Thursday, May 28, 2015

Big Slackwater - Best of the C&O Canal Towpath

I spent a couple weeks on the road in the middle of May.  The central purpose was to accomplish some business and to visit with family, but I took some extra time to do some scenic driving and some hiking along the way.  The highlight of the hiking was a 25 mile stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath that included the newly constructed section called Big Slackwater.

I highly recommend it.  If you only visit one section of this 185 mile trail, this is the one, in my opinion.  Most of the rest of the path is in the woods beside the Potomac River, but with only occasional glimpses of the water. As the photo up top shows, Big Slackwater puts the hiker right on the shore of the river, sometimes with the water lapping under the concrete segments of path that the Park Service installed in 2012.

This is a section of the Towpath where there is no canal.  Because of high cliffs right along the shore, the engineers chose to dam the river ...

Dam Four
... and send the barges out through guard gates into the river.  Here's the guard gate at the downstream end, showing a detail of the groves cut by decades of tow ropes rubbing the rock as the boats turn the corner and head out into the river going upstream, or return to the quiet canal on their way down to Washington.

Over the years since the 1926 final closure of the canal, erosion from floods had destroyed much of this exposed section of the towpath, but the park service was determined to re-open it.  Their solution was these pre-fab sections of concrete 'bridge'.  They should be sturdy enough to withstand most of the floods the river can throw at it.

McMahon's Mill, near the upstream end of Big Slackwater.  A new parking area here puts you right in the middle of the action. 
I hiked and biked (one mode of transportation each way) the section between Taylor's Landing boat launch ramp a few miles below below Dam Four through Williamsport where there is a Park visitor center, and on to Dam Five which is a dam built to supply water to the section of the canal down to Big Slackwater.

Although the C&O Towpath is predominantly used by bicyclists, I believe it is best appreciated on foot.  I did it both ways.  On bicycle you pass the scenery too quickly and miss much of the detail.  On foot this smooth level path allows your eyes to wander and take in the scenery--a luxury that mountain hiking on uneven footing seldom affords.  Here beside the river it's not so much a hike as it is a stroll.   And a delightful stroll it was in Mid-May.  It was cool and green and largely untouched by civilization, except for an ugly mile of riverside trailers around Falling Waters where the towpath doubles as a public road.  And then there's the short stretch near the I-81 bridge where traffic noise competes with the river's murmur and the song of the wood thrush.

This is the second section of Towpath I've hiked.  My report of the section between Harpers Ferry and Taylors Landing can be found here.  I will be back for more.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Four travel days and I'm home

Here is a four-part conclusion of the 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Day 28 – Monday 1 February 2010

The trip home to the northern hemisphere, thousands of miles north and slightly west of where I began this morning, took me south and slightly east – straight in the wrong direction – for the first two days, first by bus, then by plane to Buenos Aires.

It began at 8:55 this morning when I hauled luggage to the front of the Hostelria where the bus was already waiting. We left virtually on time for the 5 or 6 hour drive to Catamarca. We stopped half way at Aimogasta at a gas station with a little clean snack table area and very clean rest rooms (same place we stopped on the way up). I bought an ‘Imperial’ Beer, an Argentinean beer I hadn’t seen before.

From there we passed through a canyon very reminiscent of Tucson, Arizona, with saguaro-like cacti.  See the photo above.  They were notable on the way up a couple weeks ago, but now they were in bloom! It may have been the rain that fell here that triggered it, or perhaps it’s just normal seasonal bloom. My photos were taken from the moving bus.

We got to our hotel Arenales at about 2:40AM after the bus driver, who apparently had to hand a bribe to the police checkpoint person coming out of Fiambala (I suspect his bus inspection was not in order because his brakes seemed to be squealing and thus probably in need of repair), took back roads to avoid the check point coming in to Catamarca.

We went to a restaurant right around the corner and had a big celebration dinner that totaled more than $20 US dollars per person--pretty extravagant for prices here because we all ordered lots of food. John and Thom and Barry leave early in the morning for their bus ride to Mendoza and then on to the climb of Aconcagua. I had decided not to join them because I would have to sacrifice my air fare and buy tickets for a new one-way flight home.

The majority of the rest of us are flying out tomorrow and will share a taxi or shuttle that leaves the hotel at 11:20 tomorrow morning. I got back to my room at 10:35 and called it a night.

Day 29 – Tuesday 2 February 2010

There were four of us left in town the next morning, all taking the same flight to Buenos Aires. We had two compact taxis to deliver us to the airport, one for the luggage and one for the people. Our Peruvian guide Damian was there to make sure everything went smoothly and to give us money to pay the drivers. He would stay in town one more night then return home.

We were on the road by 11:30 and got to the airport about 11:50, relatively early for a 1:05 domestic flight. We got our boarding passes, sat around and visited some, and then boarded the plane, which left on time at 1:05PM. There was a 20 minute hop to La Rioja where most of the passengers got off and somewhat fewer got on. Then we flew the hour and 20 minutes to Buenos Aires. Weather was dreary there, but on the approach I got a good shot of the city with the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucci Liberti football stadium in the foreground.

We got our luggage and then said our good byes. John and Phinella got shuttle tickets to the International Airport and Brian headed out to get a taxi--he’s staying in the city for a couple of days of touring on his own. I decided to camp in the airport for the night—the next leg of my flight was not until 8AM tomorrow, so I hung around in the food court, relaxed, ordered two meals, and watched some football (soccer) then settled with my luggage in a quiet place nearby for the night.

Day 30 – Wednesday 3 February 2010

I probably actually got a little sleep, although there were so many noisy people who seemed to gather around in my area, some interested in sleeping, others with noisy screaming kids, that the sleep was intermittent at best. At 7:05 I went through security and soon was standing in line for boarding for the 8AM flight to Mendoza.

It was clear and warm in Mendoza when we arrived about 10:30. The airport is small but very clean and spacious, with a nice restaurant and some interesting local art posted on the upstairs walls. Here’s a sample:

I found that I could not only check my bags right away, but also that I could get an earlier flight to Santiago, Chile, that leaves at 3:05PM instead of my original flight leaving at 6:30. That flight was less than an hour, just up and over the Andes and down. The mountains there were free of recent snow—so I guessed that prospects for my expedition friends climbing Aconcagua looked reasonably good based on the snow cover conditions. (I learned later that they could not summit due to high winds, so I had saved myself a lot of money.)

We landed and I had no customs to go through, just got funneled straight through to the international flights waiting area. Soon I was in the area of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant that I had eaten at on my way to Argentina last time. I sat down there and ordered a really big meal—more than I could finish. I got a Kunstmann Bock (an expensive Chilean beer), water, broccoli and cheese soup, and an avocado burger with a separate plate of fried onion rings. I sat and ate slowly until I could eat no more—total cost about $30. I then lounged around in a quiet area and watched the sunset.

The flight to Miami began boarding about 9:40PM. I found my seat by the window, second from last row and was delighted to find that the aisle seat beside me was empty. From what I could tell, the plane was nearly full, so I was incredibly lucky. That meant I had all sorts of spreading-out options to get a comfortable rest on the 8 hour overnight flight to Miami.

They served us a hot dinner that tasted lousy - wasn’t that hungry after the big Ruby Tuesday meal. Then everybody settled down to sleep and/or endure the night. I put up the arm rest between my two seats and settled in for an unexpectedly comfortable long international flight. What a blessing.

Day 31 – Thursday 4 February 2010

Another advantage of my situation was that I was able to freely go back to the very nearby bathroom, which I did twice. I even overslept the breakfast service, but it didn’t look very appetizing anyhow. I did get one last cup of the great Chilean apple juice--the fresh tasty pulpy cider-like stuff that is not even available in Argentina (nowhere that I encountered anyway).

The plane landed at 5:05AM, still dark in Miami. I moved through the passport check, customs declaration, picked up my luggage successfully (yay!) and moved it through customs and dropped it off at the TSA security point where they would check it and automatically send it on to my connecting flight to BWI (if all goes well).

Security was strict, as I expected, but I was at my gate with laptop fired up by 10:20 after calling the BWI airport shuttle and confirming my reservation with them. So I had an hour and a quarter to kill until the scheduled 11:35 boarding. As I sat there by the wall with an outlet I noticed a flight attendant come up to the counter and then get on the plane who looked remarkably like Tanya, a member of my church in Columbia. The likeness seemed really remarkable. I had no idea what Tanya’s occupation was or even if she had a job or was a stay-at-home mom.

Later, when we boarded the plane, I kept looking at her to try to distinguish some feature that was different, so that I could be sure that she was only a look-alike. Finally as she was serving drinks, I caught her eye. By then I was almost sure it was not a look-alike but was actually her, even though I had no idea that she had any job at all, let alone a job as a flight attendant, let alone on the airline I was booked on, let alone on the actual plane that I was on.

There was an awkward moment of non-recognition on her face, but then the light came on. Yes, it really was Tanya! What a delightful way to end my vacation! There were empty rows near the back of the plane, so when Tanya was free, she and I sat down in one with my laptop between us; and we chatted and I showed her a bunch of my photos from the trip. Using her privilege as an employee she gave me free food that normally we have to pay for—a huge chocolate chip cookie ($3) and then a Heineken beer ($6). Tanya is such a quiet and unassuming person that it was surprising to see that she has such a people-oriented job. She reluctantly posed as I snapped her photo in the back of the plane. Here she is with such a pretty smile:

As we approached BWI I had a great view of the Bay Bridge:

I exited the plane and made my way to the baggage claim to find my bags right there circling the carousel. So I was quickly out to the designated exit door where I was to be met by a GO shuttle van. That was at 2:50PM. I had to wait a few minutes, and I called the shuttle company to let them know I was waiting. When the van arrived and picked me up, the driver then had to circle around once and pick up another party destined for the NW side of Ellicott City. We drove there first. The driver then delivered me to my garage door and I was back home in my condo at 4:10PM, full of memories of brash adventure, but happy to be back to the ordinary, at least for a little while.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Back to civilization, safe and sound

This is part 27 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Beautiful morning at Aguas Calientes

Day 27 – Sunday 31 January 2010

I had an amazingly comfortable night or sleep. I slept well most of the night. It never got below about 40 degrees all night and felt like spring and sounded like it, with birds singing and the babble of the stream. When awake I had been thinking about the hard decision about whether to go on an extension trip to Aconcagua with John, Barry and Thom. We got up at 7:10 and had breakfast, during which I asked John to give me the itinerary for that trip. I had also talked about it with him along the trek yesterday, and then to Thom about it also. After breakfast we had plenty of time to pack up and tear down camp.

The mules arrived around 9AM, even before we had finished packing. They sent a couple of mules on up the stream to near its source where the three Argentineans had made camp last night after the sick one was brought down on a mule. We headed out about 9:30 expecting to arrive at the vehicle pick-up point at the end of the canyon above Cazadero Grande by the appointed time of 2PM.

After a hard march through some wide open spaces, and past the mule men's permanent summer camp,

with some big examples of these tight growing ground-hugging shrubs,

the first two of us did arrive there on time, but lagging further behind, I slowed down because the mules had not yet passed us and there were no vehicles at the pick-up point yet.

The vehicle arrived 8 minutes late but we still had to wait around for more than an hour for the mules. The drivers had brought a cooler with a 2 liter bottle of Quilmes beer and a bottle of orange soda--that was an enjoyable little respite after a couple weeks in the wilderness.

Finally we had the two trucks loaded. The support guys wanted to wait until the three Argentinians had arrived safely—they were going to camp there tonight. We saw them arrive, then were on the road at 3:20 for the two hour drive to Fiambala. We got there in the heat of the afternoon and unloaded the trucks and got to our rooms with three and a half hours to clean up, etc., before meeting for supper at the same (one and only) nice restaurant in the town—the Pizza Roma.

The clerk had roomed everybody together as before, though John had planned to continue our rotation. So instead of being paired with Thom, I roomed with John Starbuck again. John had opted to stay at Aguas Calientes for a week while we were all higher up, so he had unique stories to tell and was interested to hear about our experiences. While John took first turn at showering I got out the scale and weighed myself--down 12 or 13 pounds from when I left home! I also photographed my weather beaten face:

After we both took showers and shaved, then ate some of the snacks we had with us from today’s trek, I downloaded all my photos to the laptop and showed him some. Then at 6:45 I started catching up on my electronic journal, skipping past everything on my notepad and just catching up with today’s entry first. Then at 7:05 I started transcribing the two weeks of hand written entries. I got through a number of days’ worth of entries before 8:30 when it was time to meet and go over to the Roma Pizza restaurant for a nice outdoors dinner in the warm evening breezes.

We all ordered gigantic meals--steaks with lots of chips (French fries) or a whole large pizza with full dinner salad on the side. I got a whole anchovy pizza with a full dinner salad. The pizza was great, with loads of cheese, and I happily scarfed down every bit of it. After a nice dinner and conversation, the others went to another shop somewhere for coffee and I returned to my room, arriving at 10:40. Though I was tired, I did a little more journal work, then went to bed at 11:10PM.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Homeward trek begins

This is part 26 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Lonely sand-blasted boulder in a vast open plain on our trek out

Day 26 – Saturday 30 January 2010

It was another cold night--about 15 degrees. But that was up from about 11 degrees the previous morning. I didn’t sleep at all until around midnight, both because of the long sleep last night and the caffeine in the GU I ate during the Volcan del Viento summit climb yesterday. I got up at 8AM and had breakfast and packed up.

We were on the trail about 9:45AM after saying good-bye to the Argentineans, one of whom was clearly continuing to suffer from cold and/or altitude. We hiked at a good pace, up over the little pass then down, down, down.

Shortly after surmounting the pass we met the mules coming up to pick up our stuff.

They also had the black bag that the Argentineans were expecting. We left the snow behind about half way down--a third of the horizontal distance to cover today.  That's where I stopped to photograph the wind-sculpted rock shown above.  As usual we stopped after an hour of walking for a snack or for lunch.

We whipped right past our intermediate campsite at Aguas Vicuñas and got to our campsite at 13,500 feet at Aguas Calientes about 4PM. We had carried two tents and some cooking stuff with us expecting the mules to arrive late. That was a good choice because we sat around until 6:30 before the first of the mules arrived. They were late because they had to transport the sick Argentinean guy back down on a mule.

We had supper and chatted and then more mules came with more tents and my duffel. We set up and I then took a walk a short way back up the valley to check out a cave big enough for shelter for our whole group. It was right off the valley floor overlooking a small cascade in the stream. I returned to the group for a minute or two of chat then retreated to my tent (tent-mate Barry tonight) and caught up on my journal, finishing just as a thunderstorm developed to the northwest over the places we had been for the last several nights. That was at 8:25. I settled into my sleeping bag and relaxed and listened to the frequent thunder. It rained a little then the rest of the night was quiet and mild. Tentmate Barry settled in when the rain hit and we went to bed around 9PM.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Summit day, 6000m Volcan del Viento

This is part 25 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Atop 6028 meter (19,777 foot) Volcan del Viento on a beautiful calm day.  This was the last of three 6000m peaks I 'bagged' during this expedition

Day 25 - Friday 29 January 2010

I fell asleep almost instantly and slept really well through a long night, making up for the lack of sleep last night. I didn’t get up until 8:25 with the sun already well up and shining on the tent. We had our usual breakfast of cold cereal and I was feeling surprisingly good. I have been blessed with near perfect health for this trip. We decided that Thom and Barry would go with John and attempt what might be a first ascent of a remote and obscure minor peak of 6000m+ height a few miles northeast of Medusa. With no formal name they’re just calling it Medusa NE. Note: as it turns out they were apparently the first people ever to climb that peak.

They would do that while Damian would guide Phinella and I up Volcan del Viento: a 6000 meter peak south of camp and importantly much closer to camp.

After breakfast we packed up and headed out at 9:30. The other group left a bit later. We had beautiful, in fact perfect weather with sun and calm wind, but the snow conditions made this a very challenging ascent. It was both deep and crusty.

Damian blazed the trail most of the time—I did a bit of leading—often through knee-deep snow. Near the summit it was thigh-deep: 2 feet at least. We got to the summit at 1PM and enjoyed panoramic views under clear sky, calm wind. We spent half an hour on the summit.  Here’s the three of us, Damien, Phinella and me with Ojos behind.

We descended to the col between the main and lower north peaks for lunch, again in calm conditions. We reached base camp at 2:45 and lounged around waiting for the other group to return. I got out my notepad and caught up on my journal after snacking some. That was done at 3:40PM. I then rested and read Silmarillion some and relaxed through the afternoon.

Damian started preparing dinner at 6PM even though the other three hadn’t returned from their trek yet. They arrived at 6:30. The up-down terrain, snow and distance had simply been more than they expected. But they had made it to the summit of the Medusa NE peak.

We had supper and chatted. The evening was fairly nice until a bit heavier snow moved in (It had been spitting snow most of the afternoon with thunder occasionally off to the NE). I retreated to my tent to finish dinner, then read Silmarillion again until some excitement outside diverted my attention.

I watched the drama unfold through the air vent in my tent. It appears that three Argentineans, expecting a mule to have delivered a black duffel bag here, arrived without it. So they were stranded here without tent and sleeping bags and other critical equipment. One of them seemed pretty dazed and underdressed. I suspect he was close to hypothermia. John offered them some hot tea and then Thom moved from his tent into the main leader’s bigger tent that could sleep three people reasonably comfortably. The three Argentineans then snuggled into Thom’s tent to endure the night with what they had (three pretty full back packs so probably extra layers of clothes).

Everybody settled in and got quiet as it got dark around 9PM. I had been peeking out for a long time, then I warmed myself up in my sleeping bag for a few minutes and then caught up on my journal. At 9:20 I read Silmarillion some more, reading one of the highlight chapters in the book--the one about Beren and Luthien. I finished the chapter about 9:45 and went to bed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Danger at High Camp

This is part 24 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

As our early morning start time for a summit attempt on 22,615' Ojos del Salado approached, this happened.  Suddenly we were more worried about survival than about climbing a mountain.

Day 24 – Thursday 28 January 2010

Overnight the skies opened up.  We got about a foot of snow.

At 1:30AM, thankfully, it was beginning to let up. I spent 20 minutes clearing all the snow away from our tent. At 3AM Damian came over to say that the snow was too deep for a summit attempt and that we needed to pack up and try to get back to base camp instead, to which Phinella and I heartily agreed. If we got much more snow, even going down would become a problem. We were potentially in a life threatening situation.

It was only after those decisions were made, and with the sky actually clearing that I got a little sleep.

The day dawned sunny with the clouds left in the east wispy and far away. I bundled up and went out at 7:45 and found it breezy and 13 or 14 degrees F, but the wind quickly abated. It turned into a nice, although a cold morning. I went back to my tent and caught up on my journal, then at 8:20 we had breakfast and started packing up.

We were on the trail back to base camp by 10:30. The shot below shows our distant base camp, which is out of sight below the low straight ridge line. The high mountain behind that low ridge, right at the edge of the photo, is 6028 meter (19,777 foot) Volcan del Viento, which we would climb tomorrow, and the high mountain on the left side of the photo is Medusa.

Here’s a nice shot showing the snow depth that also has artistic value, followed by a shot of me smiling (but unhappy on the inside because I was denied a chance to attempt the big summit).

The traveling wasn’t too hard with Damian breaking the trail the whole way. It took only four hours to get back to base camp. The reunion with those at base camp was fun. Brian was feeling much better and nobody had gone much of anywhere due to the snow that was as deep at base camp as at our high camp.

With the help of those who had been resting all day, we set up our tents as we visited. I’m tenting again with Phinella at her suggestion, while Thom, who came down with stomach cramps at lunchtime on today’s trek home, got his own tent. For a couple of hours, his stomach problems really slowed Thom down, but thankfully he was much better by evening.

Eventually I settled in and napped/rested to 5PM, then got some water at the glacier-base outlet/spring. I started catching up with my journal but was interrupted by an early supper of corned beef and mashed potatoes from dehydrated potatoes. Both tasted really good. The final course was not served (dessert) before thunder, dark clouds, and an east wind rolled in around 6:05PM. I retreated to my tent as snow grains began falling mixed with snowflakes.

I finished catching up on journaling and then settled into the sleeping bag to rest and listen to the familiar sound of the snow pelting the tent. Fortunately the snow ended before sunset with only an inch of accumulation. I went out just for a bathroom break at 8:20 then read in my tent until my hands got too cold, then I went to bed at about 9PM.

Monday, May 4, 2015

No chance to go higher today, rest day at 19,300 feet

This is part 23 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

It snowed lightly all night and dawned dreary, ending plans for Damian and Thom to attempt to summit 22,615' Ojos del Salado today.  We'll all attempt the climb together tomorrow, weather permitting.

Day 23 – Wednesday 27 January 2010

Despite being at 19,300 feet elevation, I had a very restful night of sleep. It never really cleared up outside. We got a dump of an inch and a half of snow then the moon came out partially but with clouds always around. As a result Damian and Thom cancelled their summit attempt. Weather permitting, we will all make a very early attempt tomorrow, getting up at 2AM and leaving at 3AM to beat any bad afternoon weather.

We got 6 inches or so of snow overall--enough to make the climbing tougher, especially for those breaking the trail (likely to be Thom and Damian) assuming we go. The trip is wearing me down in little ways--one not yet mentioned is chapped/sunburned lips, despite the fact that I use a high SPF lip balm regularly. It has become painful to eat or drink--just another impediment to getting and staying hydrated and fed.

I woke up at 7AM to hear snow falling on the tent. It snowed to about 9:30AM as the sky steadily cleared--no further accumulation. We all got up slowly, had cereal for breakfast around 8:30. After a bit of chat, I returned to my tent and warmed up. The sun was soon hitting us and the best part of the day had commenced around 9:30AM--meaning clearing sky and sunshine. I got up and caught up on my journal and arranged a few things, then at 10:10AM I put on sun screen and wandered over to the giant penitentes field at the head of our little protected valley. You can see it in the backdrop of the photo up top--an endless field of needle spikes, close-up inspection shows that they are huge--some twice my height:

From there I worked my way up hill to the ‘ramp’ that rises from below our camp to the serious slope that we would take between snow fields up the side of Ojos.  Here's the view of our route up.

I sat there at almost 6000 meters and enjoyed the late morning calm wind and warm sun for as long as it lasted. I came down about 11AM. Off to the east it had been very dark and threatening all morning; and now that began to move in. It began snowing soon after 11, but only light with sun mixed in. I retreated to my tent. Phinella had just begun heading up hill to the ramp and plateau area as I was coming down. I cleaned myself and changed underpants and rested/napped in the tent, actually getting a bit of restful sleep. It’s clear that my legs need recovery time to perform tomorrow, assuming good weather also.

I got up for lunch at 1PM--good but not enough food as usual. I was craving salty stuff. We had powder soup and sardines (one small can for the four of us) on crackers. We were done at 2PM and I moved to my tent as snow got a little heavier. I napped and got more sleep. Phinella came in and read at about 3PM. I got up and tried to figure out how to convert my watch altimeter to meters from feet with no success. So then I started figuring conversions by hand. My most accurate estimate of the altitude of this camp is 19,350 feet. Ojos is 22,588 feet I believe, so a climb of 3238 feet tomorrow--not too tough if the weather is OK.

I finished the calculations including making a table converting meters to feet (roughly) every 100 meters from here to the Ojos summit. That was done at 4:20PM. Meanwhile the snow had steadily fallen harder and had begun to accumulate, up to an inch. And it was foggy, much like yesterday. There was a very hopeful break in the skies with light snow for about half an hour around 5:30PM as we had a late tea that doubled as the first course for supper. But then the skies really seriously closed in, and it began to snow harder than at any time since the 6” we got at Aguas Vicunas.

We were served supper in our tent by Thom and Damian and at the end, around 7PM Damian announced that any decision about going up Ojos would be delayed as we watched for clearing weather. Phinella and I both waited for a break in the storm before going out to do our business, but the break never came. I went out about 8:20 and got water at the ice encrusted stream. With the weather continuing to be bad, it appears less and less possible to make a summit attempt. By the time I came back in we were approaching six inches of new snow on top of several unmelted inches from previous days. I came in and caught up on record keeping by the light of my headlamp and then settled into my sleeping bag but not into the liner at 8:45. About half an hour later I got in the liner and formally went to bed.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ojos del Salado, moving to high camp at 19,300 feet

This is part 22 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Hauling all my own stuff - about 70 pounds of it, I'm headed to the base of the mountain over my right shoulder--Ojos del Salado, second highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

Day 22 – Tuesday 26 January 2010

I didn’t sleep for a very long time. I attribute it to the caffeine in the GU I consumed during the Medusa summit effort. Maybe also it was just the excitement of having made my goal. It snowed briefly around 10PM, no more than a third of an inch, then cleared up the rest of the night. A nice moon was out until midnight. I finally noticed some dreams after 3AM or so - first substantial bits of sleep that I was aware of.

The morning dawned clear and cold with temperature as low as 15 degrees at sunrise. We all announced our decisions for the day at breakfast, which didn’t commence until about 8:20AM. The sun hit our tent about 7:50. Brian, my tentmate was suffering from a continuing headache, even slightly worse than yesterday, so he opted to stay at camp. Barry and John (expedition leader) were staying and planning to try to climb Cazadero from there because Barry had already climbed Ojos and they felt they could summit Cazadero (~6600m) from base camp tomorrow and get all the way back. So it was just Thom, Phinella and me who packed up and headed to Ojos high camp, led by Damian as our guide, and carrying with us two tents, food, fuel, etc.

My pack must have weighed 70 pounds, and my legs were still heavy from yesterday’s overworking trying to get back before the bad weather hit. Phinella also likes to plod along, so she and I were always separated from Damian and Thom. But they waited for us every hour or so and the weather held. With up-and-down terrain followed by a 1000 foot ascent near the end, it was a very hard day. We left around 10AM and Phinella got into our high camp about 4PM, just as snow and cloud began closing in. On the way, during the morning while the weather was good, I got this shot of Medusa:

Damian and Thom had been at our high camp for 20 or 25 minutes by the time I arrived; and they had already set up the two tents: one for Phinella and I and one for them. The camp is a beautiful setting, worth exploring on our rest day tomorrow. (Thom and Damian plan a summit attempt). Phinella and I settled into our tent and had some nice conversation while Damian cooked and served us tea and then soup, main course, and dessert in our tents. It had been snowing pretty hard all that time with light wind and a few claps of thunder around. It had already accumulated 2 inches or more by 7PM when Thom brought tea for Phinella. I caught up on my journal, finishing at 7:25PM and then just laying down in bed to rest and recover from the hard “piston” workout that my legs had with all that weight. Later when I warmed up I changed into my regular bed layers and went to bed formally. Phinella read with her lamp for a bit and then went to bed too.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Medusa summit day – 20,079 feet

This is part 21 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

It was a bleak morning at our isolated base camp at 18,250 feet, 30 miles from the nearest road.  It was not at all clear that we would be able to leave camp at all, let alone attempt a 20,000 summit.

Day 21 – Monday 25 January 2010

I was very slow to fall asleep - very restless and also hot! I had overdressed for the weather, which remained foggy and mild (ranging in the upper 20’s). I think the relatively rapid change in altitude and the high altitude (18,250 feet) were underlying factors too. As my body struggled to adjust, that struggle seemed to manifest itself as a dream-like effort to “figure this place out.” And through the night I did seem to figure it out in a strange succession of dreams in which I discovered “spirits” of the place behind hidden doors or at prominent rocks. I found and “recognized” or understood them one by one through the night until there were 20 or 25 of them. Yet with each new one, the sense of simplicity or unity of the place kept increasing, and thus my ease of sleeping. In the end I was getting good chunks of sleep.

Meanwhile the weather provided an unexpected turn. It never really cleared up, and never really stopped snowing all night. Through the night the total accumulation was less than an inch. After light began arriving I got up at 7AM sharp to go out and pee; and I found the fog and snow continuing. The camp looked much bleaker than the previous camp because of the fog and gray, dreary conditions (see photo above).

With this kind of fog I couldn’t imagine making any attempt on Medusa, the 20,000 foot mountain that is my minimum goal for this trip and my long-standing bucket list goal.  Nearly fifty years ago, in high school, while idly sitting in music class, I decided I wanted to "climb a 20,000 foot mountain in South America."  Well today I was on the threshold of achieving that.  But ...

I was really beginning to wonder about some kind of ‘jinx’ preventing me from going those last few feet to my goal (I had climbed mountains to just under 20,000 feet several times already—Huayna Potosi and a partial ascent of Illimani in Bolivia two years ago and Cerro San Francisco on this trip.)

I came back to my tent and caught up on my journal, finishing at 7:40 about the time that other people seemed to be stirring. The plan was for an 8AM breakfast and a 9AM departure for the Medusa climb: 2000 feet up and about 7 or 8 km round trip as the crow flies. That’s not a difficult effort if the weather cooperated.

Our expedition leader John decided to give it a try.  We headed off, hopeful but not confident, at 9:45, with the weather still foggy and spitting snow, but with a few blue patches. As it turned out the weather stayed that way: marginal and improving only slightly. Brian stayed in camp because he had a poor night of sleep and still seemed to have an altitude related headache. Phinella moved slower than the other 3 of us clients, usually 10 to 15 minutes slower at each hourly stop.

There was a lot of minor up and down and traverse for the first few miles, then we abruptly hit the base of the symmetrical cone shape of Medusa: a pretty mountain, though we only had a full view of it later on the way out. Here’s that view.

We made steady progress up the 2000’ ascent. Because of the fog and snow threat everybody always stayed in sight of one another. Finally when we were about 45 minutes from the top, John took a GPS fix at a shelter rock and had Phinella and Damian stay there while we summited.

I led the way on the final scramble up a hill made of spiky volcanic rock.  It was the highest I had ever been.  20,000 feet!!! I made it!

We only stayed a few minutes at the summit because of the threat of weather closing in. We made a bee-line back to Phinella and Damian then a quick descent to the base of the cone.  We passed beside the base of the snow field visible on the side of the mountain in the overview shot above.  It was made up of spiky ice formations called penitentes, caused by the high summer sun and dry air.

On the final ascent and the descent I was moving at speeds that were beyond my comfort zone so I was really spent crossing the final couple of miles of up and down. Here’s another summit shot—of the really pretty round crater lake beneath the summit rim of Medusa. I wish we could have experienced the view of that and of the surroundings in all their glory!

My beyond-comfort-zone speed proved to be necessary because the weather began closing in. It began to snow big grains, soon becoming thick enough to hamper visibility. And then thunder began off to the west over Ojos. That appeared to move over to the Medusa summit. Several times I just stopped and broke into tears of exhaustion and some gratefulness that things hadn’t gone worse.

It was snowing hard by the time we got back to camp at 3:30, we had a little snack and some hot tea then everybody retreated into tents. Half an hour later the storm abated and I went out for a bit, but soon it returned. I basically spent the afternoon deep in my sleeping bag with all layers on just trying to warm up. It was a slow process, took an hour and a half or more before I was comfortable again with warm hands and nose.

It continued to snow more lightly until 7PM. They brought around dinner at 6:30 then from 7:30 to 9PM most of us stood around outside with calm winds and the sky clearing partially. The temperature dropped from near freezing to around 25.

I retreated to my tent and caught up on my journal. That was done at 8:55, then I snuggled back in my sleeping bag, still with all layers to get fully warm again before changing into the correct and comfortable layers for the duration of the night. I did that about 9:20 and went to bed.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Trekking to base camp at 18,250 feet

This is part 20 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Snowy morning at Aguas Vicunas, 16,100 feet.  Will the mules return or will we be stranded?

Day 20 – Sunday 24 January 2010

Though the temperature got down to about 15 degrees over night, I slept well and was warm once I put on a layer of insulating clothing. Without it, at first, I was slightly chilly. I got up at 7:50, just as a few others began stirring. I went to the bathroom at a distant rock, took a few photos of the bleak looking camp in the snow (see above) and chatted with others as they got up. We had a late breakfast and then were in waiting mode--two different contingencies based on whether the mules return to carry stuff further for us or not. If they didn’t come, it would be a big setback for me having to expend energy on double hauling stuff and hauling all my own stuff up to base camp.

Well, it turned out for the best. The mules arrived early - 10AM - ready to haul to base camp at 18,250 feet as planned. So we quickly got packed up. I had my plan ready and was packed quickly. One of the six clients, John Starbuck, decided not to go on. He will hike back down to Aguas Calientes and stay there on his own until we return in about six days.

We set off on our final leg to base camp at 11AM and got to camp about 3:30PM. The snow was about 5 to 6 inches deep but I didn’t get shoes wet and the going wasn’t tough. In fact it was a nice change of pace from the monotonous rock and sand. We had a shorter distance today but a 2000 foot elevation change to get over a pass where we finally had a good view of Ojos and Medusa.

view from the pass - high point of today's trek.  Ojos del Salado is at left, Medusa to the right.  Our base camp is out of view behind the bare slope and in front of the glacier below and to the left of Ojos.

Neither of the high peaks had gotten any snow from last night's storm. Our base camp was just a short way from the pass near a glacier that provided super clean fresh cold water. The mules arrived just after us. We collected water at the base of the glacier and then set up camp.

Brian collecting water at our glacier-fed spring

The weather was deteriorating, with thunder off to the east and some spritzes of snow falling. The temperature was about 37 degrees here at 18,250 feet (522 mb pressure, which is half that at sea level) as I settled into my tent around 4:30 and caught up with my journal. My tentmate, Brian, also retreated to the tent and napped. (He had had only an hour of sleep overnight last night). Once I finished writing at 4:55 I also tucked into my sleeping bag to start to recharge some deficit of body heat (having put on all the layers of clothing I usually do). I was all warmed up by 6PM and the snow had gotten steadier by then so once again John and Damian cooked in their tent and delivered the food.

The weather was actually very pleasant out - calm winds and snow and low ceiling or fog, so I stayed out for a bit, but then retreated to the tent by 7PM or so. Brian had been out too, and when he came in, we chatted for half an hour or so before settling in to bed early, at about 8PM.