“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – JMuir
Welcome back, Cowboys & Ladies! It’s been awhile but I have had another adventure, whooHOOO wOOhoOO! What’s with the excessive whoohOO’ing? well, the adventure included trains and, as the title alludes, a little of the “I think I can” mentality. Before diving in, I’ll start by saying while I can find infinity+1 ways of saying I can’t to things, I’ve always been infinitely rewarded whenever I’ve said Yes, I CAN. That was true of my recent 4d backpack trip to southwestern Colorado. As in the (formerly) wild wild West part.
I was in great need of what John M. so wisely recognized – deep immersion in Nature – and somewhat impulsively booked a guided trek in the Weminuche Wilderness with San Juan Mtn Guides based out of Durango. What I wanted was: Time off the grid. High altitude’ness. Remote & wild. And to not get eaten by a bear. ALWAYS that.
So I plunged right in by hopping on a 1920’s steam engine train operated out of the original 1880 depot building that dropped me and my guide, Jim, off in the middle of actual nowhere. The train ride was really fun and winds high up alongside the Animas river through incredible scenery, which was just a warmup as it turned out. For the short version of the rest of the story, watch this: ColoRADo
After taking the lesser traveled fork off the trail that leads (most) to Chicago Basin, the climbing work began for Jim and I. While it might seem strange to head off into the wilderness with a complete stranger, Jim is an all around multi-mountain sport athlete with Jason Bourne badass levels of outdoor survival skills. In other words, he made sure I didn’t get eaten by a BEAR.
The rest of the story kinda goes as such: hike all day with mouth wide open because a) steepness and b) it was so beautiful, talk about bears 25% of the time, think about what’s for dinner (not me), and concentrate on not impaling myself on the miles of schisty talus we traversed. Exactly my type of fun!
In fact, that last point was a major ‘I Can’ challenge, along with climbing above 13,000ft, sleeping alone in a tent where things with bitey teeth lurk outside, making water aka going pee in the dark, and tackling off-trail navigation.
In another show of great sportsmanship, Jim cheerfully tolerated my threats to wake him in the middle of the night with the whistle I kept in my sleeping bag in the event of bitey teeth intrusions. I did not use it. I also did not sleep much.
Perhaps that was due to typically going to sleep with a potent mixture of dried salmon, dark chocolate & butter cookies on my breath, but I enjoyed just listening to the peace & quiet of nature. Wind rushing, the birds sending out their bedtime tweets (and retweets), soft raindrops. There were plenty of peaceful moments during the day too since we only crossed paths with a sum total of four people. Which brings me to why I seek out these type of places: to disconnect fully, no devices, no agenda, no tick tock of clocks. Only the rhythms of the raw & elemental environment, which is best experienced in a protected wilderness area like the Weminuche.
DISCLAIMER: SOAPBOX MOMENT. Sadly, we are rapidly losing these special places around the world. Greater than one-third of the planet’s surface is used for agriculture. We are obsessed with Pokemon Go’ing while in effect we lose our lungs (forests). Last plug: check out the super cool Changed Earth data visualizations from NASA.
At the end of the four days, when my toes had earned their blisters and with my suprachiasmatic nucleus reset, I got the John M feels again: “I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.” Touché.
On the final leg of the trek down Elk Creek Valley on the Colorado trail, I found myself somewhat wistfully wishing I had seen a bear. I did find some unhelpful reinforcement of my fears by spotting this poor lad in the Durango train museum the next day. See, I WAS right – they bite!!
Note: no bears were hurt in the making of this trip.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Preach it, JM.
Hi friends, I decided to go with a Cliff Notes format for this trip post, so here goes. The two goals for my 12d trip to Switzerland were to spend as much time as possible in the mountains and eat really good dark chocolate. I left without making any plans and prearranged only my first night’s stay in Zurich. Beyond that it was a blank slate. Those who know me well might be shocked by that, but my last three trips have been a slow evolution to a zero-itinerary travel style. Of course I had read a ton before leaving, mainly Kev Reynolds’ Cicerone books on hiking in the Alps 🙂 At the very bottom is a map with waypoints where I ended up going.
Winging it day by day with no set plans. Where will I be tomorrow?? Only the wind knows.
Taking the iPad mini, item of business#1 after landing was getting a SIM card. The Internet is indispensable, except when you don’t have service. Somehow life still works though.
Leaving the Bernese Circus-land (think busloads of tourists, i.e. definition of torture for me) for tranquil Zinal and staying at Hotel de la Poste.
Visiting my friends Jim & Camille near Innsbruck in Austria. We also went to Italy and to Germany for a few hours, where once again my german heritage was confirmed.
Escaping the Zermatt (tourist)Zoo for a Saas Fee daytrip onto the Fee glacier at Mittelallalin which, at 11,482 ft, is ringed by glittering 14,000 ft alpine peaks.
Using AirBnB for the first time. Genius app.
Buying the Swiss railpass + half-price card. Their train system left me drooling, as did their SBB app which basically planned my life. It also included buses & mountain lifts.
Train talk with strangers. Met Trudy on the train to Bernese Oberland, a 85yo Swiss German woman whose sharp eyes and strong spirit vividly reminded me of my Grandma Kay. Trudy’s most important advice when I said I aspired to be like her one day was “move as much and for as long as you can.”
Escaping to tiny Zinal (pop 381), a hidden gem type of place that even the majority of Swiss people I spoke with had never heard of. French-Swiss Zinal is situated at the base of the Val d’Anniviers and surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Alps. I think I may have been the only tourist in town and felt warmly welcomed despite not speaking a lick of French. On top of that, I basically had the entire take-your-breath away mountains to myself. Yah, you’re probably jealous right now, but definitely go there if you get the chance.
Watching the moon rise on the Matterhorn from my hotel balcony. Talk about a room with a view! I didn’t expect to be so smitten with this mountain but it has an allure and magnetic façade that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
Taking off for Italy on a whim with Jim & Camille without a plan or place to stay for the night. And then totally scoring on our airbnb with a patio view of the Dolomites. Two words: nutella gelatto. Seeing the Dolomites were a nice add-on bonus too.
Going to the Zurich Opera the night prior to flying back at the invite of my airbnb host, Anna, who plays violin in the Orchestra. A perfect topping to a wonderful trip!
Most Missed Things:
Heidi chocolate and strawberry flavored milks, and all dairy things. Happiness quotient of Swiss cows >> Cali cows.
Sprungli dark chocolate. My tastebuds want to marry you.
The Alps. Seriously, it’s just like the storybooks. Cows with jingling bells, green meadows filled with fragrant alpine flowers, and snow capped peaks. I didn’t get to sleep in a hayloft but not kidding, I thought about it.
Efficient, clean & safe public transportation. Precise to the minute. Not cheap though.
Freedom to move and go wherever my heart pleased without concerns for my safety other than using my outdoors common sense.
Did I mention THE ALPS. I didn’t get to do the Walker’s Haute Route, which is what initially inspired the trip, due to a late snow. So I must return – who wants to go with? Be forewarned, I did actually break into a yodel a few times.
Speed hiking 10+ miles through snowy trail with all my gear, < 24hrs after landing, in 4.5hrs in order to catch the last tram down to Grindelwald at 5PM. And then figuring out where to stay for the night. My heart rate was pretty much redlined that whole day.
Stuck in a bus mobius strip in Grindelwald trying to get to the train station when I could have just walked 10 mins down the road, which is what I ended up doing after waiting for 30 mins.
Being tailed most of the way up the Matterhorn by a guy having a loud cell phone conversation, and being told he couldn’t take my picture and talk on the phone and hike all at the same time. Problem solved dude, don’t talk on the phone while hiking to the Matterhorn.
Having a google translate convo with a group of ten Japanese tourists on the lift up to the base of the Matterhorn. I am welcome to visit them in Tokoyo anytime, errr at least I *think* I am.
Meeting an ultrarunner and his wife along the trail from Cabane Bella Tolla to Hotel Weisshorn. I was a little lost, asked for confirmation of the trail direction, and we ended up talking for 15mins about trail running, gear, race distances we’ve done, etc etc. Random convos with strangers are my favorite thing!
Wrap up: I’d love to live in Switzerland if I were a Suisse banker and I didn’t have to work like crazy and instead could spend most of my time eating chocolate and cheese while hiking in the Alps and listening to the sweet harmonies of the cow’s bells while I nap in a meadow of edelweiss. The conclusion is I need MORE COWBELL in my life!
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” – J.Muir
This is an adventure latergram from a 3day backpack trip I did in the Grand Canyon (GC) last November. I became motivated to write this piece after a friend sent me an article regarding a proposed commercial development project to build an escalator from the North Rim down to the point where the two rivers that carve the GC, the Little Colorado and the Colorado, merge into one. This place is called the confluence and the development group is called Confluence Partners.
If you think building an escalator to the very heart of one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, and one of our most majestic National Parks, sounds as ridiculous as I think it does, please re-read the previous paragraph for full effect.
Why am I so passionate about this that I would write a post six months later? Because I tried hiking to the confluence last November and experienced just how inaccessible, deserving of respect, and brutally beautiful it is, and vehemently oppose marring it with an escalator tram.
The following is a short description of the hike, which was more like an expedition, to convey a sense of the remoteness, the difficulty and danger of getting there.
My adventure buddy was Kevin, an outdoorsman with well over a dozen GC backpacking trips under his belt. We started our hike from the South Rim on an early Saturday AM after a week of intense pre-trip planning and preparation.
Our goal destination, as mentioned above, was the confluence point, a distance of around 36 – 38mi round trip and >10,000 ft of elevation gain/loss. Both trails of our route were unmaintained, primitive, and very exposed to the brutal afternoon rays in the GC. The only water source is the Colorado river, which is often so heavily silt laden that purifying becomes nearly impossible.
We each started with 12L of water in our packs to stash at cache points on the first trail for our hike back to the top three days later. Hikers have met with untimely ends here due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. With the river as the only water source and the hike to the top being 9mi/4600 ft gain away, it’s sorta like running the gauntlet; either you make it or you don’t.
The first trail is nothing to sneeze at – very steep with enormous boulders to scale due to rock slides. The second trail is even more daunting; faint, infrequent cairns, false trails into side canyons, and wide, rocky drainages to traverse which were scarily easy to lose your bearings in. After finishing the first day at about the 11mi mark and making camp for the night, it would be over 36hrs before we’d see people again.
The second day took us onto the Tapeats Cliffs and through some of the oldest sedimentary layers in the GC (~800 – 1.2bill yrs). The geological age means the rock is very soft & erodable, revealing incredibly open & expansive views of the Canyon.
We pushed as far as we could that day, but knowing that it was critical to return to basecamp before nightfall, we flipped it around a few miles short of the confluence. Better to be safe than sorry, and come back another day!
Had we made it, we would have seen the cornflower blue Little CO converge with the emerald green CO at the apex of two canyon systems, each with soaring 4k feet walls. The Hopi believe this spot was the place of emergence of all people, and thus very sacred.
Day 3 was a mission to get to the top before 4PM as I had a shuttle to catch to Flagstaff and Kevin had a long drive back to LA (an 11hr drive on top of an 11hr hike). Although we didn’t make our “goal” (despite both being fit hikers and runners), it was an immensely satisfying and rewarding trip.
I can’t imagine the peaceful solitude and stillness we experienced being disrupted by the visual blight of man-made machines and noises, not to mention the environmental impact of large scale construction, associated infrastructure, water resource demands, etc etc.
Once again, that guy John Muir nailed it: “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild”. Some wild places can withstand and are appropriate for high volume visitor burdens, but others are too delicate, too iconic, and too special.
We value most highly the things we’ve worked the hardest for. Let’s work hard for the GC and preserve the sacrosanct places Where our Wild Things still are.
waiting for your jaw to close…5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…you good? Cool, let’s proceed.
I have answered many questions correctly in my life. Having completed 24 years of school, racking up along the way a research Ph.D. in organic chem natural products total synthesis, a National Institutes of Health postdoc fellowship, and 25 patents & publications over a 9+ year career, that’s a safe statement. I make it not to Pump<clap>Me Up, but to set the stage for a question I’ve been tussling with for awhile that Mary Oliver poses below. Peering back, this was on my mind even as a 10yr old girl who wished for better medicines to save her grandmother’s life from cancer.
I’ve climbed mountains of enormity, pondered immense landscapes, sought total stillness & isolation from the world, flung myself into the air, crossed turbulent rivers, bore witness to death, faced mortality, partied with abandon, pushed my body to limits I had thought were impossible, gathered wisdom, navigated ‘against the stream’ life paths, turning this round & round in my head. Coming up on what society marks as a major milestone has made the question again bubble to the top with vigor.
My initial estimation on the best way to turn forty was becoming comfortable with loss, which goes hand-in-hand with aging. Loss of loved ones, of abilities, the rosy face of my youth, of time, and on and on. I have decided that is a defeatist attitude. The answer to the question above, for me, is to Give Love and to be Of Use. Nothing ground breaking there that hasn’t been expressed more elegantly by minds 100x more powerful than mine. But there it is. Doesn’t matter so much the who, the what & the where; distilled down to its essence is to add value to a worthy effort and to increase love’s exponent anywhere I can (and yah, I fully embrace my science geekiness).
So if today I am 40 yrs old and tomorrow I am 40 plus one day older, then I will rejoice because it is another fresh day to pursue my goals and redouble my efforts toward those ends, in whatever way that manifests. No matter the age, be thankful for what remains and what is still possible. To what purpose will you apply your life? Don’t fall into auto-formulas, and give those thoughts, wherever they arise from, that “by this age I should be doing this or I can’t do that because I’m too old/young” the biggest Big Bird flip-off you can muster!
Lastly, I would go back and say to that little girl that we are doing our very best to solve that and other terribly difficult problems, and she will get to stand on the outer horizons of human medicine. How cool is that!
Two words I never would have guessed I’d say/write: I blogged. I blogged because I went to Iceland for a month of pure adventure, and had such a great time that it would be a shame to keep it all to myself. I’ll focus more on the places and experiences I had, less so on my ruminations. Without further ado…
“Why Iceland?” you may wonder. Three major reasons: there are no dangerous animals (or so I thought, except for the random lost polar bear from Greenland), it’s exceptionally beautiful, and it’s small and easy to travel solo. A fourth reason, and where the idea originated from, was I wanted to ride their Icelandic ponies really badly. And I did.
Iceland met my preconceptions in every way – it’s a land of extremes, fire & ice. It was challenging & rewarding, friendly & inhospitable, very safe and quite dangerous.
The first ten days of the tour was by car with zero planned itinerary. I had intentions (a really bad pun lies therein) of camping as much as possible, but the weather, dear lord the weather, was just so tough. The wind. The rain. The cold. No facilities, No thank you. When it is so windy that your car door can be ripped off its hinge, it’s kinda difficult to set up a tent by yourself. Icelanders are direct descendants of Norse Vikings and notoriously tough, and even THEY thought it was crazy to camp in that weather. I did meet another solo female traveler who completed a 5wk cycling/camping tour of Iceland (IS) in those weather conditions, so it was possible, I just preferred a warm hostel.
So Tip#1: don’t underestimate the weather conditions & do not plan to ever take off your 800 fill down jacket. Also buy some of their warm wool socks.
Places I visited during these ten days in fairly chrono order: Skogar, Hofn, Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Skaftafell, Jokulsarlon, Vik, Selfoss, Fluoir, Hella, Keldur, Arnarstapi, Hellnar, Hellisandur, Grundarfjordur, Stykkisholmur, Borgarnes, Reykholt, Akranes, Akureyri, Namafjall, Myvatn, Krafla. Here are pictures from those places.
Tip#2: of that list, the best were: Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, glacier hike on Skaftafell, quaint Stykkisholmur, volcanic activity in Namafjall, and the Myvatn hot pot (geothermal hot tub). Actually any hot pot anywhere makes the list.
Tip#3: Talk to people in the hot pot, including three older Icelandic men in Stykkisholmur. It’s fun and social and you learn about each other. Cultural Exchange! And you will meet a woman traveling with her husband and daughter who is originally from North Dakota and has not only heard of the tiny small town where you are from (Bowdon) but has been there. What are the chances?! I estimate one in millions.
Tip#4: it’s totally ok to pick up hitchhikers in IS and it’s fun to have “real taxi cab confessions” type of convos with them.
Then I undertook the more serious hiking part of my trip interspersed with what I called roosting days in Reykjavik, i.e. rest/refuel/regroup. First up was the most popular trek in IS – the Laugavegur trail http://fi.is/en/hiking-trails/laugavegurinn/ – and there is good reason why it reaches traffic jam status in parts. It was a spectacular range of landscapes, geology, trail variation, lush green valleys, and glacial views the entire 55 km from Landmannalaugur –> Thorsmork. Before you go thinking hmm maybe I want to do that, envision canyons filled with noxious sulfuric gases, numerous frigid (and potentially treacherous) glacial river crossings, vast jagged volcanic rock fields, a couple of snowfield crossings (which may be melted in some parts to false ledges or slushpools), potentially dense fog, and weather that changes to dangerous on a dime. But it was totally easy! And the scenery looks like your eyes are playing tricks on you and it’s actually just all green-screen TrumanShowesque wizardry. See, look at the pictures:
Tip#5: don’t take the Laugavegur trail lightly, and PLEASE DO NOT LITTER. Sorry for the caps. I picked up a lot of garbage from garbage tourists and it makes me mad as a hangry hornet. Pick up your crap – sing Aretha Franklin while you’re out in Nature.
p.s. I did the hike in three days. I would not recommend two days. I stayed in the huts. And if a German tells you to drop your pants to cross the river, just do it. It was great meeting you, Thomas, Frank, & Anke! Takk Fyrir for the Icelandic sheepdog postcard, which is now my dream dog.
Tip#6: don’t do a stupid trail run down a mountain in your stupid hiking boots thus injuring your Achilles tendon and preventing you from doing the Fimmvorduhals hike http://www.volcanohuts.com/fimmvorduhals with Thomas, Anke & Stefan.
Serious hiking trek Part II: Hornstrandir Nature Reserve http://www.westtours.is/trip-categories/hornstrandir-nature-reserve/ in the Westfjords. This was nearly my Brokeback Mountain. I couldn’t quit and it almost broke me. This is the subarctic and it feels that way; it’s been uninhabited since 1952, billed as having the most extreme and intensely beautiful terrain in IS, and one of the last few places to feel completely alone on the planet. It is also home to something like 3/5th of IS’s plant varieties and the unique Icelandic arctic fox, which is IS’s only native mammal.
If you do not know how to navigate via map/compass/general sixth sense perception and do not know how to avoid water saturated river deltas that are quick-sand’ish and are not an expert on crossing steep snowfields with serious mid-field crevasses/melted lakes/false ledges or have a fear of heights or exposure where a slip might send you tumbling over a sheer cliff or do not like everything being soaking wet all of the time to the point where your toes get shrivel-wrinkled or your feet don’t like walking over jagged rock-boulder fields with a 30lb or heavier pack on day four and it might scare you if a polar bear stranded three years ago in the same mountain pass you hiked through, or you never pack enough food and then you run out, probably reconsider undertaking this. Also if you came here to see beautiful, verdant green cliffs of some of the largest nesting bird populations on Earth and instead you see fog soup, well, you need to adjust your expectations.
Tip#7: don’t fall three times. Don’t go to Hornstandir unless you have bad-ass outdoors skills or unless you think you are very lucky and the weather or any of the elements above won’t work against your favor. That said, it was really great! But I went with a guide, Jon, who grew up hiking in the area and knew it better than the best maps. Really. Also he and his fiance Berglin, who also grew up in a tiny village in the Westfjords, taught me about the flora & fauna & foxes, showed me the plants and berries you can eat including one delicious plant that tasted rhubarb-ey, told me about the local history of the region, mythology of trolls and elves, and in general imparted a lot of knowledge that made it into a rich & rewarding experience despite the above factors. Jon may be half-hobbit though because he would walk around the campsite at night in bare feet whereas my feet took approximately 2hrs to thaw in my warm woolen socks inside my +15F sleeping bag.
But yeah most people probably should not go here. Currently only about 1,000 – 1,500 people visit/year. If you do, please respect the environment; it is highly ecologically sensitive. Check for loose polar bears.
Tip#8: Snickers for breakfast is really something to look forward to each morning. Dried fish with butter is pretty darn decent, as is lamb tuna-salad’ish on flat bread, smoked lamb, and lakkris (licorice) chocolate. Thanks for broadening my food horizons, Jon & Berglin!
I also did a one day superjeep tour from Isafjordur to Flokalundur (where Raven Floki, the Viking who gave Iceland its name, landed), over to Latravik, Patreksfjordur, Bildudalur, Dynjandi, etc. I saw puffins at Latrabjarg http://www.westfjords.is/WhattoSeeDo/AttractionView/latrabjarg , visited three outdoor natural hot pots, and climbed to the base of the most beautiful waterfall I’ve seen yet.
Time for more Reyk roosting days before flying home, but first I snagged this nice shot in Isafjordur.
Pretty much spent my last two days in Reyk going to hot pots. I also couchsurfed which was Tip#9: the MOST GENIUS THING EVER. This came about during my previous roosting days through a hot pot convo. I stayed with Bjnari and it was so what I needed. No stinky hostel room with five discordant snoring bunkmates. A comfy bed, a quiet, peaceful nice-smelling apartment, an airport pickup, a fun hike. If you are reading this Bjnari, Takk Fyrir so very much!
So then it was time for the flight back to the US, which felt like the final scene in Gravity when Sandy comes crashing back to Earth but in a reverse I don’t want to leave sort of way. Shameless dump of more pictures.
Musings on traveling solo: it was great! So many people offered me help or food or advice and on the plus side it makes you very eager to strike up a conversation with anyone that will listen. That said, it wasn’t very common especially as a solo female. Oh well, nobody puts baby in a box. Make your own adventure!
Musings on Icelanders: I thought I came from hardy stock (descended from multiple generations of northern plains farmers), and knew what hard work in challenging conditions meant, being a legit farmgirl in the non-romanticized sense of the word. Let me bottom line this, Icelanders are the shit. Seriously, just imagine a combination of all of the potentially dangerous things and awful weather that I’ve mentioned above, and their attitude is quite nonchalant, “it could be worse” and “it’s possible to die” and that would be an Icelander. Also everyone was so friendly to me.
I prefaced this trip with a Helen Keller quote and I’ll full circle it with another. “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
p.p.s I took over 1.3k pix so if you are someone other than my mother and would like to look through an abridged version, lmk in the comments & I’ll send you the dropbox link.