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November in Indian Creek

November 11, 2018

The glass appears etched in featherlike patterns. The only source of moisture would be my breath, so it must have formed inside on the car windows. How long until the sun?

The need to poop forces me from my sleeping bag. I pull on a sweater and puffy. The outside air is invigorating and numbing. It’s probably in the mid teens again, too cold for living outside.

The cottonwoods full of golden leaves two weeks ago are now half bare. Some branches are just sticks, others still hold enough brown leaves to delay the sun from hitting my table by 20 minutes. The water bottles contain solid ice. Sites just up hill get sun sooner. I should change sites for earlier sun and an earlier morning thaw.

Matt my site mate emerges from his car and throws two slices of bacon into his pan. He uses the grease to fry the rest of his breakfast. Today he makes a sandwich with bacon, sausage, hamburger, an egg, and fried cheese with a bit of onion and one leaf of fried kale. I tell him that I can’t keep bacon. Every time I buy bacon, I cook it all of it with the intention of eating a bit and saving the rest. Then I eat all of it right away. I have never had leftover bacon. It doesn’t matter how much I cook, a pound, three pounds, I can’t stop eating it until it’s gone.

Matt says, “I’ve got rules around bacon. I have to eat it at least two meals a day.” Then he laughs.

A high fat diet seems right when it’s this cold.

Once the sun is out, it can feel hot. Sometimes at the base of a crag, in full sun and out of the wind, shirts come off. But never for long. If a climb is in the shade belayers wear puffies. And once the sun goes down people wear all the layers they have.

The only warmth for the long night comes from fires. I guess if you have a van, you can post up inside and maybe run a propane heater. But then you miss being outside. Even sleeping in my car feels a bit antithetical to living outside, which is why I slept with the door open until it got so butt cold. I sometimes visit a couple of fires a night. Each fire seems to have its own culture. Sometimes there’s witty banter. More often people talk about climbing, which is tedious but a companionable way to be in community. I’m often happy to stay silent and stare into the fire as the chatter swirls around me.

There is something about the fire that draws me in, almost like I’m genetically programed to gaze into the coals until the last remaining light. One night while staring deep into red coals I realized that if you added a story you would have TV or a movie. Mike my fire companion remarked that a story would be a distraction. He liked a fire because it helped him look inward and spend time with his own thoughts.

I’m not sure I want to spend time with my own thoughts. A distraction sounds pretty good. However when stories are available, I passively gorge on them in behavior somewhere between avoidance and an addictive illness. Maybe staring at a fire is healthier, except when the smoke blows in my face.

The sun goes down at five-thirty. When there’s enough wood to last all the way to nine o’clock, I only need to be in my bag nine hours until it’s light again. That’s a long time. Then it’s another hour until the suns rays touch my car.

Most fires are warm enough to heat your front while your bum gets cold. But on Halloween there was a raging fire. Alicia had a box of costumes. A bunch of people sifted through the contents and tried stuff on. I succumbed to the pressure and put a pink tutu over my climbing pants and a plastic tiara covered with red, orange, and yellow silk flowers over my wool beret. I got a lot of complements, to which I said, “feels like the real me,” and kicked off a poorly executed jeté.

A bottle of bourbon was making the rounds. Someone put a waxed produce box on the fire. The chimney effect of the box sent flames about fifteen feet into the air. For about two minutes it was so bright and hot that everyone had to move back. Not to waste the warmth, all of us in the know lifted our shirts to feel the fire’s heat on our bellies.

More wood went on the fire and more alcohol made the rounds. By the third waxed box people were pulling off their shirts. There was a bit of cloud cover, which made the night warmer. In the glow of the fire it was like day. Soon a dozen people were naked and another dozen were on their way. You would never find a more beautiful collection of male and female bodies. Everyone was looking young and fit. Then people started taking shots of whisky off each other’s bodies. An indentation would be exaggerated on the back, belly, or clavicle. Someone would pour and someone else would slurp. As titillating as it seems, it all stayed amazingly asexual. The slurpers never lingered over body parts as they diligently chased stray drips.

Another box went in. I was standing shirtless taking a pull off a bottle when Victoria decided to remove my pants. By then I didn’t care and let it happen. It was the most chaste pancing I have ever had.

She said, “I have been waiting for years to do that.”

Victoria, who is a bit over 30, sometimes introduces me as her 60-year-old crush. We flirt sometimes but our only physical exchanges have been limited to greeting hugs when we run into each other at the start of a season. She knows I’m with Donna and has always respected boundaries. When we lived together in Kalymnos for a month, I never saw her naked. She even changed in the bathroom. That night at the fire was the first time I saw her body. Her meaty labia were a surprise and alluring.

I spent the next hours wearing nothing but the pink tutu and partook in the whisky, rum, and tequila making the rounds. John talked about returning to BASE jumping. Last year he crashed into a cliff. He said he was not afraid of death but was afraid of another injury. Kate spoke about body image. She is full figured and beautiful but self-conscious in a place where most women’s bodies range between tight and perky to clearly athletic. Lots of people talked about climbing.

Though I saw little of Victoria, the image of her vag region stuck in my mind. Donna had once said she would give me a pass for Vic. At the time I assumed it was part in jest and in part a way to manage her fears. As the night progressed in the company of so many beautiful naked women and as I consumed far more booze than I was used to, I wrestled with immediate desire, a knowingly adolescent fantasy, and my long-term commitment to Donna.

At some point someone else needed the tutu, so I gave it away. By then Victoria was gone to my disappointment and relief. A bit later I found my clothing and stumbling back to my car alone, wanting, and grateful for having dodged a potentially glorious fleeting moment, pain to someone I love, and at least embarrassment if not a devastating mistake.

Days later a solo cross-country pilgrimage took me to the Colorado River. High on a silt-formed bank was flat ground with a few trees and freshly sprouted green grass. A dark red sandstone cliff sheltered it from the wind and held the warmth. It was like stepping into a fecund place designed for mating. Donna have would love it and I wished she were there.

I often think about Donna. I miss her laugh, miss her body next to mine, and miss her companionship. Why am I sleeping alone in a freezing car when I could be in a warm soft bed with her?

I wonder what holds me in this stark landscape with all its discomforts. Perhaps it’s something in the vastness, so big I don’t feel contained, that makes me feel connected in a way I don’t in the city. Maybe it’s that everything feels raw and present. Maybe I don’t need to know, other than to recognize that being here feels right.

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Not Quite There and Back

I wake in the desert to golden light. The sun has just risen above the red sandstone cliffs and its rays are being filtered through bright yellow cottonwood leafs that flutter in the early morning breeze. I’m happy to wake here, alone, and to drift back to sleep and wake again several times before actually rising. There is no rush. No one is in a hurry. There will be plenty of climbing, and hanging with friends, and a fire tonight. It’s good living outside, at home for the season in Indian Creek.

Creek in Oct

I was supposed to be to Sikkim on a trek to Kanchenjunga with Donna. She is my ex-wife and current girlfriend. Donna took a year off from work and I from climbing. Going to the Himalaya was our last planned trip and the one I was most looking forward to. We both love walking in the high mountains. Twenty-five years ago we walked around Annapurna, village to village before there were roads. My desire was for another such walk, a journey long enough to establish a daily rhythm that feels like a lifestyle.

Usually Donna takes care of most of the planning. By most, I mean all. For our two treks in Italy this past summer she bought books about the routes. She figured out how far we would walk each day and booked the accommodations. In part, it’s because she likes planning. In part, it’s because she has higher standards than I do and prefers to be comfortable. For some reason she decided to let me do the planning for our trip to the Himalaya.

I’m not much of a planner. We had discussed the walk to Kanchenjunga but I also was hoping to explore northern Sikkim. I wanted to venture into some of the more obscure valleys where tourists typically don’t go. I had read that permits and guides were required. Not wanting to carry heavy packs, pony support would also need to be arranged. My plan was to start in Gangtok where most of the local trekking companies are based. We could talk to people for a few days, find someone to work with, and figure out the details from there. I booked us a direct flight to Delhi and a connecting flight to near Gangtok — a four-hour bus ride away. Planning done.

This is supposed to be the dry season, but a few days before we left the forecast showed rain for the next ten days. That was as far as the forecast went. It seemed like the monsoon didn’t want to end. Donna emailed a contact she knew from trekking in Bhutan two years before and found out that there had been 14 feet of rain this year in Northern Sikkim. All the roads were washed out. Maybe we should have waited for the rain to stop before buying our tickets.

The afternoon before we left we had lunch with our friends John and Colleen. John gave a rousing endorsement of the samosas in the Delhi airport based on his experience 30+ years ago. See—you don’t need Yelp food recommendations when you can get information like that.

Our flight from SFO left at 1 a.m. Donna wanted to catch an Uber at 9 p.m. to make sure we had lots of time. At 8 p.m. we walked up to Peet’s to say goodbye to our son Sam. He was working late shift on the espresso bar and offered to make me a decaf mocha. As he handed it to me he said, “Aaah ya know, I’m not sure I made it decaf. Maybe I should make you another one just in case.” I declined. With a 16-hour flight ahead of me there seemed no harm in a little caffeine.

In the backseat of the Uber Donna said, “It doesn’t seem real. I don’t believe we will get on the plane.”

I reassured her. In spite of the likelihood of a very wet trip, I was feeling good about it all. There was definitely caffeine in that mocha.

The ticket agent for Air India said, “I’m sorry, without a visa we cannot let you on the plane.”

I protested. I had read on line that it was possible to get a “visa on arrival” at the Delhi airport. To me “visa on arrival” had a specific meaning as in – you arrive and get a visa. In this case it meant that you could get an e-visa on line and have the actual visa placed in your passport at the Delhi airport. Silly me. I went from disbelief to frustration and embarrassment with a bit of self-loathing.

Donna remained calm, practical, and remarkably even-keeled. She didn’t blame, and together we worked on solutions. Maybe a ticket from Delhi to Kathmandu would allow us to stay in the international transit section of the airport and avoid needing a visa. Nope. All sold out. After several attempted workarounds we admitted defeat and retreated back to Berkeley.

I was wired as fuck and couldn’t sleep until 5 a.m.

The next morning after an hour and half of sleep, Donna was a bit less forgiving about my cavalier planning. I will confess that after a year with multiple transoceanic flights I was not excited about another one. Also, missing a mud trek with little chance of seeing the high mountains didn’t feel like a great loss. I suggested that we rethink the entire plan with fresh eyes to see what was truly calling. Donna said her heart was set on walking to Kanchenjunga.

A Kanchenjunga trek from the Sikkim side takes 8 days plus two days of transportation. From the Nepal side it’s 18 days of walking plus 4 days of transportation. There are also teahouses along the way, so pony support is not required. This sounded even better to me. The forecast weather on the Nepal side looked good. By 8 a.m. we had tickets to Kathmandu through China leaving at 1 a.m. the next morning. All it cost was and extra $1000 and a 24-hour delay.

After 36 hours of travel we were in Kathmandu. In the early 1980s, Kathmandu was a great walking city. There were few motor vehicles, you could walk in the street, and the air was clean. Maps showed roads within the medieval city but not the alleyways. I wandered narrow passages and got lost in the maze for hours. Hidden courtyards with shrines to Hindu gods were carved into corners of buildings and adorned with colorful wax drippings, burnt incense, food offerings, and fresh flowers. The window shutters on random buildings were among the most beautiful and intricate carvings I had ever seen.

When I returned in 1992 the streets were full of cars, trucks and tuk-tuks all spewing exhaust. You could barely move on the sidewalk, the roads were a hazard, and the air was not fit to breathe.

The tuk-tuks are gone now, but the roads are even more crowded. We had no desire to re-see the sites and focused on preparing for the trek. This seldom took us out of Thamel, a tourist area closed to cars, which felt like a big shopping mall specializing in trekking. The morning air had a brown tint, but an afternoon breeze cleared much of it away. One afternoon on the roof of our hotel, we saw the mountains that rimmed the valley and colored paper diamonds dancing high in the sky. I watched young men on adjacent rooftops pulling on strings attached to kites that hovered kilometers away. Why we saw several young men with kites and only two boys working one kite I cannot say.

After a couple days, we had hired a company that arranged the requisite guide, permits, and transportation. We flew with our guide to some town in eastern Nepal. I was surprised that Nepal could be so hot and flat. The air was heavy with smoke and dust. Rice was growing and people spoke Hindi. Our guide arranged a car, and we had a half hour bumpy ride on dirt roads to a hotel. Its walls could have benefited from fresh paint or at least a good scrubbing. The bathroom had no sink but a bucket on the floor below the faucet. A cockroach scurried across the floor. No way I would sleep on these sheets naked. I looked at Donna expecting her to demand something nicer while doubted it was possible. She said it was fine. Though she likes her luxuries, she can also be rugged when need be.

Dinner was rice, assorted vegetables in different sauces, and a chicken curry served on chipped enamel. Donna had a few bites. I wasn’t worried. She didn’t eat for the first week in Pakistan or Guatemala or Morocco, until hunger relaxed her standards for spotless plates and sterile spoons.

One reason for all our air travel this year is that Donna’s father is old and ill. It has been important for her to call him every couple of days and visit him every two months. She had assumed that we would have internet connection most places along the way. Our trekking company told us that this was not the case. We would have outside contact in one village on day five. We would pass through the same village again on day eleven. This was a stretch for her. I asked her before we left Kathmandu if she wanted to continue, and she said yes. At dinner we learned that there was no internet or cell service in that town, just a landline.

That night she didn’t sleep. She worried that the phone might not work. She worried that if her father were to die, not only would she miss the funeral but she would not even know. Not that he was on the verge; he will likely live many more years. Doesn’t matter. If he did die, she worried that her family would never forgive her for not being there. How could she go away at this time, when he was so ill? At least if she knew he had died, even if she couldn’t get back in time for the funeral, she could immediately turn around and be on her way. But with no internet, that wasn’t possible. “Where’s Donna?” “Trekking, having fun.” “Is she coming back for the funeral?” “She doesn’t even know he’s dead.” If something happened she could never forgive herself, and maybe her family would never forgive her.

In the morning she was in tears. It was evident that logic and reason would do nothing to change her perspective. She would be fretting the whole trip and it would overwhelm her enjoyment. Her emotional need, though irrational, was profound. I felt myself struggling to balance her fears against my desires. I could recommend that we take it one day at a time, but doubted her panic would subside. This day was to be a seven-hour jeep ride to the start of the trail. If I ask her to try one more day it would likely add two days of uncomfortable jeep riding for nothing. I let it go and suggested that we turn around. Sixty hours later we were back in Berkeley.

On route she was sad to miss hiking in those mountains but happy to be going home. I said I had no such home. Her house is her house, not mine. It was uncomfortable to talk about.

She said, “I hope you’ll stay with me.”

I replied, “I don’t want to take advantage of you just because it’s easy. I did that once with a sort-of-girlfriend. It caused a lot of pain and I felt bad about it. I don’t want to do it again.”

“Where else would you stay?”

I wondered about our future together.

The essence of a good partnership is that both people can accomplish more than either person can alone. I called the trip a breakdown in our partnership. We failed.

Donna called our partnership a success for how we were after our failures. That’s what counts. We all succeed when the wind is at our backs and the gods are for us. Those are times it’s easy to shine. But when it all turns to shit, we show who we really are. After my fiasco with the visa she didn’t blame me, but took it in stride. I was able to attend to her need when it was greater than mine. We were able to discuss difficult things. We never could have done that when we were married. A girlfriend is much better than a wife.

 

Nine Days on Alta Via 1

Day five we woke to almost a foot of snow. I lobbied hard to stay put for the day. Refugio Nuvolau, high on a mountain ridge, was warm and cozy. Why not wait for the snow to melt? We could continue tomorrow. Outside it was blowing; inside there was espresso and apple strudel.

Donna wanted to go on. She has trouble sitting still. We had hard-to-come-by reservations that night for our only non-dorm night on the walk, and she was ready for a hot shower. Plus, it’s her nature is to push through adversity.

At 10:30 a.m. I conceded that embarking would not be “dangerous,” except for maybe the first kilometer down an ice covered rocky ridge. I put on my running shoes, psyched up for a day of cold wet feet, and wondered how we would navigate trails with snow-covered markers.

in the snow

Leaving hut (Photo Beth Hewes)

It was not our first weather event. Day two we reached Refugio Lavarella early, and I decided to bag a peak with a short section of via ferrata near the top. Via ferrata literally translates to “iron way.” Sometimes they are iron ladders built into rock walls; sometimes they are just steel cables. Via ferratas were first used by the Italian military in WWI to move troops over mountains in this region.

Donna joined me for the first hour along a trail that meandered through an alpine meadow and then up to a pass. Storm clouds were gathering. We parted ways and she headed back to the refugio. I ascended a steep hillside that had a few technical moves near the top and emerged onto an exposed ridge to the sound of thunder. Some Germans coming down warned me it was not safe to continue. Of course they were right, but it didn’t seem dangerous—yet. After twenty minutes I reached a steel cable designed to assist ascending slabs along a narrow ridge. Half way along it, not 100 feet from the end and maybe 5 minutes from the summit, I saw a few raindrops hit the rock followed by a flash of lighting. It dawned on me that I was grasping a giant lightning rod. Time to get out of there. I ran down the exposed ridge and got past the climb-y bit when the rain started to come down hard.

day 2 hike

Looking up toward the ridge from pass (Photo Donna)

I arrived back at the refugio damp but energized. The owners were Ladin people, a tribe that occupied South Tyrol before the Italians and Austrians. Over the centuries, the Italians and Austrians have swapped control over this territory many times, the latest being when Italy took it back from Austria after WWI. It made me think about how we humans migrate. We claim land and fight, but everyone’s progenitors once lived somewhere else. There is no such thing as an indigenous people, except we are all from planet earth. Evidence shows that even people we call Native Americans migrated from Asia, and they were not the first humans to occupy the Americas.

Day three we reach Refugio Lagazuoi in a deluge. I missed the worst of it because on the final hill some clean-cut looking kids in their twenties were coming up behind me fast. I assumed they would pass, but I wanted to make them work for it. Though they slowed, I didn’t and reached the shelter barely wet. Donna was three minutes behind and got drenched. (Thanks kids!)

Refugio Lagazuoi sits on a ridge that was the Austrian defense line during WWI. The region is riddled with tunnels where the Austrians built fortifications. The Italians, employing mining technology, dug through kilometers of rock to attack the fortifications from below. The whole area is a living WWI museum. Despite the weather, I got a bit of time to explore. It was strange to wander through trenches with young Italian and German tourists and think about how 100 years ago they would have been trying to kill each other—for what?

The forecast called for rain the next day, and snow fell the following night.

The day’s trudge through snow was beautiful. Getting a late start turned out to be fortuitous because other people had blazed the trails. We used the track when it suited us, but typically avoided it on the descents, preferring to charge down the soft forgiving clean whiteness, which often came up to mid-calf. Cold wet feet be damned. A hot shower and clean sheets awaited.

me in sneekers on snow

Walking in snow (Photo Donna)

mt view with snow

Finally below the snow at end of day (Photo Donna)

I had thought of the Dolomites as a single region and geologically it may be. The AV1 trail goes from the northern edge to the southern, typically a ten-day walk. It occasionally dips into forest but spends more time on alpine slopes below towering limestone cliffs. Some walls are thousands of feet tall and are reputed to be solid. The stone is slightly chalky to the touch and definitely says, “climb me.” However, crossing from what used to be Austria (admittedly 100 years ago) into what was then Italy was like changing countries. Suddenly there were more beds per dorm room. The food was slightly lower quality, and infrastructure not as developed. I had read, “as of April 2018, all refugios on AV1 take credit cards.” We were surprised when Refugio Tissi demanded cash. I assumed it was an anomaly. Luckily we brought enough euros to pay for one night as a precaution.

valley

Just a meadow along the way (Photo Donna)

Day seven, two hours into our walk, we heard what we initially thought was a jet. Looking up we saw a base jumper in a wing suit flying overhead. About 1500 feet above the valley floor he pulled his chute, let out an adrenalin-charged scream, and floated down to a wide flat area far below us. In the next half hour we saw at least a dozen of these daredevils. They launched from a mountain several thousand feet above us. Most took a direct line to the parachute zone. One flew along the cliff, around a mountain feature, and farther down valley, only to circle back and pull his chutes closer to the ground. Even watching was exhilarating and terrifying.

After a long walk we arrived at Refugio Carestiato exhausted. But the refugio sits at the base of a famous via ferrata and I couldn’t resist. After charging up with (you guessed it) espresso and strudel, I put my sneakers back on. The route started on a narrow ledge, maybe 30 feet off the ground. A steel cable went 20 feet almost straight up a vertical wall and then veered off to the left. There were some rock moves to be done beside the cable, but they seemed too hard and exposed to attempt unprotected. Of course I had no via ferrata gear (typically a harness and way to clip into the cable). After five minutes at the base debating what to do I reasoned that I could try anything that I could reverse. I moved left along the ledge, found some acceptable rock moves, and climbed to the cable as it traversed left. From there I was on easy slab.

The next 45 minutes was pure fun. Sometimes I used the cable to assist, and even hand-over-hand climbed the cable for a 20-foot vertical stretch, but mostly I scrambled up the well-featured limestone off to the side. The full route went to the top of the mountain (about 3000 feet up) but most of the top half was hiking and I only had a couple of hours, so I took the loop that offered a bailout trail half way up. This trail had its own beauty as it followed narrow grassy bands between bands of vertical rock. Free of a pack, I ran much of the trail back.

Dinners at the refugios are typically either a bland beef stew called “goulash” served with polenta, low-grade sausages and polenta, or cheese and polenta. We saw few vegetables, though the strudel was always good. This night we were served the most overcooked and desiccated leg and thigh of chicken I have ever seen. Beneath its greasy skin was tough, dry, stringy near jerky. If served in a restaurant, any normal person would refuse and it sent back. Yet that night everyone raved about how delicious it was, including me. After so many days on the trail, anything different was welcome.

Donna thoroughly enjoyed the walking everyday, but by then she’d had more than enough of dorm life and the food. People we had met along the way were quitting early for the same reasons. I met her complaint by saying, “I would prefer to continue to the end, but your happiness is more important.” She expressed the same to me and we kept going.

mountain view

Approaching Pamperet and looking back (Photo Donna)

Day eight we arrived at Refugio Pramperet mid afternoon. Breakfast that morning had been particularly lacking, leaving us very hungry for lunch. I ordered soup and Donna ordered pasta. Both tasted vile, and we couldn’t eat either. I broke out the maps to look for a bailout. Donna was not happy there but worried about finding other accommodations. After about a half hour of discussion we decided to stay.

I pulled my climbing shoes from my pack for the first time since we started. A large boulder with flat grassy landings sat two minutes away. After a while the guys who ran the refugio came over. Luca, another Luca, and Alexander were all strong climbers. We had a great session, talked climbing, and had a beer after.

Luckily dinner was much better than lunch. After dinner, Alexander brought a couple of glasses of their homemade grappa to us. One was made with caraway, the other with pinecone. Both were excellent.

The guidebook said that the last two stages were the most wild, remote, and beautiful. Donna had been reluctant to commit to completing the trail from the beginning. She doubted she would last that long in dorms, and the refugios at the end looked particularly primitive. We only booked space for the last night the day before. Then, on reviewing the guidebook, Donna saw that there were some parts of the next day with a lot of exposure, which freaked her out.

Donna didn’t sleep well or eat much breakfast. I went to pay my bill and found out that they didn’t take credit cards. Donna had wanted us to have more cash, and I said it wasn’t needed. Now she was mad at me.

I asked Luca what happens when people don’t have cash. He said they make bank transfers. Donna had looked into that before and said it cost $40 from the US. Luckily between the two of us we had enough US dollars, which Luca accepted. He then called the next refugio to confirm that they also only took cash. Um, not good.

I was drinking a last cup of coffee and having a nice chat with Luca about the technology challenges of using credit cards in a remote region, when Donna informed me that we had to go. Not only did we have to walk all the way out, (an estimated seven hours, over two passes), we had to reach the road early enough to catch a bus to Belluno, where we hopefully could find accommodations. Not only that, weather was coming in again, and it was supposed to rain by 11 a.m. Plus, the route goes over a pass that required some scrambling and had a lot of exposure, two things that made Donna nervous at best.

As we walked toward the first pass of the day, clouds drifted in and out, sometimes obscuring the terrain above us. I was concerned about a whiteout and route finding. I was also worried it would be wet and slippery on the exposed part. Was it a mistake to go on? Should I have yielded to Donna’s desire to end earlier? I sincerely offered, and she declined, but maybe I should have insisted. So hard to know.

Donna said, “I can’t believe you were just standing there drinking coffee and talking.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I just got caught up in talkin’ with him.”

“You’d probably still be there if I didn’t say something.”

“I’m sorry. I know you’re angry. All your complaints are legitimate.”

“I know they are, but I still don’t like feeling this way. I keep telling myself – the anger is about the past, fear is about the future.”

I was in awe of her self-awareness and loving her all the more for it. She insisted I walk ahead of her. I kept glancing back to make sure we were moving at the same speed, ready to assist or respond to whatever.

Up ahead on the ridge someone appeared as a silhouette against the mist, a shadow puppet, standing at first then leaning forward using hands to ascend the section, then gone, lost in the cloud.

When we reached that place, Donna moved over the rock with no hesitation. The mist was below us in patches. Between the tops of clouds we could see parts of the valley below and parts of distant mountains. As we crossed over a narrowing of the ridge where the land dropped sharply on both sides, she seemed to not notice. She didn’t realize this was the part she most feared. Even after we had dropped down the other side and were comfortably striding through a green alpine bowl with marmots scurrying across the meadow, a herd of 14 chamois grazing on the slope above, and mountain peak weather behind us, she worried the hard part was still to come. I just laughed.

donna in meadow

Donna in the mist

The guidebook was right about the last stages. The landscape was exquisite. It only rained a few minutes. Another espresso and fruit tart each (they had no strudel) at the last refugio took us to the road where we caught the bus to Belluno. Both of us were happy we completed the whole trek and glad to be done. Donna found us a hotel and two places for dinner. We ate at both. First we ate chicken donar kababs. We followed that a block later with another dinner of vegetable sushi and greasy rice noodles with shrimp and vegetables. Delicious.

us copy

Tour de Monte Rosa

Donna and I are about a week into the Tour de Monte Rosa. I have lost track of the exact number of days that we have been walking.

The first day my legs were fresh and I longed for a good hard workout. The next few days my leg muscles burned from being pushed beyond what they were used to. Now my muscles are strong, but my knees, ankles, and the small bones in my feet complain about over use.

Matterhorn

Matterhorn from Cervinia. I hiked to the base and got 1000′ up before realizing I was on route.

We are not roughing it by any measure. Most nights we stay in B&Bs. Donna did most of the planning. By most, I mean all. At the end of each day, and as we approach each new accommodation, Donna expresses some apprehension that it might not be adequate. I assure her that it will be fine, both because I know she does her research, and because it would be unfair to hold her accountable for what she cannot know. It’s impossible to know something that you have never experienced. Besides, we both appreciate surprises, which you can only get by not knowing. Then you take the disappointments and delights as they come.

Amerato espresso

Espresso, amaretto, and cream, an end of day delight. (Photo by Donna)

We were originally going to do the popular walk from Chamonix to Zermatt but my friend Dave Chew said the route from Cervinia to Zermatt was more interesting and less expensive. He also recommended that we skip walking up the unattractive ski slopes and simply take the lifts. We followed that advice the first day, crossed out of the ski valley and descended a green mountain slope filled with wildflowers in a landscape right out of the Sound of Music. As we reached the forest I was just thinking — the problem with this country is that there are no berries. Earlier in the summer we had been in Squamish and had feasted on fresh thimbleberries. Then before leaving Berkeley we got to enjoy early fat juicy blackberries. No more berries for the summer was a disappointment. Not a minute later I stopped to examine a tiny green and red succulent growing on a rock. As I pointed it out to Donna, she noticed wild strawberries growing a few feet away. They were the sweetest wild strawberries either of us had ever tasted. My disappointment turned to delight. They were the only strawberries we’ve found so far—another disappointment. But everyday since, we’ve found blueberries—another delight.

donna with 3 waterfalls

My sweetie posing with three of the eight waterfalls visible from that spot.

Our route tends to go from one low valley with a small picturesque village, over a high alpine ridge, and back down to another valley.

 

Along the way we’ve seen mountains with hanging glaciers, waterfalls, and more flowers than I could ever identify. The trails tend to be steep and we often gain and/or lose about 3000 to 5000 feet a day. We have mostly overnighted in the valleys, but a couple of nights we stayed high in mountain rifugios. We typically eat were we stay and the food has been excellent, though a bit light on vegetables compared to our usual diet. When Donna told me four days in that our next rifugio was vegetarian and had a yoga studio, I assumed she was lying. Both the yoga and veggie meals were two more delights.

vegi refugio

Veggie rifugio and yoga studio which we approached from pass on the right.

Traveling with Donna has been a joy. I think it’s because she approaches each experience with an open heart. She has her down moments, like yesterday when her ankles ached, it was raining, and we had at least four more hours to our destination, but most of the time she has been wide eyed with glee at the astonishing beauty. Yesterday not long after the rain stopped, she stood in awe and reverence as we watched a young ibex nibble at the bushes on a ledge just above us, and she squealed like a four year old when we came upon grazing sheep.

donna walking in cloud

Donna walking in the clouds.

Every day has had its challenges. Yesterday we walked from Sass Fee to Grachen. Unlike other days, this trail mostly tracked a contour, with lots of ups and downs as it followed ledges along steep hillsides that turned to cliffs in many sections. Donna was stressed by the exposure but hid it well by staying focused on foot placement. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the airy openness, outstanding views, and an endless supply of blueberries ripe at that elevation and exposure. All my instincts told me to stop, harvest the bounty, and shove them all in my face. Yet at every turn there were too many, I couldn’t pick enough to notice any gone, and we still had an eight-hour walk to do. I would charge ahead and then stop to pick the plumpest most irresistible. Donna would catch up, slap my trail-blocking ass, and tell me to get going. Ahh to have simply been that mountain goat, with nowhere more important to go than right there eating berries.

 

village (donna)

Morning along the trail. (Photo by Donna)

 

wine for lunch

Caught drinking wine for lunch. (Photo by Donna)

bouldering (donna)

A little bouldering along the way. (Photo by Donna)

walking toward village (donna)

Entering village with great minestrone and pear tarts.  (Photo by Donna)

us

Us heading to a pass. (Photo by some random Italian people. First we shot photos for them.)

 

Impressions of Morocco

Rain is forecast for the week. Donna and I scrap plans to bus into the High Atlas. Instead we rent a car and head over the mountains to the dry side, to the Sahara.

I’m nervous about driving on crazy third world roads where there are no rules. To my surprise, drivers are polite. Once we leave Marrakesh, traffic is light. After we cross the Atlas, the roads are almost empty.

Though other drivers are not a much of a hazard, sheep and goats grazing along the road are.

After three hours of driving, the gas gage of our diesel Dacia Duster hasn’t moved. I think it’s broken. After four hours I think we should stop for gas just to be safe. Then the gage moves. We are getting over 50 miles per gallon.

Donkeys are a major form of transportation. Both men and women ride them sidesaddle (though there are no saddles). In the desert, camels are used. We see no horses.

I thought the Sahara was predominantly flat with sand dunes. Mostly we see mountains covered in stones. If stones had value, Morocco would be rich. The folds of uplifted earth bend and curve. The different rock layers across the landscape resemble twisted and gnarled tree rings.

desert rock bands

We stop the car in the midst of this endless dry expanse to pee. There is nowhere to hide but there are no other cars. Nothing grows. It is absolutely silent.

In places where water surfaces, bird song fills the air. Date palms, olives, and figs provide shade along fields of wheat and vegetables. These oases feel like paradise.

oasis 2

In every town we see men sitting in cafes drinking coffee or tea. We see no women in cafes and not many on the street. We mostly see women in the market shopping. Almost all have headscarves and some are fully covered.

Near M’hamid where the road ends, Paru set up a meditation center. She moved here from Germany based on a vision fourteen years ago. Her compound has a back door, a portal to the desert. Donna and I walk over stones, past the military’s warning sign to turn back and past sun-bleached camel bones with remnant bits of fur and skin to the first set of sand dunes. From the top I can see far into the Sahara. Two men leading three loaded camels take a long arc around the dunes. I feel called to head out into the desert. I want to walk upon the plain that passes between two ranges. It is 52 days to Timbuktu. But it is not for this life. When we return, Paru shows us a Berber saying written in Arabic. She translates, “God gave man land and water so that he can live. He gave him the desert as a gift in order for him to find his soul.”

 

into the sahara

Looking toward Timbuktu

At the end of another road hundreds of kilometers away, near Erg Chebbi, we wander over red sand dunes toward the highest one. Long shadows yield to a sunset and a rising full moon. It is dead silent. I try to imagine the solitude of an endless empty expanse as I watch strings of camels carrying tourists who are on package tours. Then the silence is broken by the sound of dune buggies.

donna in red desert

We plan to stay several days near the Todra Gorge so I can climb. The hustlers are too much, and the walls don’t call me, but the canyon does. I suggest we drive up the canyon a bit before looking for a place to stay. The winding canyon pulls us further and further into the mountains. Forget the Gorge, we are heading to Imichil, a village in the High Atlas. We will find a place to stay there. The rounded bare stone mountains still have patches of snow. Rivers flow in valley bottoms. Green knee-high wheat grows in terraced fields. Fruit trees are full of blossoms.

in the high atlas

In the morning we walk up a ridge. The terrain is open and rocky with small shrubs and herbs. There are no trees. It is perfect for grazing sheep. On the way down we pass around a herd of a sheep, giving them wide berth as instructed by the sheep dog.

breakfast in imilchil

Breakfast in Imilchil with Berber omelet

Back in Imichil it’s sheep market day. Sheep fill the backs of trucks and the tops of vans.

sheep market day

We leave the paved road and take a winding one-lane dirt road back toward the Sahara. Before the road drops, it climbs a couple of high passes. Rain turns to snow, then sleet, then back to heavy rain. The road becomes slick clay. It’s like driving on ice. We need to keep momentum to not bog down in the mud. The tires slip and the car slides sideways time and again. I turn into slides one way and then the other to keep us on the road. One mistake and we are over the edge and dead. Time ceases and there’s nothing but focus on driving. A little after the last pass the rain stops and the road is dry. I catch glimpses of green patches thousands of feet below and rock walls in the distance that warrant exploration.

We only stop in Taliouine because it was half way to Tafraoute. We stay in a giant castle that has been in the proprietor’s family for 200 years. Within the thick compacted earth walls we have great WiFi supplied by a fiber optic connection. After a great beef tagine dinner flavored with raisins and saffron we decide to stay second night.

castle

Driving into the mountains, we stop in a place where people are working in foot-high green wheat interspersed with red poppies. We walk up a ridge and are treated to great views of villages dotting the landscape. Each hamlet, no matter how small, has a mosque with a tall minaret. The return drive takes us through greener country than we have seen in a while. Wild flowers seem to be peaking. We have another great dinner; this time a saffron based lamb tagine.

 

Tafraoute in the Anti Atlas has lots of accessible climbing. The weather is unseasonably cool, which makes it perfect, but there are no climbers around. I settle for some bouldering.

Since Donna doesn’t climb, we hike “the tourist route” up Jebel El Kest, the highest peak. A missed turn puts us on a col. We continue following the cairns as our trail becomes a third class mountaineer’s route. After a lot of steep scrambling, we come to a place that is particularly airy. Donna wants to go down the way we came up. I convince her that getting to the summit and going down the actual tourist route would be easier. From the summit the easiest way down is not clear and I get us off route again. Luckily there’s no down climbing and we eventually find the right trail. Great day—classic type 2 fun.

I need to see the Atlantic Ocean. The water is rough and not inviting. We walk on several beaches and I take one quick dip but need no more.

We decide to return the car and see the cities of northern Morocco using public transportation. On the train north from Marrakesh, fields of straw-colored wheat are ready for harvest. By Meknes the land appears rich, fertile and well watered from the rain. All the fields are green and covered in wild flowers.

Seventy thousand people live in Fes’s medina. It is the largest car-free urban area in the world. There are no roads in this ancient city, just winding walkways that are cluttered, chaotic and claustrophobic. Everyone walks. Donkey or men with small carts move goods.

From our riad’s roof I look down on structures built anytime within the last thousand years. Some roofs are pitched and have green glazed terracotta tiles. Most roofs are flat. I look across drying laundry, airing carpets, playing children, piles of rubble, rotting junk, small gardens, solar water heaters, and satellite dishes. In the newer part of Fes, just outside the walls, there are roads, but buildings are taller, so the population density is even greater. A sparse forest of cell transceivers stand above the roofscape. Four sided minarets with green tile-work and bullhorn-speakers tower above the roofs all over the city.

fes roof

Unlike the sprawl you see in most places, Fes appears to stop abruptly and rolling farmland continues to the horizon. After recent rains the fields are a patchwork of different shade of green.

At 5 p.m. one minaret sounds the call to prayer, “Aaaaalllllaaaahhhhhh. Aaaallllaaahhh Aaakkkkbbaaarrrrr.” Then a second joins in, and then a third and forth, and soon there are a dozen muezzins chanting the call, through screechy speakers, out of sync, creating a cacophony like sirens going off in every direction. Then suddenly they all seem to be in accord, like the dissonance at the end of Day in the Life on Sargent Pepper when the craziness resolves into a single chord that resonates over the entire city. It slowly fades as each muezzin finishes his call.

We move north and I stare out the bus window at fields of wild flowers. I am most taken by the red poppies, but there is a rainbow of color livening the orange groves, olive groves and fields of wheat.

Morocco feels like the safest country I have ever been in. Private guns are outlawed and most police don’t carry guns. Though we have encountered many hustlers in the more touristy areas, we have not knowingly encountered outright thieves. We have not heard or read of violence or theft anywhere we have been. Official policy is to respect and protect minorities. Everyone we met takes this policy as a point of pride. The policy is consistent with the generous nature of the people we met.

The taste of Morocco is sweet black tea with fresh mint.

 

tagine

On of the many delicious tagines we had for lunch. This was beef slow cooked with onions, raisins, almonds and prunes. We were given forks but locals eat with their fingers, scooping each bite with bread.

 

Marrakesh

Jet lagged from 24 hours in transit, a seven-hour time shift, and not enough sleep, Donna and I wander into Marrakech’s medina, the walled old city. Getting lost in the maze of winding narrow streets is the point. A car could theoretically squeeze through on many of these roads, but vegetables, shoes, bloody goat heads, spices, toothpaste, and electronics spill out of shops and block any potential passage. Local women in headscarves or fully covered faces carry out their shopping while tourists meander in groups of twos, threes, and twenties. Motor scooters blast high-pitch beeps to get around the pedestrians. We also step aside for the occasional donkey cart carrying bags of concrete, leather hides, or garbage. Roads twist and turn and seem to suddenly end only to duck through an arch and continue after making a couple of jogs. Google Maps is of little help. The narrower passages and roads covered with tarps or shading lattice are not marked. The constricted corridors, congestion and high walls make me feel claustrophobic.

woman in souk close

We come to a large open square, Jemma Al Fna. This popular tourist destination is known as a place of jugglers, acrobats and snake charmers. Just this morning someone told us, “We were there last night. Snakes were all over the ground, not even in baskets, and someone threw a monkey on me.”

Donna has an extreme fear of snakes and doesn’t want to be anywhere near this place. But we have to pass this way to get to a museum she wants to see.

Donna clenches my arm and whimpers, “You have to protect me.”

“I will. We’re going to walk around the square to the right. We will stay on the far right. If there is anything of concern it will be in the middle of the square. Just keep looking right.”

She is hyperventilating and practically cutting off my circulation.

I hear a drum and familiar reedy sound of the pungi. Snake-charming music is coming from the center of the square.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I tell her. “Just keep looking right. See those oranges? Aren’t they nice looking oranges? I bet they’re juicy.”

I look left and see three cobras with their fanned heads a half meter above the pavement about 30 meters to our left.

“Keep looking right. See those shoes? Those look like some comfortable shoes.”

The music stops as we enter another crowded and covered walkway. We are past the danger. Donna relaxes her grip and blood returns to my arm. In a block we reach the museum. It’s closed.

At the next intersection we stop for a moment to consider our direction. A young man says, “You should go to the leather auction. It’s only today. You are lucky. The people come from the mountains and leave after today.”

He points straight ahead and says, “Just this way. You go 300 meters and then on the right. . . . Wait; there is Hamid.”

He than rattles off some words in Arabic to an old man on a small bicycle rolling around the corner. The old man stops. His bike basket contains nothing but a walking stick.

“He will take you. . . he is going there anyway . . . don’t worry, you pay no money.” He says something else in Arabic.

Hamid motions for us to follow him and we do. I’m not sure why, I don’t want anything leather, but the concept of a leather auction sounds somewhat interesting, so why not. Anyway it’s a destination. I’m guessing we will take a quick look around leave within minutes.

We follow Hamid for longer than expected, and he delivers us to a man who greets us holding two bunches of peppermint. The man hands us each a bunch and instructs us to rub it in our hands and hold it up to our noses. Without thinking, we follow him through a doorway into a tanning yard. Small square concrete troughs filled with various foul-looking liquids are everywhere. The stench is overwhelming. I hold the peppermint up to my nose.

“I no longer smell it,” says our guide.

“First the hides are soaked in pigeon poop. Then they are soaked in limestone. Everything is natural. No chemicals are used. The leather is from camels and cows. It all comes from the Berber people.”

What the fuck are we doing here. It stinks. I hold the peppermint to my nose.

“After the hair is removed, the leather is soaked in semolina to make it white. You know semolina? It is white flour.” He points to a pile of white hides. “Then they are soaked to give them color. Insects are used to make them red. Saffron is used to make yellow. Indigo is used for blue. Kohl is used for black.”

It’s a little interesting, but not that interesting. Seems like the same natural dyes are used everywhere.

“The hair goes to the woman to make things.”

We finally leave, and he says, “Now I show you the finished leather. Don’t worry, no smell.”

We enter a store selling leather goods. The owner greets us warmly and shows us giant leather pillows. He demonstrates how leather pillow outers can be compressed for shipping. He then presents an order book proving that he ships all over the world.

Donna and I politely make a pass through a room with leather handbags and another with leather coats. When we show no interest, he herds us into a room with locally made hammered metal tables, bowls, and tea services etched with Arabic calligraphy. We say we are not buying; he turns his back as we leave.

Outside, our tannery guide is waiting. So is Hamid.

“You must pay.”

I roll my eyes. Donna says, “What do you think?”

I say, “I don’t know,” thinking maybe 10 DH (about $1) would be more than generous considering I didn’t want the tour, we were told that we wouldn’t pay, and what about that alleged leather auction? She starts to give him 20. He demands 300. She says she will give him 50. He acts insulted and angry and starts to guilt trip her by saying that the money is not for him but goes to the tannery workers. I say, “just give them 20 and lets get out of here.” She shakes her head. Hamid joins in saying the money is not for them but for the tannery workers and they won’t get paid without it. I tell her to just walk away. She relents and turns over 100.

I say, “You should have just walked away.”

“He was yelling at me.”

“That’s his job. That’s what he does.”

“Well its done.”

She is ready to move on, but I’m not and say, “It has nothing to do with the people in the tannery. They won’t see any of that money.”

“I know.”

“That’s just how they do business here.”

“He was yelling at me and it made me feel bad.”

“You don’t need to take it personally. It has nothing to do with you.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Just think, he made an extra five dollars in one minute by yelling. He doubled his money.”

She says, “I’m done with it and won’t talk to anyone who approaches us again.”

Now I’m the one who feels bad. We are in conflict. I’m bothered by being ripped off for a small amount of money that I know is insignificant in our lives. Worse still, she’s upset because I have made what she did wrong. Turns out her concerns were well founded; the snakes have gotten us.

The trick to navigating a maze is to recognize where you have once been and where you went wrong, and then to try an alternative.

A while later I apologize for making her feel bad. She says, “That was hard for me. Maybe next time you can put your back between me and them.”

The dark passage yields to an open road. The way is straight ahead.

 

 

Priapus

Ian heard that the best fila (grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat) on Kalymnos comes from a place with no sign to indicate it’s a restaurant. Evidently they only make fila on Sundays, and you have to go early because they sell out. His source said that this is the only place Greek people go for takeout fila, because everybody’s mother makes fila, and these are the only ones better than everyone gets at home.

Since he is obsessed with fila, I’m not sure why he didn’t go last Sunday. He could have forgotten, or maybe he looked and didn’t find it, or he went climbing, or he could have been too hungover. All were possible; I didn’t ask and he left on Tuesday.

I didn’t go because it was a climbing day. I’m on a day-on/ day-off schedule and climbing is more important. Plus, I needed to start working on Priapus, the 7b+ (5.12c) climb that I almost got last year and brought me back this year. I dabbled with it a bit earlier in the trip but knew I wasn’t in shape. With a little over two weeks left before I had to leave, it was time.

Sunday’s Priapus attempt wrecked me. I hung on bolts the whole way and had muscle cramps for hours after. Attempts on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday were much the same. I warmed up on the first third with lots of hanging on bolts, and then managed one try for the top, with a lot more hanging. Once I tried for two goes but didn’t make it to the end on either. Every attempt on the 40 meter overhang took about an hour. It’s thuggish climbing and every move requires a lot of power. By the end of each attempt I felt trashed and needed a full recovery day. By Saturday I knew every knee-bar, hip-scrum, thigh-squeeze, and heal-hook where you could eek out a bit of a rest. And even though I could get up the first third to the crux with no hanging, I hung through the crux and was wasted for the rest of the climb. It required too much endurance, and I didn’t have it anymore. I had to face the fact that I don’t climb that grade and had probably aged out.

It was Sunday again and a rest day. After a morning of writing, I decided to see if I could find the fila place. I think I found it but am not sure. There was a sign on the door. I ordered a plate, and they were by far the best fila I’ve ever tasted. No one else was eating there except one bent-over Greek codger who was gnawing on a plate of fried fish, plus some overcooked greens, while sipping brown liquor from a water glass. Meanwhile, there was a steady stream of takeout customers, and the fila was soon gone.

fila

Well fortified after an excellent lunch, I decided to head back to Vathy to find a cave that I searched all afternoon for a couple of weeks ago. There are lots of caves on Kalymnos. This one interested me because 5000 year old pre-Minoan bronze-age artifact had been found in it. It also had been used as a secret school during the Ottoman occupancy. Last time I looked, after extensive scrambling up, down and all around, I was told that you can only get to the cave by boat. I didn’t like that answer and had one more place to check. If I didn’t find it, I would at least get a good walk, and good practice at not being attached to results, which I needed for Priapus.

After a 40-minute cross-country hike over rocky terrain, I was where I thought the cave might be and saw nothing. As a last ditch effort, I stepped out on a point in hopes of seeing around a corner, where there was probably nothing. To my surprise, I saw the stone steps leading up from the sea to a cave entrance The problem was a blank wall between me and those steps. The town folk were right; you can only get to the cave from the sea.

steps to cave

Stone steps leading to cave entrance

But then I thought: I’m a rock climber and that’s just vertical rock. It looked impassable but experience told me there were likely hidden holds. I decided to proceed cautiously and only climb what I could retreat. Also, the fall was into water. No big deal, I can swim. I grabbed my headlamp and put everything else of value in my pack, which I stashed into a crevice.

One hidden hold led to another. The climbing was not too bad. I realized that this onsight free-solo climbing (to actually get somewhere) was way more fun than projecting a hard route. Fuck Priapus. I may no longer have power and endurance but I still can read rock and keep a calm head. This type of climbing is more important to me anyway and always has been.

The cave was magnificent. The long narrow vertical entrance allowed light deep into the cave. There was nothing claustrophobic about being in it. Quite the opposite; it felt safe and comfortable. With its 30-foot ceiling, it felt like being in a cathedral. The ground was smooth dirt, but not dusty. There were signs of past fires on the walls, and areas used for cooking still had broken bits of ancient pottery.

I returned to Priapus the next day half thinking that I would pull my draws and abandon the project. But even pulling the draws meant that I would first have climb to the top and then climb it again with top rope. It seemed like too much effort. Plus, I had time. And even though I was sure I couldn’t do it, it was a good work out, and I wasn’t ready to admit defeat. After a warm up on an easy climb that felt hard, I decided to just give Priapus an endurance burn. My goals were to climb relaxed and hopefully find a good sequence getting to the last bolt, where I had preciously fallen multiple times.

Somehow I made it through the crux without a fall or hang to a long vertical tufa. The anaerobic push left me gasping for air, but now a successful assent seemed possible. With a combination of a thigh-squeeze, slight arm-bar, shitty shoulder-scrum, and tight core, I could at least rest my arms. It took almost 5 minutes before my breathing returned to normal.

The next section took me to the saddle topped tufa with a phallic end for which the climb was named. I was spent. Pippa (my belayer) and Ollie (her life partner) yelled up and said to take as long as I wanted. I settled in for a long rest. There was a lot of hard climbing ahead. Twenty minutes seemed about right. The wall’s shadow would be my clock. When a certain rock was in the sun, it would be time to go.

Though sitting comfortably, it took a long time for my breathing to calm. Then I started shaking uncontrollable. The sun was half way to the rock before I was relaxed and looked around. I was perched a forest of stalactites hanging from the grotto’s roof, twenty meters off the ground. It was an amazing place to be and I never wanted to be there again. As I sat resting, I wondered how to approach the last bolt, worried I would fall, and dreaded having to climb it all again. The only thing to do was believe I was strong, stay calm, and push on. Then the sun hit my spot.

Alan On Priapus

Me on Priapus near the bottom. Photo by Philippa Yasbek

Sometimes you get lucky and find good holds and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you accidentally find a little something that takes a bit of weight off for a moment, and that allows enough recovery to make a difference.

I felt no grand elation at the chains, more like disbelief. Pippa and Ollie assured me that it was real. Once on the ground I felt no heroic triumph, just a peace that I hadn’t felt in a long time. A burden had been lifted. The threat of failure removed. I savor that feeling—at least for now—until next time I try something that’s too hard, which I hope won’t be for a long while.

.