The Swan Song

We like wrap-ups. Whether it is a relationship, basketball game, a book, or what have you, it is generally bad without any kind of a wrap-up. Thusly, it would be detrimental to the welfare of the blog if we didn’t wrap-up it. By gods, I entreat you to tell me how to finish this. Admittedly, I have kind of put this finishing business off for a while…because frankly, I don’t want it to finish. By writing this blog to end all blogs, I am nailing the last nails on my coffin.

 Nevertheless, we march on. Operating this blog during our travels was surprisingly easier than I thought. It was kind of nice to feel that our followers were traveling with us in spirit, living vicariously through our words. What’s more, when I get back to ol’ Frederick, I found myself not having to explain our trip from A to Z. People were already aware about the general picture of the trip and some stories that emanated from this lovely blog. If you know me, you should know that I am not generally fond of small talks. Thanks to this blog, instead of having small talks, meaningful conversations with people ensued. I also have learned that sometimes even English trumps ASL. There were some stories in the blog that I would have found it hard to explain in ASL…English somehow becomes it possible for me to tell you more about my feelings, the surroundings, and the event itself.

 The group dynamics for this trip were simply magical. We already knew eachother pretty darn well to start with but seventy days of jamming up together everyday….oh boy we started learning about eachother. Like how Scott would nod his head repeatedly when he drives. How Bobby burrows his eyebrows when he reads. How Bobby ties his knot on the sleeping mat…it looks the same everyday without fail. Or when Scott gets up in the morning, he would stroll around, looking for a place to piss just like a dog would, and finally finding his spot; the delight in his face when he goes is pretty entertaining. Or when we all hike, when it is a steep climb ahead, Bobby and Scott would unknowingly part ways so I could pass, because I climb these mountains like Lance Armstrong. When we do our return hike…Bobby is simply the best down-scrambler I have ever seen. His nifty feet are something to behold, as he glides (literally) down a field of boulders on a deep descent. When we get to the “Get the fuck out of here” mode Scott is glorious. Bobby and I try with all of our might to keep up with Scott while he furiously makes his way down a mountain.  I could go on and on all day about our peculiar tendencies or group dynamics. But it is these kinds of things that make me miss about the trip the most. The intangibles. How Bobby and I would inwardly groan as we pitch up the tent while Scott is taking a dump. Or when they infuriatingly waited for me while I got lost in a gas station trying to decide between a snickers or payday. It goes on.

 Our path diverges…Scott continues his journey of the west. I go back to the land of Kendall Green and play football. Bobby dresses up in a tie suit, working from 8 to 4. Things do fall apart, but at least we have this. We have the memories of our reckless youth, when we felt that we could conquer everything that we set our minds to. I can promise you, the next journey…I am going to write blogs…and I only can hope the two companions whom I care deeply about would join. There are many things I dream of doing. The first deaf person atop Everest. Sail around the world. Don’t worry, I’ll be taking you along with me as well.

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The Mountain

I: Understanding the Mountain

From a hundred miles awaywe could make out its silhouette jutting up far above the horizon, still visible in the waning light of dusk. ‘The Mountain,’ Seattleites call it, for it requires no further description. Its height of 14,411 feet is only the fifth highest in the lower 48, yet it holds a special significance, exceeding that of Mt. Elbert and Mt. Whitney in prestige.

Mount Rainier, you could say, is our Everest. We’ve hiked nearly 300 miles on this trip and successfully scaled nine mountains, but all the while Rainier remained in the far corner of our minds. The challenge of Rainier lurked just beyond the horizon, and each hike completed meant we were closer to the foot of The Mountain.

A few weeks ago, when we found we wouldn’t be able to climb Grand Teton, because of our lack of expertise with technical climbing, we were devastated. Worse still, we thought: does this mean we won’t be able to climb Mt. Rainier, as well?

Mt. Rainier differed from Grand Teton in that no technical climbing was required in climbing it. But—and this is a big but—Mt. Rainier is covered in glaciers, and the route up to the top required hiking up steep inclines of snow-covered terrain. This meant three things: that we would have to wear crampons, use ice axes, and rope up for the ascent. Crampons are metal thingies with 10 two-inch thick points you attach on your boots for better grip on the snow. Ice axes allow you to self-arrest… to stop the forward progress of a fall down the mountain by sticking the axe in the snow and hoping that it slowed you down enough. The rope was in case one of us fell- then the others you were roped with could self-arrest and stop your fall.

Prior to our ascent of Mt. Rainier, none of us three had any experience with all three.

In comparison to climbing Grand Teton, the impression we got from our research was that for us, Mt. Rainier was actually doable. The route was well marked by wands with little colored flags stuck into the snow. What explained most failed ascents of Rainier was stamina. People wore themselves out by going too fast, or were simply not fit enough to go up the mountain. Hell, stamina was the ONLY thing we had going for us. We were no strangers to long, strenuous hikes and extreme altitude gain. As long as we got the equipment we needed and the weather smiled upon us, we had a good shot at conquering Rainier.

There was one thing, though. In all of our research, heavy mountaineering boots were highly recommended. You needed boots with ‘heft’ to get up the mountain, whatever that meant. We shrugged– we had no choice but to take our hiking boots, armed with crampons, up The Mountain.

II: The Equipment

The research we did also revealed that it was gonna be pretty cold up there. The weather forecast for Camp Muir, where we would spend the night before the ascent, predicted a temperature of 35 degrees. As for the summit? 20 degrees, give or take.

We needed more clothes to keep us warm. With our skintight budgets, we dragged our broke asses down to Goodwill, scrounged up Old Navy and Columbia fleece jackets that fit us, and took ‘em to the checkout counter.

We also stopped by a general store and bought gardener’s gloves, the ones with rubber grips. Scott took one look at these gloves and decided to rent gloves instead.

It isn’t that we were reckless, wearing gardeners’ gloves and secondhand goods up The Mountain. We knew how cold it was going to get up there. We bought stuff that we thought were going to keep us just warm enough to get to the top. The bare minimum. Some hardship was alright by us, as long as we got to the Peak.

From a rental shop, we got the technical equipment: crampons, ice axes, harnesses, helmets for each of us, and the rope. The rope weighed at least 20 pounds, and was probably 200 feet long, a half-inch thick in diameter. We stared at it, lifted it to test its heaviness, and thought: Mt.Rainier ain’t playin’.

III: The Snowfields of Muir

Remember Mt. Elbert? The tallest mountain in Colorado and the 2nd tallest of the lower 48? (Yes, the very same peak we chugged beer on.) The hike up to the peak of Elbert was 4.2 miles long and gained 4,500 in elevation.

The hike up to Camp Muir alone took 4.5 miles and also gained 4,500 feet. We lugged our equipment, our Old Navy fleece shirts, food, sleeping bags, and water (Kevin took the rope without complaint, cementing his title as the best hiker of us three) all the way up to the camp, at 10,000 feet.

It’d rained that morning, and we waited in the car with our bags all packed. Finally the rain cleared, leaving behind a thick fog that reduced visibility to probably 15, 20 feet. Squinting into the distance for the wands that marked the trail, we trudged in the wet snow from marker to marker. We saved our crampons for the ascent from Camp Muir, so we could barely gain purchase on the wet snow with our trail-beaten hiking boots.

Blanketed by the fog

Put yourselves in our slush-soaked shoes: climb two steps, and suddenly the snow gives away beneath your left foot, forcing you to quickly regain your balance with a quick jab step of the right foot. Now you’ve gained a total of one step, and you’ve exhausted the energy it would’ve taken for four steps. Then repeat the entire process a couple thousand times. We painstakingly earned every inch of the approach up to Camp Muir. And when we finally got there, the peak loomed still higher, 4,400 vertical feet above.

By the time we settled into camp, our shoes were soaked through and our feet were freezing.

IV: Camp Muir

One of the things that surprised us was how easy the process of getting a climbing permit was at the National Park. We strolled right into the Ranger Station, and the ranger asked “So when do you wanna start?” No questions asked.

But as we got to Camp Muir and settled into the public hut, we saw that the National Park wasn’t as careless as we thought. A couple rangers were stationed in their own private hut went around the area, checking with each group of climbers. When we were packing out our stuff, a ranger came into the hut. Just as Kevin took off one of his boots and turned it upside down so the water could drip out, the ranger took notice. An expression of mild incredulity crept over his face as he gestured towards the boot and spoke. Kevin just pointed at his boot and held up his index finger: only one pair of boots (and therefore was headed up the mighty mountain with them).

With a perplexed smile, the ranger left the hut.

We still had a slight problem that needed solving before we could go anywhere closer to the peak. We had the rope and a harness for each of us, yes. But we didn’t know the appropriate knots to tie and how far apart we were supposed to be. We found someone to help us solve these mysteries easily enough.

When we were finishing up our rope lesson, the park rangers turned up. Immediately, they launched into a series of questions:

Are these boots the only ones you have? (Yes. But we’ve got crampons.)

It’s going to be below freezing up there, and your feet will go numb, giving you less-than-sure footing. Are you sure you’re prepared to go up the mountain? (Yes.)

Are you fully aware of the dangers of going up the mountain? (Yes, we were well aware of the possibility that we’ll fall into a crevasse and freeze to death.)

Next they scrutinized our clothing.

You’re wearing cotton sweatshirts. These are USELESS when wet. Do you have any other clothing, with synthetic fabric? (No. But we’ll make do.)

Finally they turned their practiced eyes to our climbing expertise.

You’ve got all the equipment you need- ice axe, harness, rope, crampons- but do you know how to self-arrest? (Yes. Sort of. You just press the sharp end into the snow as you fall down the slope, right?)

How about if someone falls into a crevasse, and you’ve secured yourselves by self-arrest. Are you trained in any techniques of pulling the fallen man out of the crevasse? (No. There’ll be others around to help if this happens, right?)

The rangers had us there. Forcing other groups to help save us would be unfair to them, since we were going up the mountain unprepared. The rangers said they couldn’t force us to turn back, but they STRONGLY RECOMMENDED that we not attempt to climb any further.

The conversation was maddeningly frustrating. We were in better shape than anybody at Camp Muir. The rangers only took notice of us because we didn’t have fancy four-hundred-dollar mountaineering boots. And now they were encouraging us to turn back. We looked around, and saw unfit people preparing to go up the mountain on the coattails of their guides. Fifty-year old men with graying hair and potbellies had passed the rangers’ inspection because they had North Face jackets, $100 snow pants, mountaineering boots that cost a small fortune, and enough money left over to hire a guide.

We defiantly told the rangers that we were going up the mountain, no matter what. We thanked them for their concern, told them we’d be cautious and turn back at the first sign of unsure footing, but we were going to at least try.

We retired to our uncooked canned dinners, and climbed into our sleeping bags at around 7 PM. The alarm was set for 11:30. Our ascent was slated to begin at half past midnight.

As we lay in our sleeping bags, an idea came to us. The problem with our hiking boots was that they got soaking wet, and the dampness accelerated the freezing of our feet. Why not use plastic bags to line our boots, to separate the damp from getting into our socks, thus keeping our feet dry and warm? It was a good idea, but we didn’t have enough plastic bags with us to put this idea in effect.

We were pondering a solution while drifting in and out of sleep, when Scott got up to go to the john. There were a couple outhouses just outside the hut. When he got back, he announced jubilantly that he solved our problem. He held out his hand. In them, he held blue plastic bags.

“But they’re for human waste,” I told him. The National Park was adamant about keeping human feces off the face of the mountain, and these blue bags were designed for packing out poop.

“Hey, whatever works,” Scott answered.  And so we had a solution.

V: Midnight

We woke up at 11:40. Outside, the pitch-black sky blazed with the tiny lights of a thousand stars. It was a cloudless evening. We ate our cold Pop-Tarts in silence. Butterflies fluttered in my tummy. The night before we climbed our first 14er, Mt. Sneffels, Kevin said he felt nervous, like he would if he had a big basketball game the next day. Here, 4,400 feet away from the top of Mt. Rainier, I felt as if we were about to start in a Final Four game.

We put on nearly every layer of clothing we brought up (including the blue plastic bags inside our shoes), then the harnesses, and finally, the helmets. By the light of our headlamps, we set up the ropes using the knots we’d learned from the guide just the day before. We saw the guide with his team of climbers just by the hut, setting up their own ropes. Our plan was to wait for the guide to set out, and then we’d follow just behind.

But when we’d finished with the rope, and checked on the team, we found that they’d already gone without us knowing. The guide probably didn’t want us following along, so they slipped away quietly, hoping we wouldn’t find them.

Thrown for a loop, we had no choice but to start our trek by ourselves. My watch showed 1 AM. Kevin went first, me in the middle, Scott brought up the rear. Our crampons crunched in the icy snow, giving us marvelous grip. In comparison to our slipping in the snow just the day before, we had remarkable control.

In the pitch-black night, we followed the well-worn trail. The trail was a semi-deep trench of packed snow, plowed by the daily train of Mt. Rainier trekkers. The light from our headlamps gave us visibility of a ten-yard radius. Looking up the trail, we could see group after group, trains of small illuminated circles.

We caught up to a duo, twin illuminated circles linked by a single rope. We’d lost the guide, but the two guys in front of us went at a steady pace. Though we weren’t roped to them, we stuck just behind this duo for the next three-and-a-half-hours as though an invisible cord of rope held us together.

VI: Disappointment Cleaver

It’s not an uncommon view, the opinion that mountain climbers are adrenaline junkies doing what they’re doing for the pure hair-raising thrill of it. As though the possibility of dying was the main propelling force behind mountain climbers. I thought this was true as well, before I began this trip.

The truth is climbing mountains like Rainier is a long, drawn-out, painstaking process. In the dark, my world shrank down to the ten feet in front of me. At the cautious pace of the duo in front, we took our sweet time with each step, planting our feet firmly in the ground, ensuring that our crampons bit hard enough on the snow that we wouldn’t slip. Step by step, one foot in front of the other, as the minutes ticked by and turned into hours.

Thirty minutes into the trek, we’d passed the guide we wanted to follow in the first place. As turtle-like the duo was pacing, the guide was going the pace of a snail. Still, the peak was a long way up, and we returned to the ten-foot circles of our illuminated worlds after we overtook the guide.

The plastic bags we’d stuck in our shoes for insulation seemed to be working miraculously. My feet felt snug and comfortable after the first hour, which we went without a break. My garden-gloved hands, though, were a different story. The shocking cold of the steel ice axe bit through the rubber glove and iced the palms of my hands.

As the hours passed, the duo stopped a couple times to rest. We stopped right when they did, and lingered until they resumed their trek. They didn’t complain, and seemed to enjoy our following them. Perhaps it seemed to them a compliment—imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Two-and-a-half hours into the trek, we encountered a particularly difficult stretch of the trail called Disappointment Cleaver. Disappointment Cleaver was a ridge of rocky terrain, and we had to climb it with our crampons on. Crampons don’t agree with rocks, as their steel tips are designed for ice. So we scratched and screeched our way up the Cleaver, dulling our rented crampons. When we finally completed the Cleaver, it was 4 AM, and we came to rest just behind a large group.

As per our custom, we waited on the duo until they resumed their trek. This particular break was infuriating, because everybody else was changing into warmer gear. They pulled out their thick coats, tugged on even thicker gloves, donned warm caps. To start with, they already had warmer gear on, and now all we could do was watch and shiver as they made themselves even warmer. To top it all off, what would make us warm was to keep moving—and we had to sit and let the cold seep into our cotton sweatshirts and chill our bones to the marrow, until everybody had finished.

Another concern crept upon us at this point: the plastic insulation no longer seemed to be working. The first two hours, it’d worked perfectly, but during the third hour, our feet began to feel the effects of the cold. The plastic had successfully kept our socks dry from the ice outside, but it’d caused our feet to sweat even more, thus soaking our socks from the inside. Once wet, our feet began to go numb.

Just before we left, we found that we were still 2,000 vertical feet from the top. Two more hours of trekking remained.

VII: Island in the Sky

As we broke from the resting place at the top of the Cleaver, the sun peeked from the horizon. The pitch black night slowly flowed into a bluish-grey sky. Suddenly, we found that we were on a steep incline—the peak was still nowhere in sight—and that we were surrounded by a great white ocean of billowing clouds. Only in the distance was the ululating flow of the clouds broken by three distant peaks: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood. We were on an Island in the Sky.

In the distance, Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds

We found ourselves not only trailing the duo, but a series of guided groups, totaling twenty-some people. We had to wait on those people, then the duo, and then we could move. It sometimes took a full minute or so before we could even move one step. The wind blew without mercy, and from far above, the first of the group we followed sent pebbles of ice careening down the mountain. Tottering on a 65-degree incline, pelted by ice and assailed by the wind, waiting a full minute just to move a single step pissed me off. But what could I do? It wasn’t like we were hiking Mt. Elbert, in which case we’d just skip off the trail and overtake the slowpokes in front. We had a trail to follow, and to divert from it would be to put our nearly-numb feet on precarious ground. So we stuck to it, step by long step.

It took us a full hour to climb up to relatively safe ground, a small flat space before another incline. My watch showed 5:15. The wind was blowing so hard that the snow had blanketed over the trail. What remained were the wands showing the way. Already the group in front started up the incline, kicking in the snow with their hard mountaineering boots, the sugary ice pouring in after each step. We stared on in disbelief.

Our feet were numb at this point, and our hands weren’t much better off. The wind tore at our faces, making our eyes watery. A guy behind us announced that we had 1,200 feet to go.

“About an hour up until the peak,” he said.

Still the group continued up, kicking at the snow, trudging through. Halfway through the incline, the leader was down to his knees in the snow.

We’d promised the rangers merely 12 hours before that we’d heed their advice. We swore that we’d be careful, and if we felt we couldn’t go any further, we’d stop. But not one of us thought we’d get to that point. We’d made it all the way to 13,200 feet.

The group had all already left, then the duo, and we were next. Suddenly Kevin turned to us. He couldn’t feel his feet, he said. The snow was over a foot thick and everybody else had their fancy boots to protect them. It was finally light enough out to see each other’s faces clearly, and Kevin’s face was quite a sight to see. His lips were nearly blue, and his nose was Rudolph-red.

To say he looked cold would be a gross understatement. He was freezing his ass off.

Out of the three of us, Kevin wanted to bag Rainier the most. All trip long, he could not stop talking about The Mountain. Kevin was also the best mountain trekker of us three. For him to admit as much as he did at that point— we knew Rainier would have to wait another day. We stepped aside from the trail, barely able to talk.

One of us, I don’t know who, pointed out that we had to have a picture before we went back down. So we asked a guy, and got our picture, 1,200 feet from the top of Rainier, the biggest Island in the Sky of Washington.

Final photo before we got back down.

VIII: The Rangers Again

We met the rangers again on the way back down. They were climbing Mt. Rainier, beginning so late in the day because that’s how perfect the weather was.

The rangers, making their way up Rainier

The weather couldn’t have been better. As dawn progressed into morning, the heat of the sun forced us to strip down, relegating our sweatshirts to our backpacks. We started to wonder—what if we’d pushed on, and the sun warmed us up as we approached the summit?

But it was an ‘if only’ question, and heaven knows that’s a dangerous trap to fall into. We’d turned back, that was it. Besides, we were going back down the mountain, where it was warmer. Even if the sun kept with us up the mountain, the increased elevation would have kept the air at around the freezing temperature. The forecast said that it’d be 25 degrees up on the summit that day.

The rangers resumed their trek, leaving us with a final word of caution to go back down safe. And so we trudged all the way back down.

IX: Reflection

To invest that much time, energy, passion, not to mention money, into something and come up short left us devastated. We thought we could go up with our hiking shoes, no problem, because we underestimated The Mountain. At the rental shop, the mountaineering boots would have cost us only $40 extra (not to mention $10 extra for gloves, an option wisely exercised by Scott). It was a lesson learned, to be more fully prepared before undergoing such an ambitious adventure.

We had to hike all the way back from Camp Muir to our cars, a 2.5 hour hike that left us plenty of time to think about our attempt on Rainier. Sometimes I was left shell-shocked—we’d actually turned back from the summit when we were just an hour away. It made me think about the stories I’d heard of people climbing Mt. Everest. They’d gotten to the South Summit, which was just 300 feet away from the true summit, when they’d had to turn back. For those Everest climbers, it meant that weeks of preparation, tens of thousands of dollars, and a lifetime of dreaming ended up a football field short. Our Rainier failure had only cost us a few days of research, a couple hundred dollars, and a summer of fantasizing.

When we’d gotten back to the car, the summit was almost 9,000 feet away. A mere six hours before, we were on The Mountain, and we nearly bagged the peak. That’s all we have to hang onto for now—until we go back and try it all over again.

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War and Yellowstone

Funny, a while ago I used to preach the phrase- you are what you invest your time in. But now, it is definitely- you are what you read. Ambition and pride tugged me to the direction, to the road less taken. I was allured; tempted by the road less travelled and found myself lost in early 19th Century Imperial Russia. Every instance, without fail- when I allow my miniscule mind to wander aimlessly- it suddenly rights itself like a sailboat in water…to the vast heavily forested world of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Such was the state of my mind as we hiked the worst hike of our trip.

We were in the Yellowstone basin, probably the most famous National Park in America. We toured the necessary sights, such as the Old Faithful Geyser…but we had to get out of the ever burgeoning crowds at Yellowstone and possibly sight some of the animals that we thought hard to find. We took on this 18 mile roundtrip hike so that we could see some of the backcountry Yellowstone and its vaunted animals…and ended up more than disappointed. As we hiked to the Heart Lake, the scenery was virtually nondescript with burnt trees everywhere (possibly from the great fire of 1988) saw no animals en route and arrived the lake with no special occurrences. However, as the sun went deeper westwards, the fun began. The mosquitos (which have been mostly quietly dormant) came out in droves. It was like our tent and the surrounding area was the designated mosquitos’ party site. They came and partied allright. We were their kegs and they suckled endlessly. Realizing the sudden danger, we dove into the relative safety of tent. Safety? Ha! Says Nature. As we cuddled and read our books, outside became more and more windy, our $40 tent barely holding up against the winds of Heart Lake. We peered out from the tent’s window and were aghast to see dark and ominous black clouds that bode bad news. We looked up to the nettings and learned that even the mosquitoes have evicted their party. The big, bad black clouds were like the cops, terminating the party early. Before we could say “BRO!” (our favorite phrase at moment) the torrential rains of basin penetrated the tent’s porous defense. It was literally raining inside the tent, especially on the sides- so Bobby and Scott had to shuttle up to the middleman (which was me) and we spent the night jamming eachother up.

Us jamming up

It would be amiss on my part if I left this story unmentioned in our annals. Scott, in general, is very good at boasting and never backing it up. When the pelting rain hit us, Scott proclaimed that he would “get up at 6 a.m. and get the hell out of this forsaken place” and repeated it throughout the night. Bobby and I were right to doubt him, asking him that if he would actually follow through the plan. Sun dawned…6 am….7 am…8 am…at 8:30 Bobby and I finally stirred around and were not very surprised to see Scott’s closed eyes and that smug smile of his when he sleeps. It was a while until Scott finally came out of the tent with his tussled hair. He walked around, found a spot to have his customary morning piss, walked around a bit more….all the while Bobby and I kept staring at him. Scott finally had the courage to glance at us. Our eyes asked him the question, 6 am huh? Scott promptly answered that he was up at 5:45 a.m. and saw us so soundly asleep that he felt it would be immoral for him to wake us. “I tried, man…I tried!” then he proceeded to stretch his back.

On our way back, we saw only mosquitos. We have grown quite adept at swatting them. Our kill percentage is up around 90 percent, and we have mastered the techniques of reaching mosquitoes on every place of our body. 18.2 miles, we have hiked, on hopes of seeing wildlife in action but only got mosquitoes instead. My mind was on a juggernaut….War and Peace…how Prince Vasily have had corrupted everything…SPLAT! Got you mosquito! Haha! Anways…where were I? Oh yes…that bastard son of his, Anatol…it goes on.

However, as we drove on the main road…bam! A herd of bison! Elk! Grizzly Bear! Black Bear! We were so entranced with the majestic animals at display, along with the teeming people and cars. Later on, we found it funny that we hiked 18.2 miles and saw nothing. But when we drove up the main roads, we saw innumerable animals, especially bison. They had absolutely no fear of people or cars, crossing the road at will while the people in car snapping off pictures.

The valley of Bison. Perhaps the same scene Lewis and Clark saw as they blazed their way westward. 

As you may see, this bison owns the street with utter authority

A black bear cub showing off his climbing skills

For me, I have a mixed outlook on Yellowstone. The scenery and nature weren’t up to the expectations. There were simply too many people and cars. Scott counted and discovered that there were 2,209 campsites at Yellowstone with 13 different sites. They were always booked by 4 P.M without fail. Yellowstone is more of a vacation spot, ideal for families or retired couples. They don’t have to hike or participate in strenuous activity to witness the wonders of the nature world. I don’t really like the idea of simply driving up to a place and walking only 100 meters and behold! I like the idea of working for it. Blood, toil, tears and sweat, as Churchill poetically expressed it, makes everything much better….that is perhaps why I love hiking/climbing mountains and working for the views on the summit. Nevertheless, we roar our way northward to Glacier National Park. And in the near future….Mt. Rainier looms.

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Basketball in Idaho

Some of you have asked about the wildlife we’ve seen on this trip thus far, if any. I’m delighted to report that Kevin saw a prowling fox at Grand Teton National Park that actually hopped up on the trail and on it for a time. On the same day, we saw a moose grazing in the tall reeds by a river from afar. And yes, in the high elevation of the Teton range, we saw countless yellow-bellied marmots, who are more mischievous than they appear. I woke up the first morning on the Teton Crest trail, got out of my tent, and found that my shoes, as well as Scott’s and my sandals, were ravaged by the buck teeth of devious marmots. They were probably attracted to the salt residue from our sweat. They’re still wearable, the shoes, but it’s amazing that they ate so much before realizing that the shoes weren’t edible… revealing much to us the limited intelligence of such creatures.

But I begin to wonder if we should include humans in the category of wildlife. On the week of July 4th, Grand Teton NP was packed, the parking lots overflowed to the road, and the trail crammed like a LA rush hour traffic jam. On the idyllic Teton Crest trail, our companions included the fox, the moose, the numerous idiotic marmots, and very few people. We were left in our solitude to meditate and take in the beautiful scenery. (If I could say one thing about the Teton Crest trail, it would be: where else in the world could you find a snowfield and a field of fresh yellow wildflowers flourishing side by side?)

But as we approached the visitor center, other human beings were all we saw and could think about.

We finished up at Grand Teton on Thursday, and the plan was to go to Yellowstone, right up north, on Friday. The mother of all National Parks, on the weekend after July 4th? If Grand Teton was crowded, what would Yellowstone be like, Times Square during New Year’s Eve? Fahgeddaboudit, man.

So we swung to the west, to Idaho. There were some stuff we wanted to see, like the Shoshone Falls (Niagara of the West, some people say), and the Craters of the Moon National Monument (so closely resembling the moon that astronauts visited it in preparation for their ’69 expedition to the actual moon). En route, Kevin was hungry, so we pulled off I-15 in pursuit of lunch at Wendy’s in a small town called Blackfoot. Lo and behold, on the door was a flyer proclaiming a 3-on-3 basketball tourney the very next day, at a local park. Basketball.

The poor man’s Niagara Falls and the moon landscape replica could wait. We were gonna show the people of Blackfoot how the game’s played in DC.

The following morning, after registering, we surveyed the competition lounging around the outdoor basketball courts. Over there, a trio of middle aged men in plain t-shirts and plaid shorts. At another corner, several group of Native Americans. Near us, a quartet of white, clean-cut college boys with names of various colleges emblazoned on their shirts, which were cut off at the shoulders.

And… right here were us, clad in twenty-four dollar Wal-Mart sneakers and uniform royal blue tank tops with Kappa Gamma stitched on. Deaf frat boys with matching sneakers. Our synchronization must have impressed the people of Blackfoot.

The first game, played at 11 but the way the sun blazed, it could easily have been midafternoon, was a shock for us. We played a team of Native Americans, and they kicked our ass. It was a streetball court, we realized, and we were playing their game. They outmuscled us for rebounds, and knew how to shoot from long-range in the outdoors. The games were decided when you scored up to 21, or by the score at the end of 20 minutes. 13-9, we lost.

Luckily, it was a double-elimination tournament. Next up, we played against a team of earnest, pimply-faced teenagers. The kid guarding me couldn’t have been more than 14. We were learning the streetball style fast, and we put them away 11-6.

The white college boys were next. We watched them play earlier, as we sat in the shade steaming over our loss, and they were good. Their tallest player, six foot five, had it all- a post-up game, a nice handle, and a beautiful shot. Scott said, “I got him. You two take care of the others.”

Scott stopped that kid, taking him like Mark Madsen took Shaq in the 2004 Western Conference Finals (albeit with much more success) and Kevin and me took care of the rest. We exploded to a hot start, and maintained the lead, and made free throws in the end to put the game away.

This put us a game away from entering the finals. In front of us was another team of Native Americans, led by a tall, gangly man who had a ponytail that dropped nearly to his waist. His playing style was unorthodox- you couldn’t predict what he was gonna do next, but it always seemed to work out in the end. We kept neck-to-neck the entire game, but they eked out the victory, edging us by one.  Scott worked hard, but the ponytailed kid kept making circus shot after circus shot.

Damn. The (somewhat) magical run of the Wal-Mart sneaker frat boys was over. However, we can now say we played streetball in a tiny town at the edge of a Native American reservation in the middle of Idaho.

But what’s an experience in Idaho without their world-famous potatoes? Ah yes, spuds had a part in this day. In between games, we noticed a sign on the front of a nearby sheltered picnic area. It said: FREE BAKED POTATOES. It might as well have said: WE GROW A WHOLE LOTTA POTATOES HERE, SO MUCH THAT WE CAN GIVE SOME AWAY FOR FREE! The unabashed pride of the world famous potato-growers of Idaho shone from the poster, reinforcing the idea that you cannot separate ‘Idaho’ from potato. (That rhymes doesn’t it?) But you know what? They came with sour cream, chives, butter, and crispy, thick slices of bacon. Now from my perspective, I think Idaho should be known for its supreme ability to raise hogs and cook strips of bacon so thick and fine that it makes you forget that you’re eating baked potatoes in the first place. Indeed, a fine effort, Idaho.

Note: At the end of the day, the sole of one of Scott’s sneakers started to come off. Wal-Mart, the quality of your products never cease to amaze me.

We were too busy playing ball to take pictures, but Kevin took this one, to give you an idea of Blackfoot’s basketball court.

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Life at Teton

Grand Teton. We have discovered why it is called the Grand Teton. Unassuming and meek it is not. It is grand in a grandiose way, with its spires spiraling upward to the heavens. As we approached the Grand Teton National Park, I nearly had a heart attack. The Grand Teton is better than advertised. The awe, shock sensations swept across me and then slowly dissuaded away. What replaced it? Yup, you are right. The sheer burn, desire to climb the mother of them all! Grand Teton! My heart sang musically, along with the fireworks of the July 4th.

But alas, it never meant to be. Sad but true…we have no knowledge of technical climbing. How to belay, rappel, and make pitches. We discovered, to climb the Grand Teton unroped, is nuts. Nuts enough to put us into an asylum in fear of public’s safety. We tried to find a guide or teacher who could educate us the intricate (is it really?) art of extreme mountaineering but they were hard to find. The only chance we had was to hire a guide and it would cost us more than 800 bucks apiece. Even our SSI wouldn’t cover that. Damnation. Seven hells, I will return someday with the necessary repertoire and scale the Granddaddy of them all.

Grand Teton 

Sometimes in life- barriers create opportunities. We were dejected, sitting around in a shocked and listless way with our eyes having the “thousand-yard stare.” This went on for a while, until the ever-birdy Bobby chirped the idea of hiking the Grand Teton Crest Trail, 35 miles in all. We would slug it into the formidable backcountry of GTNP, and take in the scenery. It ended up being the best hike we have had the honor of undertaking on this otherworldly trip. Maybe Bobby and Scott will tell you about the scenery, the animals we saw, and the hike itself when you ask them about this hike. However, if you ask me….I would blabber senselessly about the glorious joy of GLISSADING! It was simply the glissade lover’s paradise. Wyoming is pretty chilly in general, so there was plenty of snow when we were only at 8,000 feet. Every time when we had to descend, without fail- I will scurry around and seek the perfect snowfield to glissade down. Bobby sometimes would join, but Scott is more of a skier, skiing down with his hiking shoes.

In our trip, we have hiked for over 230 miles, scaled eight mighty mountains, and visited more than 10 National Parks. Our bodies are different, transformed if you will. Our legs are stiff as a wood board, with muscles bulging here and there (bobby’s veined calves for one). Scott was guilty of not exercising prior to the trip and weighted in at 198. Now he is at ramrod 183. We haven’t shaved adequately for a long time, with hair sprouting from every angle on our faces. When we came from the 2 night 3 day backcountry trip of Teton Crest Trail, many visitors looked us in an askance manner. We were filthy, lean, and strong. We have this feeling where we could conquer any terrain- be it rocky, snow, and scree. Miles don’t matter anymore, 10? Sure. 15? Why not! It is indeed beautiful to be young, and have the ability to will your body to change under the circumstances. Ah but I digress.

Throwing snowballs in July

Us by the Sunset lake and approaching the Hurricane Pass 

In the shadows of lordly Grand Teton 

Meaning for this blog post would be lost entirely if it didn’t have a video to vaunt. Remember how I embellished the joy of Glissading? Good news! Here is one with me in action!

(editor’s note: please don’t do this at home without the snow as the deed is fraught with unseen dangers)

 

The first video was an exemplar example. Bear Gryllis would have approved of that. However, in the second- I went a tad bit crazy. I think the sheer forces of high altitude and my love of glissading had collided quite violently. But ahem, you can see how excited I was.

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A video at 14,433 feet

Instead of writing another blog that is quickly becoming typical of the trip, I have decided to take a backseat and write whatever I want. Cool?

By gods, America is immense. 46 days have passed when we departed from the Timberwolf Court and we have lightly explored the Eastern part, blazed across the south, brushed the northern part of New Mexico, went in Arizona with considerable length, forayed into the southern Utah, and combed our way across Colorado. A lot is left out, missed out on our part. When you look at the world map, you realize that America is big. We were fortunate, really, to have a nation that stretches from the sea to shining sea. Reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage gave me a glimpse of America in 1800’s. It was heavily centered in the Eastern part, and when Thomas Jefferson proposed to send Lewis and Clark to explore the West, the Congress thought it unnecessary and foolhardy but Jefferson saw it through. Some fifty-odd years later, a civil war split open this nation. The south, led by the irreparable General Lee, very nearly splintered the Confederate states away from the Union. But thanks to Lincoln and the factories of the North, America is preserved. Then Manifest Destiny came along and the rest is history. Take a look at Europe’s map and you see many small countries, using the boundary of rivers or mountains to separate from one from another with centuries of rift between nations…namely England and France. That could have been easily America. But it wasn’t the case and 46 days later, we are still lost in the vastness that is America.

But what is America’s identity? What is uniquely American? Germany is renowned for its beer halls and sausages, Spain for bullfights, Italy for their pasta, and on forth. For me, what defines America would be consumerism. The Wal-marts, Starbucks, McDonalds that sprinkle all over the landscape. The landscape vary from desert, plains, mountains, rolling countryside, but the one thing that is constant…is these corporations. Every time we go to a Walmart, regardless where, it is always nearly packed with cars and people from all walks of life.

We, also, are victims of consumerism. We bubble with nonsensical happiness when we see a Wal-mart sign. We spend an hour or more walking along the stalls, discussing which food we should get—especially at the sweets section. We absolutely love Barnes and Noble and rank it first above all in terms of giddiness when we park our car right across B&N. That would mean coffee (especially for me, occasionally for Bob, rarely for Scott), WiFi, and finally- books! Wendy’s is the absolute champion for us. Once, we drove 60 miles just to eat Wendy’s.

Allright, enough with my blathering…here’s something from the trip. After climbing some rather tough peaks such as Longs and East Crestone Peak…we all agreed that Mt. Elbert would be a pushover. Mt. Elbert is the tallest mountain in Colorado, and the 2nd tallest in the continental US. However, it is called a gentle giant for a reason…the way to top isn’t too hard with generous routes. So, being vagrant experts- we decided to buy a large bottle of beer and carry it with us to the top. The hike to top was 4.2 miles one way, with 4,600 feet in elevation gain. But as a testament to our fitness and acclimatization to the altitude, we reached the top in two hours without any rest/stops. Here, a video ensues.

I dare you to not giggle at all.

Allright. I’ve got to explain this picture. As to why Scott’s Sierra Nevada tower over our beer (Bobby and Kevin). Budget. Sierra Nevada  cost Scott 3.99 plus tax. Keystone Ice cost 1.69 plus tax. Both bottles are of 24 oz. Now it all comes down to alcohol content. Sierra Nevada boasts a formidable 5.6 content. However, Keystone reigns supreme by having a regal 5.9.

So who wins? In terms of sophistication? Buzziness? You decide.

Atop Mt. Elbert. Please kindly note the one-day old Dominos pizza in my left hand. Pizza and beer at 14,433…life is good. 

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Quite the Conundrum

Aspen, the Colorado ski town for the very wealthy, broke the gas price record for the trip. The previous high was $4.64, seen near the Grand Canyon nearly a month ago. Aspen shattered that mark with a price of $4.74. We searched for alternatives and had to settle for the slightly lower price of $4.69 per gallon.

Aspen blew us away. Its streets were lined with the likes of Gucci and Christian Dior, and every block boasted an art gallery. In these art galleries, paintings went for upwards of 30K, and we saw bronze sculptures with price tags nearing a hundred thousand bucks. The little girls on the sidewalk even wore exquisite designer summer dresses. They looked to be 10, 11 years old and would outgrow the dresses within the year, perhaps sooner. Then their parents, fabulously rich citizens of Aspen and owners of million-dollar homes in the mountains, will lift open their wallets, bottomless as they come, and buy their little girls just the dress they wanted.

So what were us three poor fools, with threadbare bank accounts (and who could only afford a 40-dollar tent), doing in a wealthy town such as Aspen?

Just south of Aspen, deep in the heart of White River National Forest and surrounded by fourteen thousand-foot peaks, lay a wondrous treasure created by Nature, a treasure known as Conundrum Hot Springs. Scott had his heart set on visiting the springs, rated by many to be the best in the United States. Our research said it’d be a 4.5 mile trip one-way, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. After conquering 14,000-foot mountains, this hike seemed laughable to us.

The laughable hike and the prospect of chilling in natural hot springs meant one thing: beer!

So off we went to the City Market in Aspen, to stock up. In addition to six-packs of glass beer bottles each (glass is heavy, but it was a short hike, so what? We thought), we got ground beef, onions, green pepper, and potatoes. Our first meal was to be the beef and all the vegetables chopped up, wrapped in foil, and thrown into the fire for 30 minutes. Add garlic salt to the piping hot medley, and you have the quintessential camping meal.

The aftermath. Believe me, it tasted better than it looks here

We went off to find the trailhead that led to the hot springs. After getting lost, we found a National Forest ranger who told us where the trailhead was… and that the trail leading up to the hot springs was 8.5 miles one way. When we finally found the trailhead, we stared at our pile of food and beer, and at our backpacks. We also had to pack up our tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes for the night, swimming trunks, aluminum foil for the beef/vegetable meal, cooking spray, knives and forks, bug repellent… the list goes on and on. We decided to spend two nights instead of one, to justify the long hike, which meant we had to bring a cooking pot, glass bottle of pasta sauce, and dry noodles for the second night.

Not to mention the ice to keep the beef and beer cool.

When everything was finally stuffed in, our packs felt like they belonged on the ends of barbells in weight rooms instead of on our backs. That day, I think I gained a sliver of understanding of how Atlas felt.

The general rule when climbing 14,000-foot mountains, we’ve learned, is to get to the top before noon. Past noon, the sky turns into a swirling mass of angry clouds, and it rains. A lot. We weren’t scaling a 14er today, but we were hiking through a mountain range dotted with 14ers, and our destination was at an elevation of 11,200 feet. We started the hike after 1 in the afternoon.

It wasn’t long before we saw dark clouds in the horizon. An hour into the hike, the rain started coming. Interestingly enough, we hadn’t seen rain since the night we drove into Mammoth Cave National Park, almost 40 days before. Lady luck had been on our side, and we took the dry weather for granted. But when the rain assailed us, we realized how fortunate we’d been. The rain stopped, but came again soon… Nature was playing with us, giggling at our dripping faces and soaked packs.

In the dark gloom of the rain

At one point, when the trail started getting steep, I was getting frustrated. My backpack weighed down on my back, the rain was unyielding, and we had maybe 5 more miles to go. Anger welled up in me, but then I thought of a scene from a couple days ago, when we were hiking up Longs Peak. We’d stopped a mile and a half away from where we were supposed to camp. Munching on trail mix, me and Scott started discussing the direction of the trail. I thought it’d veer to the right and bypass the hill in front; Scott thought it would go right over. As we discussed, Kevin sat a ways off, watching our discussion silently. When me and Scott finally shut up, Kevin spoke up. “Just hike,” he said.

It didn’t matter where the trail took us, how hard the rain came, or how heavy our packs were. Just hike, man. I kept telling myself, and soon settled into cruise control mode.

It was interesting how the rain seemed to make the valley come to life. The plants and trees gave off a stronger, cleaner scent, and in the distant mountain tops, we saw water coursing down in beautiful streams that would otherwise have been paltry.

The stunning scenery post-rain

About three hours, 8.5 miles, and 2,000 feet in height later, we got to the springs. It was raining still, but in big, fat, freezing drops. There were 15 campsites surrounding the springs, but every one of them was occupied (there was one unoccupied but with a nasty stench that we found was from a dead cow rotting nearby) except for the one farthest from the springs, it seemed. About 50 yards from our site lay a huge snowfield on the side of a mountain ridge, and we finally realized how freaking cold it was.

At first we thought it was a bear, but later found that it was actually a cow that had somehow lumbered up near the hot springs. The stench was unbelievable.

In the rain, we dumped our packs, set up the tent, and took off our soaked, stinking hiking boots (for the first time in my life I was angry at myself for double-tying my boots so well that my freezing fingers could barely untie them). Scott was the first one to go off to the springs. “See y’all there!” he said. Furious, I forced my numb fingers to work at my boots.

The hot springs, Nature’s hot tub, was deliciously warm after the hike. The surrounding valley and peaks were beautiful. We drained our beer, four glasses each, and melted into the springs. In the middle seemed to be the source of the heat, and if we dug the pebbles out, we’d generate more heat. We sat in the middle of the springs, digging and sending heat bubbles up to the surface. The rain still came, but we were safe in the sanctuary of the springs.

We enjoyed our well-earned beer

The springs itself was what I’d call ‘hippie heaven.’ People of all ages and backgrounds were there. They drank whiskey from flasks, beer from cans, wine from coolers, and smoked weed in pipes. Those would have been a hell of a lot easier to bring up. Nudity was an option that was exercised often as well.

The weather was unpredictable. One moment the sky would be pristinely clear, the next teeming with ominous grey-black clouds. The second night, we retreated from the springs and into our tent beneath those same clouds. That night, we found why our tent only cost $40. On Scott’s side, where most of the rain was blown, water dripped from the canvas, seeping through the seam of the window. Disgusted, Scott moved away from the steadily growing puddle on his side, and into Kevin, who in turn squeezed even closer to me. We slept rather too close that night, I’d say.

The next morning, we hiked back with significantly lighter packs. And it did not rain.

The hot springs and view we hiked 17 miles (round trip) for. It was worth it, I daresay.

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The Peak that never Was

Colorado, we have freely ran toward your arms. You, at first, embraced us but then like dark clouds of storm at 14,000 feet- you brushed us away.  Admittedly, I have been looking forward for Colorado and its pristine air, towering peaks, and lush countryside for a while. After New Mexico, Arizona and Utah- I was tired of the desert and the arid environment. I was tired of seeing Canyons…once you have seen the Grand Canyon, all others pale in comparison. Sure there were several mind-blowing experiences (such as the Slick Rock trail in Moab, Utah- but that is for another time, story) but my eyes have been on Colorado and its distant peaks for a while.

We scaled the sniffling Mt. Sneffels first. It was an extraordinary experience, a lot less of hiking and more scrambling/climbing than we were accustomed to. The peak topped out at 14,158 feet and offered us an unimpeded view of the San Juan range on our left and the fertile plains, right.

Our first 14er, Mt. Sneffels

Exhilarated and fresh off on the successful summit, we (especially me) looked further for more ambitious peaks to climb. My eyes caught a book on the Colorado 14ers and a picture of both Crestone Peak and Needles. Formidable, almost unclimbable, they appeared.  While Scott and Bobby fettered on other things in Barnes and Noble, I studiously researched on the possibility of summiting both peaks in one exhaustive day. Yep, I discovered- it was possible via the means of a traverse.  First, we had to drive to a remote location in southern Colorado and a town aptly named Crestone. Then we have to hike the Cottonwood creek trail to the namesake’s lake. The hike itself was really tough with us backtracking several times as the trail was virtually non-existent. Our savior came in the form of cairns. A cairn assumes the form of stacked rocks- but it means that we were on the right route and there were few cairns on the way to lake. After a hellish climb, we finally reached the remotest lake.

Cottonwood lake

Human Population: zero (actually 3)

Marmot Population: 100

Not kidding- they were everywhere. They have absolutely no fear of us, coming to us close enough for us to reach out and they would finally dart off before we could touch. That is truly indicative of how remote the lake is. Another problem…we were at 12,400 feet above sea level- the winds were brutal and we hunkered down to camp for the night. Scott, thanks to his dad, possesses a 17 degree sleeping bag while bobby and I a mere 40 degree. You can see how worried we were before the sun set.

Another problem. As sun dawned, we still weren’t sure of which route we should climb in order to reach the Crestone Peak. The pictures looked clear enough to me, however, reality is different. Around us, a mass of jumbled peaks rise and many of them could look like the Peak. After long minutes of loitering around, trying to find a route, I pointed my finger at a couloir and told them-  “screw this, I’m climbing this shit.” Their glaze followed my finger, and what they saw wasn’t pretty. The couloir of my choice serves the most direct point to the saddle leading to the presumed summit. But if it was direct then boy it is steep. Bobby and Scott, the sensible people, quaffed at the idea. It was silly, they said, and unsafe. But at that point, I was tired of walking around, expending our valuable energy and just wanted to climb. Using the pretext of the one who actually had done some research, I told them- rather glibly- that the way to top was it. They reluctantly acquiesced and followed my lead. By gods, it was on the level of sheer foolishness as the Custer’s Last Stand, Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, and even both Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. It was foolhardy and brainless. Barbaric even. However, we had one way going our direction and that was the vitality of our youth.

Red line indicates the route we took. Blue line is the standard route..in other words- the right route.

It was pretty immediate. The realization that the route was wrong. The climbing has become a rather tough one. The exposure was starting to get pretty extreme. Yet with my prodding, we pushed on.  My thinking was that if we reach the ridge between the two peaks, we would be able to find traverse route and therefore climb the route via the standard route. However, the going has steadily gotten worse, and there were one rock face section we had to climb. The rock face was probably 7 feet tall, with minimal footholds. I plunged forward, trying to not think about the consequences if I slipped. It would be vicious, survival chance were not good. I got over the ‘mini Hillary step’ (this is an allusion to Everest’ sheer face of 40 feet famously known as the Hillary Step) Scott suddenly stopped and said, “I don’t want to sacrifice my life for this mountain.” It suddenly hit me, of how hazardous the whole operation was. I took a look around my surroundings and realized our position were precarious at best. However, I reasoned with him that climbing back down would be dangerous and it would be prudent if we found another route to down climb. We finally reached the ridge. However, as it turned out, the ridge didn’t provide us an answer. We were trapped between the two mountains and no way down. Scott, developing a new set of balls, walked around an edge and found another route up. It was steep, but we thought it climbable. That was the case until we came across a steep snowfield. It was at this point where I thought…..forget it- this is a fiasco and we are pushing ourselves deeper into it. The snowfield up looked like a scene from the Himalayas. This time, it was Bobby. He went berserk and climbed the steep snowfield. Scott and I only could look in awe. At top, Bobby waved over to us and signed big, “COME UP! HAVE CAIRN HERE” Scott and I followed the steps Bobby made in the snow, pushing our boots hard into the snow as a substitution of crampons. One slip, and it was good bye. On the top of the unnamed snow couloir we finally saw a standard route leading the peak. We had down climb about 1,000 feet to get on the route and climb another 1,500 feet to the top. Presto! Needless to say, we were exhausted and had hoped that the peak was Crestone. As it turned out, we climbed the East Crestone Peak, which is 14,260 feet.

Using the self timer on East Crestone Peak.

The Crestone Peak was right across us standing at 14,294 feet. We groaned inwardly when we learned this at Colorado Springs’ Barnes and Noble.  About the traverse? Forget it. We climbed down using the standard route (which was red couloir, the route we should have taken in the first place). The most fun part of the supposed fiasco was when we glissaded down on the snow. It pretty much is like sledding but you use your ass as the means of transportation, hands for steering, and feet for brakes. It was totally rad.

Glissading in all of its glory. 

As for me, I learned a big lesson. I apologize for dragging both Scott and Bobby into the fray which was replete with dangers. The mountains is an unforgiving place and do not allow you to make much mistakes. We were fortunate to get out with only bruises, scratches, and bruised egos. However, the mountains never had so much allure to me as it has right now. I am consumed with the idea of climbing and earnestly wait for the next one. Only this time, I will be more prepared. (hopefully)

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The Swing of the Pendulum

We are like a pendulum; even as we make our forays into America’s backyard, we sway from one side to the other, taking a dip into life’s extremes as we reach the height of each swing. Instead of staying true to our course straight down the river, we make frequent stops on either side of the bank.

On the left bank lie the offerings of Nature. On the right, the temptations created by man.

Kevin and I, we write most of our blog entries on my laptop in a Barnes & Noble café, hooked up to the free wi-fi. A far cry from the ‘immersion in nature’ I so brashly declared in my first blog entry. As each day of the trip passes, I come to a fuller realization of my own dependence on the modernity of today’s society. We’ve spent the past week visiting the five National Parks that dominate southern Utah. The biggest concentration of humans we visited in this period of time is Moab, an unabashedly outdoorsy town of 5,000 souls, sandwiched between the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

The five National Parks were each beautiful in their own right, offering such treasures sculpted by Nature rarely seen anywhere else in the world. But as we looked upon them, we could not help thinking of restocking our supply at Wal-Mart, lounging at Barnes & Noble, of checking the blog. In other words, of returning to modern society.

It seems that the harder we try to swing towards the extremity of Nature, the stronger the force of gravity that pulls us back to the comforts of modernity. Take Havasupai—I thought I’d be able to scrounge by with a short supply of food, but I ended up crawling back to Ronald McDonald’s lap, craving a Double Quarter Pounder like never before.

Or take a conversation between us three at Moab Diner a couple days before. We launched into a hearty debate about the consumerism that plagues America, and this led to a discussion of the disgusting ways food is preserved—in canned foods, at fast-food establishments, and the like. It was a talk that lingered in my mind, leaving me to thoughts of my own diet. I actually tried thinking of ways to change the way I ate, and it worked, to a point: I bought some dried fruits, thinking that they’d be healthier than a pack of Slim Jims (Kevin’s favorite). But you know what happened next? We passed by a McDonald’s in the Wal-Mart, and they had a deal (“Six Cheeseburgers and Large Fries for $5.99”) that caught our eyes. How could we turn down that deal? A mere two days after our discussion of how disgusting McDonald’s food was, we walked out of that Wal-Mart with six cheeseburgers each.

As adventurous we try to make ourselves out to be in this blog, we are still pure American kids, raised and conditioned by a culture of mass-consumption and materialism. We’ve passed thousands of juniper trees in the deserts of the American west, but we could barely tell the difference between them and cottonwood trees. But give us the logos of McDonald’s and Burger King and we know which one sells Big Macs and the other Whoppers. Try as hard as we can to reach for the beauty and rawness of Nature, we shall swing back ever harder to the world of Wal-Marts and Barnes & Nobles.

At least we have the scant handfuls of Nature we’ve grabbed to report to you, via the lovely wi-fi service here at B & N. And so, a brief report of the five National Parks of southern Utah:

Zion National Park: I was looking forward to two trails: The Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing, reputed to be the most dangerous trail in all of the U.S.’s National Parks (6 deaths since 2004, the signs repeatedly warned), was much tamer than we thought it’d be. There were chains and handholds, and the sheer drop-offs advertised by the travel guides… weren’t so sheer. The Narrows, though, was worth the 10-mile round trip hike. The trail was actually the Virgin River, and we followed it upriver, passing through slim slots of sandstone walls, stretching up high and at some times only 18 feet wide. Looking up these walls and then looking down at the mild Virgin River, one is amazed that such a tiny river was capable of etching its way down that deep in the sandstone. If you’re ever passing by Zion National Park and only have a day to spare, do the Narrows. (We also hiked down to The Subway, a 7-mile hike of which only 100 yards, the very last 100, was worth it.)

Bryce Canyon: The hype behind this Park was incredible. You couldn’t believe it. People were actually saying that it was better than the Grand Canyon, that if you had to see one canyon, it should be Bryce. There’s no doubting that it was beautiful and unique—the Hoodoos were remarkably fantastical—and the trail we took (Queens Garden, Navajo Loop, and Peekaboo Loop Figure 8) took us up close for some mind-blowing views, but it simply cannot compare to the Grand Canyon.


Capitol Reef: To be honest, we drove through this park on Highway 24. We were so tired of the desert by this point, we even declined to watch the sunset here.

Arches: The Delicate Arch (3 mile hike roundtrip) was worth the trip. The Delicate Arch, I think, is adorned on the Utah Driver’s License, and is the most recognizable Utah-related landscape view. But to see it up close, to bask in its shade and take in the view in the noon of a midsummer day… is remarkable. Also recommended- the Double Arches, a great photo op there.

Canyonlands: The last of them all, we were thoroughly tired at this point. We just drove over to the view points and stayed close to the car. Mesa Arch and the view beyond it is commendable, though. I shall go no further.

Basically, we trudged through these five Parks with minimal anticipation and very little energy. These sights were dwarfed in comparison to the Grand Canyon. Have you ever heard of the painting ‘Pollard Willow? It’s unlikely that you have, but you most certainly have heard of ‘Starry Night,’ the masterpiece of Vincent van Gogh’s work, a work which includes ‘Pollard Willow.’ I did not know ‘Pollard Willow’ before today, and will probably forget it tomorrow, but looking at the reproduction on Wikipedia, it seems like a respectable work, very much like the works of Nature in the five National Parks of Utah. But ‘Pollard Willow’ cannot compare to ‘Starry Night,’ and the beauties of Utah will always remain in the shadow of the Grand Canyon.

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Havasupai

The Grand Canyon stretches for 277 miles in northern Arizona, and the National Park covers only a part of it. Somewhere to the west of the National Park, the Havasupai tribe takes root in a small village called Supai, nestled within the walls of the Grand Canyon. Supai is an odd exception to the 21st Century America we all know, an enduring symbol of a time which we often think has passed us all by. No paved roads lead in or out of Supai, and access is limited to three methods: hiking, helicopter ride, and by mule. A town of some 200 people, Supai is one of only two locations where mail is delivered by mule. In a time when more and more people are eschewing the traditional delivered-by-trucks paper mail in favor of e-mail, Supai plods forward with its daily helpings of mule-delivered mail.

The Havasu Creek runs by the town, and is the main source of Supai’s tourism. Though the seclusion of the town is rather interesting, it is the creek and its four heavenly waterfalls that people make the ten-plus mile (one way) hike to see.

Surveying our Triple A maps, we found two routes to the Supai trailhead from Flagstaff. One led west past Supai and around acres and acres of uninhabited cattle country, and then going back east to the trailhead. Another led north and west, and was the most direct route to Supai. The obvious route was the latter, but there was a teeny problem. It cut through the previously unmentioned cattle country with 50+ miles of unpaved roads. Roads where a 4×4 Range Rover would feel right at home, roads that cars like our ’98 Toyota Corrolla cower in fear of. The long way around was paved, but it was the long way around. After a long debate, we chose the unpaved route.

Stupid. Idiotic. Moronic. Brainless. All those would be appropriate descriptions of our decision. The long way wound would’ve taken us three, maybe four hours. The unpaved route took us six. We began at around six p.m. Scott sat hunched over the steering wheel for the entire duration, and as the sun left us with limited visibility, Scott leaned ever closer to the windshield, trying to pick out the safest way around the rocks that stuck out of the road like ghastly warts. Our Corrolla, once compared to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for its flaws, pressed forward bravely at speeds of 5 to 10 MPH. We bounced out of our seats as the car passed over mini-boulders, and braced as we felt rocks strike the car underneath. Finally, around midnight, we got back on a paved road. The feeling we had as the car hummed on the smooth pavement was not unlike the one a man has when facing a steak dinner after a month of fasting.

The hike down to Supai took eight miles. It began with a quick descent down the wall of the canyon, and continued down a relatively flat trail, until we got to Supai. There, we saw our first glimpse of Havasu Creek and its marvelously clear running water. After getting our permits at the town, we hiked down another two miles to the campground. En route, we saw Navajo Falls and Havasu Falls.

Navajo Falls

Navajo Falls is adorable, and we had a nice time swimming in its vicinity, but Havasu Falls is a beaut, worth the entire hike (and 50 miles of off-road driving). In the middle of the desert, where sand and the unyielding sun reigns supreme, to see a healthy flow of water is a contradiction, an anomaly. the 120-foot Havasu Falls, where the water falls freely, is one such anomaly. But the most beautiful things in the world are often in places where they seemingly don’t belong. Nature follows no rules.

Havasu Falls

The next day, we saw Mooney Falls, a 210-foot waterfall that was almost as beautiful as Havasu. We then followed a trail that cris-crossed Havasu Creek, extending another 3 miles all the way down to Beaver Falls. On the way there, we passed a good number of tour groups, seemingly on their way to Beaver Falls as well. But when we finally got there, it was as bare as a ghost town. Beaver Falls was left to us three and three other people. The tour groups must not have been daring enough to brave the entire 3-miles, and we were the better for it. Nature and its beauties are best enjoyed in seclusion, with as few other spectators as possible.

We originally planned for our Havasupai trip to last two days and one night. I packed my food accordingly, bringing a bit more than I needed. But when we returned to the campground from Beaver Falls, we were too exhausted to hike the ten miles back to the car.  We decided to camp another night, and I figured I’d have just enough food to last me through the morning.

I’d been reading Into the Wild, where Chris McCandless lived on his own in the Alaskan wilderness for almost five months. He lived off the game he hunted and the berries/plants that he picked himself. McCandless even bragged that he could live off a 25-pound bag of rice for an entire month. I thought, if McCandless can do what he did, who am I to complain for having scarce food for a couple days? (never mind that McCandless perished at the end of his Alaskan adventure, my mind selectively left that part out in my thought process)

So for my last four meals, I’d had a granola bar for breakfast, a bagel for lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner… and another granola bar for breakfast the day we set out on our return to the car. My stomach was already growling before we’d started the ten-mile hike.

Time for a flashback. If you read my ‘Ruminations Prior to Departure’ post, you’ll know that deprivation is one of the things I expected from travelling this summer. To take that concept a step further, Kevin and I discussed a boycott of all the fast food franchises. “Fuck the chain restaurants,” we said, in a manner that would have made Henry David Thoreau somewhat proud. It was the first week, and in a burst of rebellious frenzy, me and Kevin stuck to it. We slipped up from time to time, Subway and In-n-Out were too alluring to resist. But we performed rather admirably in our boycott, until I reached my breaking point.

Hiking the first two miles up to Supai was easy. The six miles after Supai, the flat part of the trail, was easy enough that I was able to settle into my cruise-control mode and forget about the gnawing emptiness in my stomach.

But with a couple miles left, I smacked into the wall, headfirst. The trail had started a couple days before with a quick descent down the canyon wall. That quick descent was now a daunting, mind-numbing ascent. My legs felt like jelly, and my mind started experiencing light hallucinations. I was hungry, so hungry. Scott and Kevin pushed forward, and I fell farther back. The sun beat down on me, taking greedy sips of the water that lay within me. I stopped to drink some water, but that barely replaced the water that the sun took, much less alleviated my hunger.

You know what helped me forward? The thought that propelled each foot forward, in front of the other? When all else failed, what was the thought that saved me that day?

The Double Quarter Pounder. I dreamed, in my starving hallucinations, of the perfect Double Quarter Pounder, with those McDonald’s fries, so salty and dabbed with the right amount of oil. In my mind, I envisioned biting down on the burger, and could just taste the greasy beef, tangy pickles, and soft bread.

When faced with starvation and the massive landscape of Nature, I gave up. On the twenty-eighth mile of hiking in three days, I was beaten into submission. My Thoreau-like ideals of damning the fast-food restaurants, dashed away by the Arizona desert wind. I retreated to the corner and begged for mercy. I prayed for McDonald’s to come save me.

I made it to the top. A couple hours later, I was munching on a Double Quarter Pounder, Havasupai a safe distance behind me. And each bite was glorious. So, so glorious.

Beaver Falls

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