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Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss

It’s been ages since my last post. So much has happened within barely a year. I’ve traveled thousand of miles and did so much, but since my life has transitioned into living in the van it’s difficult to keep up with writing and working at times….and finding reliable wifi. So, I’m just going to start this blog back up with an experience that I will never forget. Some people say that ignorance is a strength. In this case it wasn’t

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A few days ago I decided to take, what I thought would be a fun  and adventurous overnight hike through the canyons in Zion, Utah. It was on the way to my final destination for the year, Flagstaff Arizona, I figured it’d be magnificent feature to see. The images of the sunset glowing narrow canyons made me think, “I have to see this place.” What I didn’t know is that it would turn into an experience I shouldn’t have lived through.

I parked the van in town, packed my gear, fed my cat, and  took off for the canyons. I stopped at the information desk to ask how I could access the narrows, but the lady said they were closed due to flash floods. I was super bummed, so I asked what would be the next best thing. She said, “Hidden Canyon has canyons but they’re much wider than the narrows and still ok to hike in”.

I took off on the next shuttle from the visitors center. Everyone had shorts, small day packs, and nike running shoes on. I thought, “….am I over packed for this?” A gregarious but stoic ranger gets on the shuttle about halfway up the canyon. He sits next to me talking with the shuttle driver. I hear him say, “I’m going to hang out at the narrows and tell people to not go in them.” I remembered the flash flooding they had reported for the narrows. I asked him if he thought the warnings for the narrows would lift the next day. “Nope. Rain for the next four days.” This whole time I’m thinking that the trail I’m headed too is pretty safe from the floods or at least less risky to go into.

Getting off at the shuttle the skies were blue with scattered clouds. It was so hot hiking up the switchbacks to the trail head I shed my warmer layers. An older man taking pictures of the canyon with a Nikon takes a liking to my pack and plans for the trail. We talked talked about our travels and plans until it began to sprinkle rain. It was at that moment he said, “Well, that’s my cue to head back.” I thought, “man he didn’t even get to the trail head and he’s turning back now?” I press forward following the others up into the canyon.

The trail opens up to a narrow path that hugged the edge of the cliff. There were times you had to hang onto the chains on the wall because the path was so narrow and gave way to a sheer cliff. It was amazing and challenging. Before I knew it I was scrambling up rock walls (some of which were at least class 5 and 8-10 feet tall) into the canyon. The rock rose straight up and bled several hues of red and yellow. It was beautiful. The ground was layered in thick white sand almost like a beach. I joked with myself, “I thought I was never going to see sand again after Kauai.”

I continue up the trail and see two slender guys pop out the right side of the trail wearing shorts, tshirts, and converse tennis shoes wearing a day pack. We looked at each other a minute and they asked about my pack and if I was camping up here. I said I planned on it if I could find a good spot. They were shocked at how old I was. They thought I was a kid at first. I guess that’s what I get for being so small.

We exchanged some small talk and travel stories and walked up the canyon a bit, but they were still much faster than I was, especially with my pack. We met up again at an obstacle they were unsure how to get passed. It was a full on scramble up a rock and downed tree. They followed me up. We came to another wall that was about 9 feet high and has some natural features to step up over the wall, but I hesitated. because the pack pulled me back. I couldn’t really balance. I thought of turning back, but the boys offered to help me so I continued on with them.

We come to a break in the canyon where we either had to jump over a bit of water to another ledge or go up either sides of the wall. I didn’t see that there was an easier alternative path. I tried throwing my pack over the water onto the ledge. It ricochets back and into the water. Fuck. I jump in the water, waste deep, and grab my pack pulling my dslr out in a panic. Still dry. The pack was mostly waterproof even though it was canvas. A few other guys up the canyon saw me go in the water. I was so embarrassed. “You alright!?” They shout down. “Yeah, my dignity hurts a little bit though.” They laughed.

I saw an alternative route and made my way up and over. There were three guys in similar attire looking stumped at the trail. “We don’t know how to get passed this part.” There was a large down tree leading across a pool of water and a pretty technical obstacle that you had no other choice but to stem. It was risky with the pack and would have really sucked going down for anyone that wasn’t familiar with climbing. “Maybe there’s another way.” By the time I started looking around the two guys from earlier had found a much less technical route up the left side. The three guys follow and look at it. I crossed the log for fun and just to check out the obstacle.

I hear in the distance, “Well good luck.”  and I turn around to see the guys head back. I’m alone now. The skies were blue with some scattered light grey clouds. I hear thunder in the distance though and start thinking about going back. There wasn’t really a good place up high to camp anyway and I didn’t want to sleep in the canyon. The obstacles were becoming more technical and I wasn’t really sure how much longer the trail went on for. At the same time I thought about how much I wanted to come out here and enjoy a night in the canyons, but as I tried to press forward I just kept getting a bad feeling.

It’s hard to describe and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tried to rationalize with it for a while. I started heading back with the realization that I can always come back up another weekend and continue exploring the canyon when the weather is better. I get about 25 yards toward the trail head and suddenly the skies turn dark grey. Then I thought, “Yeah, I don’t really want to camp out here in a thunderstorm.” I start heading back more surely. Light hail begins to fall and bounce of the rocks.

“Really?  Hail?  What the hell.” Within about a minute the hail went from pea sized to golf ball size and began dumping. I was getting blasted so hard I couldn’t move. It was way too painful. I put my pack over my head and make my way for a tree. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe the rate at which the hail was falling. “This fucking sucks.” I said out loud. “As soon as this lets up I’m running. The hail had lightened but the rain started to down pour. Ugh, I need a better shelter now. I started contemplating getting out the tent. I knew I couldn’t really be there in the canyon long. But anything to keep the hail off me was a blessing. I started to try and set up my tent but it filled with water and ice quickly. That’s when I realized the trail was now moving….with water. Waterfalls start spewing from all sides of the canyon. “Damn it I need to just get out of here.” I start squeezing out my tent and shoving it back into my pack. All of a sudden the hail calms down and rain slows. Everything became eerily quiet. I was relieved and ready to run, but fiddling with my tent still. That’s when I saw something brown moving quickly toward me up the trail from the corner of my eye. It didn’t make a sound.

I look up and see at a four foot wall of water rushing towards me. “Shit!” I run up the steep embankment on the side of the cliff and clung to a tree with my pack. “Oh fuck! Shit this is not good!”…I knew exactly what was happening, but I didn’t think it was going to happen there in that trail.

I start tossing the tent in the river that was once a dry trail. “Drop the weight! Drop the weight!” I said to myself. The water continues to rise and move more forcefully. I climb up higher and into another tree. I pull out my phone to call for help and then became rational. “No one is going to come up here and save you. You are the ignorant idiot that search and rescue recovers 3 days later.” I remembered what the ranger said again, “Nope, rain for four days straight.”

I started to think seriously about death. I knew that the water had nowhere else to go but up. Large debris flowed down the river smashing into the rocks. I started to think about people to call to say goodbye to. I took out my phone and managed to turn it on. “No Service” it read. “Naturally.” I thought. I put it away.

All I could think for several minutes was, “I messed up. I really messed up.” The water level had sunk a bit, but held steady at about 3 feet. That doesn’t seem like much but when it’s rushing downhill at 40 miles per hour it’s deadly enough to sweep you off your feet and under a tree or smash you into a rock wall. I pull myself together, “Ok, Julie, you’ve got to find higher ground.” I get in the brown ice filled water and sink up to my knees. “Jesus!” The water couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees. I walk forward a couple 20 feet through the water and saw a cave that was 15 high from the water. “There’s no way the water will get that high. Will it?” I climb out the water soaking wet from top to bottom. My legs are numb. I crawl on my hands and knees up into the cave with the pack. I wait and stare at the water hoping that by some miracle it just trickles down within seconds but it held steady. I started shivering uncontrollably and started doing jumping jacks.

“The water’s holding steady. There has to be a way to get out of here.” I left my pack and climbed down and pushed forward on the sides of the canyon and felt all hope drain from my body. The wall I climbed up with the boys was now a raging waterfall filling up the canyon below. Hundreds maybe thousands of gallons violently spewed from the top of the wall. There’ was no way I could get passed it.

I was stuck. The only thing I could do was wait. I climbed back up into the cave and starting taking out my sleeping bag. I stripped down to my undies, dried off, and got into the sleeping bag. I put on a dry pair of wool socks and took out my stove and prepped it to make hot water. My lighter was soaked. I tried to get it to work for at least a half an hour. No good. I shoved it in my sleeping bag hoping it would dry out. I laid there and watch the pool of white gas evaporate from my stove.

“Why isn’t it going down? It’s been an hour!” I continued to lay there and then watched the last bit of sun leave the top of the canyon. “It’s going to be dark soon….you’re going to have to sleep here over night. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain and the water is down by morning. I mean technically you wanted to camp right?” I hated my brain for saying that to me.

I kept remembering what the ranger said, “Nope, rain for four days straight.” What if it rained again in the middle of the night? The water would be even higher and would only get higher. I’m far from religious, but prayed that the rain would stop. I thought about screaming for help once and stopped. “No one’s going to hear you. You can at least die with your dignity and a fight.” I must have waited for another hour and then got out my flashlight and swapped the batteries and settled into the thought of sleeping there.

All of a sudden I thought I heard voices. “it’s just your head. You think the water is talking.” The water made weird noises as it flowed down the canyon.  Then I was sure I heard two men talking. “Hello?!” I yelled. “Hello!” a deep voice came from the canyon. “Are you alone?” the voice asked. “Yes.” I never thought I’d be happier to here voices. I thought it was search and rescue calling down from above the canyon. Then suddenly a slender man runs out from ahead of the canyon. “Oh hey! I’m up here.” I shouted to him. It was the two guys that helped me with my pack. “Oh my good sweetie are you ok? Are you hurt?” This guy went through the same hell I went through and he’s asking me if I’m alright? That’s how you know someone is a good human being. “Yeah I’m ok. I thought I was alone and you turned back with all the other guys.” The other guy he was with comes running out of the canyon too. “I think the rain has stopped! If we’re going to get out of here we need to get out of here right now.” I paused and asked if they would wait on me. “You got two minutes and I’m gone! I’m sorry but I’m leaving soon.”  I understood. I mean primal instinct is what’s going to get you out of a situation like this. I get out of my bag and start shoving things in my bag aimlessly. “Oh, she’s naked. Hey you’re cute!” I laughed a bit as I struggled to stuff my giant sleeping bag on top of everything. I definitely took longer than two minutes because I struggled with gear and putting all my wet clothes on. I thought they were gone, but to my relief had waited.

I run down to them. “The water may have stopped but the climb up ahead is a waterfall. There’s no way we can get passed it.” He asked me to look at the clouds and if I thought another flood front would come. “It looks clear but it could be raining somewhere else in the canyon. For now it’s calm, but I just don’t know.” He said, “Ok we’ll we go see if the water is down up there.We at least have to check.” We run up and over the rocks. We get to the climb and while it wasn’t a raging waterfall quite like it was there was still hundreds of gallons of rushing water going down it. “Ok, we’re going to get a little wet.” The rock was surprisingly grippy in the rushing water. We get down just enough and jump 6 feet onto soft, muddy, quick sand like sand. “C’mon you guys we have to hurry run!” We push forward. Running through waste deep icy water at points. There are downed trees that have fallen and drifted down the canyon. Getting smashed into any of those would not have been good. I see my tent mangled in one of them.

We emerge from the canyon to a half crescent moon and partially cloudy skies. “Wooooo! We made it!” one of the guys shouted. As we ran down the switchbacks and talked about what had just happened to us. It didn’t quite hit me what I had just survived. I wanted to hug my newly made survivor friends. It was about 7:30 at night and we ran for the last shuttle. The guy turned to us and said, “You’re lucky you made it out alive.”

The guys offered me a warm place to stay, shower, food, and best of company. We sat on the couch, ate pizza, took a few shots of rum, and watched family guy. Their roommates came down and talked with us about our experience and told us stories of how people died in that canyon just a few weeks ago. I remember one of the roomates saying, “They found the last body 25 ft above the trail. He got smashed with 40 mile per hour water into a wall and died.”

As we sat there and started to feel a bit recovered a loud thunder struck and lightening began crashing every second. Then, downpour. Even more so than in the canyon. The rain lasted for hours. “We would still be up there right now.” I thought, or at least me if those two hadn’t been there. The water would have continued to rise and I would have woken up dead.

In this case, I got really lucky and I really understand that now. I went into that canyon with a lot of ignorance and was lucky to come out. Most people don’t I realized that most people going into that canyon don’t know what a flash flood is. This was the one time I didn’t check the weather either and someone is always telling me I worry too much. So I just went to it. My instincts were louder than that those voices and may have helped save my life.

The two on the canyon I will never forget. They saved my life. They helped me be stronger and push myself out of an experience that I may not have come out of. They could have run for their lives and easily just shouted, “Fuck you bitch I’m out of here.” But they waited. In possible death they waited.

So, I wrote this as a warning to others and as a reminder to myself. If you hike in a canyon, know that there are rainy seasons and dry seasons. There’s rain even in the dry season. Don’t ever underestimate the warnings of flash floods or just the weather in general. Checking the weather and talking to people about what you’re doing is taking preventative measure. It doesn’t make you less bad ass. It doesn’t make you worrisome. It doesn’t make you less of a daring person. It makes you a smarter person and one that is alive, and not being recovered at the bottom of a pool of water by search and rescue. It doesn’t matter how many push ups and sit ups you do or how much weight you can bench, that’s not going to help you when you’re being smashed into a wall at 40 miles per our, or when you’re being pushed down by thousands of lbs of water to the bottom of the trail floor, or when you’re foot gets lodged in a root and you drowned.

I’m also going to give a bit more credit to those of us who are ignorant. There are plenty of stories out there where people that have known better, that are the best of the best at safety, and slip up sometimes. There’s been quite a few guides that have died in that canyon as well and non guides that new but pressed their luck a bit. Sometimes you get lucky and make it out alright, but then sometimes you don’t.


Color me Adventure

Gus the Adventure Bus

If adventure had a color it would be red

Because red is the color of the last sunset I saw, it was the color of the worst combinations of food I made just to get enough calories, the color of the fires that kept me warm and safe at night,the color of my scrapes and cuts from climbing the Devil’s Tower, the color of my lips when I kissed the one I love for the first time in a long time, the color of my chest as I hugged old friends,  the color of my thumb when I burned it trying to cook mac & cheese for the hundredth time, the color of my palms when I met strangers and shook their hands, the color of a little boy exploring the country with his father, the color of my paddle as I rafted down rapids, the color of my eyes when I couldn’t find a place to sleep, the color of my feet as I ran across the road barefoot to get close to rams, the color of my ice ax as I plunged it into a glacier, the color of the temperature gauge when I drove uphill, the color of my fingertips as I ran them across caribou’s fur, the color of my breathe when everything was falling apart, the color of my cheeks when a wolf approached me, the color of my legs as I walked through thick brush, the color of my skin as I summitted mountains, the color of my van as it chugged across the country to the last frontier.




I Bought a Van

“If you compromise the process you’re an asshole when you start and an asshole when you come back. Who gives a shit what the holy grail is? It’s the quest that’s important. The transformation is within yourself.” – Yvon Chouinard

So….I  bought a van. It’s a 1987 Chevy G20 van and absolutely beautiful. About a semester before graduating from college I had my heart set on Alaska. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe Alaska is like my New York, New York for others. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” – Frank Sinatra. I had fallen in love with travel and nature the second I stepped into the Green Mountains of Vermont 14 years ago.  Since then it’s grown into a passion that urges me to travel the world and be in the outdoors the majority of my time. I’ve tried to express my passions in the best way I know h ow to communicate and that’s through photography.

I bought my first DSLR about three years ago and it’s pretty much a part of my soul now. I’ve thumbed through National Geographic dreaming of working and traveling for them (who hasn’t right?). I feel like Alaska would be a great step toward honing my skills in capturing the things that I love most: nature, travel, and outdoor adventures.

When the 2014 Fall semester rolled around I knew I was going to go to Alaska. I sought fishing jobs in the area and though they are notorious for being some of the most dangerous jobs, I wanted to experience the lifestyle as well as use this opportunity as a means for tackling my debt. It was a gamble however. The pay wasn’t guaranteed but based on what your crew has caught over the season. I could only imagine the images and characters I’d get to know.

I had been working as a manager at my local university’s rock climbing wall for a few years when I met this incredibly reserved yet strong climber, Dylan, who began working at the wall just this past year. I had been showing him some of the work I’d done at the Red River Gorge and backpacking trips when I mentioned my post graduate plans. I told him I was planning on living out of a van and heading for Alaska to get a fishing job and experience the state. A few months later he approached me about a photography and guiding position at his camp in Alaska.

I was kinda surprised, because everything up until that moment was very uncertain and on the verge of being stupidly difficult and dangerous for me, though I knew that and chose that path. I can’t say this fell in my lap because this wouldn’t have had I not expressed my interests and goals. Networking really paid off for me here and I was incredibly lucky to be offered this position. I’m incredibly stoked to say the least, though I’m really nervous at the same time.

I’ve had one leadership development course, I’m WFR certified, and I’m a strong climber and hiker, but I still felt highly under-qualified for some reason. I think it’s because I had tried to get into UVM’s Outing Club programs as a leader with no luck. It also seems like, lately, companies express a greater interests in hiring people with greater certifications under their belt. However, he felt that I’d make a great addition to the company. He primarily hired me for my photography skills, but I also opted to do more guiding because it’s something I wanted to get into and it also paid a bit more than the photography gig. I’ll be supplementing my guiding work with photography gigs as well. I’m very thankful he was flexible with this.

As amazing as this experience is, I can’t help but recognize an overwhelming feeling of nervousness I have about this whole thing and my abilities. I’ve had my fair share of failures, but this field is something I’d like to thrive in, especially the photography part. My grandfather use to say, “Julie they always say if you work hard you’ll succeed. Well that’s not true. Sometimes you can work really hard and still fail.” He wasn’t telling me that to get my hopes down but rather to tell me that, in a way, it’s ok to fail, but it’s not ok to stop trying and working for your goals. Failure is part of living. So, questions fill my head, “What if I fail?”, “What if he changes his mind?”, and “What if the van blows up mid journey?” As a climber I tend to think of the worst case scenario first.

This is a huge cross road in my life and it’s really exciting but also very uncertain and scary. It’s the first time, in a long time, that I’ll be far away from everything I’ve ever known and be completely independent (away from home). I mean I’ve traveled abroad and held my own just fine but the difference here is that I’m not coming back to Vermont….I’m an adult O_o I’m trying really hard to do all this right too. Hence the quote above by Yvonne. This whole cross country trip in a van is something that people would normally take a year or two to prepare for. I’ve been at this for a few months at best. Everything is still up in the air in terms of readiness, equipment and financial stability. I’m kinda banking on selling my subaru for at least $2,500 for a safety net in case the van does blow up. There is much work to be done before my departure date in May.

I try not to let these worries get to me too much, but it’s hard. I try to focus on the thought that on May 9th, I’ll be on my way across the country with some great friends (some I have yet to meet) heading to Alaska of all places, a great frontier filled with wild life, adventures, and untouched beauty.


Ice Climbing Mount Washington

Huntington’s Ravine, Mount Washington (Photo by Kris)

Last weekend I tried ice climbing at Mount Washington, New Hampshire for the first time with two buddy’s of mine, Kris and Dylan. Both are strong indoor and outdoor climbers in both ice, trad, and sport. Vermont Rock recently recognized them for adding several climbs to the New England area, including “The Schistine Chapel” (5.11c) and “Skeleton Crack” (5.9) at Bone Mountain. We all had an interest in climbing and hiking Washington so we teamed up to take it on. I decided to take my old 1980 Nikon F20 film camera along for the adventure too.

Taking a Breather

Kris and Dylan taking a break just before the summit of Mount Washington.

I’ve been climbing indoors for years. It was only last spring at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky did I start lead climbing outside. I’ve always dreamed of being like the climbers you see in magazines, but I’ve been climbing inside for so long that I’ve developed a bit of a fear from climbing outside the comforts and safety I’m accustomed to in the rock gyms(i.e the top ropes and short distances between clips for lead climbing, the familiarity of the textures of the rocks and walls). To say the least, I’m still getting used to being comfortable climbing outside, but I’m determined to do it because rock climbing is the one sport I genuinely love. I think I’m getting there slowly but surely. It helps having friends around you that can offer motivation and assurance.

Our plan

Our plan was to hike up to the Harvard Hut and check in with the AMC staff about the trail conditions. We had our hearts set on climbing Pinkham’s Notch then hike the last few miles to the summit where we’d snowboard or ski down Tuckerman’s Ravine. Honestly, conditions couldn’t have been better, which is a rarity for this mountain. The sun was shining, temperatures were in the upper 20’s, there was hardly any wind, and there hadn’t been any excessive snow fall in the past few days. Except, the staff at the hut told us there had been reports of damming on a lot of climbs, including Pinkham’s. This meant climbers were getting soaked from melting ice. Not a good scenario to be in once above the treeline in the gusty winds.Kate Matrosova

Just the week before 32 year old Kate Matrosova, an experienced hiker, died attempting to complete the Presidential Traverse alone in some of the worst weather ever seen at the whites. Although our conditions that day were no where near as brutal as they were the week before, we were all humble to the potential risks involved in the decisions  that we would make. Read Kate’s story here.

As we all got our second wind at the hut I was really feeling the weight of my pack. The thought of climbing up with the snowboard and riding down seemed bad-ass up until that point. I didn’t have the greatest set up to hold my board either so it seemed WAY heavier than it really was. I worried that I’d be too exhausted to hold my own climbing, especially since it acted more like a sail at this point. So…I ditched my board at the hut. I was really bummed, but even my buds agreed that this was probably for the best. The plan for after our summit would be to rendez-vous at the hut where we’d all ride down together.

We changed our plans a bit.

Kris and Dylan scoping out our route to Odell's.

Kris and Dylan scoping out our route to Odell’s.

Instead of heading to Pinkham’s we decided to climb Odell’s bulges to avoid getting wet. We made our way up the steep trails in Huntington’s Ravine. Here I was really thrown into mountaineering as I put crampons on for the first time. I had an idea of how and how not to use them from watching tutorial videos back when I was planning to do the Presidential Traverse in January. Honestly, the mountaineering boots were more awkward to hike in than anything.

Approaching the base of Odell’s icy bulges I stared with excitement and anxiety. I had no idea what ice climbing felt like and was pretty nervous that I’d either hurt myself in some embarrassing fashion or not be able to do it. I watched Dylan as he lead the first pitch, placing ice screws every 10 feet or so. Once he reached the top of the pitch he anchored in and readied himself to begin belaying. Kris and I would be climbing on a 2-1 belaying setup, which basically means that him and I would be top roping the same time, on the same rope, while Dylan belayed us both. Kris began tying into the middle of the rope when he looked at me and said, “Ok, when the rope is taught at your end, that’s when you can start climbing.”

Odell's Bulges

Dylan sets up the first pitch to our ice climb.

Once Kris got up about a 3rd of the way I started climbing. I plunged my ice axes into the ice for the first time and shattered the wall of ice making two huge holes. Kris told me that I’d know when I had gotten a secure hold on the axes because they felt a certain way when they went in. I plunged my right ax again a few times until it stuck in place. “Ok, that one’s good.” I did the same with the other, awkwardly missing and sometimes jabbing the ice at an awkward angle. “Ok, now the feet.” I climbed up most of the way up the bulged and fell almost all the way down. “Damn I have to start over….”, I thought. I started getting a bad case of the “screaming banshees” in my fingers. They hurt so bad I had to sit and rub my fingers for a good five minutes once I got over the first bulge.

Everything was so new and awkward. I did everything I knew you weren’t suppose to do with your body when you first climb. I tried to hold all my weight with my arms at first instead of my legs. I didn’t keep my body close to the wall of ice, and I wore myself out pretty quickly. About half way up I had to just sit on the rope and breath for a solid minute. There were another set of climbers just to the left of us. I sparked up a conversation with them while we were  both climbing by each other to calm my nerves. I know I’m a dork.

Once we began the second pitch I had a better feeling for the arm and footwork. It went by much easier. I’ve always been used to using the friction of rock or an edge to put my foot on but here I couldn’t do that. I mean, yes, you try to use natural edges in the ice when you can but for the most part I was jabbing my crampons into the wall of ice. It’d be just the blades of your crampons holding you to the ice. I’d put weight on my legs every time thinking, “Well I hope this is secure.”

The climb was four pitches all together. Ice climbing was awesome, but I was glad to be able to stand on two feet again! We realized that this would be the last time we could take advantage of the natural shelter the ravine gave us from the wind. We scarfed some gorp and water down, collected our gear, suited up, and made our way up to toward the summit. The wind grew stronger and stronger as we came out of the ravine. I felt like I was walking through a wind tunnel. All I could hear was the sound of wind rushing past my ears.

Just before the Summit in the Alpine Zone.

Just before the Summit in the Alpine Zone.

As we emerged from the ravine we came upon a large flat barren area just before the infamous Alpine Zone, where the risk for avalanches are at their worst due to the steepness of the terrain. They say you should spend as little time here as possible, but the snow was quite solid and there hadn’t been any new snowfall in the recent past. So we took our time. We sat against a rock and had another short picnic. The wind howled at 50 mph the entire time, but we were well insulated and the sunshine really helped cut the windchill.  Dylan discovered I had M&M’s in my gorp and became my best friend for a bit. Once we were satisfied and hydrated we set out to trek through the steep alpine zone up to the summit. We decided to ditch our packs here at the rocks and just trek up with our crampons and axes.

Resting just before the summit

Resting just before the summit (Photo by Kris)

Dylan and Kris wanted to head in a straight line up to the summit. I followed off to the side with them but took my own route for the most part. It was far to steep to head in a straight line for too long without your legs burning out. I remembered my time trekking in Nepal. The foot trails were often made in the pattern of a “Z” to cut down on the steepness and potential for rest breaks. It had been some time and then I heard my name being called. I looked down and saw Kris and Dylan laying on the ground. I sat and waited for them to climb up and we took another breather. Up until now they had both been kicking my butt as I struggled to keep up. the 5’2″ struggle was in fact real.

A very tired hiking crew.

A very tired hiking crew.

After we gained our strength we pushed for the summit.  The top was crystal clear and the weather observatory towered loomed over us covered in a thick layer of ice. Several other skiers and riders had hiked up the other trails and were waiting for their chance to get their picture taken with the summit sign.

I felt indifferent about the view at the top and didn’t really understand why. We were so high above everything that all the other peaks looked so small. In Vermont you could look at the other peaks and the same went for when I was in Nepal. Still, it was incredibly beautiful at the top especially on this bluebird day. We walked around a bit and began making our way down.

Here I got a lesson in glissading 101. I wish I had a gopro for this, because it was awesome. It was hard to get at first. I didn’t really want to go to fast because there were rocks at the bottom, but basically you slide down a steep trail and use your axes as a rotor to steer and slow you down. My climbing harness kept catching once in a while so it was difficult to get a smooth slide going, but when I did it was fun. It did scare my a bit though so there were definitely times that I walked down instead.

The riding didn’t quite goes as planned as we ended up missing Tuckerman’s and went down another trail at Huntington’s. Kris and Dylan road down in survival mode and I hiked and glissaded. I met up  with Kris at the bottom of the trail and we waited for Dylan but he ended up passing us. We decided to just head to the hut where we had all agreed to meet up if we got separated. Turned out that all of us, about the same time, had to hike through waist deep snow. At this point in the trip we were definitely at the end of our energy levels. I helped carry Kris’ board at some point so he could get some relief in his legs. We finally came to a packed trail head and couldn’t have been happier. Kris strapped his board on and headed for the hut. I took my crampons off and hiked the rest of the way to the hut.

As we entered the hut the staff gave us a heart warming “welcome back” as we had completed our adventure. We sat next to the wood stove talking to one of the AMC staff members about our experience as he continued chopping wood. The hut had come alive at the late hour with the arrival of several other hikers returning from their journeys. It was great to be around people that shared the same interests that we did.

I decided to get a head start on riding down since they were a lot faster than I was. I haven’t really ridden much in the woods or narrow un-groomed paths. I struggled a bit and maybe I was a bit grumpy from the the exhaustion at that point. The path was narrow, steep, and uneven with long stretches of flat at times. It was also nighttime and my head lamp wasn’t the brightest. I decided I’d just meet them at the car and hike down with my board. But after a while the full moon had risen above the trees and brightened the path. It also wasn’t so steep and uneven. I took a few minutes to switch out the batteries in my head lamp and tried again. This time the riding was much better. I clipped the sides of the trail a few times going pretty fast and wiped out a good 4 times, but I once I got into the rhythm of the fast hard carving it was a lot of fun. The guys had a similar experience but we all made it down safe and sound.

How to Build a Fire

Being able to build a fire is a critical skill to have when maneuvering around the backcountry or the wilderness. It serves as a source for cooking, boiling/purifying water, heat, light, and if the situation comes down to it, an emergency signal. I’ve found that the times that I’ve needed a fire the most are when conditions aren’t so great. Like when I’m hiking during the winter or when it’s been raining. You’re cold, you’re tired from the hike, and you just want to cook some food, warm up, dry out, and hit the hay. The more you practice fire building in various conditions the better equipped you’ll be. However, there are going to be times that your surrounding conditions just aren’t going to allow you to start a fire. It’s important to recognize those conditions and not waste your precious heat and, instead, focus finding or building a shelter.

First consider:

  1. Conditions – Is it raining, snowing, or windy? Depending on the conditions of your location, your access to fuel (a.k.a dry firewood) and ease of starting a fire could vary.
    1. It takes more energy to ignite wet wood than it is dry dead wood. Access to dry wood may be limited depending on how heavy rain conditions are or if it’s been raining for several hours. Try to take dead tree limbs from the base of trees instead of limbs that have fallen to the ground. These are less likely to be soaked.
    2. In windy conditions, try to find a rock or spot that shields you from the wind. You can also build a shield for your fire with downed limbs, trees, or bigger stones. If you’re at the summit of a hike, you may have to hike down a bit to shield yourself from the elements and find better access to fuel resources.
    3. If snow pack isn’t too deep then dig down to expose the ground before building your fire. Otherwise, you’ll need to build a platform to have your fire sit on. If you don’t, you’re fire will melt surrounding snow, making it difficult to keep the fire going, while causing your fire to sink further into the ground.
  2. Environment – What is your surrounding terrain like? Are you up at elevations where trees are sparse or small and you’re more exposed to the elements or are you in a heavily wooded area? When you’re evaluating your environment you’re also evaluating the resources you have accessible to build your fire.
  3. Equipment – What do you have in terms of fire starting tools? You should have access to no less than two methods to start your fire. Whether that be matches, a flint stone fire starting kit, or a lighter you need to be able to have access to another tool in case the other fails. I find that lighters can be finicky in the winter or when they’re wet and the same goes for matches as well. Be sure to seal your tools in a ziploc bag or dry pack. I typically carry a lighter and flint stone fire starter.

Key Points when Building a Fire:This rendering was extracted from http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-light-a-fire/

  • Small to Big – You’re going to want to start your fire with fuel that ignites quickly and gradually add larger, more slower burning fuel. Starting off with larger fuel sources means that you’re going to need more energy, in terms of heat, to ignite that fuel. Ever try to start a fire in your fireplace with just large logs and a roll of newspapers? Takes forever! Going from smaller to bigger sources of fuel will allow you to gradually increase your heat output to create embers, which will help keep your fire going.
  • Let it Breath – In order to have a fire you need three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. When you have a fire, the heat is rising, but also pulling oxygen in to continue the process of combustion. Don’t pile all your wood on at once. Instead, build it in a way that will optimize airflow between your fuel.
  • Have your fuel handy – There’s nothing worse than getting your fire going then having it go out while you look for fire wood. It’s a waste of energy. Have your fire wood collected before hand and put them in a neatly accessible pile. Usually, I’ll make a pile for kindling, another pile for slightly larger sticks, then a pile for larger sticks.

We’re all Dreamers

Life is about courage and going into the unknown.

A friend recently sent me a trailer from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, because the main character reminded them of me. I decided that it looked intriguing enough to watch, so I sat down one weekend to see what this was all about. The further I got into the story the more enveloped I became with the main character, Walter Mitty, an aging man who manages the negative images of Life magazine. At first glance, he’s kind of a boring person. The parameters of his life consist of going from his apartment to work and from work to his apartment. He’s incredibly tedious and cautious, yet frequently finds himself daydreaming about leading a dangerous and adventurous lifestyle. Sound familiar to anyone? It sounded very familiar to me.

When his job is threatened, he’s faced with a situation where he needs to find photographer Sean O’Connell so he can retrieve the negative that is supposed to be used in Lifetime magazine’s final print issue before they permanently switched over to digital publishing. The only issue is that in order to find Mr. O’Connell, he’ll have to travel abroad into rough and sometimes unknown territory. He could stay and inevitably be fired for a mistake he wasn’t responsible for. He knew what he had to do, the rest was just finding the courage to do it.

This is my favorite moment of the entire movie. It’s that moment when he decides to get up and go. Everything up until this excerpt showed you that he lead a very cautious lifestyle for the sake of others. In the film, he explains that when he was 17 his father died on a Tuesday and got a full time job at Papa Johns on a Thursday in order to support his mom and sister. He traded in his wild skateboarding look and lifestyle to help his family. He had always wanted to travel and be adventurous, but had lead a life in supporting others for so long that he kind of forgot how to live for himself. Long after his family had recovered and were able to support themselves, Walter was very cautious about his choices. He needed to ensure that he would always have a steady job in case something happened. This especially hit home for me. I think that all of us, at some point, have dreamed about doing something or going somewhere, but something happens and changes us in some way. I was given an opportunity, much like Water was, that would make or break my future career. I wanted to live/work abroad in some fashion (at that time the choice was in archaeology), but I had no idea how to do it and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I took a chance, I applied for an archaeology program abroad and, by some chance, out of hundreds of applicants, I was accepted. I was working at a grocery store at that time. I approached my boss and told him my plans, but with the hopes that he would give me my old job back once I returned. Luckily, he understood my needs and said I’d be welcomed back once I returned. I bought my plane tickets and headed for the airport. There were moments, especially in the Madrid airport, where everything was in Spanish, I didn’t know the language, I had no idea where I was going, but I knew what I needed to do. Everything from that moment fell into place and I had the most amazing adventure I had ever had in my life. Not only did I learn that I could handle working and travelling abroad, I learned that I loved it and it was something that I wanted to continue doing.


A Flat Lander’s Journey to Nepal

Ever since I was little girl growing up in the rolling and rather dull plains of the mid-west, I have dreamed of being a world travelling adventurer. It’s why I initially chose my major in anthropology. The first time I decided to travel abroad was in 2009. I walked into my folk’s living room, shortly after graduating high school, and abruptly announced, “I’m going to live in Spain for the summer.” I had been accepted into a program doing volunteer archaeology work at a Celtic Iron Age necropolis and Roman settlement located in a little remote village in central Spain. Somewhere between laughing hysterically and feeling concerned, my folks asked, “Oh really? When are you leaving?” Without hesitation, I answered, “May 29th. I just bought my plane tickets. Do you think you guys could give me a ride to the airport?”

Walking along hand made walking routes through the Himalayas

Walking along hand made walking routes through the Himalayas

A few years since then, I saw a flyer at my university advertising a study abroad course in Nepal. Looking at some of the photographs of the villages that were clinging to edges of cliffs and sustaining themselves between these enormous, god-like mountains, I looked with fascination at a place that seemed far away from the norms of home, not just materialistically, but also environmentally, politically, socially, and economically. This presented itself as an opportunity to apply what I’ve learned, in anthropology, in the field. The very thought of the kinds of adventurous experiences and research skills I could develop were too exciting for words.

One of the major rivers in Nepal. The banks are sparsely dotted with villages that cling to the banks for what little water is left.

One of the major rivers in Nepal. The banks are sparsely dotted with villages that cling to the banks for what little water is left.

The best part about it was that Above the Clouds, the company that coordinated the trek, had already established close relationships among the local community members in the villages we would be trekking through. Some of these members were guides that stayed with us the entirety of our journey. All we had to do was simply let our curiosity take over and start asking questions…and I had several question. I certainly kept the instructor and guides busy.

Karma, one of our guides/horseman, shows us how the sling shots we bought in a local village really works.

Karma, one of our guides/horseman, shows us how the sling shots we bought in a local village really works.

Their constant reassurance in my curiosity inspired me to go beyond my comfort levels and learn more than I ever could in a traditional classroom setting. In a similar sense that famous photographer and humanitarian, Chris Rainier, described his experience in Tibet, this opportunity allowed me to “slow down” and “peel away the clichés” that we tend to think defines our “object of attention” when it merely “bounces across the surface”. Although, I still feel a bit badly when I unintentionally woke up the abbot of the Kag Chode Thumpten Samphel Ling Monastery in Kagbeni to quench my curiosity about Tibetan Buddhism. On the plus side, he showed me a Tibetan Sanskrit app he frequently used on his iphone to communicate with other Tibetan Buddhist. He also let me wander around the monastery on my own. I found some cool secret rooms filled with relics the monastery had stored for, god knows, how long. On top of that, I came back with a story that the other students could benefit from.

A traditional Buddhist  wheel of life preserved on the walls of the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery in Kagbeni.

A traditional Buddhist wheel of life preserved on the walls of the Kag Chode Thupten Samphel Ling Monastery in Kagbeni.

When I had first arrived in Nepal, I immediately felt myself immersing in the culture, but even more so the further we traveled into the rural region of upper Mustang, away from the city. I felt a strange sense of familiarity that, oddly enough, I could relate to my time growing up in a small town in the Midwest. The groups of men, and occasionally women, I saw that gathered in a particular area would sit and chat from sun-up to sundown. It reminded me of my grand-folks and their friends who would sit on the back porch just watching and talking. The only way I could describe why they gathered in that manner was that they were collectively appreciating moments to slow down and be still in every sense.  Something I found that made my friends uncomfortable here in New England.  Another element that struck me was the communities’ relationship with Buddhism. It also reminded me of my hometown community’s relationship toward Christianity in a sense that they depended on each other for help and support. Granted the level of dependency the locals in Mustang was a much more serious context, I was still able to regain an appreciation for spiritually that I had forgotten even though I don’t practice Christianity or Buddhism.

A group of monks are released from their studies at the village library in LoManthang

A group of monks are released from their studies at the village library in LoManthang

While a larger majority of this journey allowed me the opportunity to reconnect with my own culture, I also wanted to focus my time in Nepal looking at how globalization impacted these communities through several aspects. Everyone from the teachers, guides, and local community members made that possible.  It was one thing to read about the potential impacts and how they were interconnected, but it was another thing entirely to see them. Their culture, for example, wasn’t only impacted by tourism, but also trade, domestics and foreign policies, education, NGO’s, and the economy. All of which, influenced each other in more ways than one.

Typically, in anthropology you’re supposed to bring any assumptions you may have towards your research forward. Even though I made a substantial effort to do so, I still found myself continuing to question those assumptions throughout the trip and even more so afterwards. That experience alone has proven to be one of the most valuable experiences I have had and it continues to resonate within me and everything I do.

A woman giving an offering at Boudhanath, one of the most holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Nepal

A woman giving an offering at Boudhanath, one of the most holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu, Nepal

All the experiences I’ve had, the relationships I formed, the food and tea I drank, the lessons I learned, the stories I’ve been told, and the knowledge I’ve gained from this trip I brought back to share with my own family and community. Even still, that continues to enrich both of our lives, especially, when I make momos!