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Hiking

Opt Outside 

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Oh, how I hate Black Friday…let me count the ways…

I hate that it’s no longer one day, but now instead many days..

I hate that people camp for big screen TV’s along the walkways…

I hate the busy parking lots, and I hate the clogged highways…

I hate trying to shop amid a post-Thanksgiving meal malaise…

I hate the look of insanity and I hate the look of craze…

I hate that commercials trying to sell me a couple Chevrolets…

I hate Black Friday more than I hate a thousand Michael Bays…

and that’s a lot.

So, needless to say that when REI announced that they would be closing on Black Friday I was intrigued. I mean I get it, this is a shrewd marketing move. But, it’s one I can buy into. If only we, as a society, spent more time outdoors and away from some of our most caustic customs I think this world would be a better place.

So on Black Friday I was curious to see just how many more people were out and about hiking instead of shopping. And the answer was A LOT. Now, I’m not saying this was because of the REI #OptOutside thing. In fact, out of the 20 or so people I talked to only two cited that as motivation to go for a hike. It was a gorgeous day with temperatures surging into the 70’s. Most people said this was a good chance to get out with family in town and do something a bit different.

Still though, the trail was busy. The Billy Goat Trail is always busy, but not this busy. Weather was certainly the main driver, but I also think it’s possible that the #OptOutside campaign seeped into our collective consciousness enough to be that seed of inspiration as families sat around trying to figure out how to spend their Friday.

It’s great to see trails get a lot of use. As much as I enjoy the solitary hike far from any semblance of civilization, I’ve also learned to appreciate the busier trails. They serve as an entry path to an outdoor lifestyle. And that tends to bring a person more in touch with this planet…and only good things can come from that.

The largest proportion of the masses chose to stick to the C&O Towpath, but enough veered onto the rocky outcroppings of Billy Goat to cause traffic jams as the trail narrowed near the Potomac. At least twice the Montgomery County River Rescue Squad was in action with the aid of a U.S. Park Police chopper. I don’t think anyone fell into the river, but the rocks are just remote enough to necessitate a rescue by river or by air.

The moral of the story: if you’re thinking about going for a hike, be at least a little prepared. Even a short jaunt along a packed trail can go south in a hurry if you’re not paying attention. Please hike! That’s a good thing. But, maybe find a friend who’s done it before…or at least look for directions on Youtube.

And don’t go shopping on Black Friday, what you save on deals you lose in soul.


  

  
  
  

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#TBT: Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls…

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…please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to…

cuz 8 years later you’ll wonder why you’re wearing stupid sun glasses…

and flagrantly violating National Park Service regulations…

while hanging over the side of Upper Yosemite Falls…

 

That’s just about 2400 feet up at the top of one of the largest waterfalls in America.

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How to Spend a Day in Sedona, AZ

Red Rock Jeep Tours

In the midst of Arizona’s red rock country lies one of our happiest places; Sedona. Named after the wife of the city’s first postmaster, Sedona shines like a beautiful gem between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. And I mean it, it really is outstanding. Take it from a girl who hated the desert for the first 22 years of my life. Ready to spend a day there? Here are some suggestions of things you should do:

Hike Bell Rock: Sedona is known for its new age/hippie/native american/spiritual heritage and attitude. There are multiple vortexes found throughout the town that are chock full of positive energy and fresh air. Bell Rock happens to be both a vortex and also one of the best places for a little hiking within the town. Park on the backside and take a moderately difficult hike up. You won’t be able to get to the very top, but if you’re willing, you’ll get high enough to take in some of the most incredible views this country has to offer.

Take a Jeep Ride: There are multiple jeep companies throughout Sedona but I am partial to Red Rock Jeeps because a) they’re awesome, skilled, and incredibly knowledgeable about the local lore and b) they dress up like cowboys. The 1.5 hour tour will take you off-roading deep into the red rocks where you’ll learn about the Indian tribes local to the area and get information about the flora, fauna, and legends of Sedona–all while cruising around in an open-air Jeep.

See Snoopy Rock: It’s a red rock formation that looks like a lying down version of Charlie Brown’s lovable companion, Snoopy.

Eat: Always my favorite thing to do. While you’re in thewild, wild west, you should probably eat like you’re there too. Try the Cowboy Club where you can sample rattlesnake, buffalo, and cactus fries with prickly pear dipping sauce.

Sedona is also a great place for local shopping. You’ll find loads of Native American pieces, jewelry and otherwise as well as your typical tourist souvenirs. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Kokopelli, as he appears in many different forms throughout this great southwestern destination.

 

 

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Hiking Old Rag (and 6 tips to make it more fun)

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“Did you see those bears back there??”

I had just started out for the summit of Old Rag when I came upon this father/son hiking tandem looking back down the trail.

“No…where…really?”

“Yes, really. Just down there trail over there,” the father points about 200 yards downtrail exactly where I had been walking all of two minutes before. “It was two little bears and a mama bear. I can’t believe you didn’t see them, they literally just crossed the trail.”

I just shook my head…truth is I was in full-on hustle-hike mode. I’ve been to Old Rag several times, but today was on assignment for work and I didn’t have a lot of Old Rag_26time to make it to the summit and back down. So I was huffing it to the top where I’d hopefully run into a bunch of satisfied customers. As such, I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to my surroundings, and apparently almost got eaten by a bear or three.

I ended up hiking much of the trail with these two, stopping to interview fellow hikers along the way. I didn’t make it to the summit, I ran out of time. But I had my interviews and I’d been there before. Still though it’s gut-wrenching to turn back on a hike before getting to the destination…especially a destination as pretty as Old Rag.

After moving to DC, Old Rag very quickly became one of my favorite places to escape. It’s relatively close to home, about a two hour drive (without traffic) from Dupont Circle, and the views are simply stunning. Don’t let the name fool you…I mean it sounds like something disgusting that you might find stuffed in a pipe under your kitchen sink. The name is short for Old Raggedy…basically because the summit looks like a ragged edge from afar, especially compared with the smooth ridges of the Shenandoah. The top of the trail is home to some of the best rock scrambling in the East. Huge granite boulders seem to defy gravity perched atop large rock exposures. Massive cracks invite climbers to try their hand at some bouldering and rock climbing.

The rock itself feels very similar to what you’d find in the Sierra Nevada in a place like Yosemite, they share similar geological histories. Both mountain ranges were formed deep beneath the earth before continental drift pushed them skyward. These igneous rocks cooled under deep pressure, which gives them their density…and ultimately that’s why Old Rag is still around some 200 million years later. The cracks are seams formed during the cooling process that have been infiltrated by water and wind, widening microscopically with every season.Old Rag

What does all this mean?? It means that when you get up to the top…you’re gonna get a great view with a little adventure tossed in for good measure. The hike is strenuous, but don’t let that term deter you. I’ve met plenty of first-time/beginner hikers at the top. It does mean that you should prepare a little bit:

1. Wear comfortable shoes, and it helps if they have some grip on the soles. You don’t want to be slipping on the rocks at the top. And don’t wear your brand new hiking shoes, make sure they’re worn in unless you want some gnarley blisters.

2. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. I love packing a lunch and eating at the top, it’s a bit of a celebration for making it to the summit. Also stay hydrated, 3 liters of water in the summer is a pretty good standard. The best way to carry that is with a Camelbak, or something similar. And have some salty snacks to eat on the way up…all that water is useless without some electrolytes.

3. Familiarize yourself with the hike before you get there. Get a guidebook or check out a site with trail notes. Cell service is spotty around the mountain, so don’t depend on having access to directions if you get lost. The trail’s pretty easy to figure out…just follow the blue blazes. But in the rock scramble section it’s pretty easy to veer off the path. If you get a good rundown beforehand you’ll know when to expect the tricky sections and you’ll know what landmarks to watch out for.

4. Get there early on the weekends. Get to the trailhead parking before 8 in the summer. The parking is actually about a mile from the trailhead, so you’ll have to hike that part roadside before the actual trail starts. The parking lot isn’t huge  and it does fill up…the last thing you want to do is just park on the road. Nothing sucks more than finishing off a 9 mile hike and discovering that your car has been towed…in the middle of nowhere. If you can, do the hike on a weekday. Parking’s not a worry and the trail is way less crowded.

5. Keep an eye to the sky. The exposed granite at the top can be a magnet for lightning. So check the forecast before you head up…even with the all clear this part of the country is prone to pop-up thunderstorms in the summertime. If you hear thunder, pay heed. And that may even mean turning around, but that’s better than getting struck by lightning. Also note that there are a few shelters on the trail past the summit, one is called Byrd’s Nest. If you find yourself near the summit as a surprise storm blows in that’s a good place to wait it out.

6. Pack in, pack out...this is less a tip and more of a demand. If you take something onto the trail make sure it comes back with you. Mainly this applies to trash. For whatever reason there are people out there who think it’s acceptable to just toss aside wrappers and bottles. Do us all a favor and resist that urge to be a lazy human being. Thanks 🙂

Most importantly…have fun! And take your time, the summit will be there when you get there.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro: Summit Night

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**EDITORS NOTE: just in case you’re starting the story from here…at this point of the climb I’d been severely ill with gastroenteritis type symptoms, which goes a certain point to explaining the horrible thing that’s about to happen…sorry. That’s also why there’s a lack of photos and video.

 

I drempt of wonderful things.

My girlfriend, the Florida Keys, sitting on my couch, unicorns and rainbows. For three hours on this February day, I was happy. And then the tent started shaking. It was apparently my third wake up call, I’d slept fast through the other two.

Glenn came back in the tent.

“Time to go buddy.”

“That was literally the deepest sleep I’ve ever experienced in my life,” I said, without a hint of exaggeration. It was the best sleep, minute for minute, that I’ve ever had. It’s as though a million little sleep nanos crawled into my brain and started fixing all the horrible things that had happened earlier in the day. I still felt ill, but nowhere near as bad as I had felt the day before. I wish I could say the same for Glenn.

“Well I think I finally got what you guys got. I feel like shit.”

I felt horrible for him. I knew what was in store for him…but with even worse conditions.

“Are you gonna go?” I asked.

“There’s no way I’m not!” and with that he zipped out of the tent and started towards the group.

I dawdled as usual, trying to get dressed, my mind just wasn’t keeping up with the pace of the moment. As I finished stuffing away the last few things into my pack the group started their hike, conveniently walking right past my tent. I zipped up my pack, folded the balaclava over my forehead and put on my goggles before leaving the tent and hopping in line.

All around hikers walked, their headlamps bouncing with each step, towards the trail funneling into a single-file line. It was as though I was watching an army amass before attacking a mighty bulwark. There were cheers and yells and slaps on the back.

I was still in the dream state, my brain reeling to catch up to the reality of consciousness. A condition exacerbated by my attire. It felt as though I was wearing a space suit. I had spent a lot of money on gear, and this was the time for it to shine. And shine it did, amongst this cold darkness I felt insulated and powerful. The wind was blowing beyond the gale of earlier, but I felt nothing. I had created a playlist for this last push, song after song of gargantuan motivation. The sorts of songs that can make you feel as though…well…you can climb mountains.

The nausea and general soreness were still with me, but the adrenaline of the moment pushed me into line on the trail. Dixon pulled me aside.

“Kris, Martin will be with you all night tonight to make sure you are fine. I will be behind you,” Dixon said grabbing my pack and slinging it into Martin’ hands.

Martin slapped me on the back, and gave me a smile. And with that we started the march. I was already among the last hikers before the hike had started. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be holding anyone up, and I had read that the trail would be single track and steep. As Martin and I started walking we passed Emily. She was sitting on the ground crying, trying to take her coat off. I tried to walk over to her, but Martin just pushed me on. She had been assigned to another of the assistant guides. I felt horrible, I thought that I should be there to help, but I also recognized I was in no condition to help. I wouldn’t see Emily for the rest of the night.

As we walked, the steepness of the trail increased quickly. I took my time with every step. I didn’t care who was trying to pass, I knew I needed to take my time. About an hour into the hike the muscles in my lower abdomen started convulsing again. I grabbed my bag and started digging for the toilet paper. I knew I had packed two rolls, or I thought I knew…I mean I’ve been in crazytown for the last 36 hours. Martin just looked at me as I furiously pulled my pack to pieces the way the Hulk tears at his clothes mid-metamorphosis. No toilet paper.

“Martin, do you have any toilet paper?” he just stared blankly back at me. “Martin, do you speak English?”

“Not good English.”

I stared back at him in the darkness, trying to figure out how to communicate the need for toilet paper.

“Toilet paper!!!” I motioned furiously with my hands, unrolling and wadding and wiping. I squatted simulating defecation with my hand from my ass.

“Ahh, yes.” He smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal four rolls of toilet paper. I would have laughed out loud if the situation wasn’t so dire. I grabbed a roll and ran off the trail, well not quite ran, but I moved as quickly as the current atmosphere would allow.

In the darkness I tried to find a rock to squat against. I scooted around a car-sized boulder and started to unzip layer number one of four pants when it happened. I let my concentration lapse for just a moment allowing my muscles to relax enough to stop holding back the inevitable.

I just shit myself…as in for real.

I ripped the rest of the layers down and finished what some heinous micro-organism had started. I stared back at the trail as a group of hikers started passing Martin on the trail, each one of them taking the time to look over at me. My middle finger meeting each one of the their headlamp beams. I was humiliated enough. I didn’t need a spotlight.

I leaned against the boulder for another minute, my exposed skin was freezing but I was still coming to terms with what happened. After a quick examination I determined that the damage was limited to my boxer briefs. I took off my boots, and the four layers of pants. I stuffed the boxers into a plastic waste bag, and resuited up. I’d be freeballing it for the rest of the hike.

As I walked back I had to smile, I just pooped myself near the top of the tallest mountain in Africa. This was exactly what I envisioned when I booked this trip.

Martin stood on the trail, kicking up the dirt in boredom as he waited. I handed him the toilet paper, which he stuffed back into his jacket. It was at this point I realized he was using it for extra insulation. As we started walking again I noticed that we were now at the end of the line. There were no headlamps behind us, at least none that I could see.

A wave of anxiety swept over me. If something happens, there’s no one else coming!! I took a minute to compose myself mentally and started forward again. At this point there was nowhere to move except forward. My steps were all deliberate and planned. I paced my breaths to my steps and my walking poles to my steps. I felt like an old broken down machine that just kept plugging along. I was that car that every teenager gets as an old hand-me-down that won’t break down regardless of what it goes through. That engine just keeps on keeping on.

Being at the end of the line gave me a unique vantage point to really observe what was happening. A centipede marched above me stretching a half-mile down the trail. Its body, sections of light bouncing and winding in zigzags up the switchbacks. The head of the centipede disappeared over one of the million or so false summits on this mountain. The scene was surreal, like some sort of solemn religious procession. Believers marching undaunted through the darkness carrying but a small light up to the summit.

I stopped to absorb the moment. The silhouette of the mountain was visible against a backdrop of more stars than I ever imagined existed. I lifted my head to really look at the night sky, and it brought of flood of tears to my eyes. It was the most beautiful sky I’ve seen in my life. The Milky Way swept across the sky in high-definition clarity, putting Hubble to shame. Billions of specks of light, except they were more than light. They had color, blues and reds and whites sprayed against a perfectly black background. Shooting stars zoomed across the scene on demand, and upon each one I wished to make it to the top without dying.

I turned to survey the whole scene, and I could see Martin looking bewildered as to why I had stopped.

“This is gorgeous!” I said pointing skyward.

“Yessss,” he said looking up and smiling. He didn’t need to understand English to understand what I was saying.

As I looked down on the sporadic lights of Moshi, so far below, I noticed flashes of lightning on the horizon. We were above the evening thunderstorms of equatorial Africa. The clouds were alive with electricity, flashing to brilliance ever thirty seconds or so.

I wished so dearly for a way to truly capture this scene. If I could bottle it up and sell it I’d have a the cure for depression and hopelessness. It is a scene that is indelibly marked in the permanent file of my brain. One day when I’m frail and senile, my mind will retreat to this moment, and people around me will wonder where I am…and they’ll worry, not realizing that I’ve just returned to happiness. This was one of the most amazing moments of my life…and the mountain had more to offer.

As I turned to continue the grand task at hand the tears started gushing. I started uncontrollably crying, deep sobbing epiphineous tears of joy and pain and love. I started walking, heel to toe. I’m doing this! Heel to toe. I’m doing this and nothing will stop me! Heel to toe. I’m doing this.

Poor Martin probably thought I was completely bat-shit crazy.

The emotions didn’t make the terrain any flatter. The switchbacks grew closer together, the steps became higher. My quads burned. And my fingers began to freeze. At some point I lost the warmers in my left glove. I didn’t notice that it had happened until my fingers turned to icicles. I had been so warm, and the rest of my body was still so warm, but the only thing that counted in my mind were my frozen fingers.

My exhaustion from the previous day hadn’t disappeared, it had only been displaced by emotion and adrenaline. About two hours into the hike the emotions leveled, and I crashed. I collapsed onto a rock. Martin tried to pick me back up. I made it quite clear that I wanted to rest for a minute. I leaned back against the boulder behind me, pulling my fingers against my palm to warm them up. And then I woke up.

I WOKE up.

This means I had been asleep. In all probability it was only a few seconds, but it scared the hell out of me. I stood up immediately and started walking again.

That would be the last time I’d sit down until the sun came up.

The trail was dark, the caterpillar kept crawling ahead of us. But every 30 or 45 minutes a section of the great caterpillar would stop, turn around and start going downhill. These isolated sections would slowly bounce down the trail toward Martin and I. The sections of light became people–tired people flanked by porters on both sides. They had given up, or succumbed to the elements or illness. The mountain had beaten them. It was discouraging. With this many people peeling away and retreating before the summit I had to start questioning my chances. These people had been in front of me, and therefore presumably healthier.

As they continued past us into the darkness below we plunged ahead. There was no way to know what time it was, and in a way that was good. I didn’t need to know. I just needed to keep pressing ahead until the sun started to break the horizon, and by that time I should be at Stella Point.

We walked in silence, my iPod was doing unbelievably psychic things choosing the perfect tunes from a catalogue of 17,000 songs. It had infiltrated my brain and created its own perfect playlist. I stared at my feet. Heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe. I focused on controlling my breathing, and pacing my pole plants. I started counting the switchbacks, I quit after fifty.

Periodically, I’d gaze back upon the heavens looking for a distraction or motivation. Those gazes were always kept short, as they inevitably led to my tripping over a rock. Tripping over rocks is not advisable on pitch black trails flanked by massive dropoffs in the middle of Africa. If only I could have looked up at the sky the entire night, the climb would have been exponentially easier. Instead I was sentenced to staring at my formerly brown and black boots.

Another hour later and Martin started to act a bit crazy. He started to slow down and stagger and stumble. Rounding switchbacks he would stop walking and sway back and forth in place. It seemed almost as though he was falling asleep while standing up.

“Martin! Martin!” I yelled through my balaclava while whacking him in the leg with one of my poles. “You all right? Do you feel OK?”

He nodded. “Sit.” He said while sitting down. He leaned against the rock behind him, and I leaned on my poles planted into the ground.

This was not a good development. Martin was going crazy. He wasn’t as well equipped as he should be, his gloves were simple liners and his hat was a hand-me-down. His fluorescent pink pants surely didn’t provide warmth commensurate with the hotness of the color.

I looked directly at him, my headlamp illuminating his face. He was young, but right now he looked old and worn. There was an emptiness behind his eyes. My concern was quickly transforming to panic. He seemed to be symptomatic of acute mountain sickness, or at least he was getting there. I’m no doctor, but I can tell when a dude is in rough shape.

I didn’t know what to do.

I looked back down the trail, and there was still nothing but darkness. Ahead on the trail the tail of the caterpillar was still about the same distance away a few switchbacks up. If we picked up our pace just a bit we might be able to catch up, and there might be someone there.

“Come on Martin, let’s go.”

Nothing, he just shook his head. I leaned over and grabbed his arm.

“Martin, you have to get up. We have to keep going!” I shouted pointing up. I knew he probably didn’t really understand me, I let the tone of my voice say it all. As I helped him up, he slowly nodded his head.

“Are you OK?” he nodded again. “OK then, pole, pole!”

“Yes, pole pole.” A little smirk lit up his face. I think he realized there was a bit of role reversal going on here.

As we continued, I picked up the pace, just a tiny little bit. I stayed close on Martin’s heels, when he started to stagger I whacked him with my pole. When he stopped in the middle of the trail I gave him a polite nudge forward. When he tried to sit down I held him up. For close to an hour my aches and pains faded into the background. I was more focused on Martin, and getting him to someone who could help.

Then again this entire drama could have only lasted 15 minutes. Time had ceased to exist.

All I know, is the caterpillar was getting closer. If only we could catch up to that tail. This was my immediate goal, and it made me think of how I once trained for a marathon. As my runs got longer and longer, I started to focus on immediate victories throughout the run. Beating split times, or conquering a hill or making it to the next landmark. Focusing on these little victories helped to compartmentalize the broader event. It gave me the temporary exhilaration of momentary success to catapult me onto the next goal.

That training had apparently rubbed off more than I thought. And my most immediate goal would be to making it to the end of that caterpillar. It was my sole focus. And soon enough we were only a few switchbacks behind. And then that section of the caterpillar stopped. They were sitting down, and someone was turning around.

We caught up. It was the Italians. One of them was giving up.

There was a lot of crying and hugging and back patting. The scene should have been touching to me, but instead I couldn’t help to feel a bit of vindication. This group had terrorized the trail, bullying other groups out of their way while they kept an unsustainable pace. And here they were reaping the penalty of that behavior. I felt bad for these thoughts, but nonetheless they were there.

We walked just past the farewell ceremony, there was another group in rough shape taking a break on a rock. As we got closer I saw it was Glenn, Mike, his wife Juliana and Dixon. Mike was in rough shape, Juliana was trying to pull him back to his feet. I pushed Martin towards Dixon.

“Kris, you are still going! How are you?”

“I’m fine, but I think Martin’s hurting. He’s been staggering all over the trail. He keeps trying to sit down and fall asleep.”

Dixon walked over to Martin and started talking to him in Swahili while shining his headlamp in his face. He pulled a radio out of Martin’s pocket and fiddled with the knobs until sound could be heard coming out. He had a radio!! Of course, he had a radio! 

While they continued talking, presumably about the dynamics of volume control for radios, I saw Glenn doubled over next to Mike.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not good, I think I have what you and Claire had.” His face was pale, and in spite of the sub-zero temperatures and wind there were beads of sweat on his forehead. He looked exactly how I felt the day before.

“We’re almost there buddy, let’s just keep going,” I said mustering up every inspirational cell in my body.

Dixon had left Martin’s side and walked over to Mike.

“Mike, do you want to keep going?”

Julianne didn’t give him a chance to answer.

“Yes, he wants to keep going! Mike get up, we must keep going!” Julianne shouted.

Calmly Dixon stood in between the two.

“Mike, do you want to keep going?”

He looked beaten. This was it, I was about to watch one of our people turn around and head back. I could feel the sadness well up.

“Yes, I will keep going.” He started to stand, helped up by Dixon and Julianne. It was clear that Dixon didn’t believe him. Dixon shouted to Martin in Swahili and he started walking.

“We must continue then, we cannot stop!”

I helped Glenn up and we started as our own little section of the now fragmented centipede. Martin was now in the lead, it was clear that he was feeling better…maybe Dixon had given him a motivational speech in Swahili. Glenn and I walked behind Martin as Dixon walked alongside Mike and Julianne. She seemed to be pushing Mike up the mountain.

I felt better, my anxiety melted away. Martin and I were no longer alone. I was among friends. I looked up the mountain to see the scrappy centipede, happy that I was now a part of this being crawling up the mountain. Shouts from those ahead were now audible, and there was general excitement that grew with every step up and forward.

It seemed that every ridge ahead was the ridge leading to Stella Point. I scanned the horizon for any sign of dawn, but everything was just pitch black. Every time we reached another of these false summits my heart sank a little. They were eternal. I felt trapped in an M.C. Escher painting, this mountain had no ending. Each switchback simply led to another set of switchbacks, which led to yet another set of switchbacks.

The general feeling of well-being from catching up with a portion of the group faded. We started stopping more frequently. As the others collapsed onto rocks I leaned on my poles and looked to the sky. The silhouette of the mountain looked exactly as it had some 1-6 hours ago when we started this midnight trek. My fingers in my left hand continued to freeze, and I balled them up at each stop for a little relief.

I sucked on my Camelback for some water, but nothing came out. I had forgotten to blow the water back into the resevoir the last time I drank it. The bladder was insulated and the water inside the bladder was still liquid, but the drinking tube was now one string of ice. I grabbed the backup bottle of water from the side of my bag. I opened it to see a block of ice. I had no water.

My breathing was now more than labored. There was a discernable wheeze within each of my inhalations. I did little things to test my mental acuity. I was started to get nervous that edema might be setting in. My natural neurosis was now enhancing my paranoia and anxiety.

I worked hard to ignore my problems breathing. I worked hard to ignore my freezing hand. I worked hard to ignore my sore hip, and my burning quad and my swollen feet and my chapped nose.

I tried to put myself into happy places: on the beaches of Puerto Rico, sitting by the fireplace with my girlfriend in a Maine cabin, standing atop Camelback mountain in Phoenix. The relief was momentary.

I would sneak glances at the eastern horizon with every step. More than anything I needed this sun to come up.

But mostly I stared at my feet, at the colorless dirt made more colorless by my headlamp. I watched the dust stir as though I was walking along the floor of the sea. With each shuffle of a step the dust would be momentarily suspended before being whisked away in the wind. It was as though my mind was interpreting everything in a state of retarded animation. Was it possible that my mind was so overwhelmed that my perception of time and events became realigned on a different scale of existence?

But shuffle on we did.

The shouts from above became more frequent and excited. We were close to Stella Point, we had to be. I looked out on the horizon, black was becoming the faintest of purples. We had to be close!

The purple started to mix with deep blues and heavy lavenders. The outline of Mawenzi peak became more concrete as the deep reds became orange and finally yellow. There was a continuous cascade of cheers from above and then Martin started singing in Swahili. There was genuine excitement in his voice, and as he sung Dixon started answering in song. The chorus was happy, it was victorious. Again my goggles were swamped with tears. It wasn’t a little cry, this was a heaving fire hydrant of emotion pouring from my tear ducts.

The first signs of dawn from Stella Point
The first signs of dawn from Stella Point

I was looking at the evolution of the most beautiful scene of my life so far. The star-studded night sky was retreating from the powers of the rising sun. But from this vantage point it wasn’t just another sunrise. It was a sunrise reimagined.

The earth sprawled out far beneath us, the horizon exchanged its sea-level linear qualities for a more parabolic effect. It looked like the pictures of sunrise from the space station. The sun burst forth with such terrific color and presence. I tried to take a picture. I failed.

We rested and watched this spectacle of nature. We were still well below Stella Point, but this was a remarkable view nonetheless.

The sun brought a new determination, much needed because my tank was empty. Each step was an excruciating labor. The last scramble to Stella Point took about thirty minutes, it seemed like three thousand. The path was covered in scree, loose pebbles and rocks. The footing was unstable and each step forward was met with a little backsliding.

Gargantuan glaciers rose to our left bathed in the deep orange glow of a new sun. The last ridge was in view, we turned the final switchback and one at a time found ourselves at the top of Stella Point.

I fell to my knees and cried the deepest cry yet. I MADE IT!!! Everything that had led to this moment started flashing through my brain.

Others were already headed back down from Uhuru Peak and as they passed us in the opposite direction they shouted words of encouragement. Aside from the invading Italians and Bono-impersonating Germans, everyone on the mountain was on the same team. Everyone wanted everyone to succeed.

As we rested atop Stella Point, Martin came up to me with a thermos and poured me a cup of hot water. He had carried this thermos all the way up for exactly this moment. It was a wonderful thing, hot water. I was beyond thirsty.

After slugging that down we had to make the final push to Uhuru Peak, the actual top of Kilimanjaro. After the emotional high of making it to Stella Point it seemed pretty anti-climactic to have to walk another 45 minutes. I knew it was going to happen, but I had assumed that my adrenaline would carry me through this last little bit. Quite the opposite. The trail snaked around the rim of the crater, a steady ascent. Starting from Stella Point the sign atop Uhuru is visible on the other side of the crater. And this is not a small crater. I started with a bit too much excitement, almost taking normal sea-level sized steps. A huge mistake. It wore me out immediately, and I would have collapsed if Martin wasn’t right there to hold me up.

Along the way other members of our group started to stream down in the opposite direction. First we saw the Canadians and then the Swedes and then I saw Claire and Emily. Somehow Emily had made it up. I was so happy to see them both, and a bit sad that I hadn’t been on the summit with them.

The crater loomed large off to the right, and glaciers shimmered to the left. The scene was so extraterrestrial. I felt like an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon. I looked back and there was no one behind me.

Martin and I struggled over the last little rocks on the trail until we reached the sign. Most everyone had already taken their pictures and left, there were only about a dozen people up there.

The glaciers once covered the entire trail
The glaciers once covered the entire trail

As far as I could tell I was the last person to summit this day, but I did. I let out the best scream my beleagured lungs would allow. Surprisingly, I didn’t break down into another fit of crying again. I’m pretty sure my body was out of tears anyway. I lifted my goggles to survey the scene with my eyes unobstructed. It was desolate and beautiful. There were no clouds below and I could see everything in every direction.

I sat on a rock and watched as people lined up to take their photo in front of the sign. I wanted just a few minutes to savor the victory. It was a hostile environment, the breathing was most difficult and the wind was whipping faster than at any time through the night.

Even so, this was my moment of victory. I soaked in the realization that this was the tangible reward of patience and perseverance. It was a powerful object lesson: sometimes it takes thousands of steady little steps to reach a goal rather than a few big leaps. This would be a lesson I would immediately internalize, this was the meaning of patience.

Sitting on the summit
Sitting on the summit

I dug my camera out and took a few more photos. I had dragged this heavy-ass DSLR all the way to the summit, and now I couldn’t even take proper photos. My brain was too scrambled to focus on anything. Dixon came up to me and grabbed the camera.

“Kris, I will take your picture. We must hurry.”

I jumped in front of the sign and took a few photos with t-shirts and hand signs and victory screams. Only one actually turned out, a fact I didn’t realize until I made it all the way back to the bottom of the mountain. Glenn and Mike and Julianne joined me and we took a few group photos. It all seemed very rushed. There was no time to just stand in front of the sign. Dixon knew that we were all in rough shape and needed to get down from the mountain as soon as possible.

 

We started back down. Back down. It was done. Everything from this point forward would quite literally be downhill.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 2-Machame Huts to Shira Camp

Climbing Kilimanjaro_21

I hate having to pee in the middle of the night when I’m camping. It’s exponentially more annoying when it’s cold outside. Add altitude and the process becomes theater of the absurd.

Another diamox side-effect: you…always…have…to…piss. I lay, wrapped in the cocoon of warmth that is my sleeping bag, staring at the ceiling of the tent trying to get my bladder to go into sleep mode (it’s disgusting, I know. But this is how it is). I freed my arm from the cocoon to look at the time on my phone. Two in the AM. There was no possibility of holding off until morning. I sucked it up and zipped out of my cocoon of warmth, and then zipped out of the tent and  then put my boots on. Sounds easy enough…right??

No.

It probably took about ten minutes to zip out of my bag, and another ten to unzip the tent and another ten to get my boots on. As I stood up outside of my tent I was winded. And I felt drunk. Like St. Patty’s Day magically falling on New Years Eve drunk. I attempted a step forward, but my foot ended up two steps out of line to the left. I stumbled over with my right foot trying to gain my balance and fell flat on the ground. I stood up again, legs shaky, and slowly staggered to the bathroom. Every step required concentration, lest I stumble again. It was a bizarre feeling. My heart was pounding and my breathing was heavy as I walked into the toilet tent.

The toilet tent was interesting. I was amazed that a toilet tent even existed. When I signed up for this trip I was content with defecating while balancing on trees and rocks for a week. But here in front of me was a contraption like one of those toddler trainer toilets. The tent surrounding it was about seven feet tall and sides three feet apart. I took care of business and staggered back to the tent, zipping back into the cocoon of warmth and awesomeness and passed right back out.

Waking didn’t require an alarm. The first rays of sun peering into the tent, alongside a soundtrack of porters scuffling to life, eased me back to consciousness. No pots and pans and no mosquito nets. Even with the overnight pee break this was the best sleep I’d had yet in Africa. I felt invincible. There was no trace of the previous night’s headache, and my lungs had adjusted to the altitude.

Breakfast included crazy things like eggs and pancakes. I had expected three-year-old Cheerios, or the kind of mush they eat in the Matrix. After breakfast we fell into line and started the day’s march. The porters were already disassembling the campsite, it was always a race for them.

The sky was virtually spotless, and the route for the day was visible in the thinning vegetation. This was the best time of year for climbing, in the middle of the short dry season. This is no real secret, and as such the trail was packed with people from around the world. Well almost. The trail was suspiciously absent of Australians.

This day’s hike was immediately different. There was no canopy blocking the increasing efficiency of the equatorial sun. The trail ahead was visible from miles away, we could almost see the end point on the day. Psychologically, this is both helpful and devastating. Helpful because you can gauge your progress. Devastating because the destination never  seems any closer, there’s always another obstacle, always another switchback in the way. The individual step becomes as pointless as a penny in Scrooge McDuck’s vault of gold. But the only way to achieve the goal is through the individual step.

The lack of canopy also begs for dramatic vistas over sweeping landscapes. Time and again a rock would jut from the trail offering a front row seat to the beauty of Tanzania beneath.

The first hour of hiking was steep and at a faster pace, my legs burned. It’s not the lack of oxygen, but rather the decreased concentration of oxygen that makes altitude a tricky beast. The previous night was one of only a handful of times that I’ve slept above 10,000 feet. And this was just another bit of tangible evidence that my body was angry with me.

It seemed that every group had left at the same time, making the trail a busy amalgamation of hikers and porters. At times it was frustrating as everyone competed to use the same single track. Our group was also being passed by everyone. This was a combination of our sheer size and our mutual content to take it slow and easy. Around midmorning we reached a broad rock face angled steeply. If God was thinking about creating an ampitheater he would have designed seating like this. We spread about the rock, dumping our gear and coveting the warmth of the rock in reptilian fashion. The view was stunning, as the convection driven clouds radiated from the rainforest into the endless blue sky. We sat atop the spine of a green ridge, a finger of the volcano extending into the featureless plain below. Scattered columns of black smoke rose from the centers of population like beacons of proof that we still existed on a human inhabited Earth.

Looking out over Tanzania
Looking out over Tanzania

The view served as a mid-morning jolt of motivation, after letting a few more groups pass we continued uphill. The steps seemed easier, it may have been the little bit of acclimatization that just happened; or maybe, it was the mountain pulling us upwards.

The landscape gradually became more alien. Thick reeds of grass sprouted from the base of trees growing from the thin soil. One of the Canadians, Jayce from British Columbia, darted about the trail like a chipmunk gathering the reeds.

“I’m gonna make a straw hat,” she said. I don’t recall ever seeing the hat, but the display of energy was remarkable.

As the day evolved the temperature remained relatively static. It cooled as we elevated, but as we elevated the day warmed. It seemed to stay in the lower 70s through just past lunch. It was perfect weather. At each rest stop we’d spend a bit more time exploring the territory adjacent to the trail. In one instance we found another bit of rock that demanded to be climbed. Wading through the grass surrounding the rock I scaled the backside of the rock. It offered perfect little footholds designed like a spiral stepladder to the top. The rock commanded a view of the entire trail we had conquered and the still long hike to unfold before us. Hikers and porters followed the trail in single file, marching like a string of ants bearing their labor for the colony. The trail wound its way up a few switchbacks becoming progressively more visible as the vegetation became thinner. Giant heathers standing five feet were now the predominant plant on the trail. Many of them looked naked with only tiny evergreen leaves. All of them were covered in the fur, the moss from the day before. But even the moss was getting thinner, lighter…weaker. It was as though life itself was slowly succumbing to the extremes of what lie ahead. Kibo loomed large over every glance uphill.

Clouds zoomed across the horizon like apparitions attacking the mountain. With every collision I expect something cataclysmic, but instead they peacefully drift along the mountainside, helpless hitchhikers of the powerful updrafts.

Climbing Kilimanjaro_4
The better…higher perch

Through the morning my steps had grown progressively more difficult. Not because of fatigue, but they just seemed heavier. As I stood atop this rock a few more of the group joined me to enjoy the view. Thomas climbed to an even higher point, I was a bit jealous. I wanted that vista, but time was ticking and the group was regrouping to move on.

This section of the hike was tough, it was the last stretch before lunch and my stomach ruled my thoughts. The ridge, which had seemed impossibly far away in the morning, was now in front of us. From this distance it didn’t seem as big, but it was still a rock wall. A big twenty-foot tall rock wall in our way. The trail was now a scramble of switchbacks with relatively harrowing drops on the downhill side. Finally, a momentary dose of danger.

It was enough to wake me up again, and remind me what I was in the middle of. Hunger wasn’t something to be bothered with. The group pushed up the wall to the waiting reward of the lunch tent. Lunch was amazing again, this time fried chicken and hardboiled eggs and vegetable soup. It presented a conundrum. Eat, but don’t eat too much.

Sure enough we all ate too much. And getting started again was agonizing. Everyone marched in silence, bellies full and now aching. The lethargic aftermath of a full meal took its toll on morale, and for the first few hours of the afternoon nobody wanted to be hiking. Personally, I was cursing myself for overeating. I wanted to sit down every five minutes, and the added weight in my gut had a disproportionate effect on my psyche. I resorted to motivation of the sonic sort, putting in the earphones and retreating from the group to be alone with my own thoughts. The Naked and the Famous were the band of choice for this particular stretch, and almost immediately my mood turned. Music is so vitally important, whether I’m sitting on a beach, writing an entirely too in-depth trip log or climbing Kilimanjaro. I took this seriously, bringing three fully charged iPods. They didn’t add too much weight, but if I had it all to do over again I would have bought a solar charger and only brought one. I’d eventually discover that every gram of weight counts, but for now I was revived.Climbing Kilimanjaro_11

The heather plants were now gone for the most part. Volcanic rocks jutted out in odd places making odd shapes. Flowers, some colorful but most not, burst forth giving the landscape a fleeting appearance of life.

“This looks like the type of place where you would find a mean-person castle,” said Claire.

The landscape certainly had that appeal. Even with the blue skies it could be the villainous backdrop for a dastardly evil Disney character.

The main ridge marking the Shira plateau was just above us, the trail slicing diagonally along its face. Caves carved into the rock face alongside the trail.

“In the wet season, this is a very heavy waterfall,” Dixson said. “This part of the trail can be very slippery and dangerous.”

I stood in the cave watching a mere trickle of waterfall from its mouth trying to imagine the trickle in full cascade. I was happy to imagine it, doing this climb in the perpetual precipitation of the wet season didn’t appeal to me at all.

I hung back with Dixon and Claire and Emily through the late afternoon. It was nice to be surrounded by people I could relax with. We chatted through the portion of the hike that would otherwise have been difficult mentally. The sun’s light was assuming a more golden appeal as we finally broke through to the top of the ridge. Directly ahead of us was the Shira Camp, to our left Tanzania and the accomplishment of two days worth of hiking…but to our right was a now close Kibo possessing a menacing demeanor enshrouded in fiery clouds.

I let the success get to my head a bit too much. The excitement enraptured me, sending me in a full sprint against my better judgment. I bounded from volcanic rock to volcanic rock until I was ahead of the group. My lungs burned for oxygen and my head became light and then…pop! I nearly fell flat on my face. My right quad screamed in pain. I sat down and rubbed it and stood up again. I could step forward with it, but it hurt like a bitch. But it still worked, I could put weight on it and I could still bring my heel to my butt.

I limped along, feeling like a moron for what I had just done. Fortunately, we were only a few hundred yards away from camp.

The camp was expansive, it looked like an outpost on the moon. With the exception of sporadic tufts of short grasses, it was only rocks and more rocks. And the rocks mostly fit into a monochromatic scheme. It was a moonscape. The tents, blue and green and yellow and orange, lent the only color to the scene aside from the setting sun.Climbing Kilimanjaro_18

Glenn and I found our tent and unloaded our gear. We had a few minutes before a walk uptrail to sign the logbook. I used the time to rub and wrap my leg. I was nervous, pops are usually really bad signs when it comes to leg muscles. I was praying that it was just a strain.

We met up with Dixon and he led us to the Shira Cave. A park ranger held the massive logbook outside the cave’s mouth as we all signed. Signing was required, but it also served to signify that the day was done. Signing became tantamount to relief. It was evident. Eyes weighed down by the labor of the day seemed to brighten and sparkle as the hand signed. I walked into the cave, the ceiling was barely six feet tall at its highest and stained black from campfires. It was about the size of a typical American living room.

“We used to sleep in here a long time ago, there would be maybe twenty people on the floor in here,” Dixon said. “Nobody’s allowed to sleep in here anymore.”

After signing we all continued behind Dixon on an acclimatization walk. Once at camp, the guides routinely lead climbers up another few hundred feet in elevation to expose everyone to the additional altitude. It was optional, but everyone did it. I think our collective philosophy was every little bit counts. This was another reason I liked this group, everyone was careful, there was no competition and we were all focused on one goal: the summit.

The acclimatization walk took us to the intersection of the Shira and Machame trails. A weather station stands, marking the point. We all found a rock, and sat and relaxed. We’d need a few minutes of exposure for the exercise to be worthwhile. I sprawled out on a large flat black rock, letting the heat of the setting sun pump into my body.Climbing Kilimanjaro_17

Laying there I took stock of what had been accomplished, and worried about my leg. It’ll be fine by the morning! I just kept telling myself.

We took a quick group photo with Kibo in the background before heading back before the sunset. The walk down was considerably more painful on my leg, adding more stress to the prognosis.

Once we reached camp we had about a half hour free before dinner. I walked to an isolated spot of rocks. They sprung up like random lilypads above the abyss below. I had to hop from one to the other until I found the perfect rock to enjoy some solitary reflection.

The sun beamed through the clouds rushing towards the mountain. Kilimanjaro seemed to be under constant attack from the atmosphere with clouds ceaselessly rushing upon her redoubts. From this lilypad seat the mountain seemed less like an isolated protrusion and more like a bona fide chain. To the north a draping ridge stretched with multiple peaks and valleys. A single bending line followed the basin up along to the ridge miles away. It was the Shira trail, the trail that met the Machame here.

The trail stretched across what can only be described as a desert wasteland, reminding me of my dozens of time starting off on the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon looking miles below at the trail leading to Plateau Point. This scene didn’t belong to Kilimanjaro. It belonged in the Great Basin region of the United States.

The rushing clouds hid the sun lending a monochromatic appeal to the sunset. Everything seemed robbed of color in the most dramatically beautiful way. I allowed the scene to sweep over me, washing away pain and impatience and worry. I sat there, alone and in silence, until the call for dinner went out.

Another mountain gourmet meal awaited inside the packed tent. We huddled a bit closer, a symptom of the much cooler temperatures. The dinner conversation was dominated by highlights and adventures of the day. And everyone talked with great animation, it was like a post-production meeting. Everyone except for Claire. Her face was pale and she was noticeably shivering through the meal. She was sick. And as she rushed out of the tent to be sick, we assumed it a symptom of the altitude. The general unsaid statement hung silently in the tent communicated only by shy downward glances, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.

We sat around after the meal until Dixon gave us our briefing for the next day. We would be hiking higher than I’ve been in my life, it would be all alpine desert, the temperatures would be around freezing. Dixon took vitals, starting with Claire, and as we found out our pulse rate and oxygen ratings we’d retire to our tents one at a time. My pulse and oxygen ratings were significantly better than they had been the day before. There’s no explanation, aside from the fact that bodies acclimatize differently. And I went from having the “worst” readings to the “best”. It could just as easily have been the equipment. I could have been more relaxed. I could have adjusted my pace through the day. There really was no right answer…this is Kilimanjaro.

As I walked back to my tent the moon shone off the glaciers of Kibo. I thought I might be able to get it on video, and I grabbed my video camera out of the tent. In testament to Kilimanjaro’s feistiness, a layer of clouds enshrouded the sky in the blink of an eye. Immersed in suspended water I tried to nevertheless get it on video, I mostly failed.

Again, the depth of my sleep was interrupted by the need for pee. Again, I debated with my bladder for a lengthy amount of time. Again, my bladder won the argument and again it took me a ridiculous amount of time to escape from my sleeping bag, unzip the tent and put on my boots. I felt so bad for Glenn.

Taking the first steps outside the tent only brought me to the ground. It happened even faster than the night before. I felt as though I had just gotten off of one of those carnival rides that spins you at an ungodly speed so the centrifugal forces pin you to the wall. The ground seemed to be tilting back and forth at insane angles. I slowly stood, an action that took my breath away. Once standing I recaught my breath and started to walk towards the toilet tent.

None of these sensations made sense. Should I be this disoriented every time I wake up? Should it be this difficult to walk, to breath? The short answer is yes. Every member of our group reported the same thing.

I stumbled back to the tent and spent another hour re-entering my cocoon of warmth and wonderfulness.

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Stop Drawing on the Rocks!!

Joshua Tree National Park61

So apparently Joshua Tree National Park is now a top spot for “taggers” and that makes me angry. JTNP was often a random stop-off, when I had the time, driving from home in Phoenix to work in LA. I’ve taken that desert trip along I-10 a few dozen times, and many of those times I’d stop and camp at JT. Or I’d just take a quick drive through to break up the trip.

Of course there’s no such thing as a quick drive through when it comes to a place like this…but it was a nice respite in the middle of an almost all-desert drive. And

That's a big pile of rocks
That’s a big pile of rocks

the nights in JT are nothing short of spectacular, a showcase of the heavens on the many clear nights in the Mojave. The rocks in JT are special…a type of granite found often in California, but nowhere else in this density and diversity.

It's a well-earned perch
It’s a well-earned perch

Basically, think of California as one big mountain range that was once under the surface. It’s something called a batholith, when subterranean volcanism results in underground pockets of cooled magma that harden before coming to the surface. The result, essentially, is a huge-rock that is pushed up under the forces of continental drift and collision.

Some of the rock rose 14,000 feet into the air to become the Sierra Nevadas while others cooled at different temperatures with different consistencies and were exposed on the tail end of the uplift. These rocks formed fissures, or joints and those joints were abused by the elements of wind, water, temperature until individual boulders formed. Some of these boulders were the size of shoes and others the size of your local multi-plex. Some looked like skulls and others looked like giant marbles. The whole process took 100 million years.

Whatever the shape the rocks have largely the same feel…that of an extremely rough sandpaper. And this makes them perfect for climbing and bouldering. It’s easy to feel like Spiderman as you “stick” to the rock…it’s also easy to get quite the road rash thanks to even the slightest of slips. This feeling also invites the sense of fearlessness. Rocks like this ask for gravity to be challenges, they want to be climbed, they want to be appreciated from on top…not ground level.

And so with all this said, I really want to meet one of these vandals. I want to smack them across the face with a teddy bear cholla. I want to wipe the graffiti off with their face. And I want a boulder to mysteriously fall on their arms as they paint their “artful” tags on a rock so that they have to cut it off with a pocket knife after 127 hours to escape. OK…that’s probably going too far…but stop drawing on the rocks!

It took 100 million years for nature to sculpt this beautiful landscape, your 10 minutes of cowardly ignorant arrogance doesn’t make it better…thanks.

 

 

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The Great Falls of the Potomac are indeed Great

Great Falls_0002

Spring’s just not in the mood to show up…so I’m forcing her hand. I decided to head out to the Great Falls of the Potomac for a much needed outdoor excursion. I’m really suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. The best thing about Great Falls is how close it is to my house, about a 25 minute drive from Dupont Circle (depending of course on traffic).

Spring melt equals high water
Spring melt equals high water

Keeping things simple I opted for the National Park Service controlled Virginia side of the falls, we’ll talk about Maryland another time. I’ve been down here more than a few times, but never this early in the spring…so I was a little excited to see the water level. You see, in the winter it snows in places like the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, and Garrett County in western Maryland and all up and down the Blue Ridge. In the spring, that snow melts sending torrents of water down into the drainage basin of the Potomac…and then all that water has to squeeze through this ridge of metamorphic rock that has just told the river, “no, you will not wear me down!”

This is where the piedmont region meets the Atlantic plain. It’s a scene you find less in the East: the forces of nature being so evident. Many who come here for the first time are awed by the realization that this is the same Potomac that seems to lumber by DC just a few miles downstream.

The park makes it easy to take in the power of the river with three main vistas easily accessible and offering different views of the falls. And on this day the river was raging, about 6 feet above normal stage.

Each vista explained
Each vista explained

Six feet may not sound like much, but that’s the difference of millions of gallons of water gushing past any given point throughout the day. That extra six feet also adds decibels such that a dull, low frequency hum occupies the park.

The river can, and does, run higher. From one of the vistas about thirty feet above the river is a post with high-water marks of the great floods of the past…in several of those I would have drowned where I stood. Mather Gorge is a haven for rock climbers, and any given day year round you’ll find someone fighting gravity with the help of granite. The gorge is also a top spot to find kayakers…not so much on this day of high water. But in mid-summer when the flow is low, they’ll shoot through the rapids offering spectators above a good show.

In the park there are some pretty easy hikes totaling about 15 miles of trail. Don’t worry Difficult Run is neither difficult nor does it require you to run (although it is popular with trail-runners!).

From the Beltway take exit 44 onto Georgetown Road (VA-193) and head east to Old Dominion Road and take a right…you’ll see signs for the park

Massive trees swept down and cast upon rocks like sticks
Massive trees swept down and cast upon rocks like sticks

along the way. That is if you’re not too busy staring at the ridiculous mansions.

It’s $5 per vehicle or $3 per person. And take a picnic lunch, there are a bunch of tables…if you really want to be ambitious plan a BBQ.

For comparison, lower water in the summer
For comparison, lower water in the summer
A wider shot of high spring water
A wider shot of high spring water
A look downstream towards Mather Gorge
A look downstream towards Mather Gorge
If it's good enough for George Washington it's good enough for me
If it’s good enough for George Washington it’s good enough for me
Inside the visitor center
Inside the visitor center
Walkway to the visitor center
Walkway to the visitor center
Each vista explained
Each vista explained
They would be drowning in 1942
They would be drowning in 1942
Kayakers fighting the current
Kayakers fighting the current
From the top of Mather Gorge
From the top of Mather Gorge
Not so difficult
Not so difficult
Another view of lower summer water
Another view of lower summer water

 

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In the Belly of the Grand Canyon

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If the Grand Canyon is one of my happy places than Plateau Point is simply ecstasy.  It’s not exactly a hidden gem, it’s easily enough seen from the Bright Angel trail head, but few make the 12 mile round trek.

_MG_1990As a matter of fact, in the three times I’ve hiked down there I’ve only ever crossed two people on the trail between Indian Gardens and the Point. And that was on this particular trip. It was a couple, and to be honest, they scared the hell out of me. Not because they were particularly menacing, it was just a surprise. See…something happens to the mind in a place like the Canyon. It’s very easy to get lost in the scale of your surroundings. Being in the belly of the Canyon is a jarring reminder of the temporal nature of human existence. One minute you’re walking by the cabins in the lush oasis of Indian Gardens after four and a half miles of steep downhill switchbacks. The path splits from the Bright Angel trail, hugging a rock wall on the left and a stream on the right. Then an expansive sky opens up…and for a mile it’s one wide-open plateau with just a few gullies to offer some undulation. And also an unforgiving sun…but more on that in another post.

There I was walking up one of these gullies, a thousand percent lost in my thoughts, when I saw….people. I must have jumped as if I saw a rattlesnake, because they jumped back to. After a quick laugh, we had the typical trail discussion…they told me to keep on truckin’ because the payoff was well worth it. I already knew what to expect, but part of the joy in a place like that is feeding the anticipation of others. With that, they headed back up the trail…and I down…even if it was mostly flat._MG_2014

After a few more minutes of walking I saw the water tank, and the sign and the railing. I was there. Now the railing seems to be merely suggestive, although I’m certain the Park Service would disagree with that notion. You just don’t get a sense of the scene from behind the rails. I mean you see everything…but railing somehow makes it safe, confined and artificial.

This is the jagged edge where the earth gives way to gravity and wind and water. Massive flat stones jut out into the void of the inner canyon. One of those stones is the spot…the exact spot where I sit and get lost in the enormity of everything around me. With my feet dangling 1300 feet above the Colorado River it’s almost perfectly silent. When the air is still the dull rumble of the churning river echoes against walls of marbled Vishnu schist. It’s the deep point of a scar where the earth opens insight to its origins. There’s almost 2 billion years of history written on these walls._MG_1974

As I’m sitting a group of rafts float down the Colorado. From my perch it looks slow and easy…but the faint cheers after each raft passes through the section of rapids below betray the ferocity of the river. It’s just another moment of perspective. After a lunch break and some pics it was time to pack up and head back. I had a group to meet in time for sunset at Hopi Point.

The fun thing about canyon hiking is that all the pain is in the return trip. And that’s where most novice canyon hikers get into trouble. It’s basic human psychology to expect an experience to be relatively the same. But six miles uphill is a beast. In my case, I spent a bit too much time putzing around at the point so I had to really pick up my pace. Three hours later and a lot of sweat lost I made it up to the Bright Angel trail head, just in time to escort my group to the sunset at Hopi Point…but more on that in another post.

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