Saturday, December 29, 2007

Down from Las MontaƱas

Climbing the Mexican volcanos was a complete success! Despite the heat and noise typical of much of the rest of the country, the high mountains were cold and quiet, as we have come to expect of them.

We warmed up on Nevado de Toluca (15,100´), a huge crater with two lakes in the center. A cold little alpine refuge provided shelter before and after our climb - a hike up to the rim and mile-long traverse to the high point. Beautiful with the lakes down below at sunrise.

Next was Ixtaccihuatl (17,400´), next to erupting (and therefore offlimits) Popocatapetl. The park has a much warmer hut to stay in, with beautiful views of both mountains. A long hike leads to a couple of benign glacier traverses, finally accessing the summit. The only bad weather of our trip prevented any good views and provided some snow for the way back, but we had the place entirely to ourselves and made it back just after dark, hiking down through snow and rock to grasses and scrub and finally trees again. Happy Christmas Eve!

A day of travel over Christmas, and on to the highest peak in Mexico, third highest in North America, El Pico de Orizaba (18,700´). The huge Piedra Grande hut at 14K´was all but empty when we got there, but quicly filled as climbing club groups from Mexico and Guatemala poured in. We ended up sleeping in a tiny falling-down hut nearby to escape the festivities... Hiking at 2am through talus and scree over hard ice to the start of the Jamapa Glacier at sunrise. Having hauled them all the way just for this glacier, we elected not to rope up and hiked the gentle volcanic slope to the crater, first ones up and enjoying the solitude and calm after a cold windy ascent. Perfect snow on the way down, and back in time to wait for our shared ride, inexperienced climbers who had bonked thinking they didn´t need many calories.

Despite the vehement warnings of our guidebook to avoid the Christmas season at all costs, we had almost no company in the hills, and transportation was never an issue, even on Christmas Day. We definitely hit a good weather window, looking back at Orizaba with its head in the clouds, but acclimatized well and enjoyed the people and places we encountered. Street food and cheap travel seem to have agreed with us, and we finished with all our extra days unspent!
Ironically, the hardest part of the trip was finding a nice beach to relax on, and we ended up going back to Mexico City and spending a day at the pyramids of Teotihuaca (or something like that), which was actually quite peaceful.
There´s always more mountains and places to climb in the world, but these particular ones were as advertised and expected, and an altogether pleasant experience, which is sometimes rare. Many thanks to Mary for the pictures (it´s not my fault that they´re all of me!) and climbing!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A quick weekend ski...

Back in Seattle, I immediately headed to the Wallowas to check out a gig for coming winters. The Wallowa Alpine huts ( are stashed way in the corner of northeast Oregon, and provide access to nice powdery backcountry skiing. There was much discussion and study of snow stability, yurt geometry, tranceiver technology, and even a bit of skiing. Some cool folks hanging around these parts - looking forward to working here in March!

Now off to Mexico to climb some volcanos with Mary, then Argentina to work Aconcagua for two months. Season-hopping is odd...

Monday, December 17, 2007


A little late, but here's the final India installment...

A few days in Delhi, complete with doctor visit (250 rupees = $6), big bad antibiotics and a bunch of supporting meds (520 rupees = $13), and a lot of tea and sleeping and I was mostly good as new. Invaluable to have a support network of people with a place to stay and the knowledge of where to go. Thanks Larry!!

Mostly mended, I caught the overnight bus to Manali, in the Kullu valley in the Himalayan foothills to the north to join Lin and Larry. An absolutely grueling trip - the buses have no toilets and the drivers don't seem to need them, and the ride stretched to 17 hours of bumpy curvy when-will-we-be-there-ness. What a relief to see Lin waiting for me at the end!

Snow prevented us from doing the hoped-for five-day trek, but we thoroughly enjoyed staying at the Iceland Hotel and daytripping from there. The backcountry skiing in March and April is enough to keep any avid skier busy for a long time, but for now we had to be content with scoping out terrain not yet sufficiently covered. The snow brought out the contours and features of the surrounding mountains, the beautiful edge of the Himalaya. We hiked to about 15,000' and were rewarded with views of amazing redges and peaks stretching into the distance. The road closed, all this is remote wilderness until springtime reopens roads and paths.

Our host, Khem, is the son of a local shepherd who completed his education, built and now manages a succesful mountain hotel, and is an avid skier whose son has raced slolom and GS on the Indian National Team multiple times. The Indian team has yet to compete in the Olympics, however. The local ski hill (one of the few with an actual lift) consists of a 200' rope tow from which you can continue hiking up. Hard to compete with European and American teams with video analysis, elite coaches, thousands of vertical feet of lift skiing, and all the latest gear and ideas. Regardless, Khem clearly loves his sport and is counting the days (years) until the promised gondola is finally completed.

Don't know if I'll be able to make it back some spring, but Lin and Larry will certainly be back to check it out. After a great week of exploring the snowy hills, it is time to head back, to Delhi, to Seattle, and to the next adventure. I am feeling the pull of the damp evergreen hills of the northwest, but don't yet feel ready to leave India. This acclimatisation trip has left me with a much better feel of how things work - who to talk to and how to work around, what sorts of obstacles and rewards wait when I return.

With friends in Delhi for another two years, I'll definitely be back, for who knows what kind of adventure. I am tempted to beseige some expedition climb, but at the same time am fascinated by the crazy tangents that present themselves - a 9-day mountain bike race from Shimla to Manali with some of the people I've met sounds like an entirely different and crazy experience. Ultimately it begs the question of priorities, but regardless, I will be certain to return and have some kind of crazy ride.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dharamshala, part two

Lin back in Delhi, I spent a day doing not much, slept in the next day as well, then made a mad dash to the mountains for a few days. Despite constant warnings to the contrary (nothing new there) based on changing weather, cold temperatures, and the difficulty of the trip, I did two short trekking days in one afternoon, hiking past Triund and Snow Line, arriving just after dark at Lahesh Caves. Around them, I should say... then spent a couple hours in the dark walking literally in circles around the actual cave before settling into one nearby. Was completely exhausted from lack of lunch by that time - tired muscles.

A steady overnight barometer sent me up to Indrahar Pass for the day - yet another exercise in trying to decipher cryptically-brief directions from the book - where I found the actual path about halfway up. It is a very old shepherd-improved path; to call it a trail would be misleading. Unlike the rock and dirt switchbacks of the NW, where they wanted to go straight up the rocky ridge, they just stacked rocks on rocks until a stairway was formed. Voile - what was once 4th- or 5th-class climbing is now a seasonal migration path. Yikes! The entire ecosystems and grass communities growing between and around the rocks gave me some confidence in their stability. (I didn't want to lose Lin's camera, so we're back to imagination and scavenged photos again...)

Beautiful up there, peeking over the crest of the Dhaula Dhar to the northern ranges of the Himalaya. An unexpectedly irregular skyline, punctuated by dramatic spires and fans above the run on conversations of ridges and peaks below. Pictures are one thing, but peaks like this hadn't existed in my visual memory before. Crazy.

A price to pay, though. What I had told myself was still exhausted muscles turned out to be a lovely fever - I spent the next day entirely in my sleeping bag and down jacket, leaving my little cave-overhang only for the five-minute trip to get water, which completely drained the energy I didn't have. Good to make time to read, to nap, to appreciate the absolute silence up there - a few birds were the only motion and sound in a valley so quiet I swear I could hear the sun moving through the sky.

Out of food, I had to head back the next day, down to McLeodganj to rest. Returned to spend the next few days hanging out with the few people I knew there, having chai, exchanging thoughts and music, comparing views of the world. Beside Tibetans, there is also a contingent of Kashmiris there, finding better business than in their state-warned-of, tourist-vacated corner of the country. Interestingly, it has been difficult to talk to women here, as they are conditioned not to talk to people on the streets in the interests of modesty. So we foreign women just chat with all the men like it's going out of style, and they don't seem to mind. I spent my days running into the same few people, Ashiq, Ali, Gul, Ram, and assorted of their friends, trying to decide if this small a town would be interesting to spend that much time in, or if it would drive me crazy. I think the latter. But entertaining to watch all the tourists come and go, I'm sure.

Instead of heading to Manali to meet Lin as planned, in the end I had to cancel my ticket and head back to Delhi. My fever was on and off getting worse, not better, and aside from being too tired to enjoy a new place, I don't have the luxury of time to be sick once back in Seattle. Ali and Ashiq bid stage-worthy adieu and helped carry my luggage to the bus - drawn-out well-wishes, promises to write, visit, etc. Next year, hopefully. For now, it's back to the big city for something more powerful than the antibiotics I had with me...

Monday, December 3, 2007

Dharamshala, part one

Back to the land of the communicative! First off, Lin and I went to McLeodganj, near Dharamshala, the residence-in-exile of the Dalai Lama and home to a large population of Tibetans who have fled the Chinese occupation. McLeodganj is also seeking-traveller central, with yoga, chakra, tarot, crystal, pot-head, massage, and countless other types of paraphernalia and classes - the type of place people stay for months. But the off season meant things were quieter.

The grand plan was to traverse part of the mountain ridge above town, but my stove didn't like the local kerosene much, so a shortened version involved trekking to Kareri Village and cooking with sticks, both equally adventurous. A daytrip to Kareri Lake started off in the wrong direction thanks to guidebook ambiguity, emphatically proving advice it gave elsewhere for getting around India: "The system is confusing; to find the right bus, ask anyone and everyone, repeatedly." This actually works surprisingly well!

We spent some time talking with a young teacher in the high village of Kareri - he had gone to teacher school for two years and applied for the 5-year government post, a good job here. The inevitable too-small 2-room building without heat was populated with perhaps 80 kids 4 to 16 years old, outside today because it was warm. Asked about whether this 10-year-old school would cause the village to die when they all left for the better life of the schooled, he said the eldest son in the family stays to run the farm. Hopefully the village will continue to exist.

We had heard the drums and horns of a wedding party on our way through the town of Ghera the first day, and on our way back met them walking back home to the village at which we had just stayed! They volunteered to pose for us, asking not for money but for a print of the photo to be mailed. It seems the end of tourist season signals the start of wedding season here.

Before Lin headed back to Delhi, we went to the nearby Norbulingka Institute, where traditional Tibetan arts are being taught and kept alive, since they may soon be gone in Tibet thanks to the Chinese. A beautiful, peaceful place.

That ends this chapter - Lin went back to Delhi to prep for our next adventure, and I stayed to do my own hiking in the mountains...

(Please note: All pictures are courtesy of Lin - thanks Lin!!!)