Why climb a mountain? Short answer (from George Mallory): "Because it is there." Longer response (from Reinhold Messner): "Most people are not interested in personal experience. The concept that one can willingly tax one's physical and mental resources out of a pure joy of living: that one can become obsessed with a hunger to experience the world and the mind too - such an idea does not occur to them. No. Practical work, that's different. They can recognize that, where there's an instant utility or profit. But pure thought, pure exercise, a pure thirst for knowledge without a useful end product - that has no interest for them . . . How many of us suffer in one form or another from the fact that our energies and skills are not being properly utilized. More than ¾ of all people in the Industrial West, say the statisticians. I don't know. I only know that under-realization of the bodily and emotional resources promotes a cancer of the soul, an unlived life. There are many ways one can safeguard against this. Climbing Big Walls, for example, is one . . ." I'm in full agreement with Messner. I climb purely for the transcendent experience - the celebration of being alive and maximizing full potential. The mountains listed are not all "Big Walls." Some are walk-ups, others are not that tall, but all are regarded as sacred summits -- never 'conquered,' but climbed with reverence and respect. What I'm after is not how high, but how deep a mountain takes me. In short, mountains are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. -M.M.
*This section is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, Galen Rowell: a world-class mountaineer and one of the best nature photographers to ever pick up a camera. IN THE THRONE ROOM OF THE MOUNTAIN GODS is one of Galen's many books, which I highly recommend. Galen and his wife Barbara died, tragically, in a plane crash in 2002 near their home in Bishop, California.
California constantly amazes with its diversity of landscape! One wild ramble took me from Badwater, Death Valley -282 feet; the lowest point in the United States - then just a few miles away I began climbing up to the highest point in the mainland U.S.: Mt. Whitney,+ 14, 495 feet! It was mid-October and I had the entire mountain to myself, craving the healing balm of nature after a frenzied work overload. Then while camped at 12,000 feet - a Los Angelino put up his tent right next to mine; turned on a big radio and blasted a World Series baseball game to the high heavens. It was a "blessing-in-disguise." I left in the middle of the night, headlamp on - and reached the summit just as the sun was bathing all the Sierras (what John Muir called "The Range of Light") in golden alpine-glow! That did it. Lit-up as much as the rock walls around me, I was hooked on mountains forever!! Einstein stated that all matter is condensed light. I seek out high places and people that show that glow. . .
Mt. Shasta, 14,162 feet, in Northern California is situated in the largest zone of volcanoes in the world, the Pacific Ring of Fire. 75% of the world's volcanoes lay along this ring, which stretches from Alaska to South America, circles the Pacific Ocean heading north through Japan and back over to Alaska. Mt. Shasta is in a section called the Cascade Range, which begins where the Sierra Nevadas end -- extending 700 miles up through Northern California, Oregon, Washington and into southern British Columbia. There are 19 major volcanoes in the Cascade Range. Mt. Rainier, in Washington, is the tallest at 14,411 feet. Mt. Shasta, the second tallest volcano in the lower 48 states is 249 feet below Rainier, but is more massive. I climbed with a few members of The Arizona Mountaineering Club and it was my first alpine ascent wearing crampons and using an ice axe. We began at the Bunny Flat trailhead and then scaled Avalanche Gulch route to the summit - 6 vertical miles, with an elevation gain of 7,000 feet. The two Spring days -- not a cloud in the sky and so warm, stood on the summit in a t-shirt! Also, came away from the climb with severe sunburn on my face; and while doubled over, sucking wind on the steep slopes -- reflected radiation from the snow fried the roof of my mouth. For a week after, back home, only thing I could eat was Gerber's baby food - "Banana Mush," my all-time favorite flavor!
PICO DE ORIZABA
18,700 foot Orizaba is the highest peak in Mexico and the third highest in North America (after Denali and Mount Logan). Its Aztec name is Citlaltepetl, meaning "Star Mountain" - possibly because its snowy cap acted as a beacon seen from miles away at night. An excerpt from my book: Angeles Crest: ". . . After resting in a high hut to get acclimatized to the altitude, we roped together in two groups of three, and set out for the summit in the middle of the night when the snow was firmest. Many a lazy or lackadaisical climber has slept in and with the sun's rays softening a skimpy snow bridge over a crevasse - cracked through the deceptive cover, plunging to his or her death inside an icy casket half-a-mile deep.
We set out at 4:00 a.m. in the frigid darkness. In the tiny beam of your head lamp you couldn't see the climber in front of you - only the rope connecting you snaking forward across the snow as if with a life of its own. Kay's group was climbing about a hundred yards ahead of us; she was in the third position with Greg and Frank ahead of her. You put your very best climber in the third position and I soon learned why.
In the coral-pink twilight, we could now spot the lead group ascending a steep, 50-degree slope high above us. Kay's colossal energy had already driven them on ahead by 400 yards. They were small specks in a vast white amphitheater. Just when Peter, Marilyn and I paused to take a blow and look up to check their progress: we took-in something the eyes saw, but our brains refused to accept as really happening. . . Frank, the lead climber in Kay's group fell - zipping down the icy slope in a nylon shell jacket. He committed a climber's cardinal sin by not yelling as he came off the mountain. . . Greg, next in line, about twenty yards of rope behind Frank, had his head down and didn't see Frank fly by. Frank is only about 140 pounds but his acceleration was enough to rip the 210 pound Greg off his feet and send both plummeting downward. In total shock, sliding helter-skelter, neither man uttered a sound. . . Kay, giving full concentration to the icy patch in front of her, saw a blur out of the corner of her eye. Without looking up to see what it was (then too late), she immediately did an ice-axe arrest (driving the sharp tip of her ice axe down into the mountain with your prone body weight, just behind the rope. Thank god, the axe 'took' and Kay's 130 pounds were anchor enough, for a split-second later: the rope stretched taut - and Frank and Greg, turned upside down - came to a dangling halt.
Even though it all took place in the blink of an eye, somehow, as we watched it seemed to unfold in slow motion. If Kay hadn't acted without thinking exactly when she did, she would have been peeled off the mountain, as well - and with the three of them speeding down the slope there was no way we had time to get over into their distant path to try to stop them. We would have had to watch them slide by us and free-fall thousands of feet off the glacier lip to their certain deaths: a sight no one should ever have to live with. (A month later, two climbers slipped in the very same area and plunged to their deaths.)
We power-climbed up to them. They were back on their feet, Kay shrugging off the gratitude and praise with a simple, matter-of-fact statement: "Next time you guys - please yell!!"
I was the rookie climber of the group, having only done Mt. Shasta before this. As we continued up the steep icy slope, I began to sweat in the frigid air. (If Frank and Greg can fall - where does that leave me?) It then got worse, with the slope steepening even more and the surface all hard blue ice. No matter how hard I kicked, of all the sharp crampon points covering my boots - only one of the very front fangs went in. . . Each time I pushed up, I stared down - wide-eyed at that one small point of steel, incredulous that it would hold my body weight plus heavy pack. I started to lose it, all my muscles going rigid with tension; panic climbing my spine. And being roped together, after what I had just seen, was an added burden: the link now more a curse than a blessing, for if I fell - a bad chance I would take Marilyn and Peter with me.
Just as my mind was bottoming-out, I heard a strange buzzing sound. Suffering from tunnel vision, I stole a glance out to the side and, incredibly, there was a bumblebee, a black and yellow aeronaut meandering up over the slope. Seeing that plump, vibrant bit of life on the frozen mountain broke the ice within. There wasn't a flower within 18,000 feet, but that didn't seem to concern the bee. Its steady, hum-like buzz unknotted my clenched nerves. I relaxed and moved on - following the bee in the updraft that carried it here.
We all made the summit of Orizaba without further mishap. And every time I see a bumble bee, I murmur thanks. . . "
Atop Humphrey's Peak -- Flagstaff, Arizona, the views are dazzling! Air loses 1/30th of its density with each 900 feet of altitude gained. At 12,643 feet we looked through air not just humidity free, but it had lost nearly half of its weight in oxygen and carbon dioxide. We gazed into the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert's multihues flared-up through the transparent air. It was clear why the Hopi Indians believe that their Kachina gods reside up here, in an elevated environment, very close to home.
It's just a three-mile hike up a well-marked trail to the 2,200-foot summit, but what you can see in this half-day above Juneau, Alaska! There are bald eagles and ravens soaring overhead; hoary marmots whistling up-down-and-around the mountain to one another; and if you go up in early summer (postholing a bit through snow near the top), look out for a resident Mama black bear who often toboggans with her cubs on their butts down the snowfields; then they climb up to do it again! On a clear day -- fantastic views of the Inside Passage fjords (with cruise ships looking like toy boats sliding up Gastineau Channel).
One of the most recognizable mountains in the world, with its massive flattop looming over Cape Town, South Africa. For centuries Table Mountain has been a guiding landmark to mariners rounding the tip of Africa, the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Summit is 3,563 feet and first recorded ascent was in 1503 by the Portuguese navigator Antonio de Saldamba, who climbed via the frontal cleft known as the Platteklip Gorge, still the preferred route for climbers today. Allow 2-3 hours for the ascent. The overviews of the oceans, cosmopolitan Cape Town and out to the Cape of Good Hope are superb! There are more than 1,400 species of flowering plants on the mountain, including agapanthus, red nerines and gnarled proteas. The rock dassies (hyrax) are everywhere among the top rocks - gamboling around like herds of hungry piggies. Hang out on top for what Table Mountain is most famous for - its 'table cloth': a billowing white cloud that blankets the summit and then spills down over the rocky rim like a waterfall! I was blown-away by the beauty of Cape Town and the best way to see it all is from atop the Table!!
Excerpt from my magazine article, "Red Dirt, Sweet Smoke and Kilimanjaro in The Moonlight": ". . . At High Camp, during the rest of the day, we keep staring up at that steep, unrelenting Western Breach - an immense, exposed wall looming above you and weighing down continuously on your chest. We are up against it now and can see no way clear. No matter how much we point; slice-and-dice it; there is no easy traverse in sight across that vertical face. And the numbers don't lie. The altimeter reads: 15,990 feet. The unseen summit is 19,340 - so, that leaves 3,350 vertical feet to gain and only one last climb to do it all in. When we 'casually' ask the guides about our route, they vaguely point upward and say: "Oh, it looks much worse than it tis!" The plan from the beginning is to leave at midnight, climb in full moon light… but that will probably be a 'wash' - with all the bad weather we've been having. After dinner, we wander off to our tents but no one sleeps, each of us staring directly now into the Unknown, the Void that will define us. A fierce wind shakes our cocoons and when the wake-up call comes at 11:00 p.m., there is an inch of fresh snow plastered to nylon and ground.
If life is all about making successful transitions, one of the toughest is to leave the warm womb of your sleeping bag, roll out into the frigid darkness and put on cold clothes (can't sleep in them or body moisture will render them ineffective rest of the day). "HAEL YEAH!" I grit my teeth; get dressed and head for the mess tent. Soon the four climbers and three guides are gathered at the table. Gone is the constant laughter and light-hearted banter that we have enjoyed all week. Faces now look empty; eyes strained; legs jiggle up and down. Jagat gloomily says she dreamed that she saw her life flash before her on the mountain. . . Jerome - I don't even recognize. His soft, relaxed features and high-beam smile are gone. He has his 'game face' on. After quick gulps of tea, equipment checks, and topping-up our water bottles, we head out into the night. . . "TCB, Baby!" I say to myself - Elvis's motto that always surfaces when it's time to bring it - "TAKIN' CARE OF BIZNESS!"
No need for headlamps. It is just as I hoped and planned for months ago. The full moon is a balloon just above us, bathing the mountain in bright light. And the cold and snow is actually a blessing, for it pasted down all the loose rocks and scree - made for firm footing. Immediately the first few steps are up. . . Jerome takes the lead; I am next; then Jim Lorentsen; and the others. For every mountain or marathon I like to have a mantra, something to "chant" to occupy the mind. Tonight I call out: "REMEMBER GUYS - FROM THE CHINESE: 'LIFE BY THE INCH IS A CINCH; BY THE YARD IT'S HARD. . . ' LET'S JUST GO ROCK-TO-ROCK; STEP-BY-STEP. . . "
Like his Maasai brother, Matika, who guided us on safari - Jerome proves that not only are the Maasai the most efficient long distance walkers on earth, but high altitude climbers, as well. His feet effortlessly flow upward, hardly seeming to touch down before they are in calm, smooth motion again. As hard as it is, I shadow Jerome - never letting him out of sight: my eyes sending a continuous stream of 'live-video-feeds' to my hands and feet so they copy exactly where he places his. But since he steps so lightly, I purposely kick-down-in with each of my steps (where there is earth), to help provide purchase for my team behind me.
We quickly run into trouble. A steep snow slope blocks our way. We need to get across but the slope is unmarked and drops straight down for hundreds of feet. The guides spatter back and forth in Swahili. Jerome then asks me to untie an ice axe from the back of his pack. He then carefully cuts steps: one-by-one into the snow/ice face. I had crossed such slopes before, but there was either a fixed rope to hold on to or climbers had his/her own ice axe to arrest themselves in case of a fall. There is no protection here. One slip and you are gone. . . Somehow, everyone makes it across!
Then we are into the thick of it - 40-50 degree slope. If you simply stand upright you start to fall - being peeled backwards off the mountain. So, acute angle of 'forward-lean' is now downloaded to everyone's internal 'hard-drive.' Then - no longer the comfort of a trail, but complicated rock climbing up steep chutes and chimneys and out along overhangs where you are totally exposed.
Someone slips. . . I stop and tense. Then curse words as they somehow catch and right themselves. We all exhaaaaaale. . .
Another snow slope to cross - only this time its near vertical and Jerome can barely chip toe-holds in the brittle ice. . . Jagat begins hyperventilating and giving out weird "panic-attack" moans. James Martin, her boyfriend, tries to calm her. We are way past the point-of-no-return, and with 2/3rds of the mountain still to scale. I am of two divided, yet intertwined minds: worried about my own safety, and the safety of each of the others. We rest. "DRINK, DRINK!!" Jerome calls. It is critical to hydrate continuously in the cold, high, dry air. Must force down at least two liters during the climb or your blood turns to sludge and fatal pulmonary or cerebral edema could result (and if you wait until you are actually thirsty it is too late). I struggle to open my water bottle; and when I do the water is frozen solid! We put our bottles inside our parkas to melt the ice. . .
The other two guides inch Jagat across the sheer ice slope. Then somehow, instead of caving - she reaches down; replaces panic with courage and moves on. On a mountain, your mettle is laid bare.
Time dissolves. There is no past or future. You no longer have a name or life or wife or job - other than the next step. Everything superfluous to the climb is burned away in the flame of intense concentration. Fear now serves as fuel to feed the fire.
The verticality increases if that is possible, but we now all climb with a rhythm instilled from confidence in gaining ground; and if we just keep doing this again and again and again, the mountain will run out of these spine-chilling challenges Won't it? I steal a glance upward. No end in sight. And the jagged ridge top not only soars upward, but it now seems to bulge outward - with enough cold, uncaring force to freeze and shatter the very nerves in your body.
Swinging out into space once again, hoping the protruding rock under my hands will hold and fighting the abrupt shocking tug of vertigo and gravity, I am so glad we are climbing at night, instead of the bright light of day when you not only feel, but see the sheer drop-offs below. I think: Night, blessed dark night - you blanket space!
High in the sky, Jerome pauses and we wait for the others to catch-up. My heart is hammering and breath coming in rapid gasps. The Maasai warrior, wearing a crown of stars, looks me directly in the eyes and says in his gentle, deep voice: "You are a very strong climber to keep up with me. You are the Lion of the mountain!" I hug him tight as a brother. (If only he knew how many moments of fear this 'Lion' had to fight through!) Reunited as a group, we now move upward and suddenly there is no burden looming over us. After six continuous, full-on hours of climbing - we've topped out! Strangely, we stand on flat ground and there directly before us, on the crater-rim of Kilimanjaro, in splendid, surreal isolation is a two hundred foot tall, flat-topped, white cliff that the eyes greet with disbelief! As if emerging from death and now re-born - with trembling legs and freshened vision, I totter over to the wall - to make sure it isn't an altitude-induced hallucination. My gloveless hand extends out and touches. . . pure ice! A smile explodes across my face. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro!" I think. "This and the short story Hemingway wrote - one of the reasons why I wanted to be a Writer and so wanted someday to come to Africa and have Adventures and try somehow to live this Much. . . and love this Much. . . and Here - Here I am!!"
I stagger back to the others. In the bitter cold, huddled together, we watch strange wraiths of clouds blow in a fierce wind from the curved horizon and pour out over the glacier, fired pink and purple in the rising sun! We then turn and look out the other way, from whence we came - our comfortable camps and today's struggle erased - inconsequential in the sheer immensity of infinite vista. . . And then yet another miracle. There, somehow before us is the perfect shadow of Kilimanjaro projected in midair by backlight! We stand on the mountain; yet see its double solidly before us!!
I turn slowly in a circle to take it all in. Every cell, every atom in my body is glowing with magic and intensity and love for the beauty and privilege of being in such a world!!!
We all collapse on a slope, totally overwhelmed. Jerome's soft voice once again urges us on. The summit is still above. . . We all look up and give a collective groan. Where we have to go looms impossibly high - even more vertical than what we have just climbed! Jim Lorentsen mumbles the climb's mantras: "Life by the inch is a cinch; by the yard it's hard. . . Just rock-to-rock, bay-beeee." We ascend. . . This alone, without what we had done, would feel frightening to climb - but now, hardened by what we have just come through - it's like a relaxed, instinctual dance: making love with the last of the mountain - a woman fully yielding her secrets, for you have finally earned the right to her heart.
With no more mountain to caress - Kilamanjaro is climbed and honored to its fullest extent.
On the highest point, we all take assorted photos under the UHURU "Peace" sign - then Down. . . Sooo sa-wheeeet to be descending - "skiing" the steep scree slope; the air so PHAT after straining to get half the normal oxygen at 19,340 feet! Downnnnn. . .
Rolling upright, arms-out over the rocks; giddily singing songs top-o-the-lungs; releasing such a feeling of sky-high happiness and deep satisfaction - one of the most magical very-much-in-yet-out-of-body days on this Earth! I recall the Kalahari Bushman saying: "There is a dream dreaming us." And Kilimanjaro: "Mountain of Greatness" now has four new Dreamers forever in its hold. . . "
On The Look Out
Blown away by the beauty of Peru! As far as High Adventure and Deep Native Culture, I put it right up there with Alaska and Africa!! Flew into Lima and then up to Cusco -- quite an altitude jump from sea level up to 11,000 feet. Then took the most beautiful train ride in the world through the Andes Mountains; hopped off and trekked the last leg of the Inca Trail -- high emerald-green jungle full of orchids, hanging bromeliads, soaring condors, zinging hummingbirds, waterfalls, glaciated mountains, Inca ruins. There were steep drop-offs in gorges to the raging, white-water Urubamba River and as we passed up through The Gate of the Sun, we wore "halos" of multicolored butterflies! And there below was the fabled Machu Piccu. Known as the "Lost City of the Incas," it was rediscovered under overgrown jungle in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. Walked through the maze of plazas and palaces and down long staircases hewn from solid rock and terraces (the lawns trimmed by grazing llamas) that go right to the edge of sheer cliffs. The presence of the ancient Incas ("Sons of the Sun") is palpable. There's harmonic resonance in the perfectly fitted rocks, and the sunlight so high in the sky is absolutely radiant, firing-up your soul! MP is one of the planet's spiritual power points and plants -- pumping out a cosmic force. Climbed back up to the top and read aloud Pablo Neruda's magnificent poem, "The Heights of Machu Piccu": permanence of stone. . . raised like a chalice. . . formed from the sperm of condors.
photo by Jim Lorentsen
Breaking Base Camp
with Rainier Massif Above
photo by Bill Span
photo by Bill Span
Looming above Seattle, Washington . . . Mt. Rainier at 14, 410 feet and with 27 glaciers is an arctic island in the temperate zone. Went for a week long Winter Expedition Seminar conducted by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. to hone my skills for upcoming big mountain climbs. Under the expert leadership and tutelage of RMI guides (these guys know every inch of Rainier and most mountains around the world, with RMI, owned by Lou Whittaker, long providing climbers for famous Himalayan ascents), we learned and practiced ice axe arrest, cramponing, glacier travel, crevasse rescue techniques, belays, snow cave construction, fixed rope travel, avalanche forecasting and finding one another with electronic avalanche beacons.
The first day we snowshoed from Paradise (5,400 feet) to set up camp above 6,000 feet. Our group was an eclectic lot: a physicist; commercial aircraft mechanic; corporate cell phone technician; author; teacher; a female member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; a Hawaiian sea captain and scuba instructor who taught Demi Moore how to dive, among others . . . with all sharing a deep love for mountains and adventure.
The next day we slung 50 pound packs on our backs and climbed 4,000 vertical feet up to Camp Muir. The wind picked up; snow swirled; and for the last 1,000 feet, in a whiteout, the lead guide relied on a compass to get us to the plywood shack nestled in a mountain saddle at 10,060 feet.
From shelter, we are conditioned to expect comfort: going inside to be warmed-up by a heat source. None of that here. In fact it was colder inside the shack than out. Snow stayed frozen on the wood floor and during the four days of blizzards, you had to shovel your way out of the hut, due to a buildup of snow gusting through the door frame cracks. As it should be on a mountain, survival originated totally with you. The only source of heat was your own body, and with such critical self-reliance you learn to feed the furnace with optimum fuel (no South Beach Diet at 10,000 feet and 10 degrees: a profusion of slow-burning carbs rule the days and antifreeze butter went on everything; even a dollop in your tea). You try to stay in constant motion, and your high-tech clothes are tested to the max.
Living in such tight quarters and challenging conditions, you open-up and share things you wouldn't in normal life. One night, after listening to a long litany of male shenanigans and transgressions tossed gleefully back and forth in the cabin, the lone woman, Mountie Amanda said: "If I had eight pairs of handcuffs, I'd arrest and throw you all in jail!" In case anyone wonders about occurrences of hanky-panky in such a place . . . fahgetaboutit. The elements all conspire against Amor: you haven't showered or changed clothes in days, teeth brushing is spotty at best, and you are so buried in multilayers of polypropylene, fleece, and Gore-Tex that just undressing takes half the night. However, a "vital fluid" was shared the second evening. Andy, a physicist from Los Alamos, New Mexico, seeing that Amanda was bundling up to go out to the Loo, from the deep warmth of his sleeping bag, rent the frozen air with a plaintive inquiry: "Amanda, could I ask a favor?" "Sure," she said, "What is it?" "Could . . . could you please empty my pee bottle?" he said, holding out a full Nalgene quart jug. 99.9% of women, at that moment, would have screamed: "Ewwwwww!" and run the other way. Not cool-and-collected Amanda. She nonchalantly grabbed the urn, tucked it under a well-garbed arm, switched on her headlamp and tromped undaunted out into the swirling night snows. (Amanda later said that the jar felt so warm that instead of emptying it, she momentarily thought of taking it to bed with her as a hot water bottle!) Strange the intimacies among isolated climbers pushing the outer limits of the human experience.
The evening of the fifth day, high-pressure weather came in, inflating the sky like a blue balloon. There, poking up through a cloud bank, were three snow capped volcanoes in "The Ring of Fire": Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens (with blown cone) gleaming and majestic in the distance. The team went for the Rainier summit the next day, but were halted at 12,000 feet due to deep snow and avalanche danger. In 1981, a massive piece of the icy upper mountain fell 1,000 feet and moving 100 mph, killed 11 climbers in its path . . . the worst mountaineering accident in North American history.
The next morning, with the seminar completed, we packed up to descend. The mountain slammed the door on the nice weather and once again threw everything she had at us: fierce cold, 50 mph winds, horizontal snow, total whiteout. Unable to see the route down, one of the guides stopped every couple hundred yards for a compass bearing. It was nasty. My mustache froze and goggles iced over. After waiting twenty chilled minutes on a high ledge for another guide behind us, who was lost, to find his way (John talking Mike in by radio), we then slowly picked our way down the mountain. It was the type of blown-out weather that if you were climbing Denali you would call a rest day and not even leave your tent. But we all had jobs to get back to, so we forced the issue and made it down. Of the six Winter Seminars on Mt. Rainier in 2003-4, ours (in April) had the worst weather by far.
I then flew to Phoenix, Arizona to visit family: going, within 24 hours, from 0 to 100 degrees! Yeah baby . . . live it up: top to bottom; cold to hot; snow to sand -- for we know not how long we have upon this glorious land.
Camp Muir Ice Box
Precarious Trek to The Loo
photo by Bill Span
Setting Snow Anchors
(for Crevasse Rescue)
Lone Climber with Mt. Adams
The Iceman Cometh
(Flora & Fauna Guide)
When talking with fellow travel writers invariably "The Most Beautiful Island in The World" comes up for discussion. Bora Bora (of soaring green peak and perfect coral-ring reef) is the snap-reaction-favorite, but then a glazed look melts jaded faces and "THE SEYCHELLES!" is stated with reverential awe -- ascending not only to the top of the list, but up into a heavenly category all its own. I fully understood why after visiting the Indian Ocean islands high and low.
From the main island harbor of Mahé, I eyed the highpoint: Mt. Fleuri and coveted the panoramic view from the top. By asking the beautiful Creole natives in elemental French, I learned the way up was through the Mt. Fleuri Botanical Garden on its lower flanks. Many visitors think that the original Garden of Eden was in the Seychelles and it's easy to see why in the thick hegemony of plants and trees adorned with dazzling flowers that drench the humid air with a beguiling sweetness. Bulbuls and Blue Pigeons hauntingly hooted. Giant land Tortoises (only found wild here and in the Galapagos) slowed time to a crawl under coco-de-mer trees with the male catkins uncannily resembling the human male reproductive organ and the nuts suggesting sensual, human female, double-take curves!! Further proof that Nature is Human Nature. All the earth was fecund, ripe for the taking; bursting with bird song. Nature in full orgasmic flower! I moved up through the forest dodging the "farmers": giant fruit bats (a foot-and-a-half tall with four foot leathery wings!) gorging on jack-fruit gashed-open like fetid pudding on the ground. Where the trail was closed over (most places) I root-grabbed and bush-bashed. On the summit, the view was stunning: the sea around was every hue of blue on nature's palette board and streaked and clotted with underlying purple corals. Then the colors all washed into gray as the sky opened and a torrential tropical downpour soaked me in a second and turned the steep trail into a mudslide. I poured upright; sideways; headfirst down the slick flume. Pancaked at the bottom (and worried about being bat-bait), I headed for the beach to wash off.
Emerging from the aqua water, clean and refreshed, suddenly there was an elderly Seychellian native man standing next to me. As a gentle surf slid up around our ankles, he looked down, pointed a craggy dark finger and said: "Few can hear the hissing of the sea foam..." He then walked away, seeming to dissolve into the black boulders. Bemused, as the next wave broke around me, I cocked an ear but heard nothing. Same with the next outpouring. Then I stopped trying to listen, and let go – feeling every pore of my soul open and bloom. The next wave glided up the powdery sand and Yesssssssssssssssssss! – reincarnation in the subtle susurration of the foaming spume.
"The body roams the mountains and the spirit is set free."
--Ha Hsia-K'o, Chinese Poet
Halfway to Upper Dewey Upper Dewey Lake Devil's Punchbowl Photos by James A. Martin
3,000 feet above Skagway, Alaska, crowning The Dewey Lakes Trail System, is a lake cupped in a glacial couloir between soaring mountain peaks. The trail up is tree and bush-lined, so there's always the sudden surprise of topping-out at the expansive lake, with swirling mist concealing and revealing the jagged peaks and a gleaming blue glacier plastered high on a mountain -- the sculptor of this rugged land. Clear days, the lake perfectly mirrors the anchored glacier and a slow procession of schooner clouds. There's an abandoned miner's cabin, lakeside, to duck into to get out of the weather or camp overnight. 1,000 feet higher, south of Upper Dewey Lake, is The Devil's Punchbowl, where with one turn of the head you see freshwater pooled in the punchbowl and far below -- an ocean fjord's extended gash of saltwater.
When Alaskans build trails, they don't believe in gentle, meandering switchbacks. No, they punch the path straight up the mountain, figuring life is short, go for the gusto! Upper Dewey is an on-your-toes, constant calve-burner on the unrelenting steep ascent and a quad-and-knee-buster on the way down, as you step carefully on the rugged root and rock strewn path. There are turnouts to catch a blow and admire raging waterfalls. Wildflowers festoon the forest; grouse roost and thrum in the trees; bears crash by in off-trail thickets; Camp Robber Jays light up the woods with bright blue wings as they swoop along in hopes of a handout.
I've done the climb 30 times -- an ongoing landmark in my life. It is where I measure my fitness level each spring, post-holing through deep snow to reach the iceberg-filled lake. . . guide new climbers up for their first time, at the height of summer, seeing it all anew through their eyes as they effusively marvel over the spectacular vistas. . . charge up solo late in the season, with an autumn nip in the air, as my blitz is fueled by intermittent bursts of blue berries from the bushes tunneling the trail.
Once back down to sea level, ritual requires that Upper Dewey climbers, one or all, pour into The Skagway Fish Company for cold Alaska Amber beers and crispy crab cakes -- tasting so much better when earned by arduous effort. (That first sip of fresh-from-the-tap Amber, after doing 8,000 vertical feet in a day -- AHHHHH! It's a golden, stop-time moment that expands through your life with joy and meaning forever.) The climbs, infused with so many good memories and high times, have worked their way into my friends' vernacular. Whenever we want to describe an ultimate experience in life, we simply say that it was, "Upper Dewey" -- and that says it all.
While in Scotland in early October -- three days after running The Inverness Loch Ness Marathon, decided to climb Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the British Isles, at 4, 409 feet. Turned out that the height wasn't the challenge, but the severe weather. In researching the climb, I learned that the mountain summit is clear only one day in ten, with fog present on the summit almost 80% of the time. In an average year, the summit experiences 261 gales and the mean temperature on top is one degree below freezing. The first recorded ascent was in 1771, and in 1883 the footpath and a summit weather observatory were built by Clement Linley Wragge, aptly nicknamed Inclement Wragge. In the town of Fort William, at the base of the mountain, I entered a mountaineering shop and questioned a guide about the climb. "You shouldn't have any trouble until you get to the top," he said. "If it's socked-in on the summit be very careful. The summit plateau is sort of kidney-shaped and surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides." No more prophetic words were ever uttered! The next morning, I got an early start. The path was clear until about halfway up, when Ben Nevis decided to live up to its Gaelic name: "The Mountain With its Head in the Clouds." Against my better judgement, I ascended. Once immersed in the cloud, it was 4-Seasons-in-One-Day up there, with sun, rain, hail, battering winds, swirling snow, and thick obliterating mist. The woolen mist made each sloping switchback appear to dissolve out into space, and at the blind corners you could barely see where they turned. It was unnerving, but I pressed on. The trail then petered out below a steep scree slope, the rocks slick with fresh, accumulating snow. My senses were rendered totally "senseless" in the worst white-out I'd ever experienced. I felt panic climb my spine as I finally crept across relatively flat ground, seriously questioning how I would ever find the narrow trail again far below the now erased giant scree field. Just then I heard muffled voices to my right. I turned and moved toward the sound -- not seeing the other climbers until I almost bumped into them -- a father and son. "Ah, lad, lucky you are!" the man murmured. "You were headed for a fall right off the North Face!" He had climbed The Ben before, and miracle of miracles, he had a compass. Like blind men, we ran our hands over the ruins of the stone weather observatory, and then put all our concentration, faith and trust in the quivering compass needle. . . When the trail appeared dead-center below the scree slope, looking as wide and smooth as a highway through the filter of desperation, I felt like kissing the ground. Back down at the mountain's base, I shook my head, grinning at the Scottish tongue-in-cheek humor displayed fully on a sign: "Weather Forecasting Stone." Reading through the vertical checklist of weather conditions -- encountered everything up there except "Earthquake" and "Tornado." If we have nine lives like a cat, after The Ben and other adventures out on the edge, I'm now down to about two left.
|Above Pictures by David Skok, www.david.skok.com|
Think of Africa and you might envision vast herds of wild animals migrating across the Serengeti Plain or the Congo's impenetrable green jungles interlaced with Tarzan's vines. However, there is a place in Africa far off the known and beaten path -- a stark, surreal area that if it didn't exist, Salvador Dali would have imagined and painted it. In Namibia, burning desert sands meet the southern Atlantic Ocean, and a cold current streaming up from Antarctica produces thick fog along the Skeleton Coast, where the corpses of over 100 shipwrecks are preserved in the shifting sands. In the oldest desert in the world (130 million years), the bizarre and arcane are the rule, not the exception: beetles do head-stands atop sand dunes to catch the condensation that beads-up on their extended legs and trickles down into their parched mouths. . . lions hunt unsuspecting seals along isolated shores. . . small herds of exploratory elephants, on mysterious hegiras deep into the desert, sniff the sand with pendulum trunks and then tusk-dig down to unseen subterranean streams. . . the vast quiet is occasionally broken by eery music as the sand dunes "sing" and roar from electrostatic discharge between individual grains as they avalanche from the steep peaks down the sandy slip-faces. . . at remote diamond mines, abandoned Victorian houses, stores, and dance halls are now filled with rising mounds of sand. . . the night sky is more stars than darkness and there is so much celestial light that at midnight a man casts shadows upon the flat, pressed desert pan. While rambling across magical Namibia, I climbed the tallest sand dune in the world. In the central Namib Naukluft National Park, the Sossusvlei Dunes tower above the desert plains, 1,000 feet tall -- shifting in chromatic colors, from magenta to apricot, then burnt sienna as the sun slowly arcs across a blue chrome sky. THE tallest dune changes, depending where the prevailing wind has deposited the most sand. There's "Big Daddy" and "Big Mamma" dunes, but I went up a massive rise that has remained unnamed. The climb was more demanding than scaling rock, for every few steps forward you slid one step back in the steep sand. I followed ridge lines up and three hours later, from the summit, absolute silence roared in my ears, and I looked, as if in a dream, out over dunes cresting like time-stopped waves out to the horizon. Then on the descent, the wind rose and filled in my footprints -- erasing my tracks, replacing the temporal with the eternal.
A walk-up, with the summit only 761 feet, Diamond Head, the most recognized landmark in Hawai ' i, had a profound effect upon me -- the panoramic overview from the top pulling all of Hawai ' i's magical elements into mystical focus. Started out the day, surfing in Waikiki Bay on the heels of a blazing purple and pink sunrise -- riding the glide of evenly pulsing waves stained the sunrise colors, and hearing the call of the mountain looming like an animate force over the bay. Riding a wave all the way to the beach, stepped off the board and then hiked out 3 miles to the base of the mountain and scampered up the 0.8 mile trail over uneven and steep terrain traversing deeply eroded ridges. Diamond Head was formed 300,000 years ago during a single, brief volcanic eruption. The broad crater covers 350 acres with its width greater than its height. The mountain's Hawai ' ian name is Le ' ahi, meaning "fire headland," referring to the navigational fires that were lit at the summit to assist the ocean-going canoes seeking land. Standing on the summit, drinking in the views from Koko Head to Wai ' anae, I vibrated so high that I disappeared, dissolving into the turquoise sea, shimmering tropical greenery, the forge-like aroma of sun-heated volcanic rock from the fire goddess Pele. Extending the transcendent moment, a poem from the Japanese nomad and wandering scholar, Nanao Sakaki, channeled forth:
by Michael Modzelewski, E-mail: AdventureM@aol.com
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