“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Guatemala and Hurricane Stan

We spent ten days in Guatemala, never saw the sun. We arrived in country the same day as Hurricane Stan and experienced the country through a wet prism of torrential rain, flooding, landslides and cold weather (yes, you can see your breath in Central America). We planned for a week of mountain climbing, kayaking, biking and hiking but Stan had different ideas.

We stayed in the historic town of Antigua in Guatemala’s central highlands. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site and deservedly so. Its colonial churches of Spanish Baroque architecture are backdropped against a ring of volcanic mountains, picturesque to the extreme.
We found our home in a small bar on Norte Calle, just south of the St Madrid Cathedral. The bar buzzed with a lively crowd of Irish, English, German and New Zealand expats and tourists and the Australian bartender was quick with a joke and a beer and we found ourselves returning nightly for a dry place for conversation and beers .

Our days were wet but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the country. We picked up bikes and pedaled along the Pan-American Highway which snakes through the highlands and the lush jungles of Central America. In Guatemala, as in the rest of Central America, it is the main artery for commerce and travel but we found it surprisingly deserted the day we rode it. That’s what biblical flooding and blinding rainstorms will do to traffic. The weather and the seemingly endless uphill tarmac were brutal and we struggled up the highway. Last night’s beer didn’t help.

But we pressed on, pedaling through the mists and fog until we happened on an open roadside pavilion. Exhausted and in need of a break we stopped and were greeted by a delightful Guatemalan family. A bevy of little kids gathered around us, undoubtedly wondering what these crazy Gringos were doing riding bikes in the rain. The kids were happy and laughing and they recharged our batteries. That, and the fact that we had reached the apex of the highway over the mountain and it was all downhill from now on, made for a great finish to a grueling ride. We coasted downhill for miles, descending out of the clouds to clear views of lovely Lake Atitlan, situated in a caldera among three volcanos. The lake was blue and glassy, a pleasant change from what we had been through so far. We cruised into the village of Panajachel on the shores of the lake.

Panajachel was in the midst of their annual village festival, complete with greased pole climbs, dancers in native costume and a thriving marketplace and we spent the afternoon enjoying the festivities before catching a launcha across the lake to a guesthouse perched gloriously on the lakeside cliffs. After a hot meal we drank wine and shared a communal hot tub overlooking the lake with other guests.

The next day we set out at dawn, choosing to hike the lake perimeter back into Panajachel. Rain drenched us again, and we trekked through villages and fields of fifteen foot high corn along a barely discernible footpath through the jungle. We hiked quietly through a village adorned with Anti-American graffiti as we practiced our fake Aussie accents. We encountered native children who scampered away in panic at the sight of us in their midst. I don’t think they had ever seen Gringos before. This was definitely off the beaten path. We stumbled into Panajachel and caught a truck ride back to Antigua just as another torrential storm set in. The road became a dangerous quagmire and we dodged desk-sized boulders and muddy landslides ripping down the mountainsides and across the road.

The unremitting bad weather changed our plans. We were to take a kayak trip through the coastal mangroves but the flooding made that impossible. We retreated to Antigua and reassessed our itinerary. We had planned to climb Acatenango, a 13,045 foot volcanic peak but I opted out. My friend Ed stuck to the plan.

I caught a plane to the Yucatan Peninsula to see Tikal, Ed hired a guide and took on the mountain. My idea was better. Tikal is amazing, one of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is a huge complex of ruins rising spectacularly out of the jungle. I enjoyed two days of DRY hiking and exploration.

Ed spent two days huddled with his guide, rain, and fog in a climbing hut on the side of Acatenango. He never saw the peak, never even made it above tree line.

We left Guatemala as we came in, wet. With the exception of my two days at Tikal, we were rained on—heavily—daily. But we loved the country, the people and the experiences. Not a typical tourist trip, exactly what we wanted.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Climbing Mt Shasta

There are easy ways and hard ways to climb Mount Shasta. Never ones to miss out on a chance to up the ante, my friend Ed and I opted for the hard way. Our mistake.

North California’s Mount Shasta, at 14,179 feet, is the fifth highest peak in California. The mountain’s massive peak dominates the surrounding countryside and we could see it looming in our windshield from 100 miles away as we drove into the Cascades. It was imposing, its broad slopes glowing in the September sun.

Shasta is a popular destination for climbers and on a summer weekend 200 people or more may attempt the summit. By far the most popular routes are on the south and west slopes. Over 80% of climbers attempt these two approaches, with most of them taking the Avalanche Gulch route. These approaches are non-technical climbs, just requiring long and steady slogs up Shasta’s demanding slopes.

The north and east slopes are more challenging and are dominated by four large glaciers that complicate the climb, demanding advanced climbing skills and the ability to use ropes, ice axes and crampons. We elected to climb Shasta from the northeast side, across the long snowfields of the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers, laced with steep snow, ice and loose talus. By September, the snowfields were crusty and streaked with crevasses, further complicating our summit attempt. This approach was what we wanted, something far more challenging than the traditional south and west slopes.

We stood with Tony, our British mountain guide, in the valley below and surveyed the mountain, tracing our route up the alpine meadows, across the glaciers and to the summit. It looked intimidating. We would accomplish the trip in two days, making an overnight base camp at about 10,500 feet. This would give us time to acclimate to the altitude. We would make camp before dark, get a short night’s sleep and then strike out the last 3600 feet to the summit before sunrise the next day.

Our climb began uneventfully in a high alpine meadow near the base of the mountain. We spent the day slogging relentlessly uphill, huffing up unrelenting slopes, the sunny day perfect for a warm and pleasant climb. We climbed all morning and all afternoon, the green meadows gradually turning to rocky talus, then to boulder fields, then to snowfields and finally to icy glacial sheets laced with rotten ice and wide crevasses. We made base camp at 4 PM and immediately grabbed crampons and axes and set out across the glacier to get the feel of the ice before attempting the summit the next morning.

Ominously, the skies clouded up as we traipsed back to base camp and we remarked on the deteriorating conditions while we made hot tea and dinner. We had no idea what the mountain was about to hand us. We awoke a couple of hours later to the sound of our tent flapping furiously in the wind. A full scale gale had blown in and was whipping up the mountain, bringing with it cold temperatures and a furious blizzard. Peering out into the darkness we could barely see our guide’s tent a mere twenty feet away. The storm raged all night, the temperature dipping precipitously and the snow bringing near whiteout conditions.

When we hopped out of our tents at 3AM conditions were bleak for a summit attempt but we decided to give it a go anyway. The climbing was slow and miserable, fog and snow limiting our ability to pick our path up the mountain. The slopes were becoming even icier and we quickly fell behind schedule. The three of us were roped together as we struggled up the glacier and we stopped frequently to recon our route. We were slowly running out of steam, cold and unable to see much more than thirty feet.

Then I heard something falling above me and jerked my head upward to see Tony sliding down the mountain towards us. I braced against the ice face, anchoring my crampons and axe in the ice. We were roped together and being jerked from the side of the mountain by a falling body would be a disaster. I watched in horror as he skated down the slope and suddenly—miraculously—he slid onto a narrow shelf, no more than two feet wide but enough to break his fall. We rushed over to see if he was okay and we discovered that the shelf that had broken his fall had also wrenched his knee. That injury ended our summit attempt.

I was crushed but the approach we had elected was a difficult one—our guide had only successfully led two of eight teams to the top by this route. And the two days on the mountain were exciting and beautiful, the views above the clouds from base camp were breathtaking. We didn’t reach the summit but it’s not always the summit that you remember anyway.