Fri, Apr 30, 2021

Are You Trying To Kill The Kids!?

         The car is parked in the driveway, the rear slightly sagging under the weight of heavy packs. Paul's in the front seat and Niki is popping in and out of the back seat mumbling again and again: my dad and my brother are crazy. Our destination is Wyoming's Wind River Mountains where a multi-day crossing will take us on an ambitious alpine route. Paul and Niki, now in their teens, have been going on wilderness jaunts from an early age, and know the backcountry routine. The Whisky Creek Trail will get us going in the right direction, it's located a few miles from Dubois where we spent the night in a motel. Ice axes, crampons and a rope give extra weight to our packs but we'll be crossing snowfields and glaciers and can't go without them. Starting out, we are passing an educational group and the lecture briefly halts as we pass by. Paul and Niki, being energetic teens, have moved ahead of me, and as I pass the group, I say damn kids and the group gives a good laugh. We are climbing steeply on the side of a creek, and it's troublesome that the trail is faint and hard to follow. A quick look at the map shows a slight miscalculation, we are on the wrong side of a deep gorge with fast running water. Both sides of the creek will get us to the campsite, but off trail bushwhacking with heavy packs put a damper on the day.

         Arriving at our camp spot early afternoon, the tents are quickly up and fastened to the ground. Paul has spotted the edge of a snow wall in a side valley, and believes a short climb before dinner is possible. Approaching the snow, he tugs at my arm and motions across the sweep of the valley that I should have a look. A herd of bighorn mountain sheep numbering fifty or more are standing like stone statues staring at us. Later on, I'll learn that Whisky Mountain is home to the largest herd of bighorn mountain sheep in North America, now a protected reserve. Not all encounters with wildlife are benign: With my dog, Chica, I was trekking in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness and ran into what I thought were a pack of wild pigs, grunting and squealing as they moved off in the opposite direction. Later, I learned from a park ranger that they were javelinas, and he added: they leave a nasty bite. Paul and I are tying into the rope for what looks to be a fun climb of a four hundred foot wall of snow. Once on top, the plan is to circle around a ridge and make our way back to camp. It's late summer and it's late in the day and the snow is a bit slushy but with Paul in the lead, we are quickly moving upward. It happened in a split second, the snow beneath my foot gave way and I was zipping downward. My ice axe was not holding; it was slicing through the soft snow but it was keeping me upright and slowing my descent. Quickly, the rope was at its full length and I came to a stop. Looking up, I see that Paul remains glued to the snow wall. Whatever was I thinking of, another miscalculation, I decided to have a second go at the snow wall. Soon Paul and I were up and over the top.

         A quick return to the campsite is not a straightforward proposition, the terrain is pushing us west and downward, and the campsite is east and upward. It's a disheartening sight, standing on the valley floor and looking at the ridge, we must cross. It is already evening and it will be dark before we get back to camp. Niki will be worried sick. I take all the climbing gear and tell Paul to make a beeline for camp. A slow footslog, a steady rhythm, and deep easy breathing puts me in a trance-like state, and with the first rays of sunlight, I'm on the ridge. Paul and Niki are up at day break on their way to rescue me. We meet on the mountainside and the three of us hug tight. In the dark hours of the morning, Paul had reached the ridge, but pinpointing the camp seemed hopeless. Niki heard his shouts and saw the flickering light, and soon their flashlights were signaling back and forth. Niki had come up with a sound plan, nixing any foolhardy attempt to go for help in the dark of night. She wouldn't waste time in the morning searching on her own, instead, she would leave us a note and go for help. We were emotionally spent, and had, for now, little interest in traversing glaciers and high mountain passes. Teton and Yellowstone were just down the road, and we would spend a night at Jackson Lake Lodge and make a tour of Yellowstone before heading home.

         Niki, at age ten, is ready for a week of mountain travel. A father-daughter adventure into the Needle Peaks of the San Juan Mountains. I'll have the heavier load, but Niki will carry a heft pack. The standard route into the needles is via the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, with its two stops for hikers to disembark. Niki and I, avoiding the crowds, will enter the needles from the east on the rarely used Vallecito Trail. Not to worry, I tell Niki, we won't miss the train ride. On a fifth and final day, we will be aboard the train on its way to Durango. The trail gets off to a dramatic start, climbing four hundred feet, and zigzagging close to a canyon's edge. Quickly, we are in the wide, flat greenery of the Vallecito. Six miles a day allows midafternoon camps, a time to mingle with the natural world. A second camp puts us beneath two of the needle's famous fourteeners, Sunlight Peak and Widom Mountain, and the valley's other side goes directly up to the rocky ridges of the continental divide. The day before the climb to hunchback pass, we're settled in a forest of dimming daylight, a shadowy place. It's a bit unsettling to be so completely in the wild, ever alert to forest sounds and eyes scanning the edges of the camp. We're camped in a hunters camp and there's a supply of neatly sawed logs that keeps a fire burning into the night.Tomorrow, when we arrive at hunchback pass, we'll have travelled twenty miles and gained four thousand five hundred feet in elevation.

         It's a warm and windless summer day as we prepare to traverse the high country. We're on a rest break about a thousand feet below the pass, and I'm scrutinizing our route on the USGS map. Excitedly! I say, Niki it's doable, we can angle down this slope and avoid the climb over Hunchback. Ten year old Niki is giving me a defiant stare and infactly states, I'm not leaving the trail. I argue a wee bit more but it's obvious, Niki is steadfast in her resolve. Okay, I say we'll stay on the trail. Gosh! I'm thinking, I pity the poor fellow that marries Niki. We are on the pass in no time at all. As we meander along a high mountain ridge, I'm suddenly hit with a severe headache and a queasy stomach. Another half mile and it's worse, and I'm beginning to think of mountain sickness, I've had it twice before and know the symptoms. It's a good thing we are going down in elevation, if we were still climbing I would be in serious trouble. We have made it below treeline, a drop of two thousand feet, and I let Niki know that I'm really sick. In addition to the headache and nausea, I'm dizzy and totally fatigued. I'm sitting with my back against a boulder watching Niki deliberately and methodically break down the packs and set up the tent and fluff out the sleeping bags. She is making hot tea and I'm requesting the Advil bottle. In the morning, I'm woozy but okay and fit to travel. We're about five miles from the Animas River and the train stop, and there's time to catch the afternoon train.

         My son Paul is slouched in a chair at the Miami Airport, a gloom and doom expression etched on his face. The American Airline pilots have gone on strike, and our trip to Ecuador is at risk. After a lengthy wait, there's cheerful news, we've been booked on Ecuador's National Airline to Quito, and bumped up to first class. It's 2 am when we land in Quito. We're staying in the old quarter of town and the taxi stops two blocks short of the hotel, construction is blocking the way. We're dragging heavy duffle bags full of clothes and mountain climbing gear up dark narrow streets, some of Ecuador's homeless are sleeping in doorways, a group of men huddled around a low fire stare at us. The hotel door is locked, we bang on it, and soon we're inside. In the morning, Paul is zonked out but I'm up and eager to explore the surroundings. The streets and walkways of Quito's Historic District are a river of people and cars, flowing quickly in all directions. I'm being careful not to gawk at the fifteen thousand foot snowconed peaks circling the city, lest I be knocked off feet by the fast moving crowds. I'm standing on a safe corner island and witness an accident, a pedestrian has been knocked to the ground by a car. A traffic patrolman assesses the situation, and two bystanders place the injured man into the backseat of the car that struck him, and the car zooms off. With Denver friends, Roger and Debbie, we're travelling North on a day trip to Otavalo, later on, Roger will mountain climb with Paul and I. Debbie is fluent in Spanish, and negotiates a tour of Otavalo's handicraft sites, and a private recital of Andean folk music. Returning to Quito, Paul and I decide to walk along an avenue leading to the hotel. The wide sidewalk is swarming with Ecuadorians and Paul and I are separated but in sight of each other. Paul roughly pushes the person in front of him, and three individuals quickly move off in another direction. Later Paul explains that the three strangers had boxed him in, and the individual in front of him was stopping and starting in a distractive maneuver while the one in the rear was trying to pick his pocket.

         Several days of climbing behind us, we're in the city of Ambato for the night, in the home of a mountain guide. A crime wave has led to a nightly lockdown, a violation of the curfew would be dangerous. Banos de Agua Santa, " Baths of the Sacred Water " is the next destination. The setting is amazing lush green forests, cascading waterfalls, and several thousand feet above Banos is the "Black Giant," Tungurahua and below the edge of the Amazon. A British expat married into the family that owns the hotel we're staying at is a source for information. Miguel, a waiter at the hotel, will guide us up the slopes of Tungurahua. He shows up in an old pickup and Paul and I are in the truck's cargo bed with the gear being bounced about on rough roads. Unexpectedly, at the trailhead, we find Miguel's Father and two burros. It's a seven thousand five hundred foot climb to Tunggurahua's shelter hut where we'll spend the night, and we're darn glad about the burros. The summit of our volcano is 16,456 ft., and it has a history of violent eruptions. We leave early in the morning for the last 4,000 ft. of climbing before the equatorial sun turns the snow into slush. In the snow section, we're roped together, and Miguel shows considerable concern whenever he spots a crack line in the snow. Every now and then, we do get a strong whiff of sulfur. The climb has gone smoothly and we're soon on the cloud covered summit. A couple of days in the thermal baths does wonders for aching muscles. The expat, who is a joy to hang out with, has connected us with a native Amazon guide. In the morning, we'll go to Puyo on the edge of the Amazon. We have been advised to hire a taxi for the journey, and the dirt road road winds back and forth through splendid tropical scenery before reaching the rainforest. Twenty miles from Puyo traffic is being pulled to the side of the road by military personnel. A young trim, no nonsense looking second Lieutenant directs our driver to park down a side road and wait. The taxi driver's hand is shaking uncontrollably. We've been waiting thirty minutes in the hot sun when the lieutenant and a fellow officer approach the taxi. They're carrying automatic rifles and I'm ordered out of the car and into the back seat. Both officers are in the car, one in the front seat and one in the back with Paul and I. The officer in front gives an order and we are zipping down the road to Puyo. The officers are dropped off at a military outpost, and the nerve racking entrance to puyo is over.

         We are having a late lunch in the hotel restaurant when Paul nudges my elbow and directs my attention to a sandbox in a corner of the room. A fifteen foot python is comfortably at rest, no doubt the hotel's main defense against rats. A young woman in native dress approaches our table and shortly, we're following her on rainforest's paths to a large thatched hut on stilts. Our native guide is sitting crossed legged on a blanket. The conversation is easy and straightforward as he listens to our answers. it's a three day excursion into the amazon in canoes and he gives us an invite. He explains that a french party of seven had booked his services weeks ago and he would need their permission for Paul and I to be included. The guide shows up at our hotel early in the morning and says: the french party has nixed our participation. He has brought another guide along for us to negotiate with. Quickly, Paul and I decided to forgo any amazon travels. Returning to Banos, we'll soon be on the way to Riobamba and then, a bus ride over the Andes to Cuenca.


Mon, March 22, 2021

Struggling To Stay Young As I Rapidly Grow Old

Memory lapse in we elder folk, I'm convinced, rarely happens. It's just that spending so much time embellishing the past causes the present to get a little fuzzy.


Mon, Apr 6, 2021

Memorable Mountain Outings

Here's a puzzle. Looking down from the top floor of a tall building, I can expect a rapid heartbeat and quivering knees. Yet, going along a narrow mountain ledge with precipitous cliffs, it's a walk in the park. Why not golf or tennis instead of mountain climbing? I have no idea but the urge to be in mountain country has always been there. Climbing was never an obsession, it was secondary, a recreational pursuit.


Wed, Apr 14, 2021

Hold On: The Party's Not Over

A June morning in 1959 and Denver Union Station is bustling with activity. In front of the station, a fleet of Greyline buses are parked at a slight angle awaiting the arrival of a few hundred midwestern tourists. A three day excursion through Colorado's mountains, a trip of a lifetime.