Archive for July, 2010

Reflections after coming home

High above King Col near 5000m on Mount Logan, with King Peak behind and the Kluance Icefields in the background

High above King Col near 5000m on Mount Logan, with King Peak behind and the Kluance Icefields in the background

It’s been two weeks since I returned home from my grand journey. Time to reconnect with family in Florida, time to unpack everything and time to settle in. Also time to adjust to a more normal life back home and to think back on the past year of adventure. Many friends have expressed to me that this must be a big transition for me – and yes indeed, it is. There are many deep questions: To what extent did the trip impact me, and in which way, shape or form? What did I learn from this trip? How does it change my future life? What now? – Here are some of my emotions during this transition and thoughts on these questions.

My very first emotion is that I’m very glad I decided to go on this trip in the first place. I know it sounds like cliché, but it really was the adventure of a lifetime! I remember there were many skeptical voices and at least at one point in the spring of 2009 I felt like almost everyone was advising against the trip – I listened to my heart, trusted my own judgment and gave myself permission to go. I also feel proud to have completed the entire journey, to have reached 12 (of 15) summits, some of them way bigger than anything I’d done before. I am happy that I returned home in good health and without any accidents or crippling equipment failures. People have asked me what is the most important quality to have in order to successfully undertake such a trip. I would say you have to have the determination to start, the perseverance to finish, and a bit of luck to come back unharmed.
I am extremely content and thankful to see that my family and friends are still here for me (as they were throughout the entire journey), almost as if I’d never left. I am also proud to have raised considerable funds for Doctors Without Borders – albeit very unevenly distributed and a bit less than I expected.

When I think back, I ask myself whether the trip went off as I expected or whether there were any surprises. In most aspects, it did unfold more or less as I expected. The bike proved to have been a good choice and held up well. I enjoyed the comfort of its ride and I did muster the perseverance to see it through to the end. The mountains turned out to be hard and rewarding, and I was denied just a few (20%) of the summits. (I didn’t expect a 100% success rate, albeit for different reasons.) Technology served me well to communicate with my loved ones and to document the journey. I expected people to be friendly and curious, although sometimes the positive attention I got bordered on overwhelming! I only got sick once during the entire trip (in Bolivia, likely due to contaminated salad at a road-side restaurant) which on balance I think is about as good as you can hope for.
I did not expect South-America to be as tough as it was: First there was the extreme wind in Patagonia, which often scared me, slowed and at least once completely shut me down. Then there were the bad roads and incessant rain of the “Carreterra Austral” in South-Chile. While I had been very lucky with the dry, warm Northern summer 2009 in Alaska and Canada, the following Southern summer was very wet in South Chile. Sometimes I wonder whether I mentally could do the whole trip again (not that I’m planning that, certainly not); now with the knowledge of all that’s ahead I wonder whether I could set out again in Prudhoe Bay and persevere all the way across the Panamerican Peaks down to Ushuaia. I feel I was so excited and unburdened at the beginning, almost with a certain naiveté towards what’s ahead, it helped me break the project down into smaller, more manageable chunks. The recipe: Just take it one day at a time. And enjoy yourself while doing it. I also often found myself in the somewhat paradoxical situation that the less I worried about the little daily challenges along the way, the easier it was to overcome them. (For example where to find food or a place to stay for the night.) It always works out somehow, and pure confidence in this simple fact seems to alleviate many issues.
I certainly did not expect my bike frame to crack, which set me back by a good 2 weeks – but also gave me the opportunity for a surprise visit at home for Valentine’s Day! Chile’s highest mountain (Ojos de Salado) also eluded me, the only defeat in the mountains when the weather was very good! (I thought Ojos would be relatively easy after our success on Aconcagua, but I ran out of air way below Ojos’ summit – just goes to show that high-altitude performance remains a bit of a mystery.)
Unlike North and Central-America, I took several bus rides in South-America to overcome bad roads, bad weather, bad luck with my bike and at the end lack of calendar time.
I enjoyed having to spend little money on food in Central and South America as well as being able to converse a bit better in Spanish in the second half of my trip. Somehow the end of the trip seemed to come too fast, almost overnight, despite the fact that I could clearly anticipate it for many weeks. Just goes to show that you can’t really prepare well for the emotional impact of such a transition, no matter how long you are anticipating it.

Some friend wrote in an email “Welcome back home after this life-changing adventure!” It gave me pause: Was it life-changing? Not really. It didn’t change who I am or what I believe in. I didn’t set out for it to be life-changing, rather more life-celebrating. And what a celebration it was! I had weighed the relative merits of “more time” vs. “more money” prior to this trip, and I clearly decided in favor of more time: During the last one year I had more time to explore new countries, ride more roads, climb more mountains and meet more people doing so than I otherwise would have had in an entire decade!
I think back to my prior analysis of the journey’s likely risks and mitigation (Environmental, Crime, Political, Medical, Traffic). For the most part, I believe I was right on (and I don’t just say this to justify my expectations after the fact). Other than a one-time attempted inner-city robbery (zipper opening of my little backpack in Mendoza, Argentina) I never encountered any dangerous or criminal situation. Other than my one-time bad stomach in Bolivia I never had to open my First-Aid kit for any pills or to tend to any wounds. Really the main threat came from traffic – no wonder over the course of 20,000 km and often in countries where safety standards and practices are often woefully inadequate. If you ask me for examples of when I felt unsafe on the road, I can tell you of one incident in California where I was riding uphill through a right turn with tall grass impeding visibility; a pickup truck came roaring up the road, hugging the inside right turn; the driver must have seen me at the last moment and just barely avoided hitting me while passing at 100 km/h. Or one evening when I rode in the Baja California around dusk on a road with lots of traffic, but without shoulder, and three times trucks approached from behind honking, but not slowing down – had I not seen them in my rear-view mirror and quickly performed emergency exits off the road into the deep grass I would probably not be here now. I once rolled down a hill in British Columbia, doing 65 km/h with an impatient truck driver right behind me, when the whole bike starting wobbling ominously! At the bottom of the hill, after the truck had passed, I rolled out and examined my then near-flat rear tire only to find a one-inch nail sticking in it producing a slow leaking puncture! I was lucky, as that could have ended badly… I saw many wrecks besides the road, some that happened very recently, others just rusty remains of a bad mishap long time ago. Seeing those wrecks down in the ditch made me wonder whether I could potentially get caught up in such an accident, but I trusted my sense that this would statistically be extremely unlikely.
In the mountains there were a few risks, in particular icefall (barely predictable) on Huascaran and lightning (unpredictable) during one thunderstorm on Aconcagua. Overall I think I took reasonable precautions and made conservative and risk-averse decisions. Perhaps more than in other areas, in the mountains my experience helped me with good judgment to stay out of harm’s way.

I learned a lot about the 14 countries I visited, particularly those I had not seen before. I learned a lot about myself, my (often complex) motivations, my (often basic) desires, and that I can get along just fine with very few possessions and comforts. (“Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little!” ~Cheng Yen) I was pleased to see my body hold up well to the rigors of so many miles and mountains. I felt I had more fully realized the potential of my legs and lungs, stretching their limits and enjoying the process. It was brilliant to consume huge quantities of food and drinks, while simultaneously only worrying about not losing too much weight! It was great to have so many opportunities to just pitch the tent, drift away to many hours of deep sleep, wake up refreshed, quickly pack up the few things and set off in the cool morning hours for yet another day of unburdened discovery and physical exercise.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the journey was to have met many interesting people (turned into new friends) and oh so many friendly and mostly hospitable strangers (most of which I’ll likely never see again). Many friends (new and old) have sent me emails of encouragement and expressed some form of inspiration through my journey. After innumerable friendly contacts, small gifts, invitations, and encouragement from so many people I can’t help but think that wherever you go there are good human beings, trusting, warm-hearted, genuinely excited to see such an adventure playing out and helping along in small ways. Seeing that broad smile on the faces of the truckers, the road-side workers, the sheepherders and farmers out on their fields, the school-children or business people at the bus stop, or the astounded officials at borders, airports or bus terminals – I can’t help but imagine that this journey touched and resonated with a universal sentiment for freedom, wanderlust and outdoor activity. I can’t help but thinking that some of the many kids who alerted their friends or family about the strange, funny-looking bike they had never seen before (“Mira, Mama, Mira la bici!”) would dream of maybe one day doing some similar such trip. I can’t help but think that some of the hundreds, if not thousands of car passengers hanging out their windows and taking cell-phone pictures of me while passing were reminded of their own big plans and dreams. If my demeanor during those encounters “out there”, my writings and my photos online inspire just a few of the thousands of all these people to take the initiative and live out their own big adventure, then I would see that as a great success. One close friend said he was now thinking bigger in his own adventures after having learned about my project. To inspire others is one of the most gratifying sensations I have had on this journey. So let me close in this spirit, by reminding you that you, too, can dream it, plan it, do it!

A particularly nice day riding along the Pacific Ocean in Southern California just North of Los Angeles

A particularly nice day riding along the Pacific Ocean in Southern California just North of Los Angeles

10 comments July 19th, 2010

Cotopaxi and Chimborazo

Over the last week in June Jill and I were exploring the Ecuadorian mountains. (See also my Cotopaxi and Chimborazo photo library.) After an initial sight-seeing day in Quito we undertook a first acclimatization hike on Pasochoa (4200m). It was a nice 6 hr hike starting at some private farms across grassy meadows up to an old volcanic crater. Unfortunately the mountain was mostly covered in clouds all day and the last two hours the drizzle turned to light rain. We were happy to get to the Hostel that evening and fired up a wooden stove to heat the cold rooms.

The next morning (Sunday, Jun-20) we drove to the Cotopaxi National Park and stayed at the Tambopaxi lodge (3700m). From here we did a second acclimatization hike on Ruminahui (4700m), an old volcano next to Cotopaxi. While we started considerably higher, this ended up to be a long, 8.5 hr hike with some rain and ending in the dark. Again we were very happy to get back to the lodge and enjoyed great dinner and a good night’s sleep.

Then we had a lovely rest day with some horseback riding and lots of food and sleep. We were hoping for the weather to improve, and at least we got to see the beautiful cone of Cotopaxi in all its splendor from the lodge.

On Tuesday, June 22 we drove up to the Refugio Ribas (4810m) at the base of the mountain. Some crampons and ice practice on a nearby glacier and then some food and early rest in the bunk beds. Not much sleep that evening – this is as high as Mont Blanc in the Alps! – and at midnight on Wednesday, June 23 we started our ascent on Cotopaxi. Conditions were passable initially, with a great view of the city of Quito illuminated at night far below. It was a long and tiring ascent through the dark hours until daybreak up the scree slope and then up the glacier.

Unfortunately the wind increased more and more until we could no longer walk into the wind; we literally had to crawl on all four to make any forward / upward progress. The ferocious winds blew ice crystals in our faces and it was impossible to talk to each other or the guide 3 m away. We had to shout at each other from close range. We had reached 5640m – as high as Mexico’s Pico Orizaba – with only 260m to go. But these conditions were crazy, it got fairly cold and the winds were likely even stronger up the remaining steep section; so we decided to turn around after all.

We were both very tired when reaching the Refugio after some 11 hours in the cold wind and crawled into our sleeping bags for some rest. Unfortunately Jill had suffered a pressure injury from her wrist watch, which had been missing the inside metal cover for the battery compartment and the resulting sharp edges had pressed against her skin under the jacket and mittens. This left a nasty burn wound on the skin of her left arm, which she would have to treat with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and skin cream over the next 2 weeks!

We drove to Banos for two nights and a full day of rest at much lower altitude (~2000m). There we enjoyed a leisure visit of several nearby waterfalls and viewpoints. Overall this provided a very good way to relax after Cotopaxi.

Then on Friday (Jun-25) we drove up via Ambato to the Chimborazo National Park. It’s amazing how far the road leads up – we ended up driving up nearly 3000m to the end of the park road around 4850m. From there we hiked the remaining 150m to the Refugio Whymper (5000m). From here we wanted to climb Chimborazo the next morning.

The winds howled all night with even some snow being blown through some cracks in the roof into the refugio’s bunk beds! At 11pm we briefly got up but decided to wait a bit mroe due to the extreme wind. At 12:30am just after midnight Jose and I decided to go for it, despite the still strong winds. We were dressed with pretty much all our gear, and thus it was comfortably warm.

The ascent via “The Castle” leads up some steep rock bands, all covered in hard ice this night, so not a place to make a mistake. After about 3 hrs we reached the ridge and the glacier; the only other party out that night had turned around before us due to the high winds. But I stubbornly refused to turn around: I had the best acclimatization of my life, was wearing very warm clothing and good equipment, and just wanted this summit really bad to finalize my Panamerican Peaks project. We drudged up that featureless slope for a full 5 hrs! Nothing to mark progress except the altimeter on my wrist watch. I slowed down due to the high altitude, but after some 8 hrs we finally reached the (Ventemilla) summit at 6270m. The weather was atrocious, about the worst I had had on any of my Panamerican Peaks. Here is a little video clip from the summit:

We didn’t attempt reaching the slightly higher Whymper summit (6310m) due to the zero visibility and very poor weather. Everything was getting caked with an icy layer, so photos and videos were very poor. My ski-goggles iced up and I had trouble de-icing them enough to see anything for the descent. Also, the going near the top was very tough due to very uneven ice, no path and us breaking through the ice into hip-deep snow. Even the descent was very tiring in these conditions.

While it wasn’t the glorious finale to my project that I had envisioned (with unlimited visibility and little wind just like on Aconcagua) I was still content to have reached the summit of Chimborazo – the furthest point from the center of the Earth! It was my summit on 15 peaks, an 80% success rate in the mountains. I didn’t reach the summit on Denali, Ojos de Salado and Sajama, but had a respectable attempt and made it to within less than 1000m of the summit on all of them. My South-American summits – Aconcagua, Huascaran and Chimborazo – they all posed very special challenges and will probably remain the three highest mountains of my life!

1 comment July 5th, 2010


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