Friday, April 25, 2008

The Great Wall

Well it truly was great! We lucked out and got some sunshine through some storm clouds, which made for some amazing lighting conditions. We were only briefly in Beijing so I don’t really have many stories :( But here are a few pics.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Ascent (Annapurna Circuit)

Blaine and I were supposed to travel overland to Tibet and spend the rest of our trip in China, but due to the outbreak of violence we decided to join our friends Mike, Andrea and Chad for a world famous trek in Nepal. For the past 3 weeks we have been trekking along the 220 kilometer Annapurna Circuit, labeled one of the greatest hikes in the world. This trek is called a “teahouse trek” meaning that you actually hike from village to village in the mountains and eat and sleep in small locally owned lodges rather than in tents, cooking your own food. You can read more about it here. Nowhere else can you hike for 3 weeks and see such a variety in landscape and culture (think: palm trees and monkeys one day, glaciers and yaks the next!) The trek starts at 1500 feet and reaches a max altitude of just under 18,000 feet. That is about 3,500 feet higher than Mount Whitney (the highest point in the continental United States.) Due to the fact that this trek was spur of the moment we needed to buy some more gear, and not knowing what to expect on the trek, we followed the advice of a photographer we met here and went to the right shop called Shonas. This shop is the one that outfits a great deal of Everest expeditions, unlike all the other thousands of stores that sell fake name brand gear that falls apart faster than you can say “doh!!!” Shonas kindly informed us that just the week before, 3 porters (sherpas) died on the Thorong La Pass and a few guys came down with frostbite who were not prepared, (not exactly was I wanted to hear, but it did prompt us to buy a whole bunch of stuff in his store, which we ended up really needing because of frigid temperatures at altitude) I’m not gonna lie, I wouldn’t exactly call myself an avid wilderness trekker. Blaine and I have never really dealt with extreme high altitude or gone backpacking in the snow, so I was fairly concerned about my upcoming performance hearing these stories. However after starting the trek and hearing how many people were actually making it over each day and seeing the types of people starting the trek, it did build my confidence a little. Anyway here is a brief sum up with some photos.

The start…. The first day was a hard hike straight up and it was warm as we hiked up from the jungle floor. It was really great to get out there in the fresh air and get some exercise. We saw plenty of waterfalls, rice paddies and the locals carrying heavy loads, everything from tall corn stocks to huge rocks. Our guide told us that the most extreme porter he had seen was a woman who carried 110 pounds on her back for 20 days! The next few days we gained a lot of altitude and the weather got much colder. I didn’t mind because we were so hot hiking in the lower elevations, so the cold was quite nice. The valley just seemed to go up forever, as we inched closer and closer to the tree line. When we got to 10,000 feet there were rhododendron trees in bloom and it was sooo beautiful! The nights started getting really cold (no heat at all) and it was so hard climbing out of our warm sleeping bags into the freezing air. I had a few large blisters that were irritating and a general overall soreness but no effects from the altitude yet. None of us planned on rushing up the mountain and we had all agreed that if one gets sick from altitude we all stay back an extra day and acclimatize.

When we arrived at 12,000 feet, we spent an “acclimatize day” where you sleep at the same altitude for 2 nights and do a higher day hike in between. Most people do a hike to these caves that takes you to 14,000 feet but we were all feeling great, so we decided to try and tackle the Ice Lakes hike that tops out at 16,000 feet. Ascending from 12,000 feet to 16,000 feet was no picnic in the park, but it gave us an idea of how crappy we’d feel going over the pass. It was basically switchbacks for 4 hours, from the bottom to the top. Also it had snowed about 6 inches overnight so it was a little more challenging as well. But we all did great and only felt a little light headed, and exhausted with slight headaches at the very top. So we threw a few snowballs, took some pictures of the most amazing views and headed back down. Down was actually really hard on the knees and we all had a few aches and pains that night. We didn’t mind staying 2 nights in Braga (the village) because the place we stayed at (New Yak Hotel) was great! It had a great view of this midevil “Lord of the Rings” looking place and had the best food on the trek. I took a shower for the first time in 6 days knowing that I wouldn’t want to at higher elevations because of the cold. The views just kept getting more amazing with every step. I have never seen such gorgeous mountain peaks or hiked above the clouds; it was soooo amazing! We were now only 2 nights from the pass and anticipation was eating us alive. The trail was getting more and more snow each day. The last night before we summited, we saw all kinds of people suffering from AMS (acute mountain sickness) from the altitude. There was a French girl that was barely coherent even on Diamox (AMS drug) and ended up descending the morning after we had tried to help her. Also, we heard about some one getting airlifted off the mountain. Most people had headaches and were dehydrated. All of us kept drinking and taking hydration salts as a preventative. We decided to take an extra day to rest some injuries (Andrea’s Achilles tendon / Blaine’s knee) and make sure we were ready. I dreaded another night at the top because it was so bitterly cold at night. There was no heat, so after 3PM when the sun disappeared behind the clouds and mountains, the temperature dropped like crazy and it would snow with thunder and lightning. Most of our energy was spent trying to keep warm in our down jackets.

These wild Rhododendron trees were incredible!

Our porter "Anish" on the left and guide "Raj" on the right (eating Dal Bhat of course)

Ice Lake (~16,000 feet)

The Thorong La Pass
To make it up over the pass we had to get up at 4AM to avoid the bad weather in the afternoon. The first 1000 feet were the most intense vertically and we were hiking in the dark. It was so cold that our camelback tubes froze so water was not easily accessible. The snow was beautiful! It felt like we were on top of the world, being above the clouds surrounded by huge mountain peaks. We reached the summit at about 10:30 am. The last 500 feet were the hardest altitude wise for me at least, I was getting pretty dizzy and my legs felt like lead. We spent about 40 minutes at the top, taking pictures and eating some very needed calories (snickers and cookies). The day was far from over though, we still had 6,000 feet to hike down. There was so much snow, the path was quite slippery in places and we actually “sledded” down a few parts for fun. We all came off the mountain with a perfect tan from the reflection off the snow (some more burned then others) and ate enough food for a small country. It was definitely not the easiest thing I have ever done, but for sure one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. It’s a really good thing we went over the day we did because 2 days later the pass got 5 feet of snow and it was closed for a week. All the people had to go back down the way they came…. Bummer!

Our 5:30AM start to conquer the Thorong La

We were all very happy to be at the top!
On the way down-

A cool looking village
Kagbeni Valley
The view from Poon Hill before sunrise
At sunrise-

Here are a few "digimon snapshots" to mix it up a bit:

Blaine holding 2 adorable baby goats
There were these huge monster spiders in their holes everywhere!
Me trying out a beanie before buying it
Me trying to keep warm in Blaine's down jacket in our below freezing room
We bought cooler beanies later on ;)
One of Blaine's blisters. He wore his Chaco sandals as often as possible to try and avoid the blisters.
Andrea pumping water in the freezing temps. Right after we snapped this, our friend Chad cracked a joke "Hey Andrea, how many seals did you spear today!?" We got a good laugh.
Me at 4AM, severely depressed about having to leave the warm sleeping bag.
Post beanie hair on Blaine