Category Archives: Random Notes

Just a collection of random notes that don’t fit the other categories

The Desert Bites Back; Guadalupe Mountains Ultras

The neat thing about my National Park Ultramarathon project is it’s taking me to places that I normally wouldn’t think about visiting. Example, the Guadalupe Mountains of Southern New Mexico/Northwestern Texas. The Guadalupes aren’t your typical towering mountain range with distinct peaks rising above the surroundings; rather they consist of an uplifted inland reef (Capitan Reef) with deep canyons carving down through the ancient sea floor. The area is split into two parks, one being the Guadalupe Mountains National Park (in Texas) the other, and better known, being Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Over 200 million years ago the area that makes up these two parks was a vast inland sea. Then the inlet to this sea (the current mountain range) was cutoff and the sea slowly dried up, in the process covering the area in layer upon layer of mineral deposits. The continued uplift exposed these mineral and fossil layers in what is now the Capitan Reef of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and the power of slowly percolating water carved out vast caverns underground creating the massive labyrinth that is Carlsbad Caverns.

Sunrise on Guadalupe Peak from the Tejas Trail.

Sunrise on Guadalupe Peak from the Tejas Trail.

Descending the Bush Mt trail toward Dog Canyon. Not much of a trail.

Descending the Bush Mt trail toward Dog Canyon. Not much of a trail.

I first set my sights on a 37mile lollipop in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (5/8). One of the local rangers told me “the magnificence of the Chihuahuan desert lies in its subtlties”, and I couldn’t agree more. As I climbed up the Tejas Trail from the Pine Springs trailhead the sun slowly began to illuminate the surrounding walls and the birds began to awake to greet the day. I ascended 2500ft of switchbacks out of the low arid desert and into the high altitude juniper and pine forest (<8000ft). The trail slowly disintegrated from a wide horse trail into an overgrown sparsely used foot path (Bush Trail) as I crested Bush Mountain (the high point of the day 8631ft, mm6.2, 1:45). The trail undulated along the high ridge through the pine and oak forest, before descending steeply down through an old burn zone to the meadows surrounding the old ranch settlement of Cox Tanks. Blooming cacti and an assortment of wildflowers dotted the desert terrain as I cruised down to the Dog Canyon TH, my only water resupply for the day (mm16, 3:50). The TH was completely empty except one couple and their RV. I doused myself at the water spigot, refilled all my water bottles (2.5L) and jogged back up the Tejas Trail toward Lost Peak.

Dog Canyon TH, refreshed and ready to roll another 21miles.

Dog Canyon TH, refreshed and ready to roll another 21miles.

Wildflowers blooming in an old burn zone along the Tejas Trail.

Wildflowers blooming in an old burn zone along the Tejas Trail.

As I jogged up the canyon the midday sun had begun to bake the open grasslands. I ran into a couple of volunteers who were in the process of clearing the trail, cutting back brush and moving rocks. They mentioned I’d run into more overgrown trail about 1.5miles ahead, as the park didn’t have the resources to clear everything just yet, an unfortunate, but all too common issue within the National Park system due to budget cuts. As I neared Lost Peak the trail became a little rougher, but was far better than the Bush Mountain trail I’d run in the morning. From the summit of Lost Peak (4:50) I had a nice view of the surrounding landscape, an endlessly undulating high plateau strewn with pines, junipers, oak trees and cacti. I cruised along the high ridge dotted with Indian Paintbrush and blooming prickly pear cacti until the junction with the Blue Ridge Trail (mm21.8, 5:20) where the trail descended deep into the pine forests. I hadn’t seen anyone else since the Dog Canyon TH, and was enjoying the trail solitude as I turned up onto the Juniper trail and steeply climbed my way up to the old water tanks at the top of Bear Canyon.

Indian Paintbrush blooming in the desert.

Indian Paintbrush blooming in the desert.

Looking down Bear Canyon at the valley over 2000ft below.

Looking down Bear Canyon at the valley over 2000ft below.

Summit of Guadalupe Peak, high point of Texas.

Summit of Guadalupe Peak, high point of Texas.

El Capitan of the Guadalupes from above.

El Capitan of the Guadalupes from above.

The view abruptly opened, and I was staring down on the Frijole trail 2000ft below. The descent was rocky, but runnable the whole way, and the temperature quickly climbed from the comfortable 60s into the low 80s. I reached my car in the Pine Springs parking lot a bit cooked (mm29, 7:20), but after a quick refill I felt like I was ready to tackle the 3000ft climb up to Guadalupe Peak (the Texas high-point). The trail climbed steeply at first then mellowed a bit more as it traversed into the trees. The heat and sun were definitely getting to me, and I had to take several breaks to cool off in the little bits of shade I could find. The final push from the saddle to the summit seemed to drag on forever, but I finally stumbled my way up to the summit pinnacle and plopped down for a breather (mm33mi, 9:20). Views were expansive, the vast Chihuahuan desert to the South and East, the rolling ridgelines of the Guadalupes to the North and the vertical cliffs of El Capitan (Texas, not CA) directly below. The jog down was a bit painful as I was pretty dehydrated and cooked from the day, but I finally reached the trailhead and sprawled out on the ground, 37mi and 10h and 25min after starting.

Descending into Slaughter Cave on a Ranger guided tour.

Descending into Slaughter Cave on a Ranger guided tour.

Formations in Slaughter Cave.

Formations in Slaughter Cave.

Day two (5/9) in the Guadalupes found me descending deep into Slaughter Cave in Carlsbad Cavern National Park. This 4h, $15 Ranger Guided tour of the cave was a fantastic way to learn about the history, geology and to see some of the phenomenal formations up close. Day three (5/10) I got a little more than I bargained for, my supposed 25-ish mile run of the Yucca trail-Guadalupe Ridge trail-Slaughter Canyon trail reminded me how cruel the desert can be. All are listed as ‘unmaintained trails’ but I figured how bad could they be? As I climbed up Yucca canyon the trail was well established, the ocotillo and cacti were blooming and the temperature was pleasant. But as I crested the high plateau the trail disappeared into the desert scrub, a nasty mixture of yucca, sotol, cats claw, cacti and agave, as I was relegated to navigating cairn to cairn….when I could. After thrashing my way across the high plateau I finally reached what I thought was the junction with the Guadalupe Ridge trail, wrong (mm11, 3:15). After a 1mi detour I reversed course and found the correct road, and was able to jog my way across the Guadalupe Ridge, only to miss two more unmarked turns on my way to the Putnam Cabin (mm15, closer to mm18.5 that day, 4:55). Then it was back to thrashing my way across the ridgeline until I reached a few old trail signs at the junction with the Slaughter Canyon trail, a trail which did not exist outside of a few rock cairns (mm19, mm23 that day, 5:50). I again thrashed my way down the ridge into Slaughter Canyon, legs ripped up from the sotol and cats claw, a few holes in my foot from agave spines that had pierced my shoes. By the time I reached the canyon bottom I no longer cared about dodging the skin ripping plants, and just barreled on through them, finally reaching the trailhead 7h and 17min after starting, and the ‘marathon-ish’ route turned out to be closer to 28.6miles of brutal bushwacking. My legs told the tale as small streams of blood dripped from scratches on my knees and thighs.

Sunrise on the Yucca Canyon trail.

Sunrise on the Yucca Canyon trail.

Follow the cairns, because that's all you got.

Follow the cairns, because that’s all you got.

Useless signs at the Slaughter Canyon turn.

Useless signs at the Slaughter Canyon turn.

Descending back into Slaughter Canyon.

Descending back into Slaughter Canyon.

The ravages of yucca and cats claw, bloody legs.

The ravages of yucca and cats claw, bloody legs.

No time to waste though, as I hopped in my car and booked it over to the Carlsbad Cavern main entrance for a self guided walking tour down into the heart of the main cave system. As I descended into the darkness, the air cooled, light faded away and all the noises of the outside world were cut off. The main cave is lit by artificial lights so no headlamps are needed, but one is nice if one would like to inspect some formations in more detail. As the paved walking path entered “The Big Room” the cave opened into a massive cavern, the size of 14 football fields. Thousands of soda straws and stalactites hung from the ceilings, calcite domes up to 30ft tall rose from the floor and crystal clear pools of water flowed deep into the depths of the earth. The standard walking tour of the cave is around 2.5miles from the surface, but there are several other Ranger Guided options to explore deeper into the cave. Wandering this underground labyrinth is truly mind boggling, especially when you consider that miles of cave passages and even new cave systems are being discovered all the time (like Lechuguilla in 1986). If you visit Carlsbad I highly recommend you take a Ranger Guided tour (minimal charge) and if you visit in the summer time stay around to watch the bats fly out of the cave (up to ½ million).

Entering the main Carlsbad Cavern.

Entering the main Carlsbad Cavern.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, the size of 14 football fields.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, the size of 14 football fields.

Soda Straws and other formations in Carlsbad.

Soda Straws and other formations in Carlsbad.

While the Guadalupe Mountains may not wow you from the outset, hang around a little bit and delve into the subtleties of this seemingly arid desert that is full of life. You’ll see mule deer darting through the scrub, lizards bask in the sun and even a rattlesnake or two letting you know how pissed off he/she is (from a distance of course). Prickly pear cacti blooming in brilliant yellow, the spiny ocotillo and their vibrant red tips and dozens of small wildflowers (including paintbrush) hiding amongst the yucca and scrub. If you stop and look a little closer you’ll be amazed what you find both above ground and below. And while the trail systems of the area won’t rival those of Yosemite, Glacier NP or North Cascades, the solitude you’ll find in the desert will provide you a much different experience than the overcrowded trails elsewhere. My only suggestion, wear full leg coverings and be smarter than I. Special thanks to Vfuel for powering me through crazy adventures like these and to the National Park Service for protecting these amazing lands for all to explore.

Walking by moonlight at White Sands National Monument.

Walking by moonlight at White Sands National Monument.

End of a Journey, but the Adventure Continues

Thorang La Pass, new elevation high point for me along the Annapurna Circuit.

Thorang La Pass, new elevation high point for me along the Annapurna Circuit.

I’ve now been back in the United States for two weeks since my six month world travels ended and no surprise, things have been busy. Catching up with friends and family, cleaning house, doing ‘adult’ things (stupid taxes and bills), playing with the kitty and generally adventuring whenever I can, it’s a rough life. People keep asking if it is hard to ‘reintegrate’ into the US and if I miss living on the road, and the answer is easily, no. It’s good to be home, now that doesn’t mean that my adventuring is done by a long shot, just changing pace. The #Funployment will continue through the summer, with lots of road trips and a few flights in the works, but keeping Boulder as a home base for all the fun. A few of the potential trips are a visit to the Guadalupe Mountains, canyoneering in the Utah desert, maybe a few weeks in Belize (anyone?), some exploration and maybe a volcano or two in the PNW and some big plans in Glacier National Park. <- So if you want in on the fun, ping me and let’s plan something epic!

Ambling through the dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Adventure is not too far from home. April 2017.

Ambling through the dark narrows of Buckskin Gulch. Adventure is not too far from home. April 2017.

Kaytlyn and Ely running into Ding Canyon. The Utah desert holds so many wonderful treasures. April 2017.

Kaytlyn and Ely running into Ding Canyon. The Utah desert holds so many wonderful treasures. April 2017.

But back to this whole traveling out of a backpack for six months deal. The first few days back at home were a bit odd, not waking up in a new location every few days, speaking English all the time, the familiarity of home and the city around. Part of me will definitely miss waking up each day to a new adventure, but part of me is excited to be home as well. I’ve learned a lot in the past six months, but I don’t feel like I’m a different person, just an evolving one. Normally I’d pull on thoughts from my journals for all this rambling, but being that I’ve had 90% of my journal writing stolen, I’m only left with my memories, which I guess is the more important thing. I started this journey with no idea where I was heading or why, only that I had a plane ticket to Thailand and eventually I wanted to make it to Nepal and Patagonia, filling in the gaps along the way. It’s such a different feeling living the adventure day to day and just seeing where life takes you, and it’s made me realize that while planning is a great way to maximize what you see in a location, are you really seeing what matters most? Anyone can hop on a tour and take the postcard shot or follow the guidebook directions, but what really makes a trip special are those unexpected moments where you get to experience the real culture, not the tourism, where you get to meet the real people, not the facade put on for foreigners. I think anyone who travels is guilty of rushing to the iconic site or the stereotypical experience that we’re told we’re supposed to have, but we need to remember that the journey of getting anywhere is a big part of traveling.

Temples of Ankor in Cambodia.

Temples of Ankor in Cambodia.

img_20161120_202443-723x524.jpg

Steve watching sunrise on Annapurna from South Basecamp.

Now to say my travels went smoothly would be a lie. There were numerous transportation mishaps, a few mis-schedules, I was robbed twice (losing ALL my ID, credit cards, cell phone and SD card once), got sick a few times and did numerous stupid things along the way. So is life, make mistakes and learn from them (hopefully). But of course the negative happenings and mishaps were a minor part of what was a fantastic journey. I met so many wonderful people from all over the world (made some new friends), saw countless amazing sights, had innumerable new experiences and had my eyes opened a few times to new ways of thinking. I’ve definitely been bitten by the travel bug, but I don’t really have the desire to sell off all my worldly belongs and hit the road permanently for years to come.

Chatting with some of my students in Shishaghat, Nepal.

Chatting with some of my students in Shishaghat, Nepal. Photo by Zahariz.

Enjoying sunrise over Bagan with new friends.

Enjoying sunrise over Bagan with new friends.

While I love the unknown that comes with traveling new places, visiting new cultures and meeting new people, I’m also a little bit of a creature of habit. I like my group runs with friends, Mondays at Southern Sun, playing with my kitty, climbing Colorado’s 14ers, and having more than 3 changes of clothes to wear on a weekly basis. But mostly, I just love where I live. I love Boulder (for its good and bad), I love the Rocky Mountains, I love my friends and I love the lifestyle my home affords me, so being home is a pretty darn good thing. Though it doesn’t hurt that Colorado is a great launching off point for all kinds of far flung adventures; I can drive to Moab in 6h, the Tetons in 8h, fly to the West coast in 2.5h, Mexico in 4.5h, Colombia in 10h, meaning that adventure is never more than a day away. Even after traveling my list of places to go and things to see is pretty large. As anyone who has traveled will tell you, each time you travel and check off a bucket list item, you add another half-dozen (or more) to the list, its one of those good problems to have. So I look forward to continuing to check off bucket list items and adding many more. For now I’ll enjoy running, climbing and skiing at home in Colorado for a little bit, but just until that next adventure presents itself and the wanderlust grows so great that it needs to be heeded. Thanks to all who shared travels and experiences with me and to the Pro-Leisure Tour for making this all possible.

Sometimes when you don't share a language, it doesn't matter. Making friends in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Sometimes when you don’t share a language, it doesn’t matter. Making friends in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Marveling at the Torres, in Torres del Paine Parque Nacional.

Marveling at the Torres, in Torres del Paine Parque Nacional.

Sunrise over Paine Grande town, pinch me, because this can't be real....

Sunrise over Paine Grande town, pinch me, because this can’t be real….

Lastly just a few take homes from things I’ve learned along the way.

The most important thing I learned was there is never a ‘perfect’ time for anything, and if an opportunity presents itself sometimes you just need to leap full in and figure the rest out later.

When I first left I didn’t think I could actually live out of an 11-12kg backpack for six months, but turns out you really don’t need a whole lot for life on the road, and I could have gotten by with less (ping me if you want specifics).

Having never traveled Asia the language barriers made me nervous, but in the end many people spoke English and even those that didn’t were eager to help out. Hand gestures are surprisingly useful, and I learned a lot of Spanish along the way.

Sometimes you just need to trust that things will work out. Countless times I was on a bus or in a taxi going somewhere, never knowing exactly what was going on, or where we were, but it always worked out in the end.

Learning the local language (even a few phrases) can go a long way.

Say Yes to new experiences, new foods and new ideas.

Not every location is right for every person. The big city party scenes of SE Asia weren’t my thing, but the small towns offered so many wonderful experiences that were more my style. It’s ok if you don’t want to booze it up every night with the 20-somethings, be you.

Most people are wonderful (locals and travelers); friendly, kind, helpful and mean you no harm, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of your situation as there are a few rotten eggs out there.

When something bad happens it’s no use crying over spilled milk, clean it up and get on living and enjoying the present and future. Losing my SD card sucked, but once it was gone there was nothing I could do but go make new memories.

Lastly, it’s ok if you don’t have a definitive plan for your life. Life is too short to be locked into one single mindset/path, be open to evolution and change.

Embracing the Unexpected

First views of the mountains reflecting in Lago Pehoè.

In my first blog after I quit my job I wrote about how I wasn’t sure what I expected out of my long term travels. Maybe some adventure, cultural enlightenment, new friends, but more that I’d just take the journey in stride, one day at a time. In my previous life as a working stiff, travels had always been very well planned out, because you don’t want to waste a day when you only have a few weeks. This is what really separates long term travel from it’s shorter counterparts (for me), the freedom and flexibility one has to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. In a 2-3 week trip one can visit all the beautiful places I’ve seen (obviously not in one trip), and meet lots of amazing locals and travelers, but what if an opportunity arose mid-travel? You probably couldn’t/wouldn’t change your entire trip to do something completely unplanned.

Don’t feel bad I didn’t get to backpack the loop, I got in two pretty nice long runs.

The volunteer crew at Erratic Rock before heading out. Photo courtesy of the @TDPLegacyFund

After being shut out of the multi-day trekking options in Torres del Paine, I did some long day runs (see earlier blog), returning to Puerto Natales each night to relax at Erratic Rock. One night while sitting and having a glass of wine I overheard the hostel staff Bill and Jess talking about a volunteer trail building opportunity that they were helping to organize in Torres del Paine the first week of March. For those of you who know me well, you know I have a passion for giving back to the parks and trail systems that so many of us heavily use, and sometimes neglect and abuse. I’ve even taken several courses on trail design, maintenance and construction, along with how to lead volunteer groups in such settings (Thanks Boulder Country Parks & Open space!). So with all that in mind I couldn’t pass up the possibility of joining the group and proceeded to beg my way into the team. Thanks to the folks at the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund I was now part of the team of volunteers, and I’d be back in Puerto Natales the first week of March to head into the park for a full week of camping and trail building.

The team enjoys the catamaran ride across the lake.

The sea of tents at Paine Grande town.

After a five day stint in Ushuaia and a little over a week playing around on the trails of El Chalten and El Calafate I caught a bus back to Puerto Natales for a few nights at Erratic Rock before heading into the park to work. It was kind of like hanging out with the family, and I even got put to work by Bill a little bit, always happy to help out. Friday March 3rd much of the crew met up and made some last minute arrangements before heading out. The group was comprised of several of us gringos from the States, a couple Chileans from up north, a few local guides, a traveler from France and a whole bunch of the local Guarda Parques (park service). On Saturday afternoon we loaded into several vehicles and drove the back road into Torres del Paine. Those of us non-locals marveled at the views of the mountains reflecting off a dead calm Lago Pehoè, how did we get so lucky? We then transferred all our gear from the vehicles onto the catamaran at Pudeto and set off on the 30min journey across the lago to Rifugio Paine Grande, our home for the next week. We were treated to beautiful views as we slowly motored across the Lago. Saturday was spent setting up camp and getting to know our colleagues as we dined in the rifugio, fancy living.

Day one of trail work, the team getting acclimated.

Relaxing back in camp after a successful day.

Work began on Sunday with John (ex-US forest service ranger) from Oregon heading up the trail design and organizing the team. I’d take a secondary role alongside Legacy Fund leader Emily helping organize the teams of workers and answering questions about trail design and trying to translate to the Spanish speakers when possible (my Spanish is still pretty rough, but getting better). We built waterbars, cut bushes, cleared calafate (damn thorny bastards) and dug new trail thread from 9-5 each day. For those of you who haven’t done this it’s a heck of a cross training workout. We then spent our afternoons unwinding in Paine Grande town, multi lingual chatting, playing games and drinking beer/wine. It was such a wonderful mix of personalities and people from all backgrounds, and while we slaved away all day, we had plenty of fun in the process.

The Milky Way stretching over Lago Pehoe. Not sure why it won’t rotate.

Sunrise on Paine Grande town from the catamaran dock.

Digging new trail, with some nice views.

We had to trim a shit ton of brush and stubborn calafate.

Torres del Paine (and Patagonia ) is known for unstable weather, and after three days of hard work in misty conditions Wednesday looked terrible (3-4cm of rain). We decided a day of rest would do us all good, so we kicked back, wrote in journals, played games and just enjoyed each other’s company, because boy did it rain, just nice and steady all day. When I awoke Thursday morning the rain was tapering off, but I found a lake around my tent, and that several of my neighbors were less fortunate and their tents were IN the lake. We made a mild effort to dry some things out, and moved tents out of the lagoon before heading out to inspect how our handy work on the trails had held up to the rain.

Working away on both sides of the outlet of Lago Skottsburg.eventually there will be a bridge here.

Afternoon break to enjoy the views.

Relaxing in the dining hall as the rain fell.

Lago Rifugio, my tent sat front and center on the hill, while four others sat in the puddle to the right.

Obstacle #1 was crossing the shin deep river that had appeared between us and the guard shack. Thursday we split into two groups, one building boardwalk over a marshy section, while Emily and I took team #2 back to keep cutting new trail. Obstacle #2 came in the form of our usual river crossing, formerly on stones, but now fully submerged. Many of us resorted to damp feet, then it was back to cutting, weeding and digging. Though our group was slowly dwindling, those that were left made for a fun crew, as we got to know each other even better. Friday dawned our last day of digging in the dirt, after bidding John (our fearless leader) farewell, we finished up some last sections and called it a successful week. We’d dug more than 1km of hard fought new trail and built 37 waterbars.

Crossing the river at peak flow .

How pretty is this newly cut trail? Our final segment of the week.

Before and after construction #1.

Before and after shot of some new trail #2.

The last thing in the agenda was a night of celebration with all our new friends as a full moon rose into clear skies illuminating the mountains, lakes and fields. It was fitting that our final morning dawned clear, as the sun’s rays slowly melted their way down Paine Grande and into camp. Sadly this is where we had to bid many of the Guarda Parques farewell, while the rest of us headed back to Puerto Natales before eventually going our respective ways. Simply getting to work in the park for the week was an absolute treat in its own right, but getting to meet and share the experience with such a wonderfully diverse group of people made it just magical. Our Spanglish games in Paine Grande town, dance parties on the trail, plenty of poor translations (many by me), realizing you pitched your tent in a stream bed and quiet mornings with friends watching the sun rise over the the magical land of Torres del Paine. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from the week, and am so glad I decided to say “screw the plan, I’m doing this”, when the opportunity arose. While most people won’t have this flexibility while traveling I’d implore you not to be afraid to say yes to the unexpected, and let life be fluid, because who knows what opportunity might come your way, and when it might happen. A life of experiences and memories is much better than one filled with “What IFs”.

Enjoying some vino and pisco by moonlight.

Taking in one last sunrise.

One last boat ride out of the park with some new friends.

Goodbye for now, but not forever.

Travelers Guilt

Planes, trains and buses. Sometimes you’re packed in like a sardine, other times you have half a plane to yourself. In route to Malaysia.

In the developed world many of us are very fortunate to have the means and the opportunity to travel, both domestically and internationally. I could write pages on the benefits of traveling to different cultures and becoming an international citizen, but that’s not what has my brain cranking. No, what has me pondering what it means to be a traveler is something I’ve deemed “travelers guilt”, let me explain. During my time in Asia I spent a lot of time talking with locals, learning about their culture and lifestyle and sharing mine. Both in Nepal and Myanmar I talked about my travels to many different countries and cities and about all of what I’d seen. For most people in the western world, you may be jealous of the things I’ve done and seen, but the fact that I’m doing them is not a surprise to you. Most of you probably know a dozen other people who have taken off on a several month long journey (or longer), to distant far off lands.

Christmas festivities ibn the Seoul airport, complete with a woman singing songs from Frozen, in Korean.

Most people in the developing world don’t have this luxury. Life focuses on family, friends, home, farm, school and the essentials. Many people in SE Asia and Nepal have never been out of their own country, and some may not have ever left their districts/regions. Traveling for pleasure is just not something they think about or that is part of their culture, so to talk to world travelers opens up a world of different experiences and possibilities. So far, this is all good, sharing different experiences and ideas.
Now the guilt. Both in Nepal and Myanmar the question came up about how much it costs me to travel; hostels, airplanes, buses, visas, etc, there are a lot of different expenses that go into traveling internationally. I’m a fairly thrifty traveler, but flights still cost hundreds of dollars, visas upwards of $150 in some countries. My new friends asked me about all these things and I wasn’t going to lie or sugar coat anything. But as I recited some of the numbers I realized, even my cheap $400 flight to Asia was an amount of money that they could live off for a month, it’s an amount that takes them some time to wrap their head around, and we spend it merely for pleasure.

Our adopted Burmese family, they invited us to their family picnic, gave us beer and food and did out makeup, because…

Teaching my Nepalese kids about America and world geography.

I began to feel very guilty and extremely self continuous about my travels, and spent my several days of transit to Hawaii (via Thailand and Korea) pondering what this concept really meant. Should I not be traveling and instead just donate my extra money to charities, should I travel but share my money more freely with as many locals as possible, or is this just the nature of economic inequality? In the end I came back to the advantages of international travel for our society and individuals. Awareness, understanding and sharing our cultures brings tolerance and in my opinion makes us all better and more compassionate people, but that’s just my opinion on how I travel and what I want to get out of travel.

Wedding in the village of Shishaghat. Family, friends, food, dancing and everyone (even me) is invited.

But this doesn’t mean “travelers guilt” hasn’t changed how I travel. Since there are huge economic disparities between the western world and developing countries I think those of us do have a responsibility to do the little things to help those who need it most. Don’t stay in big corporate hotels instead find a small B&B or guesthouse. Buy from street vendors and small shops instead of big commercial operations (guess this is true for the US too). And even though you have more money than the locals don’t flaunt it, be respectful. I’ve started trying to spread my money around when I can, but not spending more extravagantly than I normally would, just being conscious of where my money goes. I’ve seen way too many people throwing money around and treating the economically less fortunate as slaves, which just disgusts me.

Shopping the street markets of Yangon, Myanmar for fruits and veggies.

Most of you reading this were born with a similar level of privilege that I was, and I feel it’s our duty to be responsible citizens and try to help those wonderful hard working folks who offer more than a simple product, but a story and friendship (I guess this is some degree of socialism for mankind). I welcome different thoughts, opinions, and arguments for/against what I’ve written above. These are just my ponderings and musings and I’d love to hear other opinions or if anyone else has struggled with this topic. For now, I’ll keep on traveling, but am a little more aware of how I do it and how much of a privilege it is. Thanks to ask those who have shared this journey with me, opened their lives to me and whom have helped me grow along the way.

So no matter how you travel, enjoy the ride. The people and places are what make the experience, not how much it costs.

Where Fire meets Water; Volcano National Park Ultra

​An ever changing landscape, Volcanoes National Park is one of the few parks that’s still being molded on a macro scale. Not one mm a year like the grand canyon or a few inches like the redwoods, but in some places dozens of feet of new land are added to this national park by the flowing bubbling lava. Ben and I spent a rainy night at camp along the Hilina Pali Rd at Kulanaokuaniki, but awoke at first light to clear skies. After a short drive we located the unmarked trailhead along Hilina Pali Rd  (sometimes called the Halape trail), parked in a small pullout and set off along the cairned, but barely visible route toward Halape.

Ben starting down the Halape ‘trail’ definitely unmaintained.

Following the ‘trail’ through the grass, really just a bunch of cairns.

The ‘trail’ started out as a faint path well marked by cairns, but we were soon dumped onto an old road that was horribly overgrown, but still quite visible. We thrashed through knee to waist deep grass for a few miles until the road disappeared into deep grass and we were left with nothing but a line if cairns to follow. The trail began to descend southward toward the ocean rather than traversing back toward the Chain of Craters road as we’d expected, but it was so well marked we continued forward. We descended steeply down some old switchback to the Halape junction (2:15), much further west along the trail than we were expecting because on the map the unmaintained trail was supposed to drop us onto the Keauhou trail closer to Chain of Craters road. Sadly we’d missed the trail down to Halape and decided that because of the slow conditions we’d alter the route and continue on the loop minus Halape.

Ben making his way across the Ka’aha trail, a major trail in the park.

Lava tube near Ka’aha, a little exploration.

As we started across the Hilina Pali trail toward Ka’aha it was very evident that the day was going to be a slow trudge. While this ‘main’ trail was very well marked we were wading through knee to waist deep grass the entire time and almost nothing was runnable. We passed through a lovely grove of trees (shade!) and then slowly descended toward the beach at Ka’aha (5:45).

At the ocean near Ka’aha, weeee.

The rolling lava fields between Ka’aha and Pepeiao

The Ka’aha shelter is a funny little shack with a rain water tank and a bathroom near a protected swimming bay. We dipped our hands into the ocean and continued onward along the coast. The character of the coast dramatically changed, and we soon found ourselves running across buttery smooth black lava dunes. It was by far the most runnable and most enjoyable section of the entire day. We spent several miles cruising through the barren lava field, the ocean on one side and the Hilina Pali cliffs on the other, finally arriving at the sandy promontory overlooking several sea arches and the crashes waves of the Pacific. This is what I pictured Volcanoes National Park to look like, barren lava beds, towering sea side cliffs, crashing waves and compete solitude, it had only taken us 6 hours to find it.

Seaside living, lava, arches, big waves.

Pepiao shelter high in the hill side.

We then left the ocean and started the long, slow, hot trudge up toward Pepeiao. As we ascended the rocky lava the wind died and we started to bake in the hot sun. I was definitely fatiguing so the pace died a bit. We finally reached the Pepeiao hut perched high on the Hilina Pali with expansive views I the lower park (6:45). We again refilled our water and proceeded to immediately lose the trail coming out of the cabin. After 10min of bishwacking through the grass we finally located the over grown trail headed uphill away from the cabin.

Ben leaving the Pepiao shelter into the deep grass.

Less than a mile out from the cabin Ben began to cough and some horrid smell was tickling my nose, it took us a few minutes but we finally realized it was SO2 fumes from Kileuea, which made both of us a little sick and uneasy. Over the next few miles we’d continually get inundated with toxic fumes, go through coughing fits, then push onward. Finally as we neared the Hilina Pali overlook we left the fumes behind and were free and clear, thank god nothing lasting. The Hilina Pali overlook is a quiet little cabin with good views of the coast and lava field below, but it’s hard to gain perspective I the area from so far away (8:30). All that was left was to jog the final 3.5 miles of road back to the car and closer the loop. We arrived back at the car at 4:10, 9 hours and 10 minutes after starting, having covered between 26-29 miles (unknown because of trail changes and wanderings).

One of the things I’ve learned from my first six national park ultra run adventures is that not only is there a huge diversity of landscapes within the park system, but often this huge diversity applies to a single park. Volcanoes NP transitions from rain forest, to subtropical, to chest deep grasslands, to barren lava beds and finally sandy beaches. And while the route we ran (really mostly hiking) in Volcanoes was not exactly what I thought it would be, it lived up to the showing the true character and diversity that Volcanoes National Park had to offer. The variety of landscapes, the ruggedness of the terrain, the battle between man and nature (nature is winning), and some beautiful solitude. So the project continues on, with six National Park ultraruns competed, and >40 to go, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

NOTES: 

First off Volcanoes National Park suffers the same issue as many other parks, a gross lack of funding. In fact we later found out that the park had laid off all their trail crews for months prior, explaining the overgrown trails. Because I’d this don’t expect super smooth runnable trails, but more an adventurous bushwack, bring a good map. Camping at the ocean side shelters would be quite nice, but Pepeiao want very inspiring and was full of red ants. Since lowers volcanoes is mostly dry grasslands don’t expect to find any water except for the rain collection at the shelters, inquire with the park as to how full the catch basins are and whether the trails have been maintained at all. Note that because of the volcanic activity this run does not include the active lava flows of Kileaua or Pu’u O’o, but both are must see side trips, especially where Pu’u O’o flows into the ocean. So if you’re looking for solitude in a unique volcanic moonscape, give lower Volcanoes National Park a go. Thanks to Vfuel for supporting my habits and to Ben for joining me for this adventure.

Lava flowing out of Pu’u O’o into the ocean at sunset.

The lava glow of the Kileaua crater at sunset.

Navigating Medical help in Chile

Morning stroll through the Plaza de Armas on my way to the clinic.

First off, I’m fine nothing major, but I contracted a nasty case of poison oak in California a week ago which has spread to all my lower extremities and has my left leg swollen as if I’d run 100 miles. I’m quite allergic and since it wasn’t improving I made the venture into the wide world of Chilean healthcare for a little assistance.

My swollen and rash covered leg, hard to appreciate my cankle and giant calf.

First off I was relieved to learn that the Chilean healthcare system is quite good. The network of pharmacies is wide, but while one can get many things over the counter, corticosteriods are not one. So my choice was a ‘hospital’ or a ‘clinica’ to get a prescription. Hospitals are government subsidized facilities while clinics are privately run (and often better), so I opted for the Clinica Davila near downtown Santiago. My traveler insurance doesn’t cover small medical visits, so that was of no use, so it was all going to be out of pocket.

Entry to the Clinica Davila, looks legit.

I walked in the main doors of the clinic and up to the front desk, where it became apparent I’d be doing my transactions in Spanish, I wanted to practice and what a way to learn. I was sent to a check-in desk where I was able to get my name on the list for a doctor consult, then came the fun adventure of getting my information in the system as a foreigner without insurance. The guy at the payment desk had a little trouble, but we figured it out, $45 later,  then came the wait to be called in to see the doctor. An hour later I was called in; the doctora examined me, we navigated my issues with my limited Spanish, she looked at my leg and prescribed an antibiotic and a steroid and off I went.

Bottom is my appointment form, top my prescription, mmm steroids.

I stopped in at the local Ahunada farmacia and picked up my meds without issue ($18). In total the process took about 3h, but if I didn’t speak any Spanish I’m not sure how I would have done it. So just a word of warning, that while the healthcare in Chile is wonderful and very available, finding English speakers is a tough task and be ready to fumble your way through the process if you don’t speak Spanish. Here’s to hoping the swelling goes down quickly and I can get back to normal. It’s been a rough start to 2017, full of all kinds of learning experiences.

Solo in Myanmar, but not Alone

When I set out from the United States in September the only thing that was certain was I was flying into Thailand, after that the possibilities were endless. As I made my way through Thailand and into Cambodia I kept meeting travelers who raved about Myanmar and it’s amazing people and scenery. Well, if this many seasoned travelers think so highly of it, maybe I have to go? Myanmar has just recently opened itself to more expansive tourism (2015), and due to governmental restrictions tourism is developing slowly in most areas of the country (a good thing). So as I was finishing my trek around the Annapurna area in late November I pulled the trigger and put in for an eVisa and booked a flight for a two week stint in Myanmar with almost no plan or idea what I was getting into.

Street market in Yangon

The eVisa came back approved three days later so it was official, I booked a place in Yangon for two nights and would figure it out from there. After another stop through KL on 12/3 I was off to Yangon, and was dumped into a quiet modern airport, breezed through immigration and on to baggage claim. The first thing I noticed was all the locals were wearing lovely dresses and longyis and had smiles on their faces as they waited for loved ones. I shared a taxi into downtown with an Aussie (‘P’) and relaxed for the night. I spent the next two days mostly just wandering the streets and markets of Yangon. The most striking thing was how few tourist I saw. Sure there were a few at the Bongyoke market, Sule pagoda and Shewdagon, but we were by far the minority in a sea of Burmese. I actually felt as though people were simply going about daily life and I was a fly on the wall, very refreshing change from Thailand or Thamel (Kathmandu). The streets were crowded with fruit/vegetable stalls, food carts, electronic stores, longyi shops and thousands of stalls selling betel nut chew (huge in Myanmar).

Shwedagon Pagoda glitters at night.

I’m not much of a city goer but I truly loved Yangon and all the locals I met. And I have to admit I find the Burmese people very attractive (except their red teeth); friendly, well dressed people with soft facial features (thanks to thanaka), sorry, single male here so I notice these things.

Aung Mingalar bus station, oh the madness. Bottom, VIP night bus to Bagan.

First Bagan sunrise, temple all to myself.

Temples temples everywhere, 2200 to be exact.

Sunsets in Bagan are also pretty nice.

After three days I caught a shared truck from Sule up to Aung Mingalar bus station (1000 kyat) on the north end of town and proceeded into the madness. See Aung Mingalar bus station is not a station but a massive complex, covering 6-8 sets of warehouses, and it took me 20min to find my labeled bus. The VIP night bus to Bagan was quite comfortable, but dropped us off and 5am, ugh. I shared a taxi into New Bagan with a few others, paid the 25000 kyat Bagan entry fee, dropped my bag at the Mingalar hotel, rented a bike and immediately took off to watch sunrise. With no idea where I was going I simply rode toward the nearest temples finding a small one that was unlocked. I climbed (literally) up to the top just as the morning sun was illuminating the haze and the hot air balloons drifted by. Wow, what a welcome to Bagan, atop my own private temple. I spent the next two days riding my bike down random dirt roads past temples of all shapes and sizes, admiring the local’s sand paintings and chatting with the artist about life. But what made the Bagan experience were the sunrises and sunsets (didn’t miss one) perched atop a temple just watching the world go by with my new friends Sandra, Yongia and Sergio. Something about watching the soft early/late days light filter across the plains with just the shadows of temples popping out of the jungle is just magical. Finally it was time to catch another night bus, this time to Inle Lake and sadly I had to bid Bagan and the friendly folks of the Mingalar hotel farewell. Night busses may sound convenient (they are faster than trains) but they are bumpy and often arrive at ungodly hours, this one at 4am. Thankfully the Win Nyunt hotel had some space so I crashed out in a bed on the floor.

Sharing sunrise with friends.

One last Bagan sunset before heading to Inle Lake.

Exploring caves in Myanmar means temples and lots of Buddhas.

The following day I met up with my new friends; James, Doris, Morgan and Molly and we took off around Inle Lake for an afternoon ride, finished off by drinking wine with views of the lake. We all hit if off and enjoyed dinner, beers and roller blading (yes that’s right) that night and planned to meet up again the next day for a hot spring and a boat ride. Molly and Morgan ended up taking the morning off, leaving James, Doris and myself to head to the hot springs, which were a bust ($10USD spa, bah). Just as we were about to give up I pulled over to check out some random local pool where a group of locals (who spoke almost no English) handed us beers, sat us down, fed us and after that we were basically family for the next 1.5h. As we pulled away on our bikes bidding them farewell, covered in makeup and thanaka, we were all laughing hysterically and had no idea what happened, but relishing the experience. We then met Morgan and Molly at the boat dock for the standard sunset tour of Inle Lake, which was a nice mellow way to cap off such a wonderfully unexpected day.

Winery with views of Inle Lake, it’s a rough life.

Lunch with our new family. We were literally spoon fed and had our makeup done.

Doris gettingher makeup done.

Just making friends and getting our makeup done. Photo curtousey of James Fletcher.

Afternoon boat ride on Inle Lake amongst the floating villages.

Boat cruising through the floating villages.

Sunset on Inle Lake, relaxing end to a wonderful day.

The right people can make a good experience an amazing one.

Since I had another night bus I was able to spend one last day in Nyaung Shwe just relaxing with the others. Then at 4p I bid them farewell as I hopped the bus to Bago to connect to Hpa-an. So many amazing new friends on my journey, some I will hopefully see again. Once again dumped in Bago at sunrise to await an 8am bus to Hpa-an (apparently there was a direct bus from Inle I was not aware of), this gave me a chance to kick back and watch the locals just do their thing as everyone started up there day.

View from Lombini gardens up toward Mt Zwegabin.

View from the pagoda atop Mt Zwegabin toward Hpa-an.

Kawgun cave and it’s 7th century temple built right into the walls.

I arrived in Hpa-an in the early afternoon and strolled over to the Kan Thar Yar (Royal Inn) right on the lake where I’d phoned in for a room (14000 kyat, not online, 058 21600). Hpa-an is a fairly sleepy town surrounded by massive karst cliffs, caves and countryside. Nice place to relax for a bit. I went for a hike up Mt Zwegabin (so hot and sweety) for the amazing view, visited the monastery at Kyauk Kalap, strolled through temple caves and made some new Burmese friends by the lake. What a way to end my journey, calm, friendly and beautiful. Back to Yangon on the 9am bus I went after 2 days of relaxing in Hpa-an, and a slow 7h ride it was. Shared a taxi from Aung Mingalar back into town for 7000 kyat and settled back in at the Agga B&B. I spent my last day in Yangon just how I’d started, wandering the streets, shopping, eating all kinds of street food, a 5000 kyat massage (19th Spa, worth it!), and just watching the locals do their thing. I’m going to miss this place and these people, but the next adventure is calling, Hawaii with Ben!

Sunrise on Kan Thar lake in the center of Hpa-an.

Random assortment of fried Burmese street food. All delicious, especially the small square things.


Notes, Tips and Tricks:

As of this writing (12/2016) tourism is just permeating into Myanmar, but it definitely hasn’t ruined the spirit yet. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful and curious when it comes to foreigners. The only place where I really noticed the tourism was Inle Lake, everywhere else I was just an Asian man lost in a sea of Burmese. There are just a handful of budget hotel/hostel options online, but there are many more that are phone or walkin only, so while I mostly prebooked you should also be able to find walkin places of you’re into a little wandering. Note that a hotel needs a tourist license to rent to foreigners and not all places have them, look for signs in English. For food, the Burmese like it oily, fried and in a soup. So if you’re a picky eater, good luck, and look for the few upscale western restaurants and try the steamed rice dishes. 

My main recommendation for traveling Myanmar would be, travel slowly, stop and talk to locals and take in everything you can. Zooming by on a motorbike or taxi won’t give you the opportunity to really experience the country, walk or ride a bike when you can. My dozens of wonderful interactions with the people are by no means unique, I’ve heard many other stories from other travelers to the same effect, the people really are that amazing so don’t be afraid.

Getting around the country takes time. To/from the airport you can use a combination of shared truck to Te Mi and bus #51 to downtown, but good luck finding it (taxi 7000-8000 kyat, bargain for it). To/from Aung Mingalar bus station either bus #43 (300kyat) or shared vans from Sule Pagoda (1000 kyat or taxi 7000-8000 kyat). And expect the ride from town to the airport/bus station takes 1-1.5h. Bus travel is slow but more efficient than trains. Night buses work alright but don’t be surprised if you arrive at 1-5a. Motos, eBikes and bicycles can be found for rent in most places though your feet also work really well for getting around town.

Don’t miss a sunrise or sunset in Bagan, you’ll regret it. I can give you directions to my random little temple if you wish, but I won’t post it publicly 🙂 Lastly if you’re the big package tour group kind of person you better stray from the group or you’ll miss why Myanmar is so wonderful, it’s not about snapping iconic photos it’s about experiencing the culture. Safe travels and happy adventuring to all.

People of Nepal (Volunteering in Shishaghat)

Annapurna Basecamp, the Himalaya are truly amazing.

When many people think of Nepal the first thing that comes to mind is usually the soaring Himalaya or Mt Everest. But to those who have traveled the country the amazing people come in a close second. The soft spoken and kind demeanor, their unrelenting helpfulness, and most importantly their positive outlook on life even when circumstances dictate otherwise. The cliche goes, ‘You come for the mountains, but return because of the people’.

I had planned to spend roughly 1.5 months wandering Nepal and knew I’d have 8-10 days at the end of my journey with no scheduled itinerary. So I poked around Pokhara (hehe) for possible volunteering opportunities at local schools,  farms, orphanages, but nothing really popped up that seemed right. Then one day as I was surfing instagram a tag line caught my eye, ‘The_Help_Nepal_Appeal‘ liked one of my photos. So I pulled up the webpage, read a little more and was intrigued enough that I contacted the organizer Jody Dontje to see if there was anything that suited my talents and time I could help with. Surprisingly she got back to me very quickly and a long email chain back and forth ensued. See, when one is trekking (like I was), Nepal’s already unreliable Web Access becomes even worse, though it’s a wonder there is email at all. So just a few days before I finished trekking the Annapurna region it was settled that I’d be heading up to the village of Shishaghat to volunteer in the school and to observe and assess the new English program and special needs program.

Me and part of my adopted family.

Normal classroom setup at Mahendra Joyti.

I spent the 22nd lounging around Pokhara preparing to spend 9 days in the rural village when I came down horribly ill that night. No way I was going to be traveling in that state so I had to delay my departure 24h. Thankfully antibiotics work and on the 24th of November I was on a bus headed to shishaghat. Thanks to a helpful driver and my village liason Keshar I made it to the village without issue and setup camp for 8 days with Indira and her daughter Akritti in there lovely little home. After a short half day intro to the school and the programs, that saw me mostly observing, Saturday was a day off so Keshar had planned some festivities. Sadly my stomach hadn’t fully recovered so I came down sick again Saturday night. I struggled my way back to being healthy enough to join the kids at school Sunday afternoon.

Morning prayer at Mahendra Joyti school in Shishaghat.

Enough about my health struggle, which lasted several days, and on to the more important things; the school, children and community of Shishaghat.

My roll in the school was very loosely setup, but the few things I was setup to assess was the quality of the English teaching program, the special needs class and to interact with the kids to expose them to a foreigner. I was thrown into class 4-7 science lectures, talking about geology, basic physics, biology and ended each class talking about my life, American culture and traveling. In Shishaghat they don’t get much exposure to foreigners so simply hearing me speak and talk about many subjects is a lesson in itself. They have wonderful memories and are fascinated by many things, but don’t have the chance to implement and experience many of their lessons.

Teaching about some basic American culture. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Teachers and workers of the Help Nepal Appeal. One big family.

Both the students and my fellow teachers were wonderful, so friendly, so helpful and open. It’s not just a job, it’s a community and a family. In my short time at the school I made numerous new friends, learned about Nepali culture and village life and got a good dose of perspective. When you break it down, life is very simple, and there are so many wonderful things there is no need to focus on the negative. The children were so energetic, excited and curious, but they are working with such simple tools it’s stunting their development and learning. For them, simply being exposed to foreigners and new thought processes opens their eyes to new possibilities. Interacting with the teachers also helped us both learn about each others life style and teaching styles. 

Some of my fellow teachers and the folks of the help Nepal appeal. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Sharing stories with the kids of the village. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Wedding day in the village, all are invited.

My words will never express my gratitude to the community of Shishaghat for taking me in for that sort time. The experience was more than just about teaching it was about cultural immersion for both myself and all the students and teachers. I’m hoping my sorry time was able to open up some of the kids to new possibilities and to help our world’s grow cost together. There are so many lessons to be learned merely by sharing ones life with others,  and we’d be a better world of more people did so. So I’ll leave it at that. I encourage everyone to go out and give some time,  share a story, no matter how basic. If you’re looking to work with some wonderful people,  The Help Nepal Appeal is a great organization, Jody is working hard and making a big difference in many ways,  and Shishaghat is an amazing community. Hopefully some day I will be able to return to Shishaghat and all my wonderful new friends, but for now is on to Myanmar to continue to share stories and cultures and hopefully continue to grow. Thanks to The Help Nepal Appeal and Jody for setting everything up,  Zahariz for the great photos and Vfuel for supporting all my adventurous habits. 

Village liason Keshar showing us around the Madi river.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek

​November 15th, Day 1 (or 10), Tatopani to Gorepani.

After my whirlwind tour of the Annapurna Circuit I planned to use my fitness and acclimatization to easily cruise up to Basecamp in a few days. After a relaxing afternoon in Tatopani restocking, hot springing (worth the price), and planning I was all set to tackle the steep but short trek to Basecamp. Another casual 8am start down the road before the steep uphill started. The climbing was steady and relentless up through Ghara and Shirka (2:05). Views back down the lovely lush valley were quite expansive. The trail then mellowed for a bit through Phalate (3:10) and Chitre (3:50) before the final steep push to Gorepani.

I put my head down and hammered out this last section reaching town just before 1p. Gorepani was much larger than I’d expected with several small trekkers shops, bakeries and dozens of guesthouses. I took a free room with a view at the Greenview Lodge and spent the afternoon relaxing. For those searching for the best views in town head higher on the hill, you probably won’t get a free room, but those places had phenomenal decks from which to watch sunset/sunrise. 17km, 1700m+, 4:40.

Terraced hillside near Shikha.

Dhaulgiri views.

Lots of pleasant first hiking up to Basecamp.

Sunset and sunrise from Gorepani on Annapurna.


Day 2 (or 11), Muldai Tower dayhike.

I stayed in Gorepani for two nights so I could go for a trail run without the big pack. The goal was the Muldai Tower at just over 3600m, hopefully with some sweeping views. Waited until the warm sunny hour of 930a to hit the trail armed with my inov8 running vest and a hand bottle,  jogging past tons of people enroute to Deurali Pass. At the pass I refilled water and the fun began. I located the signed trail to Muldai behind the tea house and set off on the narrow single track all by my lonesome.

The trail was easy to follow, though narrow and steep at times, as it undulating along the ridge before sweeping around a massive rock promentory. After many switchbacks I was finally deposited back on the ridge as the views were just starting to get good. The climb kept rolling up up up, until the tower was finally in sight. At last I climbed the rickety steps to up the 10ft tall tower (2:10) and was able to relax and marvel at the views from 3637m.

Ahead were stunning views of Manaslu, Machhapuchhre, Annapurna and Nilgiri. Behind the entire sweep of the Dhaulgiri massive was visible,  and far below the Pokhara valley was shrouded in haze. After several photos,  some video and lots of gawking I trotted my way down the steep trail through Muldai and into Dobato (making a loop). I hung a left in Dobato at the guesthouse finally reaching the pass to Swarta… holy downhill. Before me lay 1400m of relentless downhill to the river far below. The trail was steep but offered good footing as I pounded down into Swarta (3:40). I briefly lost the trail before refinding it and reaching the crossing of the Ghar Khola at 2000m (4:40).

Note that Gorepani (and my bed) lay at 2800m, so with 1200m of climbing already on my legs I set out on the final soul crushing ascent. With only a small vest on this should not have been so bad,  accept I’d consumed 100g of cashews and one pack of crackers all day…oops. So head down and exhausted away I trudged. Some good old fashion type II fun, as I finally returned to Gorepani around 3p (5:32), thoroughly exhausted but satisfied. Ate some pastry, enjoyed daal bhat dinner with Ryan and Beth (from Philly), and crashed early after the long day. 30km, 2000m+, 5:32.

The tiny Muldai tower perched atop is view point with Dhaulgiri behind.

Just another afternoon trail run in front of Annapurna.

Panoramic views from the Muldai Tower.


Day 3 (or 12), Gorepani to Chomrong.

Slept in a bit after my longer than expected day and felt sluggish as I started up the trail toward Deurali pass. The descent from the pass followed a stream through a lovely green valley to the village of Banthanti (1:30) then dropped precipitously before the short 200m climb back up to Tadapani (2:40). I elected to take the high route from Tadapani to Chomrong, skipping Gandruk, but of course the first thing I did was descend 800m to the Kimrong Khola, before starting the slow climb back to Chomrong.

My legs were heavy and the hot sun definitely took a toll on me as I slogged past numerous small guesthouses, so I was very relieved when I finally arrived at the hill top restaurant (4:00). From here the views really started to open up and the terrain eased a bit before I finally descended into town. Chomrong is the village of 1000 steps (or more), so I settled in at the international guesthouse high on the hill in a pretty spectacular room with a view. My easy day had proved not so easy after all, so is trekking in the Himalaya. 16km, 900m+/1600m-, 4:53.

Lovely green forest on the trail from Gorepani to Tadapani.

View from the edge of Tadapani, not too shabby.

Views get good as you near Chomrong.

Room with a view in Chomrong, literally.

Fires burn bright on the shoulder of Machhapuchhre.


Day 4 (or 13), Chomrong to Deurali.

Down down down 200m of steps only to climb right back up to Sinuwa (0:45). Then the trail climbed much more slowly before turning straight downhill on steep stairs into Bamboo (2:15). I was very glad that the trail after Bamboo eased a bit and steadily climbed up through pleasant forest where I finally reached Himalaya (3:45). It was early so I continued to plod on up to Deurali where I took a dorm bed at the Deurali GH, as all the other places were full (first time). I did some laundry and enjoyed the sunshine the rest of the afternoon. Everything in this portion of the valley is ala cart, hot shower, wifi, battery charge all cost extra. 14km, 1500m+, 4:45.

Location of guesthouses in the upper valley.

Looking back at Chomrong and all the stairs from Sinuwa.

Fog creeping up the valley toward Deurali.

Day 5 (or 14), Deurali to Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) + Lookout hike. 

Was in no rush being I only had a few hours to reach Basecamp so got stated at the crack of 8:25a. The morning was still chilly but quite a few groups were already ahead of me, but I soon passed them and was hiking alone. The valley opened up and I was bathed in warm sunshine as I reached MBC (1:00). The final climb to ABC was quite mellow as I was now surrounded by the vast amphitheater of rock and ice. I cruised into ABC at 10:35a (2:10) and had the place to myself. I was able to enjoy a snack and relax before the masses arrived.

Just before noon I set out on the trail behind ABC bound for a high view point overlooking the valley. I made quick time up the several hundred meters and was soon perched high above ABC, but this wasn’t enough so I kept climbing the spur ridge toward Patal Hiunchuli. Stopping only once I’d reached the edge of the moraine and the vertical walls guarding the upper mountain at 4800m. It was a good lesson on feeling tiny, as I descended the lumpy grass tufts back to ABC. Sunset from the lodges was quite wonderful, consisting of pink and red hues on Machhapuchhre, followed by an equally spectacular night sky (though very cold). Another early night before sunrise the following morning. 

Views aren’t too shabby on the trail to ABC.

View from my high perch above ABC.

Evening clouds rolling up the valley in front of Machhapuchhre.

Packed house at ABC.

Sunset on Machhapuchhre.

Pretty spectacular night sky over Annapurna south from ABC.


November 20th, Day 6 (or 15), ABC to Jinhu.

Everyone was up early to watch sunrise on Annapurna, which was cold but quiet pleasant. I actually enjoyed sunset much more than sunrise, but both were lovely. After a quick breakfast I strolled back out for one last view of the valley only to run into Steven who had run up that morning from Himalaya. So we set off down valley together, picked up his bag in Himalaya (1:40), and cruised off on the long road to Jinhu. The steep climb out of Bamboo went by quickly, but the miles were starting to wear on Steve so we took a snack break in Sinuwa (4:10) before tackling the Chomrong stairs.

We ground our way up the stairs into Chomrong, checked in with the ACAP then continued up to the small German bakery for pastries. Clouds had settled in over the valley obscuring the views. Filled with pie and danish we finished off the climb through Chomrong and hit the cutoff down to Jinhu. The 400m drop into Jinhu went by quickly and we snagged a room at the Evergreen to colapse after our long day (6:42). Though we were both fairly tired we dragged ourselves out of the room and down another 200m to the Jinhu hot springs. The series of the pools along the river bank were bustling with people, but the warm water (body temp) and serene atmosphere was just the relaxation we needed. We soaked for an hour,  chatting with others and relishing in what an amazing day it had been. After trudging back up to the hotel we vegged out the rest of the night and crashed early. 22km, 400m+/2800m-, 6:42.

Morning silhouttes, pretty nice.

Avalanche roars down south Annapurna.

Back in Sinuwa at the Chomrong stairs.

Jinhu hot springs along the river, nice way to end the trip.


November 21st, Day 7 (or 16), Jinhu to Pokhara.

Started the day with a skype call to the family, while slow, it still amazes me this is possible in these remote regions. Then Steve and I set off for our last day on the trail, a nice mellow downhill to Nayapul and eventually Pokhara. The trail mostly consisted of gently rolling terrain along the river,  a nice change from all the steep stairs. We cruised through Kyumi (1:50) and just kept on walking. Soon after the trail ended and we were dumped out onto the road, so we began to prepare ourselves for the long dusty road to Nayapul when all of a sudden there was a bus in Siwar picking up tourist to Pokhara! Sure, why not. So for 400 rupees we hopped on the bus and ended or trek. The first part of the bus ride back to Nayapul was along a very bumpy dirt road and I was tossed around pretty good in the back. Finally at Nayapul we were back on ‘pavement’ and the drive sped up and smoothed out. After only 2:15 we were deposited at the Baglung bus station of the north end of Pokhara. Since we’d had such a short day of trekking we opted to walk the 3km to the hotel and to see a different side of the city. So ended my trekking days in Nepal. 9km, 100m+/400m-, 2:15.

Final view down valley as you exit the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. 

NOTES;

When it comes to bang for your buck the Annapurna Sanctuary is worthwhile. Beautiful forest, expansive views, waterfalls, glacial rivers and of course the amphitheater at the end all make for a spectacular journey. What you won’t find is authentic Nepali culture or much solitude. Most of the trek is set up purely around tourism, you will still meet many wonderful people from all over the world, but this trek is immensely popular (for good reason). Also this was the first time as an independent trekker finding a room wasn’t easy (from Himalaya up) and I didn’t get free rooms most nights. So if you’re looking for a one week trek with lots of wow factor this is it, but if you want a more authentic experience of Nepali mountain life and culture maybe check out the Langtang region instead (see previous blog). Overall each of my three treks offered something a bit different and made for a wonderful experience in Nepal. 

Annapurna Circuit 9 Day Trek

​November 6th Day 1; Besi Sahar to Tal

After catching a bus from Pokhara to Besi Sahar (550 rupees) on November 5th I’d intended to catch another bus to Nagdi, but when the driver told me 300 rupees for the 14km ride I said no thanks, checked in with the ACAP and stubbornly walked off. The road went by quickly and I soon found myself in Bhulbule and then Ngadi. These first 14km were pretty uninteresting and can easily be skipped, though I enjoyed the quiet morning stroll. Then began the climbing up through the terraced hillsides of Bahundande, Badalbisuanaa, Lili Bhir and Ghermu (which would be a lovely place to stay). At Syange I rejoined the road for the dusty climb up to a short bit a trail into Chamje. Here I missed the bridge so hoofed it along the road all the way to Tal as the valley was bathed in deep shadow. It had been a long 35km, 8.5h day, but the low elevation sections were behind me and into the mountains I went. 37km, 1400m+, 8:26.

Mountain views near Ngadi.

Terraced hillsides of Bahundande.

Looking down on the village of Tal from the road.


Day 2; Tal to Chame

A more causal morning start had me following the single track out of Tal past several waterfalls through the deep gorge all the way to Dharapani. The lush green trail was sunk deep in the river gorge, and I lost it several times as it was not very well marked. Finally I reached Danakyu and began the steep 600m climb up to Timang, where we were teased with views of Manaslu the whole time. After this exhausting steep climb I settled in for lunch on a roof top in Timang with superb views of manaslu. After lunch it was back on the dusty dirt road through Thanchowk, Koto and finally into the bustling town of Chame. I set up shop at the Tilicho GH for the night, a friendly and quaint lodge. Being my birthday I treated myself to fresh apple pie as I chatted with the other travelers. 23km, 1200m+, 7:15.

Views of Manaslu from Timang.

The Annapurna range finally reveals herself.

Birthday apple pie and custard.


Day 3; Chame to Gyaru

Another casual start in the chilly shade of the valley at 8:25, cruising up the dusty road. When I reached the lovely apple orchards of Bhratang I was overwhelmed by the 50-70 people lining the road in front of me. Apparently I’d found all the other trekkers I hadn’t seen the previous two days. I quickly passed them all by, arriving in Dhikur Pokhari around 11am. Here the massive sweeping face of the Swargadwari Danda dominated the skyline. The terrain soon turned very arid as I passed into the rainshadow of the Annapurna massif. As I neared Upper Pisang fantastic views of Annapurna II and IV appeared. I paused on the outskirts of Upper Pisang for lunch and to gawk at the views.  Till now the trail had been climbing pretty gently, then just 1km from Gyaru it jumped up in cruel fashion,  gaining 300m in a series of relentless switchbacks. I grunted up the slope reaching Gyaru just before 2pm. I settled into the Annapurna hotel,  basic accommodations but a million dollar view. Special thanks to Jessie Wilburn for the suggestion, as sunrise (and starry skies) from this village is a must see, best views around. 19km, 1100m+, 5:10.

Swargadwari Danda looming over the river.

View on Annapurna from near Upper Pisang.

Roof top view from Ghyaru


Day 4; Gyaru to Manang

This was to be my easiest day with the big pack on, but I also intended to throw in a side trip to Kicho Tal (Ice Lake), so it wouldn’t be much of a rest day. After watching a beautiful sunrise over the Annapurna range from my hotel rooftop I set off early across the rolling traverse towards Braka. The views across the valley and to the villages far below were quite spectacular. The terrain was pretty easy going until I hit a broad valley near Julu and stared across at the steep 300m decent and climb that awaited me, well damn. I flew down the hill as usual, then came the grind straight back up, ugh. I made decent time and was deposited in a high hanging valley on a gently descending trail, one of the most pleasant sections of trail I’d been on, fantastic views to boot. I cruised on over to the junction with the Ice Lake trail,  dumped my main pack in some bushes and with only a running vest set off up the 900m climb to Ice Lake.

I was huffing and puffing pretty good but made great time to the lake (1:30), and had it all to myself for 20min. The still lake waters reflected the Annapurna massif as some bighorn sheep bounded up the hill behind me. What a place to spend a morning. Then,  abruptly the wind picked (11:20) up and my scene was gone. I jogged back down the hill (0:45) picked up my pack and mosied on over to Manang. I settled in for the night at the Yeti hotel,  a decent but over priced large complex and just wandered town the rest of the afternoon. Manang is a nice place to grab a pastry and stock up on supplies as its the last cheap hub east of Thorung La. Then it was early to bed again. 25km, 1500m+, 6:25.

Sunrise from Ghyaru.


Cruising the trail between Ghyaru and Braka.

Reflection of the Annapurna massif in Ice Lake.

Descending from Ice Lake, there is a tea house half way with some lovely views.

November 10th, Day 5; Manang to Thorung Phedi
I took a slow and steady pace leaving Manang, climbing from 3600m up the valley. There were nice views of Annapurna and Gangapurna behind me, but I was slowly leaving them behind. I took a break for soup lunch in Yak Karkha (4000m), then continued my trudge up valley. The altitude was slowing me down but I kept slogging forward,  crossing the Kone Khola and taking one last tea break before the final push to Thorung Phedi. There are three guesthouses at 4500m set in a high arid valley. Not much views of the mountains here,  but a spectacular valley none the less. It was a chilly and restless night as I didn’t sleep well at the altitude which made me nervous for the following days climb to Thorung La. 15km, 1100m+, 5:06. Resting HR 64.

Views back at Annapurna from near Yak Karkha.

Tea house break just before Thorung Phedi. Nice views and thin air.

Looking up the endless switchbacks from Thorung Phedi to Thorung high camp. How many people can you spot out for an acclimatization hike?

Day 6; Thorung La Pass to Muktinath.

Worried about the altitude I awoke early and hit the trail at first light (6:15am), wrapped in my down jacket. The first part of the climb out of Thorung Phedi consisted of 400m of steep switchbacks up to Thorung high camp. As I slowly climbed upwards I felt OK,  winded but moving steadily. The sun began to illuminate the valley behind me and Annapurna III glowed pink in the morning light. Surprisingly after only 45min I crested the hill arriving at Thorung high camp (4900m), feeling fairly spry. The sun was slowly creeping down from the pass toward me, and soon I found myself bathed in its wonderful morning warmth. The rolling uphill to Thorung La seemed to drag on,  but finally I saw the thousands of prayer flags that adorn the pass, pushed the pace a bit,  and at last plopped down at 5416m atop the pass (2:15).
The pass is set between two sizeable mountains so the only views are backward and forward down the trail, still expansive. I put on all my clothing and proceeded to hang out on top for 1.5h, enjoying the scenery and people watching, in no rush to descend as the thin air felt good. After quite a few photos I decided it was time to go and bounced off down the steep trail toward Muktinath. The steep and dusty descent past Chambarbu and to Muktinath went by quickly and can definitely be a quad killer (1600m-). I strolled into the bustling voyage at Muktinath and took a room at the Hotel Caravan among a sea of local Nepali. I joined the locals and explored the sacred sights of Muktinath, I still feel strange wandering around holy sights of which I don’t have a particular affiliation, but the culture was intriguing and beautiful none the less. 17km, 900m+/1600m-, 4:30 moving.

Morning light creeping toward Thorung High Camp.

The final portion of the climb toward Thorung La pass. Don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the scenery.

Atop Thorung La pass amongst the prayers flags at 5416m.

Nepali pilgrims bathing in the sacred fountains at Muktinath.

November 12th, Day 7; Muktinath, Upper Mustang, Jomsom.

I set out on the trail toward the villages of Jhong and Putak to explore these traditional Mustang villages. As I climbed away from Muktinath following a well beaten path and a series of red arrows (not the red or blue flags) I had the suspicion that my route was taking me a little deeper into Mustang than I’d initially anticipated. Soon I was 500m above the valley, looking back at the expansive views, and forward into a deep valley surrounded by rock towers and massive desert mountains. A couple of Nepali confirmed that if I went down and turned left at Chhuksang I’d reach Kagbeni….I was totally about to descend into the Forbidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang.

I descended the steep trail past several small groups, finally reaching the small village of Tetang with its terraced hillsides,  mud huts, gompas and isolated silence. After another 45min I reached Chhuksang and the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki river. I turned left onto the road and began the long (2h) walk to Kagbeni. The surroundings were surprisingly arid and reminded me of the Native American reservations of the SW. Mudstone towers lined the road, deep canyons reached back from the river and views stretched for many miles. Finally after almost 15km I reached Kagbeni, exhausted. The forray into Upper Mustang had been a wonderful glimpse into a life style long forgotten. Kagbeni was interesting,  but after Mustang didn’t have the same intrigue, so I quickly set off for Jomsom along the wind blasted dusty road. This was by far the most miserable section of hiking. 6km of dust storms in the wide open valley, so i was very excited to pull into old Jomsom and find a place for the night after my long day. Jomsom is the bustling hub of the circuit compete with airport, markets (in new Jomsom) and the bus stand. I was just glad to relax and take a load off, enjoying my first yak burger of the trip. 35km, 800m+, 7:00.

Sunrise from Muktinath over a temple with Dhaulgiri in the background.

Looking back from the high pass to Mustang toward Muktinath.

Descending into the Mustang village of Tetang, born of a different Era.

Looking back at the village of Chhuksang along the Kali Gandaki.

November 13th, Day 8; Jomsom to Kalopani.After some debating I decided to close the loop and walk the western section of the loop to Tatopani. From old Jomsom I headed up the hill following the trail on the east side of the valley. I made a short side trip to Hutsapternga Gompa(1:00), perched high on a hill with superb views of the valley. I stayed on the trail,  bypassing Marpha, couldn’t handle more road, eventually reaching the Tibetan settlement at Chhairo (2:00). I paused briefly to listen to the school children reciting the morning prayer and talked with a few locals at the school.

The trail continued to climb and descend along the east side of the valley, avoiding the dust bowl and visiting numerous small settlements. The people all seemed much friendlier and more open, maybe because the new road has left them to a quieter and less tourist riddled life? Views of Dhaulgiri are phenomenal on this part of the circuit, and I mostly had the trail to myself. After many ups and downs I finally rolled into Kalopani/Lete and the See You Lodge. This town has one of the better all around views on the circuit, Dhaulgiri behind and Nilgiri and Annapurna I across the valley. It’s a shame so many people skip the Western portion of the circuit. 27km, 600m+, 5:57.

Hutsapternga Gompa shining in the morning sunlight.

Dhaulgiri towering above the Kali Gandaki river.

 

Sunset on Nilgiri and Annapurna from Kalopani.

Day 9; Kalopani to Tatopani, the end.

My last day on the trail, up and our early to avoid traffic on the first section of road to Ghasa. I then rejoined the trail East of the river for the rest of the day, avoiding the road again. Walking through the now lush forest was very pleasant as I passed countless small villages, a few waterfalls and lots of view points. I paused in Gharpad to enjoy some fresh oranges and guavas with some locals before descending into Tatopani. Tatopani was a small village with plenty of small markets,  a nice hot spring and an interesting mix of Western and Nepali travelers passing through. It was a nice place to relax after my long days in the circuit, but not much more than a way station with fresh fruit.

Lush forest enroute to Tatopani.

Nice little trail side cascade.

After 8.5 days of hiking I’ve reached Tatopani and the end of the Annapurna circuit. Up next a trip to Basecamp.

So ended my 9 days whirlwind tour on the Annapurna circuit. Full of amazing scenery, wonderful people, and some eye opening experiences. I’ll leave you with some final thoughts and notes before signing off.

NOTES; 

Trekking on the Annapurna circuit is not a wilderness experience, you’ll see tons of other travelers,  jeeps and motorbikes. In every village you can find both hot food and snacks to carry away. So technically you could probably carry almost no food and be fine (though you pay for it). It’s easy to simply fall in with the travelers and not meet the locals, so take the time to branch out.

I did the entire 190km loop in 9 days, definitely not recommended for most people. I’m extremely fit and I spent time elsewhere in Nepal acclimating. Climbing over 5400m Thorung La is no joke and should be treated with respect. My short time also only allowed me a few side trips, something many people would prefer to take more advantage of. Though I did walk the western part of the loop from Jomsom to Tatopani, something I highly enjoyed and recommend not skipping by using the bus. Lastly,  always remember to look around and keep an open mind. You never know what each day and experience will bring, so try to soak in as much of it as possible. It’s a fantastic journey that has not been ruined by the roads, the experience has just changed a bit over the years, but in the end it is what you make of it. Stay tuned for the next blog detailing my quick adventure up to Annapurna Basecamp. 

Running the trail down from Ice Lake with. Annapurna in the background.