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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

Advertisements

The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

A Valley Between the Holiday Summits – Looking toward the New Year

cropped-image5.jpg
Mount Elbrus, Russia

I’ve always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is one of those odd no man’s land spots on the calendar. I nearly always try to take the full week off work; unfortunately this year due to the vagaries of the calendar and my work schedule I’m stuck working a couple of days of what ought to be a glorious week of nothing.

Christmas and New Years do make the close of the year a double peaked mountain.  The first peak comes accompanied by tremendous anticipation; by the time you descend to the pass and face the next peak you start wondering if you’ll make it up. It reminds me of Mt. Elbrus – a long slog up in the wee hours of the morning, hitting a high point – and then a graceful swoop down into the saddle (where I’m convinced I fried my face due to incorrect zinc application). But then you look up – only to see an equally graceful arced curve reaching up toward the summit.

We’ve been in North Carolina this week – not in the mountains but in the Piedmont – itself a spot between the summits of the mountains and the sea.  In fact, North Carolina has been called the valley of humility between the two mountains of conceit – Virginia and South Carolina. Apologies to any folks from there but the old saw fit nicely into my theme.

So as we venture through this no man’s land on our way to the next peak of New Year’s, I’m looking ahead to the summits and swamps of the new year.  June is the beginning of our Stok Kangri adventure. I read this morning that seven soldiers were killed near the Pakistan border today. That caused me to bring out the atlas attached to my parents’ ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica to confirm that Leh is not too close to the border (it’s not – although it is in and around Kashmir). For those who don’t recall – Stok Kangri is to be our first 20,000 foot mountain and husband J and I will be attempting it at what will then be the ripe old ages of 58 (J’s birthday is on day 2 of our travels) and 57.  Challenges for the new year abound; plenty of training yet to be done; and lots of summits out there to conquer.

Gear Check #? – The Scottish Highlands

image

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?

  1. Hiking poles. Everybody but me on the trip rejects them, but after day 3 they will be thanking me.
  2. 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.
  3. Hard candies. I’ve sworn by these since Kilimanjaro. Cinnamon is the best but husband J swears by cherry.
  4. 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.
  5. Gloves. Need I say more. Cold hands. (Not small hands.)
  6. Ibuprofen. It will make everything feel better. Especially after a couple of 15 mile days.
  7. 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.
  8. Less than four weeks now. Ready for vacation!

Running – The World is Flat After All

image

What's up; what's down
What’s up; what’s down

As I plowed uphill on the first half of Saturday’s seven miler, I reveled in the knowledge that the backside was going to be all down. I was running a new route – through “downtown” College Park, our area of town, all the way up Edgewater Drive, past the public high school, the Catholic high school, an abandoned juke box store (who has thought of those for a while?), a gun shop, a driftwood designer, and assorted and sundry other small establishments.

But after I turned around at the half way mark, to my utter horror, nothing but uphill faced me. I kept running along, confident that at some point I was bound to find the downward trajectory of the long hill I was sure I had climbed. But none was to be found, at least until I reached the very short half block leading down to our lake.

I’ve been punked like this before. Mt. Elbrus has a fake summit that after several hours of climbing looks like the real thing. And on the long slog down, the random metal structures that dot the slopes of Elbrus all resemble the barrel huts we were staying in. Not to mention our explorations of the buttes around Sedona, Arizona where I was convinced that each arch must have been the one that would lead us out of the vortex and to the parking lot that housed our rental car and escape to civilization.

I can’t risk thwarted expectations on the way up Cotopaxi, much less Chimborazo or whatever other mountains we end up climbing. They stop you in your tracks; they bring you down – figuratively, and in the case of climbing, literally. I just need take each step in the moment, so that when that summit finally appears, or the refuge hut out of the winds can be seen, it’s a wonderful surprise.

And maybe it’s not so bad not to have the downhill stretch. There’s either an optical illusion where long flat stretches ahead of you appear to rise up in a gentle swell – or, it could just be the fact the prescription in my sunglasses is wrong. But the real point is that maybe something that can feel so hard is really easier than you’re letting yourself believe. Maybe the world is flat after all.

The Power of Fear – Two Month Countdown to Cotopaxi

Mt. Elbrus - an avalanche seen from across the valley
Mt. Elbrus – an avalanche seen from across the valley

As we near two months out from what I expect to be our hardest climb ever, up Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, it’s the power of fear that’s keeping me training. By now I’ve hit the point when I’m terrified that taking even one day off from some sort of exercise will cause the last months of training to be flushed down the toilet. Irrational, I know, but that’s what fear’s all about.

By now I have probably watched every YouTube video and read every blog out there related to these two peaks. They range from tales of cheery climbers who apparently think not twice about the journeys up and down to poor souls who are wheezing, pale, and throwing up even before they reach 18,000 feet. And, of course, everyone posts the photos that make both mountains appear the most insurmountable – veritable jungles of crevasses and steep walls.

Things haven’t been helped by the news of this week. An earthquake in Nepal that causes an avalanche at Everest Base Camp – filled with many trekkers who had no higher ambition than base camp itself – only to find themselves in the path of runaway snow, rock and ice. A volcano in Chile – good for underscoring the fact that Cotopaxi is still active and erupted only 70 or so years ago. And celebrating my 54th birthday this past week can’t help but remind me that I am not exactly going to be the youngest or fittest climber out there. A point that one of my fellow climbers brought home to me last year on Mt. Elbrus when he pointed out most of those on the mountain were half our age. And that was a year ago.

Now it’s not as though I’m a stranger to fear. You can’t be a litigator and appear in court without having experienced dry mouth or pounding heart before you embark on an impassioned plea in defense of your client. But there’s something that’s a little bit different when it’s you up there against the forces of Mother Earth.

I just keep saying to myself that fear is good. It keeps you going. And it keeps you grounded.

How does it work for you?

Summits – The To Do List

Part of the broken trekking pole
Part of the broken trekking pole

We have reached that point of every major travel adventure where the to do list seems as daunting and insurmountable as we fear the summits of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo themselves might be. So on Saturday I suggested to husband J, as he struggled with a new computer which seemingly has no spam filter, that perhaps he would feel more organized if he made a list. He didn’t follow this sage advice, and for that matter, neither did I. But I did think about what I would jot down in one of the many notebooks I have left over from the daughters’ school days that I use for such purposes (I can’t bear to throw away unused paper), if I were so inclined.

1. Go to Iceland. Now that may not be first on most people’s list of mountain climbing preparation, but it is a fact that we will be spending five days in Iceland in the beginning of March. And that upcoming adventure has created other subset of to do lists that I won’t even begin to address here.

2. The gear check. This is an inevitable part of any expedition and one that I both anticipate and dread at the same time. Certainly we are in much better shape than we were back on 2011 when we climbed Kilimanjaro but now we have broken gear to deal with and new and unusual gear to get. We are in good shape for crampons, but have never before had to buy any rope. Since the guide company supplies rope I’m still not sure why we have to have our own as well – an emergency supply in case we fall into a crevasse on the way to an outhouse? The possibilities are not reassuring. We have to call Travel Country to see if the balaclava/face mask I ordered has arrived and if climbing helmets in a smaller size are in stock yet. And we have to replace the trekking poles that somehow daughter #1 managed to break on Mt. Washington. I still don’t know how she hiked the last 5 miles not realizing that one pole was 12 inches shorter than the other. And this is just a fraction of the gear issues.

3. Order zinc for lips. As those of you who followed our climb up Mt. Elbrus know, it never occurred to me that my allergies to regular sunscreen meant that I couldn’t use Chapstick with any sort of sun protection. In fact, this didn’t occur to me until I was on the side of the glacier on summit day, realizing that I looked and felt like I had kissed a hot burner on a stove. Never again.

4. Write to do lists for work, training, family and trip. Yes, this is a circular blog post. But I can’t think of any other way to try to have some certainty about what remains to do for the next few months. Should it be one giant list, or multiple lists for each area? I’m trying to make some order out of chaos – but I’m afraid that if I overthink it I’ll be doing the reverse. Wish me luck.

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.

image

Yoga and the Art of Climbing

image

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Certainly, when I have been training for various climbs and treks, adding cardio to my work out was an essential component of success. But much of climbing or trekking is the sheer grit of simply keeping on going even when every part of you is saying stop right now. And that’s where yoga has made all the difference – and here’s a shout out to my many, many yoga instructors over the years, whose voices were in my head on so many of these hikes. Elbrus on the long slushy slog on the way down. Mt. Hood, where the 60 mile an hour winds were blowing me into the mountain and I couldn’t see because the blinding snow had totally occluded all vision.

I remember my first Bikram yoga class in 2007 or so. At that time, Bikram Yoga Orlando was located next to an elevated expressway in an small old strip center (and I mean old – circa 1960s) next to a pet grooming place. That’s the reason I had seen it – I had dropped off the dogs (who are now 14!) and picked up a schedule from the pile outside the door. I’d been doing yoga for a long time and had heard of Bikram, but had never tried it. But I was then working long hours on an arbitration – the precise contours of which have long escaped me – and I thought, maybe this is just what I need as a break.

Bikram is supposed to be practiced at 105 degrees and 40% humidity – and at the new studio it is. But at that old place down on South Street I swear you could see clouds forming overhead and I am sure there were a couple of times rain drops actually came down.

After my first class – and I didn’t leave the room nor did I lie down, despite the heat – I thought – Ok, I’ll try this every other week. But the next week I was back. And, although I’ve kept “regular” Wednesday and Sunday yoga classes, pretty much every week I’m also at Bikram. For someone whose job is comprised of making decisions, to be in an environment where there is no decision except the one to go on is an incredible luxury. I follow what the instructors say; I know the dialogue; and each class I feel my body respond and become stronger. And there is a particular moment where listening to the dialogue and your own physical presence merge and become one – and for once, you can be in the present – no decisions to make except for the one to keep going.

And I don’t want to dismiss my so-called “regular” yoga classes either. Where else have I learned the ability to literally stretch my body into shapes and places it wouldn’t normally go. The beauty of Bikram is that it’s the same every week – but the beauty of the other yoga is that I’m challenged to see where I can move my body in space and create that extra last dimension around me and fill it with movement.

So why does this relate to summits? I’ve learned to control my breathing. On the mountain, I think – breathe normally, in slowly and out even longer. On Elbrus I recited the Bikram dialogue in my head. I went into that quiet place of the present that allows you to take those last few steps that lead to the summit – and just as importantly – that allow you to descend.

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?