Thanksgiving Reflections on a Blog (and Summits)

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When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s  Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.

It doesn’t really matter how many people read  it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that  someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.

Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet.  (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.

Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis.  But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.

The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own.  Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything.  Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older.  And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.

These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day.  There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.

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Back on the Trail – Eyes toward Stok Kangri

It may be seven months off, but when you’re headed towards the ripe old age of 57, and there is a  20,000 foot mountain  called Stok Kangri beckoning you, you have to respond to its call with a training regime. Unfortunately I was just gearing up my program when all hell broke loose at work, which has wreaked havoc with my workout plans, but I’m doing my best.

One place J and I re-visited a couple of weekends ago was our old favorite, the Cady Way Trail. We started to hike it back in 2011 when we were preparing for Kilimanjaro and I’ve been meaning to write about it since day 1 of this blog. In fact, there’s still a partially written post in the drafts folder.

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Over the last six years we’ve watched this urban/suburban trail change – almost a microcosm of the larger world around it. Case in point – there was a little rundown house we always used to look at with a slight sense of incredulity. The windows were cracked, the washer and dryer resided in a strange outdoor closet, and my personal favorite was the trough for feeding the owners’ collection of pit bulls. Six years later – the house was gutted, windows replaced, the outdoor washer and dryer vanished, and landscaping has substituted for  the dog feeding trough.

Cady Way is long and hot and winds between the backs of houses, past a little used golf course (or so it seems), by a high school and culminates in a high pedestrian bridge that passes over one of Orlando’s long wide boulevards, studded on either side with Mexican restaurants and car lots. Oh – at the far end of the trail there is a beautiful little memorial area to remind hikers of a couple of brutal murders that occurred there a few years back.

Aside from the normal prurient interest in getting to see everyone’s backyards abutting the trail – the most interesting place is an odd building that was part of the old Naval Training Center. J and I are convinced it’s a listening center for the military – that location that’s monitoring cell phone traffic. All we know is there are never any people present, there’s a loud hum, there’s an odd asphalt track that he runs around a field for no apparent reason, lots of gas canisters and double barbed wire fences. There’s no telling what it really is – but it certainly lends itself to speculation on what can otherwise be a brutally boring hike. (In face, we’ve never photographed it for fear of being observed!)

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Cady Way has no spectacular sites, no vistas, and only a few spots that even qualify as “natural.” But it’s long (10 plus miles round trip), it’s really hot (and hence meets my theory about stressing your body for high altitude), and the little changes that you see year by year create just enough interest. By now it’s like an old friend that’s giving an “atta girl” to help me get up that mountain.

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 – M and S Speak! Guest bloggers.

IMG_0142It did all start in 1991. Only one of our now four children had been born. She (A) spent much of her time in a plastic contraption that we called her rocket seat — a plastic rocker with a foam insert and a carrying handle that proved very useful for lugging her around to all the restaurants we still planned to go to with our good friends M and S.  The fact we were 29 and 30 and found ourselves with an infant offspring was not about to deter us.

As the years went by and the offspring expanded to include three others, we four parents found ourselves in high risk environments – such as a fondue restaurant with four under 8 year olds – with hot oil, fire and long sharp forks – and various other and sundry similar problems and situations. They are the subject of another blog post – or possibly even another website.

But throughout it all was always what we used to call our travel fantasies. It could be Vietnam, New Zealand, wherever. Just something more than New Smyrna Beach or – heaven forbid- the Outer Banks. We called it travel p**n – the fulfillment of our travel fantasies – but I’m concerned WordPress and Facebook will block the  phrase of what we actually called it. Just understand – it was supposed to be the ultimate escape and self realization.

Travel po**n kept us going through many a career shift, stressful work situation and the other vagaries of life in the ’90s and ’00s.

After some preliminary trips to see if we really were compatible adventurers – see Iceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir, we decided late 20’s angst could translate to mid 50s midlife crises. So we went for it. I’ve already published J’s and my experiences on our trek to Everest Base Camp with friends. Here’s the take from the other bedroom in our amazingly cold tea houses in Nepal and how it happened:

M and S speak:

“You could definitely do it!”

J nodded emphatically as he picked up the conversation thread from MR. As always, J’s contribution focused on the technical specifications. “It’s all trekking. There’s no climbing, so no ropes or crampons.  We go alongside the Khumbu Glacier, not across. Highest we get is only 18,000 feet at Kala Pattar—that’s the best views of Everest.  Kala Pattar is steep and there’s some scree.  But you should be able to make it!

MR chimed in eagerly at each reference, “It’s basically just a really long hike.”  “You’ve got boots and rain gear. You’ll just need to buy some poles.” And “Kala Pattar is an optional day. We could just leave you behind.” [They did.]
E familia.

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“Just leave me behind,” S called out, only half in jest.  He was sitting on a rock, head bent down, one arm stretched in front of him, palm facing out.  It was the universal signal of defeat.  We had updated the wills before we left but our Nepalese guide, Z, wasn’t having anything to do with S dying. “You have to keep moving, S.  It’s not good to sit too long at this altitude.”  I caught up to where S had planted himself.  It wasn’t like I was moving any faster.  Z exhorted both of us with the now familiar, “Tomorrow will be easier.”  Z told us things that weren’t always 100% true.  Like “rest days” were anything but.  Turns out every day was hard and “rest days” (a/k/a acclimatization days) were the hardest!

Since S and I spent most of the time staring at our boot tops, we are grateful for MR’s detailed posts which we can confirm are based on contemporaneous and copious notes.  S and I huddled exhausted around the yak-dung fires in tea houses fighting to stay awake long enough to eat dinner.  MR was on-line busily researching and cite-checking.  It was enough for us to simply say, “We did it!”

“We did it” began long before we were captured, smiling but completely, utterly spent, in the photo taken at Base Camp.

“We did it” began years ago at that very first meal with MR & J talking about how, one day, after the kids were grown, we would go on a “couples vacation.”  Until this year, that continuing conversation had yielded only a few extra pounds, a shared condo in St. Augustine for the Gentlemen of the Road concert, and a long weekend in Iceland functioning as something like cold-weather gear crash dummies for one of MR and J’s upcoming summit attempts.

“We did it” included:  going to a gym to attempt to regain something resembling good shape (and updating the wills just in case); buying a ton more gear than MR and J let on would be required; flying twice as far as we had ever flown; trekking ten times farther than we had ever hiked—and that was twenty years before; sharing close quarters and more about our bodily consumption and elimination than we were comfortable; and worrying that we might end up ruining someone else’s trip of a lifetime by succumbing to altitude sickness or injury.

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We did it” also included:  being graciously welcomed into the homes and monasteries of people from a rich and vibrant culture; sharing the trail and tea house conversations with travelers from around the world; getting, if not to the top of the world, then pretty close; beating back the demons that taunt us as we age with the bold statement that we’re not dead, yet; discovering that friendship can survive the trek to Everest Base Camp; and, having taken every step together as a couple, finishing the last, longest, hardest day together.   Our marriage is the stronger for it.

MR and J were right.  We could definitely do this!

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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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Seeing the Summit – Getting Ready for Everest Base Camp

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I’m not sure I’ve formally announced the next choice of mountain…but the winner is – Trek to Everest Base Camp! Now I realize for you purists out there it’s technically only a trek up part of a mountain, but for those of us who took up mountaineering in our 50s it’s probably as close as we’re going to get to that particular summit. And there are a few peaks along the way, so surely that counts. Much more to come on this latest adventure in the coming months.
But the title of this post is Seeing the Summit and that has particular meaning at the moment. For – for the first time since the reading eye following my lasik for monovision in the early 2000s stopped reading – I can see without glasses!

The secret – a little thing called contacts. I haven’t worn them since the late 90s, but suddenly the glasses were just too much and too heavy. You need a light touch for summits and the glasses weren’t doing it.

It’s quite disconcerting to see your face close up without glasses for the first time in years. I definitely have more wrinkles and grey hairs than I realized. But the ability to read something whenever I look down (ok- I still can’t read the directions on cleaning products) – is amazing.

There’s got to be some clarity in that. And as I resume the type of training regime I think I’m going to need to reach the highest overlook of Everest – Kala Pattur- at almost 18,500 feet –  and to spend about 10 days at over 12,000 plus feet…some clarity is sorely needed.

You can see a lot looking down from a summit – but getting ready to look at one up can be equally as important.

Rest – How to Reach a Summit

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Rest – in Belgium – many years ago

I’m currently watching Adrian Ballinger’s and Emily Harrington’s attempt to climb Cho Oyu in under two weeks on Snapchat. And today’s Snapchat involved Emily explaining they had one more day to rest before their summit attempt. With joy in her eyes.

The day before a summit attempt is weird. You are informed that your job is basically to stay in your sleeping bag, hang out, appear for meals and eat a lot, and essentially do nothing. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Especially when you know you’re going to have adrenaline pumping within 24 hours to do something well beyond what your body normally does.

We don’t take this seriously enough in our regular working life. How many times do you realize that what you truly need to get ready for some high risk, high stress work performance is rest? Yet we don’t do it. We’re too busy prepping.

As I get ready, along with apparently 100 million other people, to watch the presidential debates tonight, I keep wondering how much rest the candidates have had. They – and the country – might be better off if they took time for some rest – introspection and contemplation.

 

Contrasts

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The last couple of weeks have involved being sick, attending graduation, Mother’s Day, out of town business trips and a serious lack of any sort of exercise. And no blog post last week.

It all started almost two weeks ago Monday when “she who never gets sick” felt and was sick as a dog that night. (I wonder where that phrase comes from. My cat does just as good a job as getting as sick as the dog.) Work was out of the question the next day as I knew I would be about as welcome as  an ant at a picnic.  And of course being sick then led to the inevitable “I shouldn’t exercise until I am really and truly better” – which, while doubtless good advice, is sort of a nice excuse for a little break.

But all breaks must end — not to mention the profound fear of every 55 year old that if you stop exercising you’ll never be able to start up again – that spinning tire will just slow down and there won’t be any gas in the engine to start it up again. So Saturday I was back at it – only for a four mile run since it has been an entire two weeks, after all.

And not very fast. Last time I ran it was a beautiful dry day. And today it was a beautiful humid day with temps, I’m sure, in the mid 80s. The contrast is huge. Those of you who run in dry air don’t know what it feels like to run through a sponge. I have to believe it’s good for you. Somehow? Maybe?

The other remarkable thing about running in this weather is the difference between shade and sun. On days like this I find myself criss crossing streets and paths to find that 12 inches of shade. It may only be a few degrees but it makes a difference.

I’ve been following #EverestNoFilter on Snapchat. (Ask someone under 20. They can tell you how to do it.) It’s a real time account of Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards’ attempt to climb Everest without oxygen and is probably as close as I’m going to ever get to that summit. One of the things they talk about is the sun/shade contrast on the mountain. A T-shirt on one side; a down suit on the other.

Those contrasts can be a pain to deal with. But without one we certainly wouldn’t appreciate the other. Some might characterize it as meaning the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But, for those of you old enough to remember Erma Bombeck – the grass is always greener over the septic tank. Now, that’s a contrast we can all appreciate.

 

46 Earthdays, 55 Birthdays

Where am I going and where have I been? The Big Island, 2013
Where am I going and where have I been? The Big Island, 2013

The last thing I expected in May of 2014 when I hesitantly pressed the “publish” button (see   https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/05/12/how-it-began/ ) was that two years later I’d still be writing this blog. What started simply as a means to keep family and friends informed about our upcoming trip to Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus ended up being a weekly place to muse about past adventures, think about new ones, and contemplate the here and now in between them.

And as my 55th birthday comes and goes – serendipitously I was born on what 9 years later became Earth Day – it gives me a moment of pause to reflect about the last five years and consider the next. As a friend of mine put it, somehow the “five” birthdays that split the decades seem even more significant than the “zero” ones.

You see, this entire mountain climbing, summit seeking, trekking business all started when husband J asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday. And surprising myself, “climb Kilimanjaro” was what popped out of my mouth. Hey, it could have been a lot worse.  At least I didn’t say “Redrum.” And over these last five years, we’ve climbed a heckuva lot of mountains and trekked a boatload of trails. And this was for someone who had last slept in a tent at age 18 and hadn’t run over a mile since her first early 20s. Yes, I did yoga and dance and all versions of 1980s aerobic classes (remember those?!) but it was hardly the same.

Dead Woman's Pass Inca Trail with the Family, 2012
Dead Woman’s Pass, Inca Trail with the Family, 2012

So we’ve got this summer worked out – not really a summit, but the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands with the Daughters and the Boyfriends.  But that alone isn’t quite enough to provide the inspiration that I increasingly need to drag myself through the dreary grind of daily work.  What I really need is to figure out the next mountain. After five years of doing this, J and I have realized that some of our ascents have been due to the combined luck of excellent guides and decent weather and not and because of any great skill on our part.  So perhaps a mountaineering school is in order – to add some real training to what we’ve learned on the run.

There’s one in Mont Blanc that I’ve got my eye on. After all, in another five years I’m hoping I’ll be getting ready for the summits of the next five. I was born on Earth Day. How can I not be an optimist?

And Work Gets In the Way….That 20,000 Foot Goal

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Training – 25 pound pack – fire staircase at work at lunch. I own that staircase.

Well, our plane tickets are bought. Our hike of five days along the Whisky Trail in the Scottish Highlands is booked – basically meaning we have pre-made reservations at BnBs for various small villages along the Speyside Way. Daughters have been duly informed that the last day’s hike is 17 miles – oops, sorry, only told oldest daughter that fact. If the other one reads this blog she now knows it.

It’s a bit odd, since I don’t feel the same necessity of super duper training we’ve needed on some of our other mountain adventures. But since we’re still planning on some more high altitude peaks out there, I can’t just sit back on my laurels (however miniscule they are anyway). But without a very high mountain peering down at me, and with the distractions of work ever present, it’s harder and harder to feel the pressure to train. It was over 80 degrees today – the first day of spring – and when I ran back him from yoga at the Y, it felt more like a slog.

The title for this post was work gets in the way. Perhaps that’s a cop out. I like to believe that if I didn’t have to get up tomorrow and be a fully functioning plus individual, my day would be open to write, draw, remodel rooms of my house, recycle more and work on my vegetable garden. Is that really what would happen? Would I actually just putter around in pajamas and wrestle my Westie to be the first to look at the junk mail pushed through the the mail slot? Somewhere and somehow I still need to know that 20,000 foot goal is there. When it’s in the mid-80s and hot – that’s the only thing that keeps you running the extra mile.