My dear visitors, I doubt you will be enlightened or edified by reading the posts below. You may even drop a few IQ points after reading them. But I hope you will be entertained.
Yesterday I explored a part of the Smokies I hadn’t visited before, between the main stateline ridge that the Appalachian Trail runs along and the vast stream valley of Big Creek. As I followed the Camel Gap trail, I came to a pool on Big Creek that is one of the most beautiful stream pools I have ever seen.
The colors of the water kept shifting. Phantasmagorical shapes glimmered beneath the surface, below the scribblings of light.
This time of year, much of the color has drained out of the forest. Perhaps most of the color migrates into the streams.
For a description of the whole 16-mile hike, go to “Camel Gap loop” on my Endless Streams and Forests blog.
I’m always looking for a good exercise hike not far from home in Sylva, NC. Lately I’ve latched onto the Noland Divide trail up to Beauregard Ridge. It’s 3.5 miles and a 2200′ climb to the Lonesome Pine side trail. If I dawdle and take pictures, it takes around three hours roundtrip—I’ve done it in two and a half.
Last spring I went up there and caught the new leaves emerging at around 4000′ elevation. If you go to this post and scroll past the azalea and laurel blossoms, you’ll see tiny, fuzzy leaves. Some of them may even be the same leaves shown here.
It was a cloudy day when I went up there recently, but sometimes I prefer fall colors under muted gray skies rather than brilliant blue that can seem overstated.
I spent most of my time looking at leaves up close. Click on any photo for zoom.
I’d enjoy the view of the surrounding ridges, richly upholstered in many colors, and then zero in on the universe of colors up close.
The clouds were lowering as I descended back toward the ordinary world . . . beautiful.
When Bob and I decided to go to Scotland, it went without saying that we would climb Ben Nevis, at 4409′ the highest point in the British Isles. Our original idea was to do the exposed ridge traverse from the subpeak of Carn Mor Dearg to the Nevis summit, but when the forecast called for fog and rain, we opted to go by the well-graded, switchbacking tourist route.
In one respect, Ben Nevis reminds me of Katahdin in Maine. Both of them are rocky glacial peaks that have a “front” and a “back.” At Katahdin, approaching from the south, you climb up onto a vast broad tableland and follow a gently rising trail to the summit, where the mountain abruptly drops away into a steep-sided cirque. At Ben Nevis, also approaching from the south, you climb up to a wide summit plateau from which fierce ridges and gullies descend.
Each of these peaks is so asymmetrical that photos taken from one side or another seem to show completely different mountains.
Bob and I spent the night at a B&B in Fort William. Our first two nights in Scotland, we’d stayed at a small hotel in Inverness, but this place was the home of a family that kept one or two rooms for guests and served breakfast at their own dining table. Here in the U.S., “B&B” means something quite different, more like an inn.
We were still adjusting to the long daylight hours of late June at this northerly latitude. The sun didn’t completely disappear until around 11:00 at night and came back too promptly around 4:00, like an annoying visitor overeager to get going in the morning. “Rise and shine!”
We started at Achintee on the east side of the River Nevis. We faced a significant vertical climb, as it begins practically at sea level. The trail is very solidly constructed, with stone steps. Before long we encountered some cross traffic.
The sheep were a matching set, each with a white body and a black nose with pretty little white splotches on the side of its face.
Soon we were swallowed in clouds. We encountered many other people as we made the steady, even climb toward the summit. When we arrived, Bob and I celebrated with a taste of Scotch.
Like many prominent summits, the top of Nevis has all kinds of marks of human activity: the remains of an observatory, various cairns, and a small shelter suitable only for emergency use. I read that some hikers wandering on the summit plateau discovered the carcass of an old piano. No one knows how it came to be there.
We headed back down to the valley and re-crossed the frontier between cloud and sunshine. It had been a good day.
This post first appeared in my other blog, Endless Streams and Forests, in March 2009.
Beinn Eighe was one of the two “Munros” that Bob and I climbed on a trip to Scotland in early summer 1998. It was a beautiful mountain.
Beinn Eighe is located near Loch Torridon, on the northwest coast of Scotland across from the Isle of Skye. It lies in that part of the map that always sparks my imagination. Any place on the map that suggests vast empty northern spaces does that, for reasons I find hard to explain. It must be that the direction north in and of itself transfixes my imagination, the same way it transfixes the compass needle. I seem to be enthralled, whether we are talking about limitless forests of white spruce in Canada or the treeless horizon of the Scottish highlands.
At our latitude of 57 degrees in early July, light completely dominated over darkness. The light didn’t give up ownership of the sky until after 11:00 at night, and it reclaimed it before 4:00 in the morning. We stayed at a small B & B on a bare, stony hill overlooking the loch. No need to get an early start for our 11-mile, 3000′ vertical outing, so we had a comfortable breakfast before driving up the road through Glen Torridon. We passed the stark mass of Liathach with its razor’s-edge ridge of crumbling sandstone and then started our hike alongside a rushing stream.
Fog swaddled the mountaintops, but down in the rough moor where we walked, we were bathed in warm sunlight. The valley seemed alive with running streams. We circled around the western end of the wide Beinn Eighe massif and then curled back southward to climb into a high tucked-away ravine, called in Scotland a corrie. The name of this one is Coire Mhic Fhearchair. At the center of the corrie resided a beautiful loch of cold, clear water, deep green in color when you looked at it up close, shifting magically to luminous blue when you moved further away. Bob tried fishing for a few minutes, but the fish were not cooperating.
We continued toward the southeast corner of the corrie, following a rough herd path between pools and waterfalls toward a steep scree slope, then climbed up the scree into a deep couloir. The rocks to the side of the gravel chute made for good scrambling up to the top of a broad ridge.
The high mists were just starting to drift away when we saw a red deer standing on the ridge. It seemed to me like something in a dream, an apparition. We watched for a moment as the deer disappeared over the far side of the ridge. We climbed over easy open tundra a half mile to the summit. The point we reached is called Ruadh-stac-Mor (3100′), the highest of Beinn Eighe’s subpeaks. The view was the kind that demonstrates the uselessness of those threadbare superlatives like “breathtaking,” “stunning,” “spectacular.” Bob made a good stab at it in his hiking journal: “The horizon was defined by endless waves of high mountains over mists.”
The craggiest of the Torridon peaks stood to our west, but oddly enough I found the rolling open spaces directly to the north to be even more fascinating. It struck me that nowhere in that vastness did I see any roads, houses, telephone poles, or even any fences. I felt the strange pang that comes in the face of the limitless.
Another hiker joined us on the summit, telling us he’d spotted two deer and a ptarmigan on the ridge. We rested for a long time before we made our way back through the distinct stages of the journey—ridge, couloir, scree, corrie, loch, moor—that seemed like chapters in an engrossing book.
We returned to La Paz, feeling depleted and discouraged after having failed to meet our goal of climbing Huayna Potosi, a 20,000 footer. It was the wife of our guide Hugo who suggested that we might enjoy a day trip to Coroico, down in the warmer, moister climate of the Amazon basin. That might help us recover from ailments caused by the thin, high, cold air of the Altiplano.
She neglected to mention that the trip to Coroico was accomplished on a highway known as the “Death Road.”
It sounded good to us, so we signed up to join a vanload of adventure travelers for the trip. The next day we headed out early in the morning. Our van first climbed from the 12,000′ elevation of La Paz to a point called “El Cumbre,” or “The Summit,” at 15,260′. We would descend all the way to 3900′ at Coroico in just 43 miles.
At El Cumbre, drivers of vans, trucks, buses, and passenger vehicles all stopped to pray. They had good reason to do so.
The road, at least at the time we experienced it, featured certain unusual rules. First of all, on the lower section, traffic was all one-way: downhill in the morning, uphill in the afternoon. This was because the single-lane width didn’t allow vehicles to pass each other. In the places where two-way traffic was allowed, vehicles drove on the left: this gave the driver on the outside, next to the dropoff, a better view of the exact amount of room he had to move over.
An estimated 200 to 300 people are killed on the road each year. In a single “bus-plunge” incident in 1983, more than 100 were killed. The road has become a famous destination for thrill-seeking mountain bikers, of whom 18 have died.
It was built during the Chaco War by prisoners from Paraguay. A Wikipedia article gives a good overview about the road, but it doesn’t say how many of the prisoners died. It explains that a modernization was completed in 2006—after we visited Bolivia. The new roadway bypasses the most dangerous section of the Death Road.
Having visited El Cumbre, we began the precipitous drop into the warm jungles. Mist streamed everywhere, especially near the collision point with the Altiplano climate. I suspect these transitional zones have fascinating plant life, but we couldn’t see it clearly, what with the fog and with clutching the armrests of our seats.
All along the way, throughout the whole day, we were treated to traditional Andean music piped into the van—or maybe a commercialized version of it. By the end of the day we would have killed anyone we saw with a panflute.
We stopped a couple of times for picture-taking.
At last we arrived in Coroico. We got out and breathed the thick, warm, moist air into our battered lungs. It was indeed restorative. To me, the town had a familiar feel to it. I’d traveled in Latin America a fair amount and experienced a number of tropical places. It was the Altiplano that seemed so unusual. We took a short stroll to a scenic point, reveling in the huge amounts of oxygen.
We wandered around the downtown area, which boasted large palm trees.
Bob had never seen a banana plant before, but there were lots of them around and lots of bananas for sale.
Eventually we headed back to the van to face the long trip back up. At least this time, driving on the left, we’d be on the inside rather than the dropoff side. After a very long drive filled with the music of panflutes, we arrived back in the hustle and bustle of La Paz. Two days later we flew back home. We did not accomplish our goal of climbing a big mountain, but we had many experiences that I will always remember. Bolivia is a place like no other.
# # #
Steve was not a happy camper. He’d been experiencing typical South American intestinal distress, but the plumbing at the 15,000′+ Refugio in Zongo Pass froze up every night.
For about ten days, we’d been preparing for our assault on Huayna Potosi (HP), a mountain not far from La Paz sometimes described as “the easiest 6000-meter peak in the world.” Depending on what you take as its exact elevation, it works out to just under or just over 20,000′, which, as metrically-impaired Americans, we found more meaningful.
After our trip in the Condoriri, I felt I was ready for anything. I’d achieved elevations higher than 17,000′ without any problem. We met our guides in La Paz for a hike from Chacaltaya to Zongo Pass, the starting point for climbs of HP, just to lock in that acclimatization. Many people climb HP with far less preparation.
Chacaltaya is the ruins of a ski resort close to La Paz that was dependent on the existence of a glacier for the necessary frozen surface. Unfortunately, the glacier has virtually disappeared, due to global warming. It is still possible to ski down about 600′ by carefully following the slim sliver of snow that remains.
We drove to the ski area on a road that seemed precipitous, but we were soon to learn on the “Death Road” what “precipitous” really means. I will describe that in my next post. Once at the ski buildings, we climbed 700 vertical feet to the 17,785′ summit of Chacaltaya, which turned out to be the highest elevation we achieved on the trip.
After a hike of several hours over a moonscape of arid ridges and past an old mine, we arrived at the Refugio.
Steve is a stoical sort, but his terse responses to the usual conversational babble indicated that he was fading as a result of his inability to keep any food in his system. Bob and I had been spared the wrath of the Digestive Gods, but we’d both started to cough—annoying dry, hacking coughs, the kind that drive nearby people crazy.
The Refugio had a common area with a fireplace. A bundle of wood stood next to it. We thought we’d have a jolly evening with a roaring fire. After several attempts, we realized the air was too thin for more than a symbolic fire.
We all felt depleted, so we retired to our bunks. Bob coughed so much that I couldn’t sleep with his hacking next to my ear. Small brown rats scampered around our belongings, looking for M&Ms or cheese or anything that wasn’t encased in cast iron. Early the next morning, we arose for our training trip to the Charquini glacier. There, we’d practice the ice-climbing moves that would help us get to the summit of HP—maybe not all that easy, after all.
Our route to the glacier took us along the top of an aqueduct with a huge dropoff. The guides roped us up for this section. As I made my way along, I felt lightheaded and weak. Was it the altitude? I didn’t think so. I’d already hit higher altitudes with no problem.
By the time we reached the base of the glacier, I felt distinctly unwell, as if I was coming down with the flu. Steve had rallied, but I was fading. I felt so unsteady that I decided I must stay behind while the others practiced their moves.
I sat beside a boulder and waited as the others practiced their climbing.
Steve took a photo of Bob as he ascended the glacier’s steepest part.
Bob and I had done winter climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where at times (such as the Lions Head Winter Route up Mt. Washington) we’d used crampons and ice axes, but we’d never done technical ice climbing. I felt crappy—psychologically as much as physically—as I realized I was missing out on the opportunity to “take it up to the next level.”
After a few hours, my companions came off the glacier. A vast swath of fog had streamed up from the backside of the mountain—Zongo Pass is a divide between the Pacific and the Amazon Basin, and every day, as things warm up, a vast exchange occurs between the cold dry Altiplano air and the air that comes up from the jungle.
We were supposed to climb the next day to “Campo Argentina” on the slope of HP and then awake around 2:00 a.m. the day after to make the push to the summit. Part of the reason for the early start is that the steep snow slopes become avalanche-prone as the temperatures rise.
But I was a nose-streaming, throat-hacking mess, Bob had dwindled to the same state, and Steve wasn’t exactly at his best. Our preparation for the high altitude had been actually too lengthy. After nearly two weeks in the cold dry Altiplano air, we’d come down with good old ordinary head colds.
Acclimatization is hard to figure out. I’ve gone from sea level to Colorado, climbed a Fourteener with no difficulty within a couple of days, then had problems two days later. Obviously, if you spend a big chunk of time at high altitude, you’re going to be better off. But how you manage that first week or so is a matter of debate. There’s a trade-off between adjusting to the thin air and getting weakened by it.
At any rate, we weren’t up to climbing our 20,000′ mountain. It was a huge disappointment after preparing for it over the past months and traveling all the way to Bolivia to do it.
But being in Bolivia was an adventure in itself. We still had the experience of the “Death Road” ahead of us.
In preparation for our attempt to climb a 20,000′ Bolivian peak, we had acclimatized for six days at elevations around 12,000 feet. The next step was a two-day trek in the Condoriri, a mountain range located not far from La Paz. The name comes from the resemblance of the central peaks to the head and shoulders of a condor—a likeness you have to squint quite a bit to see in the photo above.
We would camp at Lake Chiarkota, elev. 15,252′, and climb over a pass at around 16,000′ beside a peak called the Mirador. The trek was organized by La Paz-based guide Hugo Berrios. Tents and gear were carried by donkeys that would ferry these items back out the second morning, while Hugo continued on with us.
We started at Lago Tuni, a lake at 13,775′. The area seemed bleak and monochromatic, but snowy peaks beckoned on the horizon. Steve, Bob, and I kept a close eye on our altimeters, looking out for the point at which we would climb higher than our previous lifetime high point, the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,505′). We passed this momentous point at an inconspicuous stretch along the valley. The llamas and alpacas watched us curiously.
We arrived at Lake Chiarkota in the late afternoon. Already a chill had touched the air, and we were glad to have plenty of warm layers for this July trek. The lake was a beautiful glacier-tinted shade of blue.
The next morning we climbed a steep grassy slope above the lake.
I was pleased to find that the altitude wasn’t bothering me. We crossed some steep scree fields.
Hugo was a great guy to have with us, very friendly and helpful. He’s done a lot of technical climbing in the Condoriri.
The scenery was almost beyond description.
As we returned toward Lago Tuni, we encountered some small farms. Life in this cold, severe world of the Altiplano can’t be easy.
Coming soon: Posts about the 20,000-footer we failed to climb and about the famous “Death Road” to Coroico.
When Bob, Steve, and I went to Bolivia, our goal was to climb a peak higher than 20,000′. For several reasons, which I will come to in another post, we failed in our quest. But we did achieve new personal highest-elevation marks in golf, ping pong, sea kayaking, mountain biking… and many other things.
If you are looking to acclimatize to really high elevations, there is no better place to go than La Paz. The acclimatization starts with the moment of arrival at El Alto airport, which stands above the city at 13,300′. Oxygen tanks are available for disembarking passengers in case of sudden collapse. I was disappointed when I got off the plane and did not feel faint. It was strange to think as I walked through the airport lobby that I was at the same elevation as maybe the 75th switchback above Trail Camp on the trail to Mt. Whitney.
Our flight from Miami had arrived early in the morning, and we took a cab down into the city, which runs from around 12,000′ down to a little below 11,000′. The more affluent neighborhoods are toward the bottom, where there is a bit of oxygen.
We did a little walking around the city. “Remember, we shouldn’t overdo it the first day,” we kept saying to each other. Overawed by our new surroundings, depleted of energy and lacking anything interesting to say, we were becoming tedious on the subject. Sort of deliberately tedious. It was like the way we and our friends would keep saying to each other on climbs of 14,000′-foot peaks, “Remember, keep hydrated,” repeating it far too often, on purpose. (Steve would chirp up with fake cheeriness, “Urine is clear, happy mountaineer!”)
There wasn’t much danger of going overly fast. Every time we walked uphill—and the whole city consists of hills—we gasped for breath. Our heads ached. Our legs felt rubbery. But we managed to visit the cathedral, where we saw women wearing bowler hats and black shawls.
Over the next days, we found that processions, parades, and protest marches regularly occupied the major avenues.
Our Lonely Planet travel guide said the La Paz Golf Club was open to the public, so on the second day we went. The golf course is said to be the world’s highest, ranging from 10,750′ to 10,965′ at the highest hole. To get there, you go through an area of weird contorted rock called the “Valle de la Luna,” and the 12th hole on the course is called the “Lunar Hole.” It requires a shot of greater than 130 yards to clear a 50-foot drop over a moon-like landscape. But we were only there to visit the driving range.
Bob and Steve enjoyed whacking the ball through the thin air and seeing it sail off into the ether. Since I’d never played golf before (apart from mini-golf) and I’d never visited a driving range, my balls didn’t sail very far. But I enjoyed watching my companions marvel at the conditions.
On the third day we visited the resort town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, as described in my last Bolivia post. We ended up spending a day longer there than we’d planned because teachers on strike across the region had placed nails and other obstacles on highways leading in and out of La Paz. And on our way out, our bus did get a flat tire.
While we were in Copacabana, we played high-altitude ping-pong at our hotel and did high-altitude sea-kayaking on the 12,000′ elevation lake.
One morning, while I opted to sleep in at the hotel, Bob and Steve mountain-biked along the shore of the lake to the border with Peru. By the time we returned to La Paz, we felt we were ready for our warm-up trek, a trip into the Condoriri with our guide Hugo.
(To be continued)
Steve stared sadly at his food. It was a skinless chicken leg sitting in a puddle of water in the midst of a vast white plate. It looked as though it had been boiled.
But it was all his fault—the only food word in Spanish he had mastered was “pollo,” or chicken, and he hadn’t been able to distinguish between the ten types of chicken listed on the menu. I would have tried to help him with my limited Spanish, but he was tired of asking for assistance, and he had rashly pointed to the first chicken dish listed on the menu. “Pollo,” he said to the waiter, who smiled and repeated, “Pollo.”
We’d been in the resort town of Copacabana for a couple of days. Located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the town serves as a jumping-off point for boat trips to the historic ruins of Isla del Sol and a getaway from the giant city of La Paz. We took a bus from La Paz to Tiquina Strait, crossed on a rickety ferry while the bus was barged across separately, then reboarded the bus.
While we waited to get on the ferry, we strolled around a square that featured a statue with a rather dramatic painting on the side. I believe the subject is the bitter war fought between Bolivia and Chile, which the latter country won, ensuring that Bolivia would remain landlocked. Bolivia still has a navy that symbolically reflects its aspirations to have a coastline—we saw the navy marching in a parade.
When we arrived in Copacabana, we climbed the Cerro Calvario as part of our acclimatization program before we set forth to climb some real mountains.
In the high, thin, dry air at 12,000′, it was easy to get hungry but not so easy to find something good to eat. All of the Copacabana restaurants featured the “trucha,” or lake trout, but we didn’t want to have that at every meal. Gastronomically speaking, the safest choice was pasta in one form or another. We tried all the major restaurants available at that time (1999), discovering that for some mysterious reason, several of them played Cat Stevens tunes from the 70s on their piped-in sound systems. Maybe some influential expat residing there was a big Cat Stevens fan.
For lunch one day, I ordered hamburger. When I took a bite, I realized that the meat was not beef. What it was, I do not know. I worried that it might be guinea pig, a common dish in the Andes.
Once back in La Paz, we resorted to the McDonalds a couple of times. I’ve since learned that McDonalds pulled out of Bolivia in 2002 because of its poor profit margins, ceding the territory to Burger King. According to an article I read, some Bolivians felt “deceived and betrayed,” while others said, “Good riddance!” The McDonalds menu was too expensive for most Bolivians to afford.
Bolivia is said to be the poorest country in South America, a nation more inclined toward potatoes, cold cuts, and sausages than fancy gourmet cooking.
But Bolivia boasts scenery that is beyond compare, and that makes it all worthwhile. More on Bolivia in future installments.
We listened to the pitter-patter of little rat feet on the corrugated tin roof of our restaurant as we dined on pizza with fried eggs on top. The Balinese put fried eggs on top of all of their food, it seemed. Well, Jim had warned us that we might experience a tradeoff at our hotel that evening between the fantastic view and other more variable conditions.
I had joined up with the “adventure tour” group after attending a business conference in Denpasar. The group was led by Jim, a swarthy Dartmouth graduate who’d lived in Bali for a long time and spoke the language fluently. I missed the first day of the tour in Ubud, but met up with the others that evening in a hotel that stood on stilts in a rice paddy. We had a retired doctor and his wife from Seattle plus two teachers who each lived on a tight budget but saved to satisfy their yearning for travel—and managed to achieve big trips.
The doctor was a photography buff who told us he planned to enter the pictures from this trip in a big photography contest. It was interesting to me that he never took photos of people but only of landscapes. His wife, a point-and-shoot photographer, had a way of engaging the Balinese with a smile and a friendly approach, and she got some wonderful photos. She was also a champion bargainer, and I learned from observing her bartering technique.
The doctor’s complicated wristwatch chimed on the hour every hour, which irritated him, but he couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.
The two teachers came from different towns on the West Coast—I forget exactly where. One was a woman about my age, and the other was a short, slender guy that I’ll refer to as Cal. He was quiet, but very smart.
We’d been trekking through lush, verdant country and had a big adventure ahead of us—we were going to climb Gunung Batur, a live but not very active volcano that had a beautiful lake inside its crater. The hotel sat perched on the very rim of the crater. We’d stashed our luggage in our tiny rooms and convened for dinner in the rat-infested restaurant.
Someone said, “What side of the lake will the sun rise?” Cal pointed and murmured, “Over there in the east, unless something goes terribly wrong.”
I cracked up.
The next day we made the climb up the 5633-foot Batur. As I recall, it was a climb of roughly 2000 vertical feet, and it took us a couple of hours. The guides attached to our group, both named Wayan, were augmented by local guides who led us up the steep gritty trail wearing flipflops and smoking cigarettes. They were fast. I was impressed. We reached the top and enjoyed the spectacle of the sprawling, pearly-colored lake.
Later in the tour I would split off from the group to engage in a climb of Gunung Agung with the plaid-shirt-wearing Wayan accompanying me. Agung is the tallest mountain in Bali, measuring 10,308′ following a huge eruption in 1964.
Bali is a beautiful place. I plan to return to Indonesia, land of green rice paddies and giant volcanoes, where the sun will rise in the east unless something goes terribly wrong.