Tuesday, April 10, 2007

So How Was It?

In two words, just fantastic! The Alps are so different from our American mountains. They seem bigger and more rugged, and yet are surprisingly intimate. They are not heavily forested, although there are plenty of trees. They seem steeper, as there is little in the way of foothills, as in our Rockies or the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. You seem to either be down in the relatively narrow bottom of a valley or up on a mountain, whereas in the Rockies we have very broad valleys. The eastern edge of the Tetons and the Sierra are the most dramatically abrupt ranges we have. But the backside of the Tetons fade away into Idaho, and below the steep eastern face lies the broad expanse of Jackson Hole, which, like the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, serves to separate the ranges from their nearest neighboring ranges. In the Alps, you are in the Alps. No broad valleys or plains. It is either up or down. And the glaciers, well, while they are shrinking, they are still massive quantities of ICE! These are real mountains.

Is it wilderness? Does it matter? There are trails all over the Alps, as people have been walking there for centuries. Things are close at hand. Chances are if you have had to walk for 8 hours to get somewhere, and that somewhere isn't a town, there is a hut of some sort there. Where people want to go, others have been there first, and their needs have been catered to before yours. It is great to take advantage of that. You are still in very exclusive company, as 99.95% of the civilized world hasn't had the energy or inclination to be there before you. Here in the USA the "wilderness" is probably a little more exclusive, but only because the degree of discomfort and inconvenience required to achieve it is so great. All that extra weight and gear and setup and takedown and cooking and purifying water and hiding your food takes some of the fun out of things. In the Alps one is much more likely to encounter friendly people sharing your adventures, and their mood is invariably cheerful, in large part because it is so much easier, more comfortable, more social. And they probably had a shower within the last day or two. Sure, physical effort is involved, but if you don't like physical effort, maybe hiking isn't a good activity for you.

We certainly had some moments when it seemed like a bad idea. That conditioning wasn't as rigorous as it might have been. That pack wasn't adjusted quite right. The pace hadn't been sorted out yet. We hadn't learned the tempo of the group or of a typical day. It was hotter than usual. It was raining or the wind was blowing. Or mostly, it seemed so relentlessly uphill. But then you would turn a corner, or top a rise, and there would be this great scene in front of you, or far below you, or towering above you. There was always something new to see. It was also enormously rewarding to reach each day's objective and to enjoy what you found at each destination. If in a village, what foods were to be had? If in a mountain cabane, how did the showers work, what snack foods were available, was there a better viewpoint nearby?

As the days went by and the routine became familiar, we also found it a lot easier. At one point, after we had been in mountain cabanes for 3 straight nights, we came down to the cute little village of Arolla. The next morning dawned raining, and this was down in the valley. Most of us bailed out, as the prospect of spending all morning hiking uphill almost 4000' to crest the Col de Torrent in the rain seemed like a bad idea. So we learned about the Swiss Post bus system, and took the bus down the valley to the city of Sion on the Rhone River. The view coming down that road was almost as though we were descending in an airplane. It was an interesting experience seeing French-speaking Swiss teenagers in action in Sion. We didn't understand what they were saying, but some things seems pretty universal. Caught a train upriver a stop to Sierre, then caught another Post bus up the next valley to our destination of Grimentz. That ride up to Grimentz was spectacular, unless you have a fear of narrow roads with sheer 1000 foot cliffs on the other side of a 1 foot high stone curb while squeezing past a truck with one inch to spare at a speed of inches per second. All a normal day for the bus driver, and a most extraordinary one for all of us. Meanwhile, the 3 hardiest hikers had a great time going over the pass, and barely got rained on. But they didn't get to eat lunch in McDonald's, either.

We had our worst weather near the end of the trip. Going over the last pass to come down into the Mattertal, the valley where Zermatt is located, it was foggy, rainy, and windy. And our "caboose" got off the trail in the fog, so there was some delay at the pass while he was recovered. Then there was steady light rain while on our descent, but you have rain clothes and pack covers for that. What we missed was seeing the scenery, for the opposite side of this valley has this great ridge of 4000 meter peaks. And the clouds were hiding almost all of it. Here is what Kev Reynolds says about this leg of the trip:

". . . and there before you is one of those rare sights that is so overwhemingly powerful that all else is forgotten.

Across the gulf of the Mattertal soar Nadelhorn, Lenzspitze and Dom with the Ried glacier pouring into the shoe-horn trough it has carved above Grachen's green terrace. It is a stunning vision, full of drama and grace of form, a perfect symbol of mountain architecture. Then, right at the head of the Mattertal, Liskamm, Castor and Pollux and the long white block of the Breithorn, with the smaller pyramid of the Klein Matterhorn next to it. (The Matterhorn itself remains slyly hidden behind the black outline of the Mettelhorn.)

A few more paces and, most stunning of all, the Weishorn yet again announces its domineering presence above and behind the Brunegghorn that rises in one immense shaft nearly two and a half thousand meters out of the valley.

This spur of mountainside, three hours above the valley, is surely the crowning glory of the Walker's Haute Route, a route that presents one visual gem after another from start to finish. (It's not over yet, for there's more to come.) At least, that's how it seemed to us, for we found oursleves rooted to the spot, spellbound by the panorama, perched on a sun-warmed slab of rock with more than a glimpse of heaven all around."

Well, we didn't see any of those views, and which cold and wet slab of rock was the magical viewing spot was a mystery to us. But we had two more days to go, so there was hope yet. We had to go down into the valley and then go up the other side and traverse southward for two days to end in Zermatt, taking a new trail called the Europaweg, which featured our last mountain cabane (or hutte, as they call it in this part of Switzerland).

The climb out of the valley on the next-to-last day was an ordeal. Maybe it was exacerbated by being another gray and misty day, but we were almost running on empty. Our vistas were very limited, but from what we could see, it must have been stupendous on a good day. With some of the exposure we were subjected to, maybe limited visibility was a good thing. We finally staggered into the Europa Hut, which is opposite the Wiesshorn, and kept waiting for the clouds to part enough to see the mountain. It teased us with glimpses, but never showed us the whole thing.

But the last day dawned with blue sky overhead, and while there were still some clouds in the valley below us, the Weisshorn was there for all to see as the sun hit its peak and worked its way down its face. Wow, these are real mountains. We were hiking along the side of the valley, sometimes climbing, sometimes losing altitude. At one point we walked through a tunnel to emerge under the cold shower of a small stream, all this time in the cool shade, for the sun was still behind the 4000 meter ridge above us.

But then we emerged from contouring around one of the gullies and there it was, starting to appear behind some lingering clouds, peaking out from behind the shoulder of another mountain, that most photographed of all Alps, the Matterhorn. I don't have any idea how many photos we took of that mountain, but the closer we got to it, the more we shot it. Eventually we sort of short-circuited the prescribed route and took a shortcut down into Zermatt. While the town is relatively small, compared to the villages we had been in it is a bustling (although carless) center of sophisticated shopping and eating. Ruth and I lucked out at our hotel, where, as the only couple in the group, we enjoyed the wonderful beneficence of the lady hotel clerk when she awarded us the key to our room, which turned out to be the penthouse suite. A fitting end to a great adventure. Unfortunately, we had to give it up the next day to catch the train back down the valley to Visp, and then back down the Rhone Valley and around Lake Geneva to spend our last less-than-ideal night in a youth hostel before flying out of Geneva the next morning. The others had a extra day in Zermatt where they could have taken some local hikes. But they opted for the mechanical conveyances to gain the viewpoints. I guess the prospect of yet another 1500 meter climb was over the top after having already totalled over 12,000 meters.

We ate well, saw some fantastic scenery, worked hard, and generated positive comments from people when we slipped back into our everyday ruts -- "gee, you look great!" Yes, the stomach was almost flat! All it takes is hiking 4-7 hours and gaining and losing 3000-4000 vertical feet each day, experiencing firsthand some of the greatest mountain trails on earth, meeting some great people equally as stoked as you are. The only downside is its addictive quality. I've already got two more of Kev Reynold's books. Ever hear of the Alpine Pass Route? From Sargans near Liechenstein to Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva, an east to west traverse of the Swiss Alps. 363 km (202 miles), 16 passes, 59,000' of height gain in 15 stages. Maybe next year. Meanwhile, I've got to get into this backpacking thing. I'll do it, but after tasting the Swiss model, it's hard. But if you are already doing it the American way, you will absolutely love the Swiss way.

And yes, I got my taxes done.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

How Do I Top This?

Spending time out on your own in the woods, mountains, desert, canyons, whatever . . you're supposed to be a little bit independent, be responsible for yourself, maybe be a little tougher than the average WalMart shopper. But it was a bit of a stretch going to Europe to hike. Language, strange terrain, new methods, a larger magnitude and scale of the task, all created doubts. And how would we relative neophytes measure up against our fellow hikers? All of these factors keep most of us from even considering such a trip. But we felt comfortable going along with Melinda, for she had seen our abilities and would warn us off if it was too much for us. At least we hoped so.

Even prior to going on the trip, I Googled "Walker's Haute Route" and found several people's accounts of their trips. The one by Dawn DuPriest is a good one, as is Chris Parson's. They show that the trip is not without its challenges. But all were proud of being out there trying it. One thing emerged as a constant: a book by Kev Reynolds, "Chamonix-Zermatt, the Walker's Haute Route," by Cicerone Press is clearly the authoritative guidebook on the subject. So $17 later I was looking over my own copy. Only one problem: Kev's books are addictive, but more on that later.

One way to do trips like this is "on your own." That would be a challenging task, finding all the route information and all. But Kev's book does most of that work for you. About the only other things you will need is a couple of the great Swiss topo maps, specifically 5003 and 5006, at 1:50,000 scale. That and a cell phone to call ahead and arrange for lodging along the way and some cash and credit cards and your gear and you're ready to go. But we didn't know all of this then and were lacking in fortitude, so we opted to go with Melinda, who had the whole trip all planned out and arranged, itinerary, reservations, luggage transport, etc. Lots of info on what we needed to bring, advice on rail passes, conditioning tips, and an instant group of fellow trekkers with the same ambitions. In looking back on it, I think she ended up saving us money via group discounts or something, as our accomodations were superb, and it certainly made our lives easier. The only real pre-trip anxiety was centered on whether or not this was going to be too much for us. That and the daily question of how big an effort would be required the next day.

Now many "commercial" firms offer the "same" trek as a package. There are many variations on the route, and Kev's book shows almost all of them, so it can sometimes be tough to compare one to another. But the commercial ones rarely do the entire route. You read about the 180 kilometer Walker's Haute Route, but then you do only 100 kilometers of it, with all of these bus jumps along the way. Hey, whatever floats your boat. But Melinda's package was easily the most cost-effective, with 16 nights of food and lodging and 13 days of hiking for $2100, or $131 per day, and covered the entire route. REI offers a lesser package of 9 nights and 6 days of hiking for $2900/$322 per day. Sobek Mountain Travel: 9 nights, 7 hiking for $3200/$372 per day. I guess if you want a shorter, quicker version, it costs more. Have to get back to the rat race to make the money to pay for it. And you will honestly be able to say you hiked "part of" the Walkers' Haute Route.

The start of the trip begins well over a month before you leave, as you have to get a little serious about some conditioning. We're fortunate enough to live where we can hike uphill vigorously within 30 minutes of the house, and the local YMCA has Stepmills, those wonderful sweat-inducing moving stairways. It was a little discouraging early on when I found myself panting along at a good pace going up the local 2000' peak when some woman dressed casually in slacks, long sleeve shirt and straw hat and sneakers motors on past me with no apparent effort. But when you have to hike over 3000' passes on many days, carrying some weight on your back, you don't want to find your inadequacies when it is too late to do something about it. So I had to sacrifice some of those golf course strolls for some more serious trails. Whatever you do, it will help. The everyday ruts most of us are stuck in seldom include climbing uphill for 3-4 hours every morning, to be followed by going down the other side each afternoon.

So there is some suffering involved in this undertaking. But there is an even greater payoff in the accomplishment. This is truly an experience you will remember forever, unless, like I hope to, you start to get addicted to it and go on to wipe out its memory by piling on a whole bunch of ever-greater adventures. I am looking forward to that prospect.

One of the more interesting parts of the trip is the dynamics of the group of fellow hikers. The web accounts mentioned above of individuals or small groups traveling independently tell of how they end up hiking more or less in synch with each other, and over the course of a week or so small groups of one or two or three are really bonded together in their shared adventure. One advantage of a leaderless random grouping is that there is no imperative to keep things together, so the pace of the day's hiking is quite elastic, coming together again after the day's travels. An organized group is more challenging, as getting 8-10 people to travel at a compatible pace can be tough. The "racehorses" and the "cabooses" create a natural tension. On sunny days, no big deal for the leaders to rest in the sun on a high pass with great views while others catch up. But when you're in the clouds and the wind is blowing, it can be a very big deal. Another reason to do that pre-conditioning.

Each day has a similar rythym. Sleeping isn't as sound as it is at home, as the mind often races in anticipation of what lies ahead. Or in the cabanes up in the mountains, sharing your room with several others is always interesting, what with snores, bathroom journeys, etc. And maneuvering through the bathroom dance with a bunch of others is another exercise each morning. But you adapt to it. Everyone gathers for a communal breakfast, and then it is time to pack things up and head on out to resume the trek. More often than not that means some uphill effort. Clothes are shed as the bodies heat up and the day warms. But much of the path is above timberline, so the views are generally good, often fantastic. There will be times when you marvel how many rocks there are in the world. You seek to pace yourself, timing your inhale/exhale with your steps -- two steps on the inhale, two more on the exhale, which is a moderate pace. A one step inhale, one stop exhale is a steep pace. Stop and rest every 10 breaths is quite steep. There will be some of each. Hopefully your breathing is the main problem. Adding on things like blisters or sunburn or a sore knee take some of the joy out of the effort. Again, that conditioning payoff comes into play, as does Ibuprofin.

Someone will emerge as the "caboose." Hopefully they will handle the role well. That will mean staying cheerful, which can be hard. The main thing is to be aware of the needs of the others who have been waiting for you. Get your bathroom break taken care of quickly, and then you can rest. The others are mostly rested, anxious to proceed. The "caboose" doesn't get the same amount of rest time as the others. In the minds of the bulk of the group, he or she has been resting while walking. The best "caboose" of all catches up and keeps on going, maybe saying "give me a bit of a head start so I can have some privacy up ahead." That would build in an additional delay for the rest of the group, as who wants to catch up to them while they are "occupied" behind a nearby bush or rock. Then the "caboose" falls back in line as they pass. The good leader keeps track of who is in which role, and reigns in the "racehorses," and maybe even sticks the "caboose" right behind the leader, to better gauge the person's state, and to allow the peer pressure from behind to come into play. Those who are still part of the train are much more motivated than those who have fallen hopelessly behind.

At some point about midway through the day, things start to head downhill, which is a GOOD thing. The stress goes from the legs and lungs to the toes and knees, and downhill agility is highlighted. The sun is higher, maybe now behind you. Soon the destination is in sight, which creates another burst of energy. Sometimes that is needed, as some of the cabanes are located up on ridges, requiring you to scale a little "kicker" to finish off the day. But the prospect of finishing is a great motivator, and there is always just a little bit of adrenaline left. Then the packs come off, maybe the boots, and the refreshments emerge. Some lounging, some cleaning of bodies and clothes, some chatter, card games, reading, a local exploratory hike for some of the more fit members of the party. Soon a nice communal dinner, some more games, chatter, showers for those who had beer earlier, then off to bed. For tomorrow another leg begins. And new sights to see. This is the Alps! And you haven't even thought of George Bush or Iraq the entire day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

One Down, What's Up Next?

I've recently discovered a brand new hiking tool. High tech, and you can almost use it without a manual. No, not a GPS unit, although I can envision that being very useful. But personally, I love the maps. Back in my past I did a little Orienteering, which is cross-country route-finding using maps and compass, finding waymarks hidden out there and punching your card with little unique punches to prove to everyone that you did indeed find the waymark. I guess that sport might be changing with the advent of GPS, for now they could look at your cookie-crumb trail to see where you had gone and if you had indeed gone to the right spots.

No, the new high tech tool is Google Earth 4. Sitting at my desk I can relive a trip by going back there with Google Earth and navigating over the same terrain. I just went back and looked again at the Paria Canyon trip, retracing the route up from its terminus at Lees Ferry. I had forgotten how much the canyon had opened up the last couple of days of the trip. It was more a valley than a canyon. But I could find where we had camped, and it was neat to be able to zoom out a little and to see the surrounding terrain. When you are following a river, you don't get to see much of the country beyond the riverbanks, which in this case were sometimes a thousand feet high. I had used Google Earth 3 prior to that trip, printing out a straight-down view so we could follow the many twists of the canyon. Ha! The resolution of the images was so inferior last year that it was almost useless. You cannot believe how many turns that river takes, and when you are in the river bottom, you tend to lose your sense of direction, especially when each bend is different, some 90 degrees, some 180 degrees, some 270 degrees, and most some subtle variations in between. Plus there is no sense of scale, and you couldn't be looking at the scenery and where you were stepping if you were charting your progress on piece of paper when the actual scale was a day's walk equals an inch or two. But now the Google images are mapped onto a 3D model, and the image quality is vastly superior. It is almost like being there.

I was surprised at how the canyon changed as I followed it upriver. Doing it with Google Earth takes minutes. Doing it on foot takes days. For a while I was "flying" at an altitude of a couple hundred feet, which worked great. But as the valley became more of a canyon, the shadows hid much of the detail. When a tree is photographed from above, its shadow heightens the 3D effect. But when a canyon wall casts a shadow, all the trees in that shadow lose their definition, so the images are less distinct. Plus as the canyon walls get increasingly vertical, satellite photographs don't show much detail. It is like taking a photograph of a wallpaper pattern with the camera held up in the corner of the ceiling and the wall and pointed straight down -- good view of the floor, but lousy view of the wall. So I had to settle for the straight-down view, and was amazed at how narrow the gorge became and how many twists and turns it takes. Then when you get to the junction with Buckskin Gulch, which joins it from the west, it is like looking at a crack in a large cement floor. Hard to look in those cracks. But that is what makes it such a unique place.

One other unique geographical feature of the area is "the Wave." Just Google "the wave, utah," and you will see what I mean. We didn't get to see it, as the rangers control very tightly how many people get to see it each day. As I recall, the number was 40, 20 of whom had their permits in advance, and the others got them in a daily in-person lottery at the ranger station. Hard to go that route, as you are pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, a difficult location to just "drop in" to see if you're lucky. But Google Earth shows you where it is (follow the Buckskin Gulch westward, and it is on the outside corner where it bends northward), which complicates the rangers' lives, as they currently only give directions to the chosen few.

But that was the first trip, and the question was what else could we do? Well, Melinda's brochure provided some possibilities. Like a trek to Nepal. No, too extreme. I mean you don't go from your first week-long backpack trip to a month in the Himalaya, do you? But we ended up making a jump of almost the same magnitude. The name Haute Route seemed vaguely familiar. Sounded like I should know about it. Ah yes, a trek from Mt. Blanc/Chamonix in France, through the tallest part of the Alps to the Matterhorn/Zermatt in Switzerland. There are actually two versions. The original is the more direct route, up and over and along glaciers. Serious stuff, roped up, ice axes, long and hard days. The second version is the Walker's Haute Route, which Melinda was offering. 180 kilometers of hiking, over 11 passes, gaining over 12,000 meters of height, losing over 10,000. Now the kilometers figure is deceiving, as that sounds like a long way, but is just over 110 miles, not exactly trivial, but 110 isn't like 180. But so is that meters figure deceiving, in the other direction, for that is over 39,000 feet. At any rate, a big trip. But the Alps! I've always been a sucker for mountains. And how long would this take? 16 days? 13 of them hiking? Oh, the potential agony of all of that. But that is less than 10 miles a day. Well, it was probably sold out anyway. What, there was room for two more? So with some trepidation we signed up. And discovered hiking as it SHOULD be done.

Long distance hiking, or trekking, is an entirely different activity in Europe, mainly because there is no need to camp. In fact, in Switzerland, at least, camping seems to be officially discouraged. Instead the model is to hike from one town or village to another, and stay in hotels, inns, dormitories, etc along the way. If your route is such that you don't come down to a town, they have cabanes up in the mountains that cater only to the hikers. Included in the price of your stay is a hearty dinner and a breakfast, so none of that food/stove/dishes bulk and weight to carry. No 4-5 pound tent. No sleeping pad/air mattress. No sleeping bag. We're talking less than 25 pounds of pack weight, not 35-40. And a whole lot less hassle. Warmth at night. Electric lights. Warm showers.

Now I have a new problem. How am I going to get fired up over the American hiking model when I have become seduced by the European model. Well, if I am going to be able to see the backcountry here in the U.S., I will have to learn to like it.

Meanwhile, Melinda has gone electronic, so her brochure has been recast to appear on the Web. While it looks pretty slick, her operation is very much a one person effort. All she is doing is trying to break even leading trips all over the West for the Sierra Club, and on her own in other parts of the world. An upfront disclaimer: this year I am helping her by leading a repeat of the trip we took last year. So look over her site: GoodwatersAdventures.com. And come back for a report on some aspects of that trip last year. Again, it has had a significant effect on me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Just a Little Ahead of the Curve

I heard part of an episode on Forum on NPR this morning. The subject was the aging of the Baby Boomers, who are now turning 60 at the rate of 1 every 8 seconds. Their level of self-absorption and non-conformity and all of that herald some significant changes. The idea of being "old" is not a comfortable one, and part of our struggle is transitioning from the end of our working careers into the rest of our lives. But we are fighting the very notion that aging is happening to us, in spite of the considerable evidence that it is. This is another reason for the attempt to get into hiking, to take advantage of the decent physical shape I've been lucky enough to maintain, and to find an activity I really enjoy that brings with it exercise and lifestyle benefits. Now I hear that being validated, that the true Boomers (I'm barely a pre-Boomer) are going to be doing the same thing.

Back to the Sierra Club trip. I've taken several motorcycle trips through Utah, and the southern part of the state has some great "blue roads," those non-interstate winding routes that follow the contours of the terrain. There are stretches of canyons in Utah that are barely identified on the maps, have no signage or parking areas, that would, in any of about 40 other states, be proclaimed state parks at the very least. So the chance to get off of the road and to see something remarkable there had some real potential.

So I fell for the Sierra Club description:

"A backpack trip down the Paria River Canyon should be on everyone's list of things to do before they leave this world. Unsurpassed in beauty, remarkable in color and form, it is an experience that you will savor forever. Unlike the Grand Canyon, which can be overwhelming in its vastness, the Paria is intimate and has a gentle subtlety in its beauty. The deep-red sandstone walls of the canyon, finely sculpted by the ages, offer a feast for the eyes and a healing quiet for the soul."

Together with the fact that hiking 38 miles along a river meant a week-long downhill journey, it was an easy sell. If anything, the description falls short of describing the place. Intimate vs. vastness. This part of Utah features what they call slot canyons. Being in them it is difficult to tell how deep they are, but it has to be a few hundred feet. Intimate almost means claustrophobic, as there are spots in Buckskin Gulch, which merges with the Paria, where you can touch the opposite walls of the canyon, one with each hand. The Sierra Club web site's pictures ring true, but fail to convey the dramatic nature of much of the trip.

It was an interesting group, and I was the only male. Each morning we would evenly divide by weight the common supplies, notably the food and cooking gear, add our share to our own gear, and head off down the river bank. Which meant that within a span of between 2 and 10 minutes, we'd be walking in the river to get to the other side, or, if there was no side, we'd keep walking in the river. Each afternoon we would stop and set up our tents, usually near a spring, and a couple of the party would have cooking/cleanup assignments which rotated through the group.

Now I had done some camping in previous years. Ruth and I went on a series of Backroads trip, of the hiking/camping variety, and they were great. Backroads is an outfit that features lavish brochures, with a variety of destinations as well as a variety of activities, whether bicycling, hiking, kayaking, "multi-sport," etc. They also offer a variety of accomodations, from camping at the bottom of the scale to inns at the top. But their camping is of the "pamper" variety. They provide the tents, they set them up, take them down, provide the air mattresses, etc. All you do is carry your bag from the van to the tent and unpack/pack. Carrying your own food? Oh no, the van (or one of the vans) pulls the trailer with the food and the stove and the pots and pans and dishes. They provide the food, cook it, do the dishes. They take you to your hike and pick you up at the end. It works really well. My personal recommendation is to try it. True, you do have to sleep on the ground, and the nearest flush toilet is more than 10 steps from your tent. The inn option will solve both of those problems, but much of the sense of a shared adventure is lost when the group leaves the inn dining room to go to their rooms. On the camping trips, there can be a campfire, and who wants to go sit in a tent when that is going on. On our first Backroads trip, in the Canadian Rockies, the campfire never happened, as it didn't get dark until 10 pm that far north. We didn't realize how important the campfire was until a Yellowstone/Teton trip had one each night.

But it is another world when you are out there on your own, carrying your food/shelter/clothes/etc on your back. No flush toilets in the Paria River Canyon. In fact, you have to bring your used toilet paper out with you. Kind of a different world. And those packs get heavy, although as the trip goes on the food burden gets lighter, and your shoulders get used to it. In short, we had a great time, marred only by the fact that upon getting in our van for the long ride home, the engine had a recurring hesitation, and it was a weekend with garages closed, even in 24-hour Las Vegas. Turns out some rodents were munching on the ignition wires during the week we were in the canyon. Tip: throw some food particles under the biggest gas guzzler in the parking lot.

It built up our confidence, and more importantly, got us on the mailing list of Melinda Goodwater, our guide. Seems she does several Sierra Club trips each year, but then does a few longer trips on her own. We soon got her one page brochure in the mail. So if one trip is good, two must be better, right? We will see.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Start of Another Journey

Blogging! This just what I need at this point in time -- another potentially addictive activity when, 3 feet away from me, in a file drawer under the right wing of the desk, my 2006 income tax info awaits, and the TurboTax Deluxe 2006 folder is peeking out from underneath this window at the bottom of the display. But there is still time for that, right? No, this is more important. I feel the need to reach out, to connect with someone out there to share this new obsession that I tell myself is good for me. I mean it is healthy, satisfying, interesting, enlightening, challenging, doesn't hurt others, and seems to keep things from becoming too complicated. Surely others will enjoy it as well.

You see, I am trying to adopt hiking as my dominant physical activity. Right now my physical exertion is centered on playing golf. No, not the fat-cat-in-the-cart version, but the walk and carry your own bag variety. I play 4 to 5 days a week, 18 holes, starting early in the morning and finishing by 11. So that is sort of hiking, 5 miles a day, but hardly a taxing workout. Golf is a strangely addictive game, and I am playing it well enough, I guess, but I am not disciplined enough to really work hard at getting a whole lot better at it, and no one ever really gets to the point where they are satisfied with their game, anyway. But I have always liked doing physical activities, mostly outdoor ones, and have even achieved a reasonable level of competence at a couple things, notably skiing, competitively racing Hobie Cats, even orienteering. But something has kept me from really embracing hiking. I like to do it, but the multi-day backpacking step has been a big one.

I live in the heart of Silicon Valley. The golf course is in sight of the intergalactic headquarters of the Internet, the ever burgeoning GooglePlex. Our weather is about the best on earth, and the local topography is just severe enough that the real estate developers have been unable to build on all those local hills (some would call them mountains), so local hiking is available. And I have found over the years that the best way to get away from the masses is to take a walk, preferably up a relatively steep hill. 100 vertical feet is a real deterrent to those masses at the Mall. I could realistically set out from my driveway loaded with a backpack, and while the first 4 or 5 miles would be rather alienating, fighting the commuters in their BMWs or SUVs, I could spend the next week in the Santa Cruz mountains, following creeks, passing through redwood groves, climbing ridges, drop down to the Pacific ocean, and, chances are, come down with a nasty case of poison oak. But I haven't done it yet. I need a push. It is just a little too much work. Too much to carry. No computer to spend time in front of when it gets dark.

But early in 2005 my wife Ruth and I tried to break the logjam. We tried to sign up for a Sierra Club trip, a week long backpack trip that looked ideal, down the Paria River Canyon on the Utah/Arizona border. Well, it wasn't early enough in 2005. That trip sells out fast. So it took another year, but in 2006 we pounced, and we got it. Come back again for that story.