Archive for the ‘Adventures’ Category

Travel to South America Through Photos

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
Dan and Liz on Glacier Gray

Dan and Liz on Glacier Gray

Dan and I took two weeks to trek and hike near the ice fields and granite towers in the Andes of Chile and Argentina’s Patagonia National Park. Our final week was warming up on the beaches of Uruguay near Montevideo and Punta Este. It was very difficult to select the best of over 1200 photos between the two of us, but here are four password-free albums we hope you’ll enjoy.

Slideshow mode is hidden in the drop down arrow at top right of the initial view. Click Slideshow to read our travel story in photo captions.

Patagonia Trekking
Glacier Grey
Trekking Argentina’s Patagonia
Uruguay and Buenos Aires

Our Excellent Active New Zealand Adventure

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

To celebrate our 30th anniversary, Dan and I decided it would be cool to take a summer ski vacation, so we scheduled a visit to New Zealand from August 13 through September 5, 2013. Per Dan’s well-planned but flexible itinerary, we followed the ski trip with sight seeing, hiking and wine tasting on the South Island, and a brief stay in Auckland.

As you’ll see from the albums (a combination of our best photos), New Zealand is a gorgeous country, especially for outdoorsy, adventurous types.

  • The montage link shows the whole album on a scrollable page in Google+.
  • Click any photo on the page to see it enlarged with a caption.
  • Click Slideshow below, then the enlarged photo’s Slideshow link  to follow our journey hands-free.
 Dan skiing at Treble Cone   NZ Skiing Album – Montage or Slideshow

Our Ski Safari was in the New Zealand Southern Alps. The snow and skiing conditions were marginal, but guide Burto and our group of 11 kept things interesting (new love, disgruntled room mates, hangovers, and a noisy tryst in a hostel with paper-thin walls).
 Milford Sound  

NZ Milford Sound – Montage or Slideshow

On our ski rest day, some of us joined a day trip from Queenstown to the famous Milford Sound, starting off with a bus tour, and then taking a ferry west to where the sound meets the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand.

 NZ Kaikoura   NZ Kaikoura Hike and Fur Seals – Montage or Slideshow

After skiing, we rented a car and drove up the coast to Kaikoura, a gem on the Pacific where hikers are rewarded with stupendous views of nature, sea wildlife, and peacefully grazing livestock.
 
 NZ wine country  
NZ Wine Region – Montage or Slideshow

Further up the east coast we stopped for a couple days to visit the wineries of the Marlborough region, famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. I loved our bike ride through the vineyards and was glad to survive our day-long tasting tour.

 NZ Queen Charlotte   NZ Queen Charlotte Sound – Montage or Slideshow
Next stop was Picton, our launching point for a 3-day hike on the ridges overlooking Queen Charlotte Sound, made famous by Captain Cook as an R&R stop. The hiking and accommodations were great, though we had to take a water taxi and miss out on kayaking due to winter weather.
 NZ Driving tour   NZ Drive/Hike Northern Mountains – Montage or Slideshow

We took the scenic route (aka “Divorce Drive”) to Nelson for an overnight stay, bought the best kiwis ever, then made a loop through the beautiful mountains, enjoying scenic hikes along the way.
 
 NZ Auckland   NZ Auckland – Montage or Slideshow

We spent three days in Auckland, just enough time to explore downtown, hike on an island formed by a volcano 600 years ago, explore a museum, and dine elegantly to celebrate the end of a great trip.
 NZCool   NZ Cool – Montage or Slideshow

Just a few final shots of things that impressed me about New Zealand.

Downhill Skate Adventure in the Eastern Sierra

Saturday, August 10th, 2013
WARNING TO DECENT PEOPLE! Read no further. This piece is not for you. There are f-bombs all over this piece ‘coz that’s the way I f-bombin’ talk. [And retelling such an adventure almost requires it to capture the intensity of feelings! — Liz]

 by George Merkert

I was psyched when I read Scott Peer’s mail asking whether I wanted to head up to the Eastern Sierra for a little skate with him and a couple of his other downhill skater pals.

All I could think was, “Hell yes. I’ll skate it for sure.”

Also, since I was gonna turn 62 in a couple days, I was eager for maximum fun at all times. Real glad I’d been doing those Tabatas too but I’ll tell you why on that later.

First stop on Friday night was Nine Mile Canyon above Ridgecrest, California. I ain’t no whiner, OK? But Nine Mile Canyon has a good name if you want to figure out how far you skated but what it makes up for in name it lacks in thrill. Sorta steep but no braking turns to speak of and inline downhill guys like me like the challenge of having to brake hard, choose the right line, contend with skidding and get that, “I just fuckin’ hammered it!” feeling when you make it through a turn fast and pretty.

So, all in all, Nine Mile Road was a pedestrian beginning to what I’d hoped would be a rapturous 4 day roll down hills on skates …

Anyhow, we rolled down Nine Mile Canyon twice. I labelled the second run “2/3 of Nine Mile Canyon” on my Strava just to make sure everyone got what I was talkin’ about, see?

So just because you probably don’t know what inline downhill is I’m gonna tell you. It’s like a mashup of NASCAR and ski racing except that instead of skis you wear inline skates and instead of sliding down snow covered ski slopes you roll down paved mountain roads and instead of being surrounded by a metal cage your body has a sixteenth of an inch of leather or maybe nothing at all insulating it from the asphalt and instead of gasoline pushing you gravity pulls you down hill. Also, when you fall while skating down hill you slide a lot less than you do when you fall when you’re skiing.

Now I’m not sayin’ I’m brave and I’m not sayin’ I’m scared of a whole lot either but there were some big ass cracks in the pavement and it was almost dark by the time we got to Onion Valley Road on Friday evening. Some of the cracks were full of pothole filler and some were partially full of grass and some were full of nothin’ and I could barely see any of ’em.

My brand new Gravity Master inline skate brakes –– invented by my downhill skater pal and fellow traveler on this very adventure Craig Ellis –– are super effective but, I’m tellin’ you, it was dark. And I was a little afraid (OK. There. I said it) that I might find out too late that two inch wide cracks every 15 feet for three miles might rip the brake pads right off and leave me rollin’ over the edge of forever or, worse, slamming to a quick stop at the foot of an unsympathetic guard rail.

I’d skated Onion Valley Road 10 years ago before Gravity Masters were invented. In that era I used wheels-only braking techniques which basically means skidding in different ways to slow down but mostly snow plowing. It was terrifying.

This screen capture of a Roller Derby babe (see video here) gives you a good idea of what a snowplow on skates looks like from behind.

So, I sat out while Scott Peer and our skateboard pal Ian Thompson –– who on this trip was the main brain when it came to knowing where to find cool descents in the Eastern Sierra –– hammered the lower reaches of Onion Valley Road.

But we’d come back to this stretch of Onion Valley Road in the High Sierra above Independence, California later in this adventure and the outcome would be different …

I was all worried and shit about rain when I got outa bed on Saturday. But me and my pal Scott headed out for Mammoth Crest with ski boards lashed to our packs anyway. After hiking for four and a half miles we found what was left of V Glacier hiding under a rock cliff at 10,500 feet.

It was a sad thing to behold. What used to be not a mighty glacier but a respectable patch of snow and ice has become a quarter mile of soft stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I was sorry I’d forgotten my crampons because climbing straight up it still required kicking toe holds in the snow with ski boots and standing on the top edge where the snow nearly butted up against the rock cliff was still gnarly.

At the top there was a crack between the snow and the rock of about 6 inches to a foot wide that you really didn’t want to slip into. And getting up to that crack was plenty steep so that if you fell you’d for sure slide real fast into the sharp rocks in the moraine at the bottom of the snow patch unless you did an awesome self arrest with ski poles or something.

Later on, while hiking through the moraine after we were done skiing, Scott DID fall onto a sharp ass rock and even though he bruised ribs, leg and ankle he skated the next day. Scott’s a tough guy.

So, up at the top of the glacier I was real careful when I kicked out a flat spot so I could put my ski boards on. Real careful.

I skied slowly out onto the snow to set up my first turn. Holy shit! It was steep, man.

I stopped to reassess.

Scott Peer said, “How long since you skied? Last time we hike/skied summer before last?”

“Uhhhh. Yeah,” I said.

“Well, nothin’ about this is a warm up run so be careful.”

“Uhhhhh … OK,” I said, and made a jump turn. The little ski boards spun like a hard thrown yoyo and I found myself falling over the tips right onto my fa … No! I pulled it out and stayed upright on those little skis. Tried not to lean forward so far on the rest of my turns and it worked out.

Scott Peer made 8 quick turns with aplomb and scampered back up V Glacier for another set.

I got another run to Scott’s three additional and then we hiked back down to civilization.

Very civilized civilization.

Nearly snoozing in the jacuzzi at Craig’s condominium complex, I woke up when two women jumped into the jacuzzi with me. Thirty minutes later I had a new business associate who’ll probably wind up helping us with our Thai elephant project but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

While Scott and I were hiking and skiing on Saturday Ian played golf with a college woman ranked 6th in the NCAA.

“Hardly any women can drive a golf ball further than me but she did,” Ian said.

Like I said, this was a very civilized adventure.

And take no offense, Ian! I’m not calling you civilized. You’re the least civilized golfer I know definitely. And you’re definitely the only guy I know who habitually whacks golf balls into the bottomless canyons off the top of our dh skate routes.

You’re still Mr. Nuclear to me.

Meanwhile, Craig was lapping Minaret Road using the mountain bike bus and Lake Mary Road using that faux SF cable car on wheels that hauls tourists around.

Besides Lausanne and Mammoth Lakes, California, I don’t know of any other city in the world in which you can use public transit to lap downhill skate routes.

Craig’s salt and pepper hair, lean frame and red leathers make him a colorful character. He also gets out in the streets where people can notice him. He entertained other mass transit patrons with 33 miles of downhill skating inside Mammoth Lakes city limits on Saturday.

While skating his dh marathon plus seven miles Craig met up with a 15 year old skateboard kid who was also lapping Minaret Road using the bus. Kid was way impressed when he learned that Craig is pals with James Kelly who is the 2012 Downhill Skateboard World Cup Champion.

After he finished playing another round of golf on Sunday morning early, Ian had us rolling down Tioga Pass by 11am.

You feel exposed on Tioga Pass because the road crawls along the side of several massive rock faces. A trip off the cliff side of the road would be an airy deal for sure.

It’s steep and fast but the turns aren’t very challenging so though we rolled fast and free I’ll rush back to Tioga Pass the next time for the view and not for the downhill skating experience.

Next up is a place I’ll head back to to skate at first opportunity, though. Before I tell you it’s name imagine ski racing down Tuckerman Ravine Trail. It’s steep, turny, narrow, filled with uphill traffic and highly illegal.

So that’s what skating down Sonora Pass east side is like. Especially the steep and turny part. The uphill traffic on Sonora Pass is cars and trucks instead of hikers like on Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The occasional sheriff or CHP you see on Sonora Pass reminds you about the illegal part.

On the drive up we stopped to marvel twice. Once was just as we started up the pass. There was one of those yellow traffic signs with a black icon of a truck slanting up at a hairy angle and saying, “26%”.

You can no sweat ski backwards down a 26% grade but on inline skates or a skateboard 26% is as gnarly as skiing on a slope steep enough that you can reach out and touch it with your hand without bending your knees.

We all laughed nervously except for me (‘coz I was the only one who wasn’t scared) and got back into Craig’s Lexus SUV which vehicle I recommend highly for downhill skating adventures.

The second time we stopped to marvel was at a chicane so steep that it made everyone (except me) choke with fear. The first of the two turns bent to the right and the second, with exactly 0 feet of distance between it and the first turn, bent hard to the left.

Both turns were so steep that we knew instantly that these two turns were on the 26% grade that the sign at the bottom of the hill warned about.

While we drove on up the pass above the chicane we looked for a landmark, road sign, change in the road surface, change of scenery … something to warn us of when we were about to enter this gnarly set of turns on the descent.

Ian said all cheerful-like, “Don’t worry. You’ll know when you’re in it.”

Thanks two fuck-loads for that useful advice, Ian. ‘Coz if we don’t know BEFORE we’re in the turns so we can slow way the hell down we’re not gonna BE in ’em at all for very long. Good thing there are giant bushes with whip tentacles alongside the road in those turns. That way skaters can’t avoid being punished for making a bad turn.

So, we got to the top of the route and took a fast roll down the west side of the pass just to check it out. Ian assured us that we could dare to skate it without scouting it first and he was right. It was steep but not too turny.

Back at the top of Sonora Pass again and ready to skate down the eastern slope of it we all listened to Ian’s advice.

“Steep and straight as hell at the top, boys. Then you got a right hand sweeper. You’ll roll 50 plus easy. Gotta go slower than that on the turn. All I can say is control your speed.”

In business I call those moments when you don’t have enough information but you gotta make a decision anyway “gulp and go” moments.

We gulped (well, everyone except me gulped ‘coz I wasn’t scared) and went.

I rolled out first and did what I thought was a hell of a good job controlling my speed. Craig Ellis, inventor and most experienced user of Gravity Master brakes, thought I wasn’t trusting my brakes enough. He shot past me like a German Shepherd chasing a rabbit and started to disappear into the future.

I wasn’t havin’ it.

I tucked up tight and rolled down the straightaway faster than I was comfortable rolling on this steep turny route the first time I’d ever skated it. I started to reel Craig in and felt good about it too.

I rolled up on Craig and got within a single digit number of feet behind him when all of a sudden I was in that chicane with a 26% pitch and rollin’ WAY TOO FAST!

I panicked and hit the right brake as hard as I could and steered it through the turn.

Without any time to think about what I was doing I slammed on the left brake and steered it through the left hand turn.

Suddenly, at the exit of the second turn I was comfortable again.

That is, until I saw Scott Peer passing me on the left side in a tight tuck and Craig disappearing ahead of me again.

I tucked up tight and tried to track ’em down but it was too late. They were gone.

I hadn’t used Craig’s Gravity Master brakes enough to know that even on a 26% slope you don’t have to use all of their potential to slow you down enough to turn safely. In panic mode I’d braked three or four times harder than I’d actually needed to.

So both Craig and Scott got away from me, goddammit.

So call me a shill if you dare but Gravity Masters change the game. I’ve been terrified plenty enough times on steep, gnarly routes in the Alps, Rockies and Sierras. I like the security of having too much braking power.

We didn’t see Craig for a long time after that. We thought he might be in the ditch and so drove up and down the hill a couple times looking for his body.

Came to find out that he’d skitched a motorcycle up an uphill section of the route that we were convinced was so long that he wouldn’t skate up it in his leathers. So, we didn’t search for him beyond that point even though after the uphill section there’s a couple more miles of downhill left before you get to the floor of the Owens Valley.

After letting the motorcycle pull him up the uphill section, Craig had rolled all the way down to the Marine Corps Winter Training Camp.

When we finally found him we gave Craig shit ‘coz we were lovin’ his Lexus and his Gravity Masters.

We found some speed down Monitor Pass east side too. Monitor is fast and straight.

On one of the long straights on that route I lined up on Scott from about 100 feet behind him with the lowest tuck I could force myself into.

I roll faster than him on straights anyway because I’m way heavier than he is but when I caught Scott’s draft it was like being shot from a cannon.

Not that I mix metaphors except when I have to but I bet that when I passed him Scott felt just like he did that time he was hitchhiking on the freeway and a Greyhound whooshed by and spun him around.

The pitch of the road stayed steep and I kept my tightest tuck on. All those Tabata intervals paid off ‘coz I was able to hold a tight tuck without losing leg strength for much longer than I could have only a few months ago. Maybe those sets of high rep squats played a role too. (http://tabatatraining.org/)

Any which way you look at it tucking tight on a steep slope makes speed, ok?

Next thing I knew my long, six wheel skates were wandering all over the road. I shifted my weight back a little ‘coz that’s the cure for high speed wobbles.

My skates kept wandering.

Holy shit! I’d found the speed limit for these Cado Modus Pro Downhill inline skate frames (designed by Dave Lambert and Craig Ellis). I never thought I’d find a limit to how fast these frames could roll without wobbles but there it was.

Now every move had to be the right move. The wind was strong and gusting and the thought of crashing at that speed made me cold inside.

Veeeeerrrry slowly I straightened my back a little. A gust blew me towards the yellow line. Veeeerrrry slowly I steered back toward the center of the right hand lane.

When I opened my hands I felt the air catch them and jerk me back a little but I was ready for it and adjusted my fore/aft balance to compensate.

As the air pressured each newly exposed part of my body as I stood up I slowed considerably. Soon the wobs went away and I rolled it out.

At the bottom of the hill Scott and I compared GPS data. Scott’s Garmin said he’d topped out at 50mph plus a little.

My Strava said I’d topped out at 61.3mph.

That’s too big a disparity to discount without explanation and I gotta believe that Scott’s Garmin has better circuitry in it than the GPS in my iPhone.

However, I did find the top speed of my Pro Downhill skate frames which is very fast. And I did get one hell of a slingshot off of Scott in a steep straightaway.

But I’m still not gonna put 60mph on my business card like Barbie Bont does because in both our cases it wouldn’t be true.

I’ll claim 55mph, though, and maybe a little more. How about 58?

Monday morning we flew down Lower Rock Creek twice, Pine Creek Canyon (which is a box canyon with thousand foot high cliffs with so many confusing crags and cracks and irregular shapes that it makes you dizzy if you stare at ’em too long) and then headed for Onion Valley Road.

Like I said before I don’t claim to be brave but I’m not scared of all that much either.

One thing I AM scared of, though, is Onion Valley Road west of Independence, California.

In 2003 or so Tim Huber and I cruised up to the top of that 10 plus mile route in his Jeep.

I used skidding to control speed in those days.

Controlling your downhill speed with skidding thrashes skate wheels but since you could buy down the oversupply of inline skate wheels for a dollar a wheel in 2003, it worked out.

Anyhow, I snow plowed through the 10 or so hairpins at the top of Onion Valley Road and very nearly lost it on every single turn.

I wasn’t as strong in the legs then as I am now and so ran out of leg strength by the second or third hairpin. I had to very carefully marshall what little leg strength I had left. I had to find enough stopping power to slow down for 8 sharp turns after my legs were nearly finished. The road was too steep for me to stop completely so it was a balancing act.

It was like being Philippe Petit and running out of leg in the middle of your wire between the World Trade Center towers.

When I reached a part of the road flat enough that I could stop completely, I was beyond relieved. It felt like I’d cheated death.

So, on Monday, July 29, 2013, there I was again riding up Onion Valley Road and getting psyched up to skate it.

The engine in Scott’s Subaru started to get a little hot so we stopped climbing a few turns below the top of the route.

I got out of the car and put my gear on hoping that no one else knew how scared I actually felt.

Scott and I started rolling. I started brake testing immediately. I wanted to be rolling slowly enough that I could stop completely with a snow plow in case the cracks ripped the rubber brake pads off of Craig’s Gravity Masters.

Scott had no such qualms and rolled out confidently.

After testing the Gravity Masters on about 15 cracks I got confident too and let that ole gravity fuel pull me as fast as it could.

Once at at least 40mph I braked hard to see if the cracks would snatch away my brake pads when I was rollin’ fast. But all was well. Cracks had no effect at all on the braking power of the Gravity Masters.

I let it rip.

Somewhere down past the turny part of the route I caught up with Scott. We both braked hard for both cattle guards and walked over them. Maybe next time we’ll have the eggs to jump ’em.

When we got back to the campground we were using for a staging area, Ian was nowhere to be found. He’d told us that the cracks fucked with the steering of his skateboard so much that he didn’t want to skate the Onion Valley route. Thus, we didn’t look for him up the hill.

Besides, if he’d gone up the route we couldn’t’ve missed seeing him since Onion Valley Road doesn’t intersect with any other paved roads, right?

We looked for Ian all over Independence. No one in either of the food marts, the Subway shop, the court house nor the police station had seen him.

After we described Ian to a dog walker the dog walker said, “Oh, if he’s around here someone will notice him. We don’t have too many guys who look like him in Independence.”

After searching him up for more than an hour Craig said, “Independence is tiny. If he isn’t in town then he hitchhiked to Reno or LA. Or else he’s up the hill and off a cliff …”

I said, “Too bad he left his god damn phone in the car.”

Scott said, “It’s not charged. That’s why he left it.”

I said, “Oh.”

Scott went back to the campground staging area while Craig and I waited at the town park with hopes that Ian would show up there.

We were on the phone with Scott when Scott said, “He’s here! He just showed up in someone’s pickup truck. They came from up the hill.”

Ian is a master hitchhiker so I wasn’t surprised that he was hitching. I was still mystified, though, by how come we hadn’t seen him hitching up or rolling down Onion Valley Road when there’s only one way in and one way out.

“Well,” Ian said, “I decided to skate it even though it had cracks so I hitched a ride part way up. On the way down I rolled into a turn too hot and bailed off of my board. I ran it out and didn’t fall but my board flew off the cliff. You guys must’ve rolled by while I was over the edge rock climbing down to retrieve my board.”

Craig, Scott and I stared at Ian. None of us could think of anything to say.

Ian said, “I know. I’m a crazy fuck.”

We loaded up the cars and drove back to LA.

Why Get Rolling at Camp Rollerblade?

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Why do I believe  Zephyr Adventures’  Camp Rollerblade on Hilton Head Island, SC is the best possible way for novices and advanced beginners to gain confidence and inline skating skills?

The rink

For starters, we have full access to the Bristol Sports Arena with its smooth surface, morning shade and bench seating. Whether it’s an astounding breakthrough or a taste of future grace, this rink is where everybody makes progress on the basics as well as more advanced moves for the duration of camp.

Desiree coaches Wini; Sheba, Mike and Rick get a jump on skating skills

The trails

Once our newbie skaters are ready, the trails meandering through the forests and golf courses of the Sea Pines Plantation offer a sampling of real-world conditions. Skating here (with our help nearby) gives our campers experience with street crossings, a variety of surfaces, sharing the path with other users, surviving on rolling humps and the occasional alligator sighting. We also provide bicycles for non-skating spouses or those who need a rest from skating.

Tony and Wini enjoy an extra sweet patch of pavement

The weather

Camp Rollerblade is scheduled in early May. This date is largely based on local weather patterns conducive to a great tour. Besides skating, we offer other optional outdoors activities: kayaking, biking on the seashore, tennis and even horseback riding on request. But as our 2012 camp commenced, Alfredo, the first tropical storm of the season, was spinning in the Atlantic just offshore.

"We survived Tropical Storm Alfredo!"

Not to worry! We plan ahead for bad weather. After a very productive indoor rink session on our second day (thank you, SuperGoose in Savannah!), the sun came out for our kayaking trip that afternoon. Our group was just as proud of “surviving Alfredo” as they were of their growing skating skills.

The people

One of the best reasons to get rolling at Camp Rollerblade is the new friends you will make. Amazingly close  personal bonds can emerge while learning this “extreme sport” and sharing battle stories around the dinner table with other active and adventurous people. (And photogenic!)

Desiree’s photo album

With such good luck with the weather and a perfect mix of personalities, this year’s Camp Rollerblade will remain especially memorable for me and my co-instructor Desiree Kameka. She took charge of my camera for 5 days to capture the fun in images. Here is a password-free  slide show of the newest grads progressing from rink to trail at Camp Rollerblade 2012.

Inca Cities: Machu Picchu and Cusco

Sunday, November 7th, 2010
This is the third of three posts describing a trip for which I was the US representative from Zephyr Adventures, which runs their Royal Inca Trail Trekking adventure with local experts from Apumayo.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

(See related password free photo albums on Picasa.)

The overnight downpour had me worried, but fortunately, we awoke to high clouds for our Machu Picchu visit. We beat the crowd by leaving on the 6am bus, and as we paused to explore all the important places in the ruins, Santiago did a wonderful job of educating us about its significance, both historically and astrologically.
Santiago knew that the 400 reservations to climb Wayna Picchu were sold out, but Pam was eager to go with me, so he approached the entrance gate and said we’d  lost our tickets. The guy believed him, of course (two middle aged blond women!). To our gratification, the stone path was not slippery and there was no crowd.

Liz and Pam on top of Wayna Picchu
Sitting atop Wayna Picchu was Pam’s favorite moment

We made our way up the steep and narrow trail in an hour, climbed through the two rock tunnels, and got to the huge boulders at the very top. A couple with a small baby shared the moment, taking photos with the ruins in the background. Then the mom started nursing! We decided to descend on the same route we came up to avoid the steps with a steep drop-off next to the stone buildings, which I remember quite well from 2008. On our way down, I snapped a photo of a guy who was hiking barefoot and not carrying shoes!

After a delicious buffet lunch back in town, our group boarded the Vistadome car on PeruRail for a ride back to Ollantaytambo. We were treated to snacks and an alpaca wool fashion show. Since I’d seen this in 2008, I worked on my journal most of the ride. I swear the female model poked me in the shoulder as she passed to punish me for ignoring her!

Cusco

Waiting with the van to pick us up at the Ollantaytambo station, our solicitous and competent driver Antonio had us back in Cuzco by 5:30. The Picoaga hotel is fantastic, a converted colonial building. Tonight’s dinner on the Plaza de Armas was delicious! As a wrap-up, I presented our group’s tips to Santiago and  Zephyr Adventures awards to our newbies: El Condor for Randy (a pilot, and due to arthritic hips, better at flying), Poderosa for mighty Marie (that’s what she named her sapling in Cachiccata), and Queen of the Apu for Heather who summitted her fear of heights.

We were moving slowly this day, and some of us felt a little ill on the final morning, which Santiago says is typical. After a half night’s sleep and gastric distress, I could barely manage a balance bar for breakfast. Pam and Heather both have sore throats.  Looking dapper in a necktie, Antonio loaded big suitcases into the van and by 9:15 we were on our way to the local market frequented by Santiago and his family. What a variety of smells and scenes! From butcher counters to eateries to stalls crammed with grains, jewelry or spuds, to farm ladies seated on the concrete surrounded by their vegetables.

Saqsaywaman ruins above Cusco
Saqsaywaman ruins above Cusco

Santiago had Antonio drive us up to the  Inca temples and fortress overlooking Cusco. At the water temple we saw the beginning of the northern Inca trail leading to Machu Picchu which ultimately leads to our trail. We moved on to a rocky temple with two sacrificial alters carved into into a cave. Then Randy, Olive and I crawled through a rock tunnel to reach a large terraced amphitheater and on to Saksaywamen, with its zigzag walls of the most massive boulders.

Before descending back to the city, we stopped at the baby alpaca store and I was able to pick up super soft sweaters for Dan and me.  We stopped for lunch at Fallen Angel, where a gay decorator obviously satisfied every wild whim he’d ever had. Our lunches were served on an old bathtub fish tank covered with glass.  Santiago enjoyed sharing Cusco’s modern side with us, after so much history.

Before we knew it, we were giving good-bye hugs at the airport, sending our trekkers home with their memories, photos and souvenirs. This moment of separation with newfound friends is always sad.

Santiago and I took a taxi to the Apumayo office, where  I met Kati and owner Pepe. They mapped out the logistics for our 3-day sample trek of the Inca trails closer to Cusco.   The rest of my day was spent napping, organizing my duffle and luggage, and emailing Zephyr a detailed trip report.

First post:

The Royal Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Saturday, November 6th, 2010
This is the second of three posts describing a trip for which I was the US representative from Zephyr Adventures, which runs their Royal Inca Trail Trekking adventure with local experts from Apumayo.

Trekking Day 1

(See related password free photo albums on Picasa.)
Cactus blooms in the Peruvian highlands

Though I saw this section in 2008, hiking the first leg of the Classic Inca trail was even more impressive with sunshine to highlight the views of the ruins, the Urubamba River valley, the mountains, and up close, the blossoms of a Peruvian highland springtime.

We branched right to exit the “Classic” route and began our descent to the ruins of Llaqtapata after which we joined the Royal Inca trail heading north alongside the river. I was impressed by the beauty and easy walking along the terraced, eucalyptus-shaded trail we passed just before stopping for lunch where the terraces ended.

Hiking on an Inca terrace
Terrace hiking on the Royal Inca Trail

After eating, we trekked through dense cloud forest and snapped photos of purple orchids. Our group was plenty challenged by today’s climbs and descents; at Santiago’s advice, sidestepping was used to save aching knees and hips. The afternoon clouds gathered and we pulled on jackets and ponchos to hike in the rain that started as we neared the campsite, where tents were already set up and waiting for us. We tucked inside to dry out and get organized. Soon after, we were gratified by basins of hot wash water at the tent door and a call to tea, where we were served biscuits and hot drinks.

Trekking Day 2

After a rainy night, we were relieved to awake to a warm sun. The highest peaks above showed freshly whitewashed glaciers. We hung damp items to dry while we feasted on bread, pancakes and liquid yogurt over puffed wheat.

Glaciers above the Urubamba River canyon
Glaciers above the Royal Inca Trail

Our morning hike along the river’s edge took us up and down mossy Inca stairs, through dense jungle, across avalanche slopes and past more delicate purple and white orchids. The group kept its usual start and stop pace and I switched between chatting, trail maintenance and taking way too many pictures. The most alarming stretch of today’s trail was a large slide that denuded the hillside from 100 yards above the riverbed, and it stretched 100 yards of gravelly trail across. It was pretty hot by the time we got to camp at the Chachabamba ruins, where we were treated to a hot lunch (!).

After we ate, Santiago walked Randy and Marie Barber across the bridge to catch the next train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes). Due to a history of sports that has Randy facing his second hip replacement surgery next year, and an overuse knee pain that crept up on Marie yesterday, this plan allowed them to avoid tomorrow’s steep climb and long mileages. We’ll meet them at our Inti Hotel tomorrow evening.

The waterfall below Choquesuysuy ruins
Approaching Choquesuysuy ruins

While everybody else puttered around camp, Santiago, Evan and I hiked further up the river to see the Chokasuysuy waterfall and ruins. This section of trail was a barely trodden path through the forests above the Urubamba and we found out later it is still closed for repairs. One washed out section offered just a single, tilted, gravelly step high above the roaring brown river, with no mistakes allowed! The ruin itself offered great views of Winyawayna high above, which is tomorrow’s destination. There were lots of living structures both above and below the many rows of farming terraces. The mosquitoes were biting furiously, so we didn’t stay long.

On the way back to camp, I stopped at the sweet little Chachabamba ruin nearby and had it all to myself for a session of sunset photography. At camp I managed to get a cold shower in the dark just before dinner.

Chachabamba ruins
Chachabamba ruins

Trekking Day 3

Despite more nighttime rain, the grass outside our tents was dry by 5am. Before hitting the long uphill trail, we presented our cooks and porters with a generous thank you tip and various camping articles we could do without. As we marched past the Chachabamba ruins and turned toward Winyawayna, we were grateful for the cloud cover, because the sun would otherwise be at our backs all during the 3-4 hour 1000 foot climb.

We made a steadily ascending traverse across a recovering burn site where young trees have been planted to secure the earth from erosion and the increased threat of landslides. We have heard from Santiago that the first three months of 2010 were so wet that flooding and 17 separate slides closed the railroad for months. Our Royal Inca trail, which is normally open year round, was only just reopened three weeks ago, just in time for us!

Inca stairways, still intact after hundreds of years
Inca stairways, still intact after hundreds of years

Today we climbed up and down many Inca-built stairways, some with the more modern convenience of hand rails when the drop-off was particularly dire. We paused for a brief but welcome R&R at both of the thatched-roof overlook huts spaced one hour apart, snacking on oranges, biscuits and hard candies provided by our cooks.

Trekking poles helped a lot and by 11am we reached the waterfall and lower entrance to the gorgeous “Forever Young” (Winyawayna) ruins, one of Santiago’s favorites. It features a stair-stepped water purification system, a hilltop sun temple and stone dwellings for the farmers who tended the terraced fields to grow food for the Inca, their living God. After the obligatory group photo here, we made the final climb to a nearby campsite and its obnoxious restaurant. While the clean bathrooms were welcome, the blaring music and commercial operations gave me culture shock after our days in the wilderness. (I later learned that the restaurant concession has been revoked and this campsite will be closed next year.)

Hikers pass over a retaining wall supporting the Inca Trail
Approaching the Sun Gate

Resuming the hike after consuming our picnic of sandwiches, we completed an hour-long traverse to the Sun Gate, marked by a final laborious climb up 50 infamously steep Inca steps. We savored our first views of the city of Machu Picchu across the valley, especially Heather, who had conquered her fear of heights to get here.

The last hiking leg felt long because now our feet were throbbing. We paused for classic Machu Picchu photos just above the tourist entrance and then caught the bus down to Aguas Calientes. The seven of us rode in the back row of the bus down 16 narrow, gravel hairpin turns — don’t look down! From back there, it was extra exciting each time we met an uphill bus.

I don’t mind admitting I was feeling beat by the time we met Marie and Randy and checked in to our hotel at Machu Picchu Pueblo. But a cold Cuzquena delivered by Heather and a change out of hiking boots revived me enough to go out in search of camera batteries.

Even though dinner was “on our own” this night, we agreed it would be more fun to dine together at one of Santiago’s favorite spots. Randy and Marie regaled us with stories of their upscale day of rest in another hotel. As I’d promised earlier in the trip, I did indeed eat guinea pig (cuy), and we washed down our meal with a terrible Peruvian cab. At least my cuy dish was moist and tender; it is a rich dark meat that reminded me of duck. My plate was garnished with a 5″ tuber carved in the shape of an Incan warrior.

Too tired to write a journal with my thumbs on the Droid, I didn’t need to read my Kindle to wind down for sleep. With hand-washed clothes draped around the room for drying and an alarm set for 5:30 am, I switched off the light. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Next post:

Peru – Training for Trekking

Friday, November 5th, 2010
This is the first of three posts describing a trip for which I was the US representative from Zephyr Adventures, which runs their Royal Inca Trail Trekking adventure with local experts from Apumayo.

On my own

To help make sure each person who signed up for this trip has an outstanding Zephyr Adventure,  I have studied maps, a calendar, and Zephyr printouts during the three flights it took to get here from SFO.  I also added a little trekking checklist to each gift packet assembled today. My first morning in Lima, the steaming hot milk and strong coffee made a great breakfast along with scrambled eggs and a croissant. How to drink coffee in Peru: first pour a tablespoon or less of steaming hot milk into the cup, then add thick black coffee (and water if necessary) to just the right color of tan. With an afternoon of free time, I explored Lima’s famous Kennedy Park, did some shopping, and had a very tasty ceviche lunch before returning to the hotel to meet my fellow trekkers.

Grouping up

Dining in Lima
Dinner in Lima with native Teo Capcha

Meeting up at Casa Andina we all agreed it would be fun to share dinner. Pam from Florida was my roommate,  I’d bumped into our three Canadians in the hall — Randy, Olive and Heather — and then I called Californians Randy and Marie in their room. Meanwhile, I’d also left a note on Teo Capcha’s Facebook wall, and was delighted when the Lima native I’d gotten to know at my favorite ski area in Tahoe telephoned not long after. He fit right in with this friendly group, from our first toast with Pisco Sours to the last. What a great start for our Peruvian vacation!

Touring the Sacred Valley

(See related password free photo albums on Picasa.)

Santiago, the guide I knew when I was a customer in 2008, was waiting at the gate in Cusco. As he and our driver Antonio  loaded our luggage atop the van, a costumed Peruvian lady made a few sales of coca candy and knit hats and gloves. We drove into the center of town, past the Plaza de Armas and up several narrow blocks to Plaza San Blas where we stopped for lunch at PachaPapas. We dined on traditional dishes in a tiny courtyard while a man played a harp next to the the wood burning oven.

Urubamba, in the Sacred Valley

Urubamba, in the Sacred Valley

Driving from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, we stopped to snap photos of it from the altoplano above. The Casa Andina here has a spectacular glass-walled main area offering natural lighting and views of the grounds and mountain backdrops all around. Tethered llamas trim the grass, and four costumed ladies plant themselves and their wares in an unavoidable section of walkway to our rooms. During our dinner the electricity went out but the lit candles saved the day to beautiful effect. Our one-man pan pipe band played on.

On Tuesday we tried not to stuff ourselves at the buffet breakfast. I was glad to hear that all the high altitude headaches are gone. We drove back up to 11000 feet and toured the Moray ruins, where the “flying steps” presented a challenge for some, and the hike back uphill taxed our breathing. As we hiked towards the village of Maras, we enjoyed vast views of tilled fields and distant snowy peaks frosted by clouds. The sun was quite warm when it came out. Hernando had a tasty picnic waiting for us in a tent set up in Maras, with pretty woven tablecloths. He wore a chef’s hat and tunic, so cute!

Bags of harvested salt lined up next to the salt pools in Maras
Salt for Lima, harvested from the same pools used by the Incas

To avoid two hours of optional hiking, we hitched a van ride to the salt pools, and all but two of our group hiked down the salt-encrusted trail alongside the pools. The light was so incredible for photos! Heather has a fear of heights so she shadowed Santiago in the narrowest spots.  Our incredibly delicious and elegant dinner was in the village of Urubamba, which is still digging out the mud after a chunk of glacier broke off above town, flooding its narrow streets with the snow melt.

Ollantaytambo and Cachiccata

Skulls in a nitch in an Ollantaytambo home
Honoring the ancestors in a kitchen nitch

Cottony clouds and a deep blue sky brought a morning glowing with the promise of good weather. We loaded up the van and made a stop in Ollantaytambo square. We strolled up a narrow cobbled street  to the neighborhood where modern-day Peruvians occupy homes built upon the foundations left by the Incas. No mud here because of the Incas’ beautifully laid mid-street drainage canals. We toured a villager’s home and several of us purchased souvenirs, taking care not to step on the small herd of cuy (guinea pigs). They are called cuy because of the “cuy, cuy, cuy” sounds they make.

Ollantaytambo ruins
Ollantaytambo ruins

Sun graced our tour of the Ollantaytambo ruins, which made for great photos. After that, we visited the porter village of Cachicatta, which overlooks the emerald hued north end of the Sacred Valley bread basket. It took longer than expected to heat the rocks for our pit-roasted potatoes, lamb and chicken, so we went down the road to the restoration project that Apumayo sponsors and planted a sapling in the nursery to be moved to an erosion-prone hillside after it grows tall and strong. We were glad to pay a $10 donation to the village to get an “adoption” certificate with our tree’s name. As we shared our lunch table and roasted victuals with our staff of porters and a few of their family members, Santiago had everybody introduce themselves with name, age, marital status and number of kids or siblings. The Peruvians were surprisingly not shy, especially the mammacita who was nursing her child at the lunch table as she took her turn to speak.

It was finally time to hike to our first trekking campsite!  Starting from Cachiccata, we descended into the Sacred Valley until we were on the western shore of the Urubamba River. Piskacucho at km 82 on the railroad line to Machu Picchu is a very nice campsite, featuring showers and bathrooms with sinks and toilets with seats (which is not always the case).  Our simple meal of soup, trout with a sauce, and choice of rice or mashed potatoes was completed by a dessert of sweet red corn pudding. Just before we climbed into our tents, the clouds cleared and snow-capped mountains glowed under a near full moon. Gorgeous!

Amazingly, I slept an uninterrupted 8 hours on my wonderful air mattress, a full length Thermarest. What I thought was the 11 pm train whistle turned out to be the 5 am. Clear skies today! Now I have a gorgeous view of snowy Mt. Veronica and my coca tea is steeping.

Mt. Veronica's snowey peak
Click this image to see all of my Peru 2010 photo albums

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Protected: Inca Trail Scouting trip

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

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Possessed by Peru

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

I am currently hiking several miles of hillside trails every week to prepare for my role as guide for Zephyr Adventures’ Royal Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, starting on October 17. The dust dims the sheen of my new backpacking boots, my packing list gets longer, and I read (tragic)  stories from the 1500s about the conquest of Peru. I go to the gym, I dive into my full-time day job and I give the occasional skate lesson, but really, my heart and head are in Peru for a good portion of every day.

All of my discretionary listening time right now is filled with Spanish love songs and verb conjugation audio tracks.  I pore over the guide books and maps I collected for my first trip in 2008. Since I have already hiked the Classic Inca Trail as a customer, I have a journal and my Machu Picchu photo album to help me visualize a lot of what I will encounter on the slightly different routes we will follow this time.

I wish everybody could have such an adventure! Since I realize that’s not possible, I thought it would be nice to share a snippet from my April 21, 2008 journal entry and some of the photos I took the day we explored the Sacred Valley of the Incas. After exploring the local ruins at Ollantaytambo, our next stop was the Moray ruins that served as a unique Incan agricultural laboratory. From there we hiked down to the salt collection pools at Maras.

April 21: This morning we explored the Ollantatambo ruin in town after hearing a fascinating history lesson from Santiago. Then we drove into the western hills at 11000 ft above to view the Inca laboratory ruin, Moray, where each terrace of the circular rings contained different soils and growing temps to experiment with developing high altitude strains of precious coca and other foods.

We hiked a trail through hilly farmland with a variegated green quilt climbing every slope in the background.  Snow capped peaks jutted into the clouds across the Urubamba valley. After an easy stroll, we passed through a little town and then stopped for a picnic of hot soup, chicken and boiled spuds, and a desert pastry presented on a tented overlook by bus driver Freddy.

After lunch we rolled through a hail downpour on the drive to the salt pools created from a mineral stream 700 years ago and still in production. We were grateful the rain had stopped by the time we started the descent along the left side of the 2000 ponds ranging from glistening white to dry terracotta. These are tended by caretaker families, as they have been since salt cultivation began here. Santiago says most of Lima’s salt comes from this operation.

Idaho Silver Country Skate Tour

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Imagine five days of great people, great scenery, and the best inline skating trails you could possibly imagine! I was fortunate to be one of three guides for the August 2010 Zephyr Adventures Idaho Skate Tour in northern Idaho’s Silver Country.

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On Idaho's beautiful Trail of the Couer d'Alenes

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Bridges span rivers and lakes on this converted rail trail

Last Sunday, twenty eight active folks from across the country and beyond — ranging in age from their 30s to 70s — jumped into two large passenger vans with skate gear in hand. Those who had just flown in found themselves rolling on the tree-lined Fish Lake Trail in eastern Washington state within a few hours of landing. This short 7-mile route with a swimming lake nearby made a perfect first-day trail.

The next day we rolled on the Centennial Trail from Idaho into Washington. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we covered the western, central, and eastern sections of the 72-mile Trail of the Couer d’Alenes across Idaho’s northern panhandle.

Because Idaho’s smooth-as-silk trails pass through a car-free landscape of lakes, rivers and pine forests, everybody was pretty much guaranteed to have a spectacular vacation.

I believe they did! But see for yourself in this 13-minute video by Dan Kibler.

Manhole cover declaring Wallace, ID the center of the universe

Nobody can prove Wallace, ID is NOT the center of the universe (click to enlarge)

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A skeptic checks out the center of the universe