Hidden Things in North Carolina – A New Decade Awaits

A trip to my family home in the Piedmont of North Carolina is always full of the hidden. Shadows of the past; remnants of the present. And Christmas of 2019 was no exception.

Some remnants of the present were literally remnants. There’s a place called the Scrap Exchange in Durham, run by a not for profit organization, that houses bins of about anything you can think of. Egg cartons, for example. Door knobs. Left over and partially used craft projects. I scored 6 Christmas stockings for a dollar each (you can never have too many), two Irish linen handkerchiefs in their original souvenir packaging for fifty cents (my brother had the temerity to ask what I would do with them), and a holiday adorned roll cover for my mother (there is such a thing). The latter two were in a bin optimistically labeled “vintage linens.”

Beyond that, there are always hidden things at Five Oaks, the weekend home my parents bought many years ago north of Durham. There is now only one big oak tree, four having been felled by various hurricanes, but “One Oak” doesn’t have the same ring. Over the years, my father has created multiple vistas designed around one or more objects he’s made from whatever happened to be on hand. But as time has crept (leapt?) by, the underbrush has become above brush and said objects peek forth through a chaos of leaves and branches. Can you see the pot?

The Smokehouse

Five Oaks was also the scene of a hide and seek adventure this year – involving Teddy, my parents’ extremely large furry 8 year old dog, who looks like a Swedish Lapphund. As a dog, he is allowed to be identified by his full name, rather than an initial.

There’s a dog in there somewhere

We all took a walk across the meadow through the woods and down to the bluff that overlooks a creek. Teddy lumbered along beside us, staying quite close, until we reached the bluff. At which point, N (boyfriend of daughter A for those of you who don’t read this regularly) confidently predicted Teddy wouldn’t try to make it down because he’d be worried about making it back up. At which point Teddy decided to prove N wrong and took off down said bluff, across the creek, over and through a neighbor’s pond. Repeated calls by humans were much less tempting than the gobble gobbles of the wild turkey he had decided to chase. It was particularly disconcerting because we could hear loud cracks of gunshot from some nearby hunters.

Ultimately S (as in daughter S’s boyfriend) undertook the task of tracking down Teddy (who by now was a blur in the distance), which required S heroically removing his shoes and socks, wading through creek and pond, and somehow convincing Teddy that he was more interesting than a wild turkey. In the meantime I had run back to the house to get Teddy’s leash to prevent any further escapes. Teddy rather sheepishly made his way back up the bluff and N has now been banned from speaking things into existence.

Downtown Durham itself has turned hidden things into an art form. Who knew that the rundown Jack Tarr motel I remember from the 1970s really wanted to be a fancy cocktail bar all this time?

So as we close out 2019 and roll into 2020 – the beginning of a new decade after all (will they be roaring?) I hope we all appreciate the hidden things around us, whether human, animal, or other. The 2010s were full of summits for J and me, most of them very visible. I hope the 2020s will be the same. But it’s important to remember that not all summits are mountain peaks, and some of those hidden ones are just as significant. Happy new decade, one and all.

Holiday Mountain Part 2



Last year at this time, I wrote a post called  “journey up holiday mountain,” not anticipating there’d be a part two. Yet, here I am. And not just at a part two of a blog – a fairly innocuous activity -but also just over 30 days before our next attempt to scale an 18,000 foot moutain. Some may wonder why I do this. Oh, and did I mention that in addition to an extremely busy work schedule I am giving a party for probably close to 100 people next weekend and I am apparently inherently incapable of using a caterer? Somehow I feel it doesn’t count if you (and Costco) haven’t made all the food yourself. Sometimes I feel if you didn’t have to sleep life would be much easier.

No mind. Each time we are preparing for a high altitude climb I feel I must hike at least a few miles in my mountaineering boots just so I remember what they feel like. Today was that day. Just a three mile walk back from the Y following yoga – the day, hot, steamy and sticky. Anyone want to question global warming who lives in Florida? And, as readers of his blog know, I observe coincidences. Last time I did this walk with mountaineering boots, I slipped on the sidewalk, fell,  and cracked my iPhone screen. Today, exiting the Y, the phone slipped from my hand and I did the same thing. At least I had a screen guard and I might be able to glean a few more months of use out of it.

I think that cracked screen is a reminder – we do occasionally need put our iPhones down and just enjoy some of the bright lights around us. Happy Holidays, y’all!

Labor Day – Take a Deep Breath

Taking a deep breath - Mt. Washington 2014
Taking a deep breath – Mt. Washington 2014

Many things just seem to stop on Labor Day. Including my 24 year old refrigerator that has occupied a convenient niche in our garage for the last several years.

Since I started this blog back in May or so of 2014 I have tried to publish posts once a week – I’m old enough that I tend to regard blogs as the digital equivalent of a weekly print magazine. But occasionally those periods occur where labor (aka work) takes over, becomes all consuming, and unfortunately, training, this blog, and yoga all take a back seat.

But all things pass, and it’s appropriate that they do so in time for Labor Day. It’s time to take a deep breath, and look forward to the fall and next adventures. Just like that first gust of cool wind on a fall day. After a summer of Florida heat and humidity, there’s no describing how refreshing that is. Unfortunately, I know from 25 years here that September isn’t much better than August.

So what is upcoming after the excitement of this summer’s trip to Ecuador? Most immediately, a trip to Maine with daughter #1 and the boyfriend N, and a hike up Puzzle Mountain. And after that….God willing and the creek don’t rise – we are seriously considering a trip to Pico de Orizaba in Mexico the first week of January 2016. It’s the third highest mountain in North America at 18,491 feet. And of course, it’s a volcano. Has anyone out there done this trip? We can certainly use all the help we can get.

In the meantime, this year’s Labor Day has involved refrigerator replacement, re-planting the vegetable garden, and a four mile run. I’ve taken a deep breath. Now it’s time to set our sights on the next summit.

Cayambe Calling

Checking out this route from outside the hut at Cayambe
Checking out the route from outside the hut at Cayambe

Four mountains, including one at 19,347 feet and another at 18,996 feet, in eight days, is a lot. I knew I was in trouble when I started to cough the night before we attempted Cayambe.  And how did we end up at Cayambe in the first place, you ask? You’ll recall the original plan was to follow our Cotopaxi climb  (second highest peak in Ecuador) with Chimborazo, the highest peak and the point on earth closest to the sun.

Well, the worldwide rise in temperatures is affecting Chimborazo as much as the next glacier. Have you seen photos of Kilimanjaro recently? Very different than 2011 when we were there. Warm glaciers create greater risk of avalanches and rock fall (not to mention the difficulties of slushy snow). Chimborazo is also a long drive from Quito and it’s one heckuva big mountain. So, prudence being the better part of valor we decided, with guidance from Ossy, not to let the wax on our wings melt by attempting to fly too close to the sun and instead to try Cayambe, Ecuador’s third highest peak at just under 19,000 feet, as the final mountain of our Ecuador trip.

After our peak (literally) experience on Cotopaxi — even two weeks later I keep re-living it in my head  — Cayambe was a logical choice. It’s just a little lower than Cotopaxi, perhaps steeper in spots (but for shorter sections), and has some rock to climb at the beginning. We had summited Cotopaxi at 9:05 am on July 3. After a rest day in Quito on July 4, we left the next morning to drive to the hut at Cayambe. Unlike the other huts at which we stayed, at Cayambe you can “drive” – if that’s the right word – right to the door of the hut.

Road to Cayambe hut - and this was the good part!
Road to Cayambe hut – and this was the good part!

The road to Cayambe beats about any road I have ever travelled on for ruts, rocks, and steep precipices.  It doesn’t resemble anything on which any self-respecting automobile should drive. We’d all learned our lesson by then about my issues with winding roads and cars, so I sat in the front. Ossy spent a lot of the time sticking his head out the side window to see exactly which snow, mud or ice covered rut would best create traction for the four wheel drive.

Eventually we made our way to the hut and checked in. For the first time during our trip we were sharing the hut with another team, a large group of nine or so climbers with four guides.  All males and considerably physically larger than I. As we settled in at a table in the main room we traded stories  about what we’d been climbing – and I must say it was 100% satisfying to say “yes” when they asked if we’d summited Cotopaxi, which they hadn’t yet attempted, and to be met with some very bemused looks. For a five foot, one and one-half inch woman (that half inch is very important), I felt a certain instant credibility. As Ossy said though, the pressure on all those guys to summit Cotopaxi had just increased immeasurably!

But Cayambe was the summit that was not to be. I still had not  completely recovered from whatever stomach issues had so gravely affected me the night after we climbed Illiniza Norte and had also developed a nagging cough. Plus I think I was still generally burned out from Cotopaxi. I had put my heart and soul into that climb, and I couldn’t help but regard Cayambe as a latecomer to the party.

We followed a similar routine – packed for the next day, went out and looked at the route we’d be taking, ate soup and something  sweet, and were in our bunkbeds by 6:30. I slept a couple of hours and we were up at 11:30 – this time with other climbers also packing up and getting ready to go. It did change the serenity of the moment. But, as the only woman, I got to have the entire women’s bathroom all to myself!

The night was spectacular; the moon had waned only a bit and there was scarcely any wind. But the downside of all that was that it was quite warm – in fact, we all wore a layer less than we’d originally planned. And the snow was soft, meaning  that once we were on the glacier we were sinking in and exerting a lot more energy than desired. Once we had scaled the rock area – which I had spent way too much time worrying about because it wasn’t that hard – we had to traverse through a scree and rock field and finally reached the glacier, where we could put our crampons on.

But as we roped up and took off I just couldn’t attain the same sort of steady rhythm that I’d been able to manage on Cotopaxi. Although at one point we were among the highest teams I made the mistake of looking up and seeing how incredibly steep and seemingly never ending the slopes above me were, and let myself get distracted by what the other climbers on the mountain were doing. All of which added up to a point where I was feeling dizzy and our pace simply was not what it needed to be if we were to summit early enough to avoid the risk of avalanche as the mountain heated up during the day.

Dawn breaking over Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Dawn breaking over Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

Just then, one of the other teams that had passed us turned around after reaching a ridge line about 400 meters from the summit. We decided to go to the same point and then head back down. It turned out two other teams did make the summit but it took them 8 or so hours – an hour and a half longer than usual, due to the hard climbing conditions.

Our descent went well, even though the scree field we were hoping to slide down instead of rock climb was covered with snow. That meant we had to turn around and walk back up an area we had just hiked down – possibly the most dispiriting moment of the whole climb. But I did well on the rock climbing on the way down, no ropes needed.

Descent down Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Descent down Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

And on the way down we were treated to a rainbow. Clearly a promise of future summits. Cayambe is still calling to me. I think we’ll be back.

Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit

Cotopaxi Summit
Cotopaxi Summit

The wind shifted. I’ve always known the wind is important. After all, Mary Poppins arrived with the east wind, and there’s an old saying that if you make a face when the wind changes your face will get stuck that way. But I’d never really experienced just how important a shift in the wind could be until we were right at the lip of the Cotopaxi crater, just below the summit.

After climbing Illiniza Norte, we spent the night at the Hacienda Chilcabamba. I went to bed at 6:30 and slept for about 12 hours – unable to face anything for dinner. I felt about a hundred times better the next day, and we had an easy morning at the hacienda, followed by a large lunch. J and I had a little thatched cottage all to ourselves, with two bedrooms and a sitting area, heated by a wood stove.

Hacienda Chilcabamba
Hacienda Chilcabamba

We left in early afternoon to drive to the parking lot for the Cotopaxi hut. This time I sat in the front seat to avoid the  gastrointestinal dangers associated with the curving cobbled stone roads. From the parking lot we strapped on our backpacks, which contained only what we needed at the hut and for our summit attempt. We were already wearing our base layers, to minimize having to change. The walk up to the hut is about 45 minutes on a steep dirt road – we reached the top, only for Ossy to realize he’d left his phone in the car and had to go down to get it!

The Cotopaxi hut was redone only a few months ago, and although nicely varnished and with new mattresses, it’s really cold and the roof makes an incredible array of noises in the whistling wind. While the Illiniza Norte roof clanged and sounded as though it might blow off, this roof variably screamed, whistled, hooted and howled. Despite all that, after we’d had bowls of quinoa soup, followed by figs, cheese and sweet biscuits, we still managed to sleep a few hours.

Bedroom at the hut at Cotopaxi
Bedroom at the hut at Cotopaxi

We were supposed to awaken at 11:30 pm but  slept through the alarm and ended up getting up at midnight. Just as on Illiniza Norte, we were the only people in the hut.  And we soon found out there were only two other climbers on the entire mountain, besides us.

We stuffed some food into ourselves and started climbing about 1 am. The first part is a 45 minute walk up a relatively steep scree field. Once at the top, you’re on the glacier, which meant it was time to rope up and put on crampons.
The old “normal” route has been closed for 2 or 3 years after a climber was killed on it – too many crevasses. Instead you now use the Rompe Corazones – the heartbreaker. There’s an extremely long 2 plus hour stretch that simply goes up without any sort of break. And it’s a killer. I was trying hard to stay hydrated, so each hour when we stopped, the routine was water, a handful of trail mix, and more water. As we gained altitude, the trail mix became GU, and Ossy was literally tearing the top of the packages and holding them as I sucked the sticky sweet electrolytes out.

We climbed up one sheer icy patch where we had to use the front points of our crampons – as if we were scaling a vertical wall.  Much of the trek up was simple side by side steps, but even there I kept finding my crampons pointing too far uphill, and I quickly realized how much I had to learn in the way of technique.

Sea of Penitentes
Sea of Penitentes

At one point you traverse a sea of Penitentes – formed by the wind, they are peculiar to the Andes in the summer months. Sometimes they are upright, but these were bent by the wind. They look like a field of praying hands, fingers outstretched in supplication. You can walk between or on them, and if on, each step sounds as though you are stepping on a brittle twig – or finger.

The very last bit of Cotopaxi is steep, steep, steep. As we had to do in a couple of prior areas, we used the picks of our ice axes overhand to dig in and help pull ourselves up (normally you’re using your ice axe in your uphill hand like a very sharp ski pole or walking stick).

But just before we reached that point, we saw the only other two climbers on the mountain turn around, apparently overwhelmed by the sulphur fumes spewing out of the crater.  You may recall I mentioned that starting in May or so Cotopaxi had reactivated. It is “degassing” (lovely word) and literally tons of fumes are forming into thick heavy clouds over the crater – which is just below the summit.

Despite the retreat of the other climbers, we kept on going. Although the mountain administered a pretty strong dose of sulphur to us – Ossy and J in their throats and me in my eyes – just at that point….the wind shifted. I heard Ossy say that we might have a window and I kept slogging up the close to vertical slope.

Suddenly I was on a flat area – but surely I couldn’t be there. I was positive there must be another 15 or more minutes of sheer physical and mental pushing left and this was just a fake….but no, I was actually at the summit. There wasn’t anywhere else up to go. I’d seen people on YouTube videos throw themselves down on the ground when they finally arrived, and without even thinking, that’s just what I did too.

Cotopaxi Summit - sulphur cloud in background
Cotopaxi Summit – sulphur cloud in background

We couldn’t stay on the summit for long – just in case the wind shifted again and the crater drenched us with another load of sulphur.

Our descent was noneventful, which is about the best that can be said about descents. We kept up a pretty good pace, with J on the front of the rope, me in the middle, and Ossy bringing up the rear in order to arrest whoever might fall.

It turned out we made it up in 6 hours and 50 minutes, well within the range of normal, and down in 3 hours – also what Ossy wanted us to do.

Once back at the hut the reality of what we had just accomplished finally sank in. All those stairs; all those hot and sweaty runs.  The culmination of all of it was that confluence of ice and snow and blue sky. A perfect summit.

Training in the Swamp – Pride Goeth Before A Fall


A warning – today’s post is not for the faint of heart or weak of knee. As we pass the five week countdown for our Cotopaxi trip we are at the now or never stage. If we aren’t in good enough shape to make it up these mountains now, I think it highly unlikely that we suddenly achieve such a status over the next month.

So, I’m trying to keep going with what I’ve been doing – and I like to think that it’s a lot more than I did getting ready for Mt. Elbrus last year.  In a few weeks we’ll find out if it worked.

Of course, today’s training adventure was less than noble. After my regular Sunday afternoon yoga class I was planning to walk the three miles home with my real mountaineering boots (Koflach Degres),  just so my legs would remember what they felt like. No, I didn’t wear crampons as well. As it had already poured buckets during one of our typical Florida storms, I decided to wear a rain jacket also. Naturally, there was then not a drop to be seen, but the steam rising off the hot and humid sidewalks practically created a rainstorm from the ground up. So there I was, black yoga pants, black rain jacket, red backpack, and double plastic boots, hiking along the streets of downtown Orlando on a ninety degree day. I was just waiting to be offered directions to a homeless shelter.

Finally, I made it to about a block from my house. As I contemplated the ridiculousness of the interstate widening project that is going to cause the loss of several grand old oak trees that border the lake we live by, I lost my concentration and the next thing I knew I was rear down on the slippery wet sidewalk with a cracked iPhone screen in hand. (Yes, I am one of those people who run and hike clutching their phones.) A couple in a pick up truck going past stopped to see if I was ok. I think they thought they were encountering a mentally disturbed person who was going to require emergency services. Husband J was outside our house as I staggered up – he said from a distance he didn’t even recognize this all in black, sweaty person marching along.

Otherwise, my training regime generally includes the following:

Stairs – my office building is 16 stories, but since you start at 1 (unlike the English “G”), it’s really 15. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of time on the stairs to contemplate that. The building is 227 feet tall and each floor has two flights with a landing between. A couple of weeks ago, I reached my personal record of 8 times the building in about an hour and 20 minutes with a 24 pound pack. I have all sorts of ways to go up the stairs to alleviate the boredom. Every step, every other step etc. I will not bore you with the details (although feel free to ask). Doing that twice a week or so. And it’s hot in that fire stairwell – I mean well into the 90s. Surely that counts for something.

Running – historically I was not only a non-runner, but an aggressively anti runner. And as recently as last year I had only run five miles at a shot and only then because the Mt. Elbrus application asked how you felt at five miles – which at that point I had not even attempted. But now I have now worked my way up to seven miles at a time, and in a couple of weeks plan to run a five k race. I haven’t run a race since elementary school – where I was way at the rear of the pack. But I’m convinced that getting enough cardiovascular fitness is the key to these next summits.

Yoga – unfortunately my late Saturday afternoon Bikram class was cancelled so I’ve only been able to do that sporadically. But my Hatha yoga classes on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights are regular events. It’s the breath control that should help me on those long slogs at super high altitude. So much of mountain climbing, for me at least, is sheer fortitude. It’s how you train the brain that makes the difference between taking that one more step and giving up.

There’s a bunch more stuff. There’s extreme walking – a la the 20 miler we did in April – there’s weight lifting, which I haven’t done enough of, and there’s general fast walking with weight. Of course, general free floating anxiety should count as a training tool as well. I’m really good at that one.

I think we can do this. I’m in as good a shape as I’ve ever been – or better. Now I just have to go find the duffel bag to house all the gear. And – anyone have any training ideas? I’m all ears.

Summit in the Swamp – Graduation in New Orleans

Overlooking Ursalines Street
Overlooking Ursalines Street

Little did I know when we dropped off daughter #2 (she bitterly resents that designation, so let’s call her S) in NOLA four years ago that we were taking her to a city she would grow to love so and call home. But that’s certainly been the case. Husband J and I have loved his place since 1986, when my frequent flyer miles on the now defunct New York Air enabled us to go there for our honeymoon. The alternative was Detroit – anyone remember how New York Air flew primarily to Boston, Detroit, New Orleans and New York? Never an explanation for that bizarre combination. We were already living in Boston and New York, and, Prince aside, Detroit didn’t really seem like the best option.

S has taken full advantage of the city, and at her graduation the city itself almost seemed to assume human qualities and participate in the ceremony. Her graduation, at one of the city’s stellar institutions, is likely the only one in the U.S. with an equal amount of jazz music to spoken word. And what about the second line handkerchiefs handed out to the graduating students, as well as Topsy Chapman singing “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”

In keeping with family tradition, a large contingent of family members from all coasts made their way to New Orleans for the festivities. Many of us stayed at the Hotel Villa Convento on Ursalines Street across from the convent in the French Quarter (yes, that does seem to be an oxymoron). The hotel (not the convent) is where husband J and I stayed for our honeymoon in 1986 – we actually found it through a Let’s Go guide we consulted in a bookstore and that we were too impoverished (or cheap) to actually buy. The hotel is by folklore the famous brothel, The House of the Rising Sun, and has been owned by the same family for decades. It has a faded charm that embodies the city – our rooms had balconies that fronted Ursalines Street, and which were the perfect location for a before dinner glass of wine.

Seersucker - what else can you wear to Delmonico's?
Seersucker – what else can you wear to Delmonico’s?

Emeril’s Delminico’s did its usual spectacular job of service and food for the graduation dinner on Friday night. We were in a smaller room with two tables of eight that felt as private as could be without being a private room. A smaller group of us were at Appolline on Magazine Street the night  before and I still can’t quite figure out why that restaurant is never more crowded. Graduation night we made it to Frenchmen’s Street, where the music rolls as solidly as the Mississippi itself.

This visit we checked out a new area of town as well – the Bayou Boogaloo Festival in Mid City – lots of great bands and unusual watercraft making their way down the bayou. We were particularly pleased to get there because we’d actually tried to go a day too early only to find we were ther only attendees aside from the vendors setting up! Reading schedules closely has never been a strong suit in this family.

After our second – and successful – trip to the festival,  we went to the Bywater area – scene of gentrifying and gentrified shotgun houses – and had a great time at Bacchanal. You walk through a wine shop, buy your wine, and sit out in a shaded back yard listening to music. The band we heard even included a tap dancer. There’s also a great small plate menu and sitting under the trees, with food, wine, music, family and friends at hand sums up New Orleans.

Homemade raft floating down the bayou...
Homemade raft floating down the bayou…

So what more can I say? Daughter S is planning to stay for another year. And I did manage to get a run in. The swampis fun – but there are a couple of summits waiting to be climbed in about five weeks.

A Brief Musing on Mothers and Mountains

Sunset over Kibo, Kilimanjaro
Sunset over Kibo, Kilimanjaro

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Iceland, Land of Tomatoes – The Final Chapter

Tomato greenhouse in Iceland
Tomato greenhouse in Iceland

After the adrenalin of our glacier hike and adventures in Vik, and the harrowing drive back to our Farmhotel – so much so that at dinner that night a couple from Sydney, Australia stopped by our table to ask what we had been doing that had engendered such excitement – we decided our last full day needed to be one of stark contrast.

We had seen an advertisement for lunch in a family-owned greenhouse that produced 18% of Iceland’s tomato crop, which seemed bizarre enough to fit well with the overall ethos of our trip. But first we wanted to sample one of Iceland’s famed hot springs, which we thought would be a good balance to the frigid ice of the day before. So we said farewell to the Efstidalur and set back along what was now our favorite snow covered road, heading, of course, in the general director of Fludir.

We had already decided to reject the more famous Blue Lagoon hot springs in favor of the much closer Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths. For a very reasonable price, you are given access to a series of pools situated at the edge of a lake, which is surrounded by snowcapped volcanic mountains in the distance.  The changing room was possibly the most spotless place I have been – two girls were diligently vacuuming the tops of the lockers themselves. The pools ranged in temperature, rising up to 50 degrees Celsius, and were adorned with rocks for resting your head, jets of varying water pressures, and benches to sit on. After steaming ourselves for a while, we started to resemble good New Orleans shrimp that has just started to turn pink. That was our sign to transfer to the Finnish-style, cedar lined sauna to dry ourselves out.  Once our shrimp-like selves had started to take on a slight bacon-like overlay, we felt that was a clue we had had enough. M and I retired to the previously empty women’s changing room only to discover it had been taken over by a bus load of middle aged jovial naked German women for whom this was clearly one of the highlights of their trip. We also realized we had probably violated most of the shower rules (don’t ask) but fortunately no one had been there earlier to observe our general American incompetence.

Keeping the red theme going, we then slipped and slid along more snow covered roads to the tomato greenhouse, Fridheimar.  And what a greenhouse it was! Masses of tomato plants, all growing from small boxes at the ends of the aisles, their vines entangled along string structures spanning the entire width of the greenhouse. Electricity is very cheap in Iceland due to the geothermal energy pulsing under everything, and no one would think twice about the energy costs of greenhouse gardening of this magnitude. Automatic on off light switches don’t even exist.  Tables were set for lunch, which was, of course, all you could eat tomato soup, or if you were a big spender like S, pasta with tomato sauce. There was also a hollowed out tomato filled with birch schnapps – Iceland was covered by birch forests until the Vikings cut them all down.

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Having had our fill of tomatoes, we returned to Reykjavik by way of a quick hike around and into the Kerid crater and a stop at two seaside villages.  Very empty in March – the small towns are best summed up by unpronounceable names, giant waves crashing on sand bars out at sea, black sand beaches littered with tiny shards of snail shells, and a solid 50 mph wind that didn’t let up. That wind pursued us the whole way back to Reykjavik, where even on the main road the local drivers had slowed down to a crawl due to the blowing snow. When we finally staggered back into the by then familiar Hotel Natura we were more than ready for a happy hour drink in the bar, together with the car mechanics convention attendees who seemed to have taken over much of the hotel.

Return to Reykjavik
Return to Reykjavik

Demonstrating some travel smarts, we enlisted the aid of the front desk clerk who was able to wangle a reservation for us at one of the city’s trendier restaurants  – the not particularly creatively named Seafood Grill.   All the food was good (although I could have passed on S’s whale and puffin appetizer) but the desserts were outstanding. I had an almond skyr cake infused with thyme….possibly one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

We headed back to the airport the next day. But adventure still wasn’t letting us go. Just when we thought we had already faced some of the worst driving conditions known to man (at least to Florida man), the road to the airport – exposed, flat open – was simply consumed by blowing snow. J could see absolutely nothing – occasionally the yellow stakes at the side of the road made a brief appearance, but much of the time we were simply in whiteout. We arrived at the car rental return place to the spot where supposedly you could refuel – only to find the pumps were closed and we had to drive yet another 10 km  to find gas. We did, eventually, only then to have to turn around and drive along the same terrible road we had barely survived before. And, if anything, it had gotten worse the second time around! To say we were happy to leave the car with the rental people is an understatement. We later learned the road had been closed right after we had driven along it following a six car pileup.


But lest you think our happy travelers simply then boarded their plane for a smooth flight back to the land of sunshine and oranges….no, not indeed. We had been unable to book a direct flight back and were returning via Toronto. But our flight was delayed out of Iceland (I’ll leave it to my brilliant readers to guess why) and the airline would not hold the connecting flight from Toronto to Orlando the necessary 15 minutes – despite the fact there were about twelve of us on the plane who were missing that very connection. But this blog doesn’t exist to complain about the incompetence of airlines – by now that’s just part of the condition of human existence – suffice it to say that we ended up with an unexpected night in Toronto and a very early morning flight back to Florida.

I’m now sitting here listening to one of our first Florida wet season rain storms pelting down, and contemplating the next summits facing us in June in Ecuador. Iceland wasn’t really a summit, per se.  But travel takes all forms – and travel with friends is one of the highest.