Stok Kangri is a snow covered mountain 6153 meters, or 20,187 feet, high. Yes, that is a reference to Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and I don’t expect to see a snow leopard, dead or alive, anywhere up there. It’s supposed to be pretty arid. And, it’s only partially snow covered. But Kilimanjaro is what started J and me on this summit journey, seven long years ago. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re off to Stok Kangri in the Kashmir region of India starting on June 24 of 2018.
To top it off – it’s not just the two of us, but our friend SB, from Alaska, is going too! I sent a casual Facebook post to him about our tentative plans, and within 72 hours he’d committed. SB is the person who gave me that last push – and I mean a literal push – to get up that last steep incline to the top of Mount Elbrus in the Caucuses region of Russia when I started this blog in 2014. Ever since, J and I have said how much we’d like to climb with him again – and now we are! He’s climbed Denali and Aconcagua and actually knows what he’s doing. Provides a lot of confidence for J and me.
This is going to be a first. We’ve made it to 19,347 feet on Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2015. But we’ve never made it to that elusive 6,000 m/20,000 ft. peak. This is our one chance, before we go totally grey and spend our time sitting by the fire – although in Florida that would mean before a cool air conditioner. There will be a lot of more details to come.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
I’m not sure I’ve formally announced the next choice of mountain…but the winner is – Trek to Everest Base Camp! Now I realize for you purists out there it’s technically only a trek up part of a mountain, but for those of us who took up mountaineering in our 50s it’s probably as close as we’re going to get to that particular summit. And there are a few peaks along the way, so surely that counts. Much more to come on this latest adventure in the coming months.
But the title of this post is Seeing the Summit and that has particular meaning at the moment. For – for the first time since the reading eye following my lasik for monovision in the early 2000s stopped reading – I can see without glasses!
The secret – a little thing called contacts. I haven’t worn them since the late 90s, but suddenly the glasses were just too much and too heavy. You need a light touch for summits and the glasses weren’t doing it.
It’s quite disconcerting to see your face close up without glasses for the first time in years. I definitely have more wrinkles and grey hairs than I realized. But the ability to read something whenever I look down (ok- I still can’t read the directions on cleaning products) – is amazing.
There’s got to be some clarity in that. And as I resume the type of training regime I think I’m going to need to reach the highest overlook of Everest – Kala Pattur- at almost 18,500 feet – and to spend about 10 days at over 12,000 plus feet…some clarity is sorely needed.
You can see a lot looking down from a summit – but getting ready to look at one up can be equally as important.
For the last several years, we’ve spent that most politically incorrect of all holidays, Columbus Day, either in New Hampshire or Maine, together with Boston and New Bedford residents Daughter A and Boyfriend N.
And despite hurricane force winds in Florida, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew, this year was no different. Of course, we had planned for a Friday departure, but after even my office announced it would close for both Thursday and Friday, I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. But it still took our So Budget It Shall Remain Unnamed airline until 4 am Friday to cancel the flight. For some unknown reason I’d woken up almost at the precise moment of flight cancellation and hence was able to have rebooked us before 5 – after which I immediately went back to sleep, lulled by the 60 mph wind gusts.
Saturday we woke bright and early to inspect the debris in the yard. The wind had howled most of the night, but Matthew’s 20 mile jog to the east had made all the difference. We made it to the airport, our one checked suitcase within one pound of an excess weight charge. All was going as smoothly as it could for a 24 hour delayed flight, until we learned that our Unnamed Budget airline had apparently forgotten to tell the first officer he was supposed to be on that flight. After about an hour, said Unnamed Budget airline snagged two pilots who had just arrived from Texas and who agreed to rearrange their schedules to fly us to Boston.
We finally arrived in Boston about 7 pm. After dinner at a nearby Peruvian restaurant (with Pisco Sours!), N drove us through the night in the old faithful Previa to Jackson, New Hampshire.
We had left our reservations late and knew we weren’t staying at a quaint New England B&B. Instead we were booked at an old style motel, run by a crusty elderly man who had clearly been asleep when we had to ring the service phone after we arrived at midnight. I must admit to a brief moment of panic when I saw all the lights off in the office and the no vacancy signs at every establishment in town.
But we managed to get ourselves checked in and even to wake up by 7 or so. Well, 7:30. Our original plan had been to climb Mt. Jefferson and then go over the ridge to summit Mt. Adams. But given the late start and the overall hassles of the last few days, even we recognized that perhaps that was overly ambitious.
We gave A the choice between a shorter and steeper climb or a longer and more gradual one. Ever the pragmatist, she went without hesitation for the shorter one – Caps Ridge.
It was about an hour drive to the trailhead, which was quite well hidden down a dirt logging road. It was a relief when we finally found the small parking lot and saw other hikers getting ready to start.
The trail starts with a fairly steep climb through thick woods. It was overcast and grey and proceeded to get more overcast and grey the higher we climbed. After a bit, the trees turned into skinny short birches, their white trunks looking vaguely unclothed with ribbons of grey bark hanging off them.
From the birches we climbed through scrubby pines and finally above the tree line. At that point, the bit we hadn’t been expecting – some real scrambling and rock climbing – suddenly appeared. Frankly, I thought it was harder than Mt. Washington up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail – although it certainly was shorter. There were at least three sections where we were looking for cracks to scale and I made good use of the shrubs growing on the sides as handholds. A had neglected to bring any gloves and J ended up doing it all bare handed.
Toward the top there was a section of big boulders, covered in lichen, where you balanced along the edges of one rock holding on to the one above. It was like some crazy jungle gym that you had always wanted to try in kindergarten.
By that point it was all slippery and even greyer and A was showing tremendous resistance to the idea that a summit was really necessary, wisely reminding us all that what goes up must come down. But at that point, striding out of the mist, came a European climber who looked as though he’d just left the Matterhorn. According to him, the summit was only “10 or 15 minutes” away. Despite the fact we were now experiencing sharp dry pellets of hail, that gave us the encouragement we needed for that final push up.
Of course, it took us 30 minutes, and the view from the top was as grey as the view from the bottom — but it was still the summit!
We had made a commitment not to waste time at the top because we had all those sections of rock to slide down. And slide we did. My favorite part was when I saw a foothold several feet below my legs, and figured if I just started the slide I could grab on to a nearby branch halfway down to break my fall. Not very elegant, but it worked.
I ended up climbing a good portion of the way down solo. As I’m usually the slowest going up, I feel I must make up for it on the way down. I had a good head start and it seemed a mistake to intentionally reduce my pace. But voices don’t carry well in the mountains; I couldn’t hear my fellow hikers; and I spent a fair amount of time worrying I had drifted on to a rabbit trail or a dry stream bed and would plow further into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. And, I was without a phone since J had forgotten his and was holding mine to take photos. Big note to self. One group should not have all the phones!
Regardless, it was back through the scrub, the birches and the woods, and I was sitting on a log waiting for the other side when they reappeared not too long thereafter.
We were all absolutely filthy and wet. Back to our little motel, showers, and out for a short walk and dinner. The weather cleared and the brilliant fall foliage that we’d been hoping to see all day was finally reflected in the orange pink sunset.
And how better to conclude our climb in The Presidentials than by watching the presidential debate. Jeffersonian it was not.
It’s a thinly veiled secret on From Swamp to Summit that I’m from Orlando. That Central Florida city where one looks in vain for a hill to train on and ends up resorting to staircases. Staircases have been good to me. I’ve made it up Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, Illiniza Norte and Cotopaxi. And more to come. I hope.
I may not have grown up here, but Orlando and Florida reach out to you with their sticky sweaty humid hands and hold you close to their hearts. I moved here in the middle of 1989. Sight unseen. True story. It was a snowy night in New York and husband J, who was finishing his Ph.D. at NYU received a tenure track offer at a small liberal arts college here. I’d never even been to Florida on spring break but after J interviewed in Orlando and described the smell of orange blossom, I was sold.
So after a brief diversion through Greece and Turkey (another blog post in and of itself) we found ourselves, our one room of furniture, and our cat Chelsea in this city we’ve called home for over 25 years.
A swamp does describe life in Orlando this week. But not the life giving jungle green of the Everglades wetlands. More the brown slough of despond. Exactly one week ago I awakened early, despite having been out in downtown Orlando the night before at a concert. And across my phone came word that at least 20 had been killed at the Pulse nightclub, not far from where we had been and a few blocks from my office. By mid morning the number had increased to 50. 49 victims and the gunman.
This massacre was framed by the Friday night shooting of a singer from the Voice, followed by the suicide of the killer, and the tragedy a day after the Pulse shootings of the drowning of a two year old by an alligator at a theme park lagoon.
The City Beautiful, as Orlando likes to call itself, didn’t look so beautiful anymore. On Monday evening I found myself at one of many vigils around the city at a makeshift memorial that has sprung up in front of the Performing Arts Center. There’s not enough public space in Orlando and what has happened there shows why people need to have a place to come together. There are candles, ribbons, photos, posters, notes written on paper chains. People standing are reverent. Nearly everyone I know has made a trip there.
On Thursday, President Obama and Vice President Biden arrived. I watched the motorcade from my office window, together with some of my partners. I’ve seen many grown men cry in the last few days.
That night, J and I went back to the memorial. A motorcycle club had its bikes lined up, illuminated in rainbow colors. They revved their engines, and a speaker for the club stepped forward and asked the several hundred assembled there to hold hands and observe a moment of silence. Everyone did.
Rainbow flags are flying all over the city and practically every public building has been illuminated in the now familiar red, yellow, orange and blue colors. Tonight is a city wide commemoration that is supposed to be non religious, non political, and non branded. Just a time for people to be together. We’re going to walk down there.
Perhaps after today, and the symbolism of one week later, healing will start.
It’s a long way up any mountain. And it’s going to take Orlando a while to slog up this one. But I know that Orlando and its people have what it takes.
Ok, so Speyside Way isn’t much of a summit. In fact, much of it seems suspiciously close to a river bed, and it’s still unclear to me how much above the ocean rivers can be anyway. I mean, they run downhill, right? Where do they start?
Regardless, the Speyside Way is so darn far north on the globe that it should still count as a summit of some sort. I can’t rid myself of this vague idea that things to the north must be higher than things to the south. And, of course, if you live in Australia you must get very tired clinging onto the earth for dear life so you don’t fall off.
Yes, there are true mountains for us in the future including Katahdin in Maine. And we hope Mont Blanc next summer. But for now – it’s four weeks to our multi generational trip to Scotland and England. More on all that to come in future posts.
As six of the eight of our traveling party will be engaged in a 67 mile hike in the Scottish Highlands during week one …. there’s still got to be a gear check. Admittedly, this is luxury back packing (glampacking?). Our luggage will be carted along by a taxi between b’n’bs and small hotels and we only have to carry daypacks. A far cry from the barrels on Mt. Elbrus. (Yes, for those of you new to this blog – you really do stay in converted (but large) oil barrels on Mt. Elbrus.)
Nonetheless, we’ve learned from experience – there’s still gear that must go with you even while glampacking So what does this trip entail?
Hiking poles. Everybody but me on the trip rejects them, but after day 3 they will be thanking me.
Headlamps. Who would have thought you needed them in Mt. Washington in October but after a late start and letting all the French Canadians celebrating Canada Day pass us, it was a pretty dark descent.
Hard candies. I’ve sworn by these since Kilimanjaro. Cinnamon is the best but husband J swears by cherry.
Everything waterproof. I have a strong feeling that there is is a lot of rain to be experienced north of Aberdeen. As we celebrate Tropical Storm Colin here in Florida this week the wet theme is definite front and center.
Gloves. Need I say more. Cold hands. (Not small hands.)
Ibuprofen. It will make everything feel better. Especially after a couple of 15 mile days.
A kindle. Weighs nothing. Battery lasts for months. And you can cart an entire library with you. There’s a lot of down time on hikes. You need a good book to read.
The last couple of weeks have involved being sick, attending graduation, Mother’s Day, out of town business trips and a serious lack of any sort of exercise. And no blog post last week.
It all started almost two weeks ago Monday when “she who never gets sick” felt and was sick as a dog that night. (I wonder where that phrase comes from. My cat does just as good a job as getting as sick as the dog.) Work was out of the question the next day as I knew I would be about as welcome as an ant at a picnic. And of course being sick then led to the inevitable “I shouldn’t exercise until I am really and truly better” – which, while doubtless good advice, is sort of a nice excuse for a little break.
But all breaks must end — not to mention the profound fear of every 55 year old that if you stop exercising you’ll never be able to start up again – that spinning tire will just slow down and there won’t be any gas in the engine to start it up again. So Saturday I was back at it – only for a four mile run since it has been an entire two weeks, after all.
And not very fast. Last time I ran it was a beautiful dry day. And today it was a beautiful humid day with temps, I’m sure, in the mid 80s. The contrast is huge. Those of you who run in dry air don’t know what it feels like to run through a sponge. I have to believe it’s good for you. Somehow? Maybe?
The other remarkable thing about running in this weather is the difference between shade and sun. On days like this I find myself criss crossing streets and paths to find that 12 inches of shade. It may only be a few degrees but it makes a difference.
I’ve been following #EverestNoFilter on Snapchat. (Ask someone under 20. They can tell you how to do it.) It’s a real time account of Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards’ attempt to climb Everest without oxygen and is probably as close as I’m going to ever get to that summit. One of the things they talk about is the sun/shade contrast on the mountain. A T-shirt on one side; a down suit on the other.
Those contrasts can be a pain to deal with. But without one we certainly wouldn’t appreciate the other. Some might characterize it as meaning the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But, for those of you old enough to remember Erma Bombeck – the grass is always greener over the septic tank. Now, that’s a contrast we can all appreciate.
All of us have those Purchases that seemed very logical to buy at the time. And perhaps they were, but life happens and the intended event for which said Purchase would have been just perfect never occurs. And now the Purchases sit there in a closet or a duffel or a garage as homage to lost hopes and dreams.
Granted, a bit melodramatic. But my climbing/hiking storage space is full of such items.
The rope. We carefully ordered on line the exact specifications identified in the gear list for our July 2015 trip to Ecuador. Our local hiking/climbing store didn’t carry the precise dimensions and we were sure those few millimeters would make the difference between success and failure. Alas, it turned out the rope wasn’t going to be necessary unless we actually climbed Chimborazo, and once there, we made the wiser choice of allowing our summit of Cotopaxi to be our crowning glory. Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit. The rope lies curled in waiting. One day.
The stove. This was to accompany us on our multi day backpacking trip along the Muliwai trail in the Big Island in Hawaii In 2013. Those plans were kaboshed when J came down with the flu and was told by the doctor he’d have to be helicoptered out if he tried it. I did the first couple of hours in my own, but there was hardly a need for a stove. Ah well, the alternative we found – the Mauna Kea hike – was pretty spectacular. Journey to Another Planet – Mauna Kea
The tent. See The Stove.
Odd square pieces of aluminum foil, carefully folded. I think they relate to the stove. Highly unclear what they were for or why I saved them.
Long and skinny gaiters. These were on sale at some point and were apparently so cheap because no one else could figure out what they were for either. They haven’t really gone to waste because I used them to wrap my crampons in. Actually that didn’t work very well and they too are now relegated to the pile of great unuse.
Those are just the gear items that come to mind. I’m only now putting everything away from our January Orizaba trip, in preparation for getting a lot of it out again for our Scottish Highlands hike, which starts 60 days from today.
There’s still room to realize all the dreams of the unused gear.
The last thing I expected in May of 2014 when I hesitantly pressed the “publish” button (see https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/05/12/how-it-began/ ) was that two years later I’d still be writing this blog. What started simply as a means to keep family and friends informed about our upcoming trip to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus ended up being a weekly place to muse about past adventures, think about new ones, and contemplate the here and now in between them.
And as my 55th birthday comes and goes – serendipitously I was born on what 9 years later became Earth Day – it gives me a moment of pause to reflect about the last five years and consider the next. As a friend of mine put it, somehow the “five” birthdays that split the decades seem even more significant than the “zero” ones.
You see, this entire mountain climbing, summit seeking, trekking business all started when husband J asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday. And surprising myself, “climb Kilimanjaro” was what popped out of my mouth. Hey, it could have been a lot worse. At least I didn’t say “Redrum.” And over these last five years, we’ve climbed a heckuva lot of mountains and trekked a boatload of trails. And this was for someone who had last slept in a tent at age 18 and hadn’t run over a mile since her first early 20s. Yes, I did yoga and dance and all versions of 1980s aerobic classes (remember those?!) but it was hardly the same.
So we’ve got this summer worked out – not really a summit, but the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands with the Daughters and the Boyfriends. But that alone isn’t quite enough to provide the inspiration that I increasingly need to drag myself through the dreary grind of daily work. What I really need is to figure out the next mountain. After five years of doing this, J and I have realized that some of our ascents have been due to the combined luck of excellent guides and decent weather and not and because of any great skill on our part. So perhaps a mountaineering school is in order – to add some real training to what we’ve learned on the run.
There’s one in Mont Blanc that I’ve got my eye on. After all, in another five years I’m hoping I’ll be getting ready for the summits of the next five. I was born on Earth Day. How can I not be an optimist?
Well, our plane tickets are bought. Our hike of five days along the Whisky Trail in the Scottish Highlands is booked – basically meaning we have pre-made reservations at BnBs for various small villages along the Speyside Way. Daughters have been duly informed that the last day’s hike is 17 miles – oops, sorry, only told oldest daughter that fact. If the other one reads this blog she now knows it.
It’s a bit odd, since I don’t feel the same necessity of super duper training we’ve needed on some of our other mountain adventures. But since we’re still planning on some more high altitude peaks out there, I can’t just sit back on my laurels (however miniscule they are anyway). But without a very high mountain peering down at me, and with the distractions of work ever present, it’s harder and harder to feel the pressure to train. It was over 80 degrees today – the first day of spring – and when I ran back him from yoga at the Y, it felt more like a slog.
The title for this post was work gets in the way. Perhaps that’s a cop out. I like to believe that if I didn’t have to get up tomorrow and be a fully functioning plus individual, my day would be open to write, draw, remodel rooms of my house, recycle more and work on my vegetable garden. Is that really what would happen? Would I actually just putter around in pajamas and wrestle my Westie to be the first to look at the junk mail pushed through the the mail slot? Somewhere and somehow I still need to know that 20,000 foot goal is there. When it’s in the mid-80s and hot – that’s the only thing that keeps you running the extra mile.