Slow and Steady – Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock

Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants.  But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak.  After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.

I had my share of trepidation about this one.  I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles.  Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve  managed to climb anything other than stairs.  And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters.  I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike  and realized I was limping!

But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace.  The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side.  From there, it gradually rises up.  Well, gradual for a while.

I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape.  But that’s not what we found.  A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around.  And interesting shapes, too.  Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.

Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up.  In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration.  Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.

I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail.  But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.

So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side.  I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.

From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit.  The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast).  Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.

We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.

What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up.  The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.

We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable.  In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.

After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes.  Back to the land of casinos and cards.  A red eye flight to Florida awaited us.  As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.

 

The Night Before the Night Before; India, Here We Come

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So we are count down 72 hours or so. I had a great work out last night – but that’s the last one. At this point, on the countdown, I’m not going to get any better; I’m just going to get hurt.

We celebrated J’s upcoming 58th birthday tonight with dear friends; I’ll work a half day tomorrow; we’ll get our house ready for our housesitters; go to a cocktail party; and get up at 3am or sooner to Uber to the airport.

Our travel companion, S from Alaska, who is featured in the beginning of this blog in 2014 when we met him on our Mt. Elbrus (Russia) climb, has already left for Delhi. We will all arrive on Sunday – Delhi time.

On the level of things to worry about I realized today that I’ve been so focused on the summit I forgot about the river crossings – several of them. As some may know, I was almost swept out to sea crossing over to Z Trail on the Muliwai Trail on the Big Island in Hawaii. I am not a water person.

So I think I’ll use that for distraction. I can focus on whether my Costco water sandals will be ripped off my feet as before. The list of things that can seemingly go wrong is insurmountable. I could worry about all of them or none.

The only choice to make it to 20,147 feet is to put one foot in front of the other. I’m as ready as I’m going to be. And I’ll report back on the river crossings.

The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.

An Announcement- Stok Kangri, India

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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.

The training begins.

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 – Lukla to Namche Bazaar (or the Bridges of Doom)

ALERT – photos will have to be uploaded later. I’m writing from Nepal – and am seriously wifi challenged at the moment!

After we exited our flying tin can (also known as a Twin Otter) in Lukla and had a cup of tea, we immediately started uphill. The first part of the EBC trek is nothing as much as a human highway connecting numerous small villages. There are no combustion vehicles of any types – no farm equipment, no cars, no trucks – and correspondingly, no roads. Instead there are yaks, gakyos (1/2 cow and 1/2 yak), and humans. Regardless of their size, they are all carrying huge packs. Yaks were carrying sacks of rice and blue containers of kerosene; one very small gentleman was carrying a load of rebar and another a full size freezer. Apparently the humans are paid by the amount of weight they are carrying. I have never seen such strong people – including at  any gym I’ve ever been to.
Each little village has at least a mani stone – a large rock painted with mantras, frequently om mani padme hum. (I read a translation today at the Sherpa Cultural Center that said it meant “hail to the jewel of the lotus,” but I’m not sure how much stock to put in that.) You pass to the left of the stone, always clockwise. Many villages have prayer wheels, ornate cylinders also engraved with prayers that you run your hand along, turning them always clockwise. Some prayer wheels are powered by water. Sometimes bells ring as they turn.
A lot of places welcome you with a stupa. From the air it appears as a mandala. Generally, three terraces at the bottom represent the foundation of meditation. The dome is the womb of emptiness from which all comes. The box on top is painted with the eyes of the guardian Buddha. Some stupas, instead, have a statue of the Buddha in a glass enclosed niche. The 13 steps above represent the 10 levels of compassion and the 3 levels of tantric awareness. The umbrella is the sovereign sanctity of the Buddha mind and the crowning jewel in the top its wish fulfilling capacity. Buddhism is woven in to the fabric of everyday life here. On the return part of our trek I saw an old man sitting outside his tea house, running his fingers along his mala (a rosary of 108 beads) while spinning a handheld prayer wheel. His wife sat next to him, wearing the traditional long skirt with a woven apron on top, while their dog slept in the sun – all with the majestic mountains towering in the background.

Most fantastic – that first day at least – was Gauri Ghat monastery. An elaborate structure in the middle of the area, multiple prayer wheels under shelters decorated with paintings of the Buddha. A feeling of serenity throughout.

I had known before this trip that at some point I would encounter my nemesis – the swinging bridge of doom. It happened shortly after we left Lukla. For years my most frequent anxiety dream has involved a swinging bridge over a gorge where I can’t move forward or back. And that is exactly what I had to cross – following M’s white hiking shirt, feeling the bridge sway – at least 100 feet over the rapidly running river. I refused to look down or to the side (where I could tell the chain link fencing that formed the sides had been kicked out at the bottom, leaving a realistic possibility of slipping through). Saying mantras was a necessity.

After three hours we reached Phak Ding and our first experience of tea house culture. The tea houses changed as we worked our way up to EBC and away from village into trekker culture. More on that later. But typically there’s a dining room that serves as a communal living area, common toilets (although our first two tea houses had “en suite” toilets – little did we know what a luxury that was!), and very cold small plywood pine rooms with twin beds, sheet and blanket, and if you were lucky, hooks and a light that would work after 6 pm. Ultimately we realized we needed to regard the rooms as a sophisticated version of a tent.

After lunch, we took a steep acclimatization hike through a pine forest and small fields of potatoes and onions and spinach to a monastery that was being repaired. The monks were painting elaborate designs in geometric and representational patterns in colors for each of the five elements (iron being the one I didn’t know about). The paint contained a special resin to make it shine.

We had to cross a second swinging bridge to get there – which made me no happier than the first – when who should appear but the guy who’d sat (slept) next to me on the plane. We recognized each other and exchanged pleasantries. Given my bitterness over the seat hogging, this was a fitting karma experience to accompany all the monasteries we had seen. And it’s not over yet.

The next day we trekked to Namche Bazaar (originally Nauche) where we were to spend two nights. Much of the route was along the Milky River, a mint green blue rapidly running river that accompanied us most of the way to EBC. Today involved not two but five swinging bridges. Fortunately M continued to wear the white hiking shirt so I still had my driste to focus on. We had a lovely lunch by the river and the trail got progressively steeper. Fabulous views of the Three Sisters along the way. A yak herder following his yaks, while carrying his dog down the mountain.

We reached NB suddenly. A pretty village of square stone buildings with a interesting mixture of trekker culture and village life. Trekking has been part of Nepalese life since the 1950s. What’s amazing is that every last thing has been carried here – by human or animal. Namche does have a small airstrip for cargo, but even then – everything has to be moved several miles to the village.

A very nice tea house with some beautiful woodwork in the dining room but COLD rooms. There was even a version of a shower with hot water (the last one we would see for days). Probably the prettiest tea house we stayed in. Unlike the very crowded places further along the route, we were the only people staying there.

After we arrived, we went to the nearby monastery. A stupa is being rebuilt and the monks, all in crimson robes, were conducting four days of prayers to bless the items that will be placed in the stupa. Plus, day 4 is Buddha’s Day and there will be a big celebration. Because 12 monks were needed the prayers were occurring in the common area instead of the actual monastery itself. All of them sat in a row; the leader chanted in a deep sonorous voice and the others chimed in with various instruments- symbols, something that looked like a clarinet and bells. At one point plates of food were brought out as offerings – they would ultimately be left for the animals. There was a huge gold Buddha on one wall and a monk folding prayer shawls.

We visited the upstairs museum, near the rooms in the upper galleries where the religious objects are taken care of. A monk asked us if we wanted to go to the actual monastery where the prayers normally occur. 300 years old, the walls were painted with images of Buddha. There was a shrine with statues of the past, present and future Buddha. Butter lamps lit, colors and patterns on every square inch, but a sense of peace emanating from the sensory overload.
For dinner S and I tried yak curry, although I think it is usually buffalo. More of the local spinach, rice, potatoes, dal and apple pie for dessert (which was almost like an apple baklava).

During our full day in NB, our acclimatization hike to the viewpoint at the Everest View Hotel allowed us our first view of Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse. We trekked gradually at first and then steeply up to about 12,600 feet, from pines to scrubby pines. Then down the other side of the valley to Kung Jung (sp) – tranquil, uncrowned, green rooves, and the home of the school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary.

After poking around NB in the afternoon, we had Sherpa Stew for dinner. A thick broth with dumplings and potatoes, ginger, spinach and carrots.

Next move – to Tengboche and Dingboche.

Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport

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Twenty years ago, Husband J and I and our dear friends M and S used to sit in restaurants with small children in tow (who were frequently vying to see which of them could engage in the most dangerous dinner table activity involving condiments) and fantasize about the exotic trips we’d take once we were empty nesters. We started small – with St. Augustine, graduated to Iceland and discovered we actually made good traveling companions – and now I write this from Namche Bazaar in Nepal on our trek to Everest Base Camp.

But first things first. How did we get here? After enjoying a night at a hotel at the Hyatt, courtesy of our daughter A, we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:45 am to check in for our flight to JFK. At least we could return to our rooms after. At JFK we had the pleasure of the Airtrain tour of the whole airport since it turned out going from terminal 5 to 4 required visiting every other existing terminal first. Tours of the backsides of airports ended up being a theme of the trip.

Emirates lived up to its name, free drinks, good food and an unending supply of movies. After 12 long hours our gigantic Airbus descended in Dubai as gracefully as one of the egrets on Lake Ivanhoe. And we could even see the landing through the cameras affixed to the outside of the plane.

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We took yet another airport tram – this time to circumnavigate the airport in a short 45 minute journey from terminal 3 to 2 with a visit to terminal 1 thrown in for good measure. Terminal 2 was a far cry from the rarified and modern Emirates terminal. It was teeming with people, all wearing every variety of regional dress of the Arab world imaginable.  As usual, I realize how provincial we are in our outlook. Where were the groups of men in white robes, wrapped a bit the way the Masai wrap their cloaks, from? How about all the men in long cotton shirts, sitting barefoot in lotus position? And the group of ten or so women lying on the floor, completely encased in their black burkas, with one older woman awake and sitting guard over them?

Finally our four hour layover ended and we boarded FlyDubai for a four hour flight to Katmandu. I had the pleasure of sitting next to someone who immediately fell asleep and hogged the entire armrest, not to mention part of my chair. More about him later. There’s a karma story coming.

After finally getting some sleep on the plane, we landed on time in Katmandu. Fortunately we didn’t face another airport tour. Hint to travelers – get your visas before you arrive! It was the equivalent of a TSA pre. Our duffel bags all arrived as did our guide, Z.

Katmandu traffic is insane. The city was packed, people selling wares along the street, tiny shop after tiny shop. Hordes of motorcycles weaved between vans and vehicles, for all the world like a motorcycle gang out of Mad Max.

It took close to an hour for what we learned the next day was only a 20 minute drive. Finally turned into what I think was a more elegant section of town (it was dark) and to the very nice Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel. We had a lovely quick meal at the bar – and then spent another hour repacking and reweighing everything to get our luggage down to 15 kg. They are serious about the weight on the flight to Lukla.

A 5 am we journeyed back to the airport. It was a scene of chaos. Trekkers, guides and monkeys (yes, monkeys) running through the airport getting ready to board the 20 person flights to Lukla. Well, not the monkeys. Went through at least three metal directors and M and I kept getting relegated to the special women’s line – but never had to remove shoes and no one worried about liquids.

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The plane ride lived up to its reputation. 20 people, 10 a side and an open cockpit. It turned out we were one of the last flights out – the rest were canceled for weather reasons. We flew between sharp green mountains , clouds floating around us, and eventually a glimpse of the high snow covered Himalayan peaks, pasted against the sky like white jagged metal.

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Landing in Lukla is like landing on an aircraft carrier. The runway is short and if the pilot doesn’t make an immediate right turn you’ll run into the side of the mountain.

We deplaned, found the bathroom (first rule of travel – go to the bathroom whenever you get the chance), and had a cup of tea at a nearby tea house. We were ready to trek.

 

 

I’m busy. I leave tomorrow. Everest.

No photo in tbis blog. I’ve been too busy. I started this post with five days to go. And now I’m staying in the hotel at the airport in preparation for a 6 am flight, followed by 24 hours plus of traveling.

I’ve faced my usual paranoia that the ridiculous hours I’ve been working in order to garner 2 1/2 weeks off will have so impeded my training I’ll find myself coughing as soon as I hit 10,000 feet, only to have a so far unexperienced asthma attack, get pulmonary edema, and expire somewhere at an unimpressive 12,000 feet. Matters have not been helped by the death of Ueli Steck a few days ago on Everest.

One can’t help but wonder about the possibilities. But more important than the possibilities – however tantalizing they may be – at least for those of us who have some great need for adrenaline – is figuring out why you’re going up the damn mountain  in the first place.

The busyness – business of our lives has taken over. I don’t know about you, but if one more person asks me to do one more thing, I might just combust. I’m called upon every hour multiple times per hour to make decisions. Some small; some large. Whether my recommendation affects one or thousands – you know what? It’s just as important if it affects one person’s working life as it is if it affects many.  Jobs are important to people.

Back to topic. I’ve been training for this trek since we came down from the last. And I really, really need to get away from that busyness – business. I’m hoping that somewhere in Nepal, on the way to Everest, there’s some fabulous lost horizon that’s going to give that sense of peace.

Namaste.

Training to Trek – Nepal in Sight

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Will gear inspire?

It’s certainly not the glamorous part of scaling summits or long distance trekking, but without it, neither of the former would happen. And so with the close of a holiday season that unfortunately held as much in the way of work as it did gift giving and merriment, it is time to jump back on the training horse and start to ride. OK, that may not be an apt analogy but you get the picture.

I’ve been scraping by with a 5K here or there and a few sets of weightless stair climbs in my building over the last few weeks. Yoga fell by the wayside entirely. So wrong. You’d think after as many years as I’ve been doing this I’d know better.  But it’s hard to get your head into the necessary place even to start to exercise when the world is swirling around you with demands on every aspect of life – from family to social to work.

In fact, for inspiration today I even found myself changing my Facebook profile picture to one of me sitting on our front porch after a five mile run with a look of what I thought showed grim determination.  But after one of my friends commented that it looked like I was saying “get off my lawn!” I decided I better swap it out.

So, with Nepal and Everest Base Camp beckoning – and some deadlines now met – it’s time to take that proverbial deep breath and just start. (Note I resisted the “Just do it” slogan.)  Due to some changes in yoga class times I’m going to have to revamp last year’s schedule. I figure if I can write up a five page work to do list, surely I can assemble a seven day training schedule.

I’ll take any inspiration I can get. Right now those Tibetan prayer flags are helping. Just under four months.

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Pico de Orizaba, Mexico – After the Glacier

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First on the rope – photo by Ricardo Lugo

What goes up must come down. And after our guide R put the kabosh on my secret plan to snail my way ever so slowly up the glacier to the top, timing be damned, the down is what faced us. We started off at a good clip. Ever since my way too long climb down Mt. Elbrus in 2014, I’ve focused on descents, with some modicum of success. R put me at the front of the rope on the way down the canalone – it’s certainly the safest place to be, but it’s also the spot where you get to pick out the route and match all the mixed up steps in front of you to create some semblance of a path down. I could tell I hadn’t acclimatized well because as I descended I felt more and more energetic – and we moved much better as a team than we had at any point on the way up.

We finally made our way back to the scree field, and R went on ahead of us. J and I managed to pick our on way down, albeit with some wrong turns that increased the difficulty of the route. At one point we found ourselves on an 18 inch ledge with a sheer drop on one side. I’m sure that is not exactly the trail we were supposed to be taking. But at least the 18 inch ledge didn’t coincide with the increasingly high wind gusts. Two separate times I was literally knocked off my feet. There was a steady 30 plus mile an hour wind with gusts blowing harder. I didn’t slip – I was simply slapped down.

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Finally we made it back to the strange stone aqueduct that led to the hut. Apparently at one point there had been a grandiose plan to work with water and drainage on Orizaba, leading to the construction of a now defunct aqueduct feature that forms the first part of the trail up the mountain.

And, how, you may wonder, were the other teams doing? Well, as mentioned, the Italian hadn’t even made it to the glacier before altitude overcame him. When we left the edge of the glacier, we could see three teams of two each inching their way up its stark white. They were no more than little black doodles on a white sheet of paper. It was hard to tell who was who, and it wasn’t until we were back at the hut and the two Russian teams showed back up without reaching the summit that we realized the top most team battling the high high winds was our own teammate G and our guide D!

I wanted to wait to greet them when they returned, hopefully after a successful summit, but after we’d packed up and they still weren’t down, it was clear it was going to be a lot longer. We’d already been climbing for about 8 or 9 hours, and the green of the forest below was starting to seem inviting.

And this is where the people part of the trip became bizarre enough to rival the uniqueness of our natural surroundings. We’d heard rumors that the Russian team included a high ranking politician and others – but how high ranking we didn’t realize until R arranged for us to hitch a ride down the mountain to the village in their two jeeps while he waited for G and D.  There was one free spot in each van. J went with the politician and his fiancée; she hadn’t climbed but still looked pretty wind blown.  When we say high ranking, we are talking cabinet level. I know; I figured out names and Googled everyone. Google images helped confirm I’d locate the right bios. Who expects to spend a night sleeping in the freezing cold on wooden platforms in a hut in remotest Mexico with government officials from Russia.

My jeep mates were equally illustrious in Russian political and academic ranks.  Perhaps even more so for a would be mountaineer, as one of them had been a professional climber who had summited Everest in 1992 (where he and Scott Fisher of Mountain Madness fame had argued about placement of fixed ropes) and climbed K2 in 1996. He was also a snow leopard – meaning he had summited all of the highest peaks in Russia, no mean feat. (I found that last bit out through Google.) Anyway, we had a fascinating conversation on the way down, and it certainly added an international flair to the trip.

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Luxury accommodations compared to the hut

Back at the hostel, we read and had a very late lunch. Eventually G and D showed up, with the glow of the summit still surrounding them and only a few bruises and battle scars to show. They had battled unbelievably high winds, and even though they couldn’t even stand upright on the summit, had the glory of being the only two climbers to make it to the the top that day. I just kept hoping a little of that karma would wear off on me.

We had one more night in the hostel. A whirlwind of Mexico City  comes next.