the swamp, along the trail, up the mountain. Countdown is seven weeks to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.

Ascent Up Holiday Mountain

Lake Ivanhoe
Lake Ivanhoe

Summits, as I’ve implied before, are hard to find here in Florida.

But starting in October, the holiday season stretches on and up like the long trudge up parts of Kilimanjaro. And, of course, trying to fit work and training in between both hosting and attending the social functions of the season can create a stress level no less intense than the oxygen deficits you feel at over 14,000 feet.

Here in the U.S., at least, it starts with Halloween. Even though the daughters are no longer among the bands of ghosts and goblins marching through our neighborhood in search of treats, for over 20 years now we have shared the evening with the parents of two other children of identical age (and I do mean identical because we met in Lamaze class).

A short three of four weeks after that is the annual trek to California for Thanksgiving – see earlier post about Point Lobos – and trying to cram as much time as we can with family and friends into a barely four day visit. Let’s see, that works out to how many minutes a person?

The Cooking Operation- Making Meringues
The Cooking Operation- Making Meringues

The return from California starts the cycle of my work party, the husband’s work party, the book club party, the women’s group party, various and sundry parties, and then one I host to prove that I too can do something other than practice law and climb mountains. This one was particularly challenging since it came on the heels of an unexpectedly extended out of town business trip. Always make sure the day 1 jacket will match the day 2 skirt to create something that looks vaguely different for day 3.

I suppose everyone feels the holidays should culminate in a summit at Christmas or New Year’s – as immense and amazing as that incredible spot at the top of Mt. Elbrus  – or perhaps, to use a more accessible image, the fantastic ice castle at the top of the mountain in Disney’s Frozen.  But maybe it is really the gentle valleys hiding somewhere amid all the revelry that give the holidays some meaning – the few quiet moments where you can sit for a few minutes, meditate, and watch the sun reflect on the summits that surround you, whether real or metaphorical. Happy holidays, everyone.


Summits of All Sorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Minute


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

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

The Fear Factor


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

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

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

How It Began.

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

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