Trail Report: Kilimanjaro (Part 2)

I promise in Part 3 I'll get to the actual hiking experience, but I thought it was worth one more pre-climb post!

Arriving at the Kilimanjaro airport was a somewhat odd experience. It's actually a very small airport that accommodates huge international flights, mostly filled with hikers and safari-goers. Getting through the airport to our driver, Muslim, was a little chaotic!

On our first full day in Tanzania, Muslim picked us up around 10 in the morning and took is to meet Muhammad, the head of our hiking outfitter. What a huge hearted man! He told us of his daughter, who was born with a mitochondrial disorder. He would like to someday open a center for special needs children as there are currently no resources for parents like him in Tanzania.

Muhammad told us that the most important thing to leave Tanzania with isn't memories of the safari or the mountain, but gratitude for the infrastructure of our home country. Things like public restrooms, paved roads, and safe sidewalks are things that we take for granted but need to appreciate. Their presence ranges from inconsistent to nonexistent in Tanzania.

I thought of the difference between impoverishment and deprivation. I think surely Westerners must come to East Africa and take in what they label to be an impoverished society, when maybe the society is just deprived of many of the things that we claim we cannot live without. Maybe we are deprived, too - of things that the East Africans have - and we don't realize it. Maybe it is possible for both of us to be rich, and it has nothing to do with what we own and everything to do with what we have. I'm coming to learn that these two things are very different.

Women carrying bananas into Moshi to sell

Trail Report: Kilimanjaro (Part 1)

We returned from Tanzania about a week ago and my head is still spinning from the surreality of it all. I want to vomit some of these words up (because that's what it will be - vomited words, not graceful or lovely at all) before I lose them entirely, so here it goes.

Sometimes the biggest part of the journey is in the "getting there."

I am deathly afraid of flying. I couldn't even think about any mountains until I got through 24 hours' worth of flights. But oh, how strange life is sometimes.

On the longest leg of the flight, Los Angeles to Amsterdam, I was seated next to a young Jesuit priest from France.

Now, I have been to mass before. But this was my first up-close encounter with a be-collared priest. God does have a sense of humor!

Gregory was very friendly, wanting to communicate (probably to practice his English). He thought my name was Josephine. He made some niceties in English when I sat down, but I was feeling ill from the thought of what was to come. I am not a friendly flyer.

He spent the flight meticulously studying English over his laptop, entering words into a spreadsheet and reading their definitions carefully. But he was learning words like wholesome and rote, words that may be useful on paper but fail to roll off the tongue in everyday speech. I continued to look at his computer screen as he moved on to "truism" but he must have felt the weight of my eyes for he turned to me and said,

Josephine, ça va?

And I tell him I'm okay, but I don't tell him what I'm thinking: I'm better because your presence is strangely comforting. Because I know that "presence" and "comforting" are not on his carefully typed English spreadsheet as of yet.

And I drift peacefully to sleep.

Eventually I awake and he is eager to engage in more conversation. I learn that he has been in the Bay Area (and then Los Angeles) learning about the people, and in particular, evangelicals. (This makes me chuckle.) But something he said struck a cord with me. Little did I know how important it would be to carry this with me to Tanzania (and beyond):

Loneliness is the greatest poverty.

I was impressed with this string of English words, obviously contemplated as heavily as their content would suggest. He was speaking of his time in San Francisco, among the homelessness. But he wasn't speaking of their lack of material possessions. Gregory's eyes took on a sad expression and he repeated,

There is no poverty like that which comes from loneliness.

In Tanzania, I learned to look at poverty differently. I learned to avoid dismissing the people as "impoverished" by the standards of my First World, privileged existence. I learned that Kipling is alive and well when maybe he'd best be forgotten.

Where is Kilimanjaro in all of this? Closer and farther away than you might think. Stay tuned for Part 2 :)

Trail Report: Mount St. Helena

Poor Mount St. Helena. Put its name into a search engine and even Google is likely to ask you, "Did you mean Mount St. Helens?" But Helena, a little gem in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, is well worth the drive (through beautiful wine country, I might add) if you are in the Bay Area and in search of a solid day hike.

The term "hike" may be a bit of a misnomer for some. The first mile or so of the trek could be considered a traditional hike, whereas the vast majority of it is simply a long uphill tromp on a wide fire road. Because this hike is typically ranked as difficult due to the elevation gain and distance (2,000 feet and just over 10 miles round trip, respectively), I was not looking forward to the journey nearly as much as the payoff: a killer view of the surrounding wine country, mountains, and greater Bay Area.

The trail, gently ascending along forested trail for the first mile, reaches the fire road at this point. It's all discouraging uphill from here, but well worth it!
I didn't find the hike to be too bad. It was a bit smoggy out, but temperatures were cool; this isn't a hike to attempt in the hot summer months. There was really no relief on the way up, but knowing the challenges of the trail going into it, I found that is was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other...over and over and over again. We encountered rock climbers along the way and a natural rock formation that definitely provides us with reason to return in the future!

The Bubble, a popular rock climbing area about a half mile up the fire road.
Near the top you'll come to the summit plateau, which is surrounded by the five summits of Mount St. Helena. The highest of these is North Peak, and you've come this far - so you might as well go for this one!

View from the top of North Peak.
We made pretty good time, completing the entire 10.2-mile round trip hike in about four hours. It's a solid Bay Area peak to bag and one that is accessible to anyone in pretty good shape and willing to put forth the effort necessary. Would I do this one again? Probably not all the way to the top, but certainly to some of the rock climbing areas.

Off-Season Half Dome Hike: Reaching the Top When the Cables are Down

Half Dome is certainly the most well-known trail in Yosemite National Park and probably one of the most famous and most photographed rocks in the world. Every year, from Memorial Day until Columbus Day, steel cables are held up with poles and wooden planks offer security for the multitudes of feet that carry hikers to the top each day. It looks something like this and presents a unique challenge:

In order to get to this point, you must first hike about eight miles and gain approximately 4,800 feet in elevation, so you generally arrive tired. (Or at least...I do!) It's a strenuous hike, averaging about 10-14 hours round trip. And it is so worth it.

In the off-season, though, the poles and slats are removed, and the cables lay flat on the rock. Reaching the top becomes a very difference experience and one that requires special planning and endurance. You have to lift the steel cables off the rock and essentially pull yourself (while walking your feet) to the summit.

When Mr. Petite Peaker and I decided to attempt this, we took with us certain equipment to make the task safer (though not necessarily easier, unfortunately!). What I recommend:

A harness. I used the Black Diamond Alpine Bod Climbing Harness, and although this is not a harness I would particularly recommend for serious climbing, it served this purpose well.

A standard carabiner.

Two rope loops made with about three feet of rope.

[to be continued]

Trail Report: Mt. Whitney Summit

Day 0: Before Setting Out
I went into this backpacking trip with several concerns:

1. Getting my heavy pack up a steep trail. (The Mt. Whitney trail has an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet. I needed to carry my sleeping bag, bedroll, clothes, extra shoes, camp stove, camera, extra lens, water, snacks, sunscreen, toiletries, and other miscellany on my back. Mr. Petite Peaker had an even heavier load with the tent and bear canister filled with three days’ worth of meals, in addition to his other items.)

The bear canister, rented from the National Park Service, is designed in a way that prevents bears from opening it and getting to your food. Mt. Whitney hikers are required to carry one.
2. Staying warm through freezing temperatures at night. (Our camp, located at 12,000 feet, would be extremely exposed.)

3. Going to the bathroom in the great outdoors. (I had done it before but never on a trail that required me to “pack it out” – in other words, carry my solid waste with me.)

“The Original WAG BAG.” These are given to hikers and backpackers when they pick up their permits. All solid waste has to be packed out.
4. Drinking enough. (All water we obtained along the trail would have to be treated with iodine tablets, which made me a little nervous. I tried to bring salty, soupy items to eat, knowing they’d provide additional hydration and mask the taste of the water.)

The highest calorie soup mix I could find at the grocery store: broccoli cheddar.
I think fears magnify our hardships. All of these things were undoubtedly going to be hard, but I tried to tell myself not to worry so much, because doing so would turn my fears into self-fulfilling prophesies.

Day 1: Trail Camp (The grass is greener right where you are.) We set out early (5:15 am), though not as early as we have in the past. We knew we had plenty of time to reach Trail Camp.
The sign marking the trailhead at Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet.
On our way up to Lone Pine Lake (our first designated resting stop), several late-leaving day hikers passed us. I found myself thinking, “Of course they are able to go so fast. They aren’t carrying their beds and their homes and three days’ worth of food on their backs!”

In reality, though, I’ve had backpackers pass me when I day hiked on previous summit attempts. My thoughts at the sight of them? “Of course they are able to go so fast. They aren’t traveling the whole length of the trail in one day!”

But is the grass really greener on the other side? If you are too busy coveting the benefits of someone else’s journey, you’re failing to appreciate the rewards and beauty of your own. At the end of the day, summiting Mt. Whitney is hard, no matter your method; fortunately, it is also incredible.

We rested at Lone Pine Lake and fired up our JetBoil for the first time, enjoying hot chocolate and apple cider before continuing our journey up the trail.
We took a break at Lone Pine Lake (approx. 10,000 feet), which is about as far as you can go on the trail before entering the Whitney Zone (where permits are required).
We used lake water and didn’t treat it, since we were heating it. Our brief conversation about it:

Me: Did this water boil? Am I going to die?
Mr. Petite Peaker: I let it come to a rolling boil, yes. And you aren’t going to die from it. At worst, you’ll just get Giardia or E. coli.

Here we go!
From Lone Pine Lake, we hiked to Outpost Camp (10,365 feet), where many backpackers opt to spend the night before summit day. Our permits were for Trail Camp, 1,635 feet higher, so we continued after a brief break and went up to Mirror Lake. At Mirror Lake, we enjoyed what was seriously the best backpacking food we packed – bacon jerky. I don’t like bacon, but I think the reason this stuff tasted so good was because it didn’t taste dehydrated. It tasted like it was freshly fried and right out of the skillet.
We ended up staying at Mirror Lake for about two hours, snacking, talking, watching some men sport fish, and playing Phase 10. I was awed by the peaks that surrounded us – Mt. Muir, Thor Peak, and Wotans Throne. I think what was particularly daunting was the fact that these peaks looked so high, yet they weren’t Mt. Whitney. To look at the highest point and realize that you are going higher than that is a little overwhelming.

The next section of the trail – from Mirror Lake to Trailside Meadow and then the final ascent to Trail Camp – was definitely the hardest of Day 1. The rocky uphill trail was seemingly endless, and the elevation made it even harder to amble up carrying one-third of my body weight on my back.

The path toward Trailside Meadow was cumbersome and steep, but the scenery around us was breathtaking.
Regarding fear #3, above: there used to be a solar toilet located at Trail Camp, but the National Park Service had to remove it because it was a privilege that hikers were abusing – stuffing trash down the toilet and doing other things to destroy what would have been a really nice thing to have. Since there are no facilities on the trail, then, hikers and backpackers are given certain guidelines (do your business at least 100 feet from any trail or water source; pack out all solid human waste using a wag bag). I managed (it’s never comfortable), but I am shocked at how many people don’t follow these guidelines. We saw wag bags tucked between rocks, toilet paper near the trail on some occasions, and at least one instance where someone had gone right on the trail. This may sound disgusting, but really, it all just makes me so sad. I don’t have any delusions of nature being “pristine” even without a human presence, but really? Mt. Whitney is a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience for so many. Say what you will about government agencies, but the National Park Service is my favorite one. And the NPS indeed does a great service. Don’t take advantage of it and risk getting this trail shut down!

Trailside Meadow
In our final ascent to Trail Camp, I rested in quite a few places and questioned hikers coming down the trail. How far is it to Trail Camp? I was tracking my mileage using GPS and I knew the distance between Trailside Meadow and Trail Camp (approximately 1.0 mile), so in reality I knew the answer to my own question. But it is always so interesting to me to hear individual perceptions of distance. About halfway between the two and with half a mile to go, I heard everything from 0.5 miles to 2 miles in response to my question, with 1.5 miles being by far the most common answer.

Night 1: Tossing and Turning We arrived at Trail Camp at dusk. While Mr. Petite Peaker set up our tent, I crawled into my sleeping bag for warmth and ate space ice cream. I knew I was operating on very few calories and needed to eat, but I found myself with very little appetite. I thought something hot might help; we fired up the JetBoil and made lasagna with meat sauce. I had a few bites before trying to drink some more hot chocolate and eventually calling it a night, promising myself that I would have a hearty breakfast.

Arrival at Trail Camp (12,000 feet)
Our humble little Trail Camp home with our fuel-powered JetBoil heating water for dinner.
I struggled through the night. It is hard to sleep at 12,000 feet (and, as I found out when doing a little research later, hard to eat as well). My breaths were extremely shallow. I fretted about dying in my sleep from lack of oxygen. I was thankful that I had brought a pillow (compressed in my compression pack with my sleeping bag) to prop myself up; I added my clothes to the pillowcase as well. I woke up several times in the night, each time (thankfully) breathing a little bit easier. Day hikers started to noisily come through around 2:00 am and continued in a pretty much endless stream until I finally gave in and got up around 4:30. I went outside to capture the dawn; just before the sun came up, though, it became incredibly cold and I scampered back into the tent and my sleeping bag.

Dawn from Trail Camp
Day 2: Summit Day (Ignorance is bliss on the 99 switchbacks.) Despite my promise to myself, I had a hard time eating breakfast. I had about five bites of broccoli cheddar soup and nothing else. Mr. Petite Peaker collected water to treat and we packed most of our stuff into our packs to leave in the tent. I opted to take only a small bottle of treated water, my camera, Excedrin, jerky, and sunscreen. Mr. Petite Peaker brought two bottles of water with Gatorade powder added plus his full pack bladder (also with Gatorade).

Our first task of the day was to hike from Trail Camp to Trail Crest, up the notorious 99 switchbacks. (I have also seen the number given as 97 online, but my count resulted in 99.)

Once up the 99 switchbacks, hikers follow the ups and downs of the Whitney crest to the summit. (Click on picture to enlarge.)
This is a very daunting section of trail, and at such high altitude, it is easy to get winded. We ran into one family on our way up with a teenage son who was struggling with hypoxia; Mr. Petite Peaker gave him an electrolyte gel pack, which helped temporarily – but not too long later, they had to turn around and head back to lower elevations.

At first, I was encouraged by how quickly we were progressing up this 2.2-mile stretch. I counted the switchbacks, and in no time, we were already at #33 – a third of the switchbacks, done! By tracking our mileage, I could see that we were even more than a third of the way up. This is where I should have stopped to think, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

The first 80 switchbacks weren’t so bad. Switchbacks #81-92 were tolerable.

Switchbacks #93-98 made me want to cry.

And #99 made me want to die.

Why don’t the trail guidebooks ever tell you that?

While on the final torturous stretch to Trail Crest, we ran into two women and a teenage girl, headed back down. They looked at us with great concern.

Woman #1: Where are you headed?
Mr. Petite Peaker: The summit.
Woman #1: You need to turn back. It’s too late in the day, and storm clouds are coming. The summit is clouded in.
Me: I’m not turning back. This is my third attempt. I am making it to the summit.
Woman #2: I’ve done this five times. I’ve never gone to the summit. Trail Crest is my summit. The mountain will always be here. You can always come back.
Me: I’m going to the summit, because I don’t want to come back!
Woman #2: What do you have to prove?
Woman #1: Make 2:00 pm your turnaround time. If you’re not at the summit, you have to turn around. It’s not safe.

These women were really very kind. I regret being so stubborn, and I was glad that we ran into them the next day at Whitney Portal – where Woman #1 greeted me with a big hug and the question on each of their minds: “Did you make it?” There is a lot of camaraderie on the trail.

Finally at the top of Trail Crest. I was so afraid of falling that I couldn’t stand up.
From Trail Crest, we had a very brutal downhill section to the John Muir Trail junction. Downhill portions of a summit hike are always brutal for two reasons: one, they are just creating more uphill for you later on; two, they become uphill portions on the return journey, when psychologically you are really only prepared to go down, down, down.

Speaking of the JMT: we encountered several thru-hikers finishing up their 210-mile trek from Happy Isles (in Yosemite) to Whitney Portal. The fewest number of days it had taken anyone we encountered was 8; the longest time spent on the trail was 29 days. They were all so proud. I did, however, notice two distinct types of pride. There was the pride of the young, lean, 20-something bachelor hikers, which amounted to, “I knew I could do this, and I did. What, you think I’m surprised? Of course I did it in eight days.” Then there was the pride of the sexagenarian, grey-haired couple, which came across as, “We didn’t think we could do this, but we did. I am so proud of my partner. I couldn’t have done it without him/her. We did it in 29 days.”

At the John Muir Trail junction, we started our brutal final ascent. This was very rocky terrain with a steep dropoff on one side for most of the way. The 99 switchbacks include a short area where railing can be used to stabilize yourself; I think the NPS should consider putting some more railing beyond Trail Crest. (I guess they assume that anyone making it this far isn’t going to fall.)
At times during the final stretch, it felt less like hiking and more like rock scrambling.
Are we there yet? At this point, I am pretty much ready for this hike to be over…but we have 1.8 miles left to go.
2:00 pm came and went. We encountered one gentleman who told us that the summit wasn’t worth it because it was clouded in. Nothing to see, he said. Don’t waste your time.

But the sky was getting bluer and the clouds were moving on.

I had to stop frequently for rest. And let me tell you, I will never mock Mr. Petite Peaker’s Gatorade (for its unnatural color and ingredients) again. My water was long gone. It is possible that the Gatorade he was carrying was what got me to the summit.

For a while, the summit hut was in view. As we got closer it disappeared from our view and all we could see were rocks. The pathway became more and more treacherous.

The Smithsonian Institute erected a hut at the summit in 1909. Although it isn’t in use today, it still stands and marks the final destination of Mt. Whitney hikers.
As time went on, people coming down from the summit became more encouraging. While it would still be a long time before anyone would tell us what we wanted to hear – you are almost there – we did hear a lot of people saying things like, “It’s worth it” and “You’ll make it.” The appearance of the final ascent was completely overwhelming, looking to be entirely made up of scree. As we turned the final corner, we encountered a man with his teenage daughters. He told us that we had about 200 yards until we could see the summit hut and then a final 200 yards until we were there.

I know my football fields, and he was a little off. I think it was actually about four football fields before we saw the hut, but then only half a football field until we were actually there. We arrived around 4:30 pm. The weather had cleared, and the view was absolutely breathtaking.

Approaching the summit hut.
The plaque marking the end of the summit trail. (The elevation has changed over the years as measurement techniques have advanced. The latest measurement, taken in 1988, puts the peak at 14,505 feet.)
Of course, once at the summit, we were only half done. We had to get back to Trail Camp, preferably before dark. The return trip was tough, with the sun finally out and beating down on us until it sunk below the mountains. We were still afforded some beautiful views of the areas below us.

Most of my pictures were taken with my DSLR, but I did take this one with my phone when we were descending and I didn’t feel like getting out the camera. Guitar Lake from the Mt. Whitney crest. (Put through the Kelvin filter in Instagram.)
Night 2: Weathering a Storm (Storm clouds make for beautiful sunrises.) We indeed arrived back at Trail Camp just as it was starting to get dark, but before we needed to use our headlamps. I went straight into the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag without dinner. Aside from a few bites of soup, all I had had during summit day was about 20 ounces of Gatorade and a couple pieces of chile lime beef jerky. I heard Mr. Petite Peaker filling the JetBoil as I drifted off; he brought me two cups of hot chocolate. I was able to drink about half of it.

I slept much better than the previous night, not waking up at all until the storm came. At about 1:00 am, I awoke to the sounds of rain and moderate wind whistling around our little two-man tent. A few hours later, my side of the tent had come up and was threatening to collapse on top of me, and the winds were so strong that we knew we just had to wait it out. To be honest, I was pretty scared.

Even after it started to get light, we remained huddled in the tent waiting for the winds to die down. When we did venture out, the sun was already up – and the most gorgeous sky greeted us.

A stormy sky makes for the most glorious sunrises. A wonderful reminder that life’s hardships can be so rewarding.
Day 3: God Bless the Cook (If you made it on something other than a camp stove, you are my hero and I’m eating it.) As the wind died down, it became evident that the rain might follow us as we hiked down the mountain, so we opted for an early start. It was difficult to put on our heavy packs again, but I was already dreaming of the infamous burger at the Whitney Portal Store.

We began our trek. My knees ached as we descended, with the rocky terrain presenting an additional challenge. (Stepping down from tall rocks can be more difficult than taking large steps up them.)
I was resting just below Lone Pine Lake waiting for Mr. Petite Peaker (we sometimes hike separately) when another descending hiker that I had encountered higher up passed me by. “I thought you’d be eating that burger by now!” he called out. “I’m salivating,” I replied.

Soon, he said.

Not soon enough. But I tried to remember lessons learned from Clouds Rest.

Clouds Rest is a mountain in Yosemite. It’s a hike I did in September 2012, and the views from the top are stunning. It’s a beautiful and prominent mountain, difficult but less strenuous than Half Dome according to most guidebooks.

Clouds Rest from Tenaya Lake, where the trail starts. Can you see the problem with this mountain?
Clouds Rest has a very distinctive shape. It seems to be smiling at you. The hike is an interesting one: a mile and a half into the hike, you very quickly gain 1,000 feet in elevation via strenuous switchbacks. This puts you on the ridge, but you see that smile shape? You then hike down before going back up. It doesn’t look like much, and on the way to the summit, it doesn’t even feel like you are going down so steeply.

On the way back, though, when you are already tired from hiking 10 miles, it is pure torture to then have to go steeply up. Every muscle in your body screams that you are supposed to be headed down.
Clouds Rest is the only trail on which I have ever cried tears of pain.

We passed Clouds Rest on the way to Lone Pine for our Whitney hike. Every time I see Clouds Rest, I hear Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in my head. I will never do Clouds Rest again. (Never say never, right?)

But Clouds Rest provides gorgeous views. I didn’t know when I hiked it that I would never do it again. What Clouds Rest taught me is that I need to enjoy every bit of scenery as if I’ll never see it again.

So that’s just what I tried to do as I descended the seemingly endless trail to Whitney Portal. Every time I felt discouraged, I tried to exit my own tunnel vision and observe the beauty around me.

When we finally arrived at the Whitney Portal Store, there were already many backpackers enjoying their burgers. I don’t know if these are amazing burgers by normal standards, but they are what everyone – particularly John Muir Trail thru-hikers – dream of on their way down. God bless the cook, who has undoubtedly made the dreams of thousands of backpackers a reality.

We ran into the ladies who had warned us to turn around. They were full of genuine delight to hear that we made it to the summit.

As expected, the burger was delicious.

This was the hardest physical challenge I have ever experienced. I don’t know how to top Mt. Whitney; I don’t know that I want to try to top it. There are certainly other summits I have in mind, but for now, I’m just going to enjoy the memories of peak bagging this one.

Trail Report: Las Trampas

We celebrated my last day of an extended Presidents’ Day weekend vacation (students are so spoiled these days!) with a hike up to the ridge line via an East Bay trail not too far south of us.

Doesn’t it look like the hills we hiked are adorned with purple wildflowers?

In reality, though, these are merely collections of common shrubs. This is evident from up close, and also as the shrubs scratch against your ankles if you are foolish enough to wear capris (as I was).

Isn’t it somewhat redeeming, though, how scratchy shrubs can form a gorgeous hillside? I think it’s a lovely picture of humanity.

Surprisingly, I found another way in which we try to mimic nature in the form of thorny plants juxtaposed with a barbed wire (and metal) fence. In ways both natural and unnatural, we often try to keep others out when we need them the most. I know my own journey took on new hope when I tore the fences down and let others in.

When we got close to the summit, Mr. Petite Peaker asked me if I wanted to turn around. He could tell I was pushing myself. I was dealing with unseasonably high temperatures (nearing 80 in February!).

But turning around didn't feel like an option. And the view from the top was so rewarding!

The ancient Mesopotamians used to construct ziggurats in order to bring themselves closer to the gods, and to allow the gods to descend the step-like temples down to earth. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous: God doesn’t require some sort of stepping-stone path down to where we are.

On the other hand, being this close to the vastness of the sky and so far above my starting point made me more appreciative of the nature all around me (yes, even the thorny, shrubby variety) and more thankful to the God who brought me upward to this very spot. It made me feel small to be surrounded by the greatness of God. And I think that’s the way I am supposed to feel.

Wishing you beautiful climbs, fences torn down, and humility in the face of the large, incredible world around us.