Prepare to Meet the Mother of the World–EBC Trek

IMG_0724I haven’t always been an avid mountain trekker. Death forced my eyes open. Three months after my husband passed away from cancer, I left home (alone) to walk the Camino De Santiago.

Those first steps forced me to dig deep for inner strength at the very moment my comfortable life crashed and burned. Somewhere in the mountains of the Pyrenees during a cold rain storm and deep fog, I discovered meditative pacing. IMG_4890 I This is a practice where steps and breath unite in a continuous cycle. When I mentally drop inside of myself, I reach a state of well-being and mindfulness. Problems mysteriously resolve. Endorphins release, flooding my heart with joy and thanksgiving. New ideas or goals appear out of thin air. Physical hardships are overcome. That trip started my evolution into a serious hiker.

When a friend asked me to hike to base camp, the decision wasn’t based on fulfilling a bucket list. What tempted me was being able to experience wild and sometimes brutal forces of nature in spectacular mountains that have become my church. Buddhist’s have a similar belief that the roof of the world is closer to God. Sherpas call Everest Chomolungma, and is where their goddess resides. She must be appeased with gifts and prayer, because she can grant success or destroy with death.

Fear is a very distinct component of this trek and it kept popping into my monkey brain with vivid scenarios. This trek is a young person’s game, with the majority of people in their thirties or forties. I’m sixty-five-years-old.  What if I fail? What if I get hurt? What if altitude sickness requires evacuation? There’s only two ways to return from this trek—either walk out or pay for an expensive helicopter ride. No one considers returning in a body bag.

I fought every burning ember of doubt with careful preparations. Three of our fifteen member team spent a month at higher altitude in Colorado. We worked out six days a week trying to assimilate elevation gains we’d experience in Nepal. This worked to a degree. We skied, snowshoed, or used yak-traks to hike above 12,000’ elevation.  Our blood oxygen saturation increased week-by-week as we trained harder, higher, and for longer periods of time.

But base camp is at 17,700’ with approximately 50% less of the oxygen available at sea level. Himalayan Wonders, our excellent guide company were great—they added a second acclimation day into our program. These aren’t “rest” days but hikes to higher elevation and then returning lower to sleep—retracing the same steps higher the following day.

The physical and mental demands of increasing elevation burns off mega calories. I packed high protein shakes, bars, and even jerky to bolster a carbohydrate diet of French toast, pasta and rice dishes. I ate everything and still lost eight pounds in twelve days of trekking.

Our group of seniors, between the ages of 51-74, are all active hikers. But Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anyone at any age. Most of us used Diamoxx—a diuretic medication which helps the kidney’s get rid of excess carbon dioxide that the lungs can’t dispel. Everyone experienced mild symptoms of AMS, from nagging headaches (drink more water), fatigue (in bed by 8:30 every night), loss of appetite (eat anyhow), increased heart rate and respirations (listen to your body and slow down). Luckily, no one escalated into greater danger from pulmonary or cerebral edema, which would require evacuation.

After every day’s hike, a group of us filtered a lot of water for the following day using the Guardian MSP or the Grayl press. These are the only two systems that remove viruses along with some chemicals, bacteria, protozoa and disease causing parasites. Please– don’t use commercial water on this trail, thereby increasing garbage and pollution!

There’s other necessary things to pack: hand sanitizers, biodegradable wet wipes (not many places for gas heated showers), a protective cap for the end of a water camel to keep yak poop out of your mouth and lots of toilet paper. A buff or facemask is needed to keep fine glacial dust from seriously mucking up your lungs. This doesn’t begin to consider the various layers required for temperature or weather changes or freezing nights at high elevation.

All of this gear must fit in a fifteen pound pack. Good luck on that one. I failed miserably.

I knew the preparations and understood the potential for danger on the trail. I’d spent the last six years replacing many worn out hiking boots. Heck, I live in Montana. Feeling well prepared, I thought, I can do this.

 I didn’t foresee that the sacred mountains of Nepal were waiting and the laughing goddess had some serious lessons for me to learn.IMG_0665

Next week: Lukla to Phakding, Nepal

  Seriously? Go downhill first?

Cairo and Wonders of the Ancient World

There’s a new Grand Egyptian Museum being built in Cairo that’s supposed to open in 2021. It will be wonderful to have the worlds largest collection of Egyptology moved from the cramped old building in Tahir square. The bigger space will allow artifacts held in dusty storage to finally see the light of day. Here are some highlights:

The first pharaoh to unite upper and lower Egypt was Menes (3,000 B.C) and he was a master at political spin and fake news. This carved stone is very important because it sells his story. On the one side he wears the crown of the south. On the other he wears the crown of the north. The captives with their heads cut off and placed between their legs is a mighty incentive to keep lips zipped. This is the first time there’s a united crown that looks like a bucket and a champagne bottle with a cobra on it. the gods at this time were animals and birds and predates hieroglyphics.

The positions of the stone carved royalty tell a story. Left leg forward means the pharaoh was alive at that time. Legs together means the leader is eternal=dead. All together there were 30 dynasties and seven of them were led by women including the great Nefertiti ( the most beautiful and dearly loved by Akhenaten) and ending with Cleopatra. Statues show children in miniature or behind their parents. Pharaohs and royalty did find eternity by carving effigies that we can see today. Imagine entering a dark tomb with a torch and seeing their eyes glow from crushed malachite and gem stones painted around the eyes!

The mummy room is a must, even though it costs extra. Bring cash. These are the most important rulers in Egypt, including Ramses 11 (the great). He took the throne in his teens and ruled until his death in his nineties.

There’s an extensive collection from the murdered Tutankhamun’s tomb. I can’t imagine how exciting it must have been to find three nested gold burial boxes and the many treasures in his intact tomb. King Tut’s mummy isn’t here though. You’ll see him later in the Valley of the Kings.

The Pyramids at Giza

In my last post I told you about the naughty boy Khufu. He is the one who built these monuments over 4,500 years ago. At 780′ by 480′ tall it was the largest man-made edifice for over 4,000 years. There are so many mysteries about the largest pyramids in Egypt. They are perfectly aligned with the compass points. How did they hand cut 2 1/2 million stones with simple metal tools? Work only occurred during the rainy season when the immense blocks could be moved by barges from the quarry. Because of the weight, only one stone was on each boat. Let’s look at the math. It would take 20 years to build if a stone was placed every 4 minutes and workers were on site. Impossible?

Khufu’s funeral boat

Khufu’s reconstructed funeral boat (43 meters or 141′) is in a building across from the pyramids. It was sailed once in the funeral procession and then taken apart for him to use in the afterlife.

There are more monuments than the great pyramid. The smallest of the three pyramids was for Khufu’s grandson and his mother, Hetepheres. There are other royal tombs surrounding the pyramids. It’s now believed that the water worn Sphinx is much older from a time when Egypt was more wet.

Old Cairo

Hanging Church inside a Babylonian fortress and Ben Ezra Synagogue (Oldest temple in Cairo)

Babylonian Fortress

The Babylonian Fortress was built during the 6th century BC some say by the Roman’s while others believe it was constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon after he captured Egypt. It sat on the border between Lower and Middle Egypt on the Nile.

Inside the fortress is a Greek Orthodox church (St. George) and the Hanging Church built on top of the southern gatehouse of the fortress. From the outside it appears to be hanging in mid-air. The main altar and the sanctuary are made of ebony and inlaid with ivory. The timber ceiling is beautiful and was made to look like the interior of Noah’s ark.

There is an older church below this one where the baby Jesus slept in a cradle and Mary hid. I’m not sure how this time line worked since it would have been a Roman garrison back then. Regardless, It’s a serene and much earlier Christian church in Egypt.

Ben Ezra is also near the fortress and it’s still a Jewish Temple so pictures cannot be taken inside. It is believed that this is where the Pharaoh’s daughter found baby Moses in the reed basket.

Seeking Eternity in Cairo (part 1)

My first dreams of Egypt began at my grandmother’s home where my monthly ritual of reading National Geographic Magazine began. There I was–a seven-year-old curled up in an overstuffed chair with my bobby socked feet curled under my Catholic school uniform as I learned about chasing the sun to grasp eternal life. Although the thought of having my brains picked out of my nose during the mummy process gave me pause.

Now older and not necessarily wiser, I searched the risks verses rewards which included negative perceptions in the States about Egypt. My clock keeps ticking and I was done waiting for the perfect time to see these mystic wonders and astounding artifacts. All of us live in an imperfect world. Holding my breath, I clicked the purchase this trip button with Overseas Adventure Travel. Then I went to a book store to purchase The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany.(amazing look at Egyptian culture and the revolution.)

Since we flew in a day early, Bonnye and I booked a driver through the concierge service to take us to the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid at the royal necropolis of Dahshur and to the burial city of Saqqara. It was a fascinating drive, even though our driver got lost and we passed military carrying AK-47’s. Luckily, none of them saw Bonnye taking this picture or else we might still be in jail. ( I highly recommend NOT taking pictures of military anywhere in the world)

Bent Pyramid

This early transitional pyramid is bent because good ol’ Pharaoh Sneferu couldn’t quite figure out the geometry in his quest for a smooth limestone tomb. See the bend half way up? Before the fourth dynasty, all pyramids were step-shaped. This was Sneferu’s second attempt for a geometric tomb after the disaster of the sinking Black Pyramid that is also in Dahshur. The change in angle might also have happened if the building started to become unstable.

It was a kick to walk (and crawl) through the steep shaft down to the two large corbelled chambers built 4,600 years ago. Let me add that there were few people visiting that day, which was great. Imagine being inside the belly of a pyramid with people moving in both directions. It would be impossible with crowds. The added benefit was being able to feel like a real archeologist discovering an empty tomb. The Bent was closed for 50 years because of a nearby army camp so it was an honor to be able to explore.

*** on a side note–if ticket takers offer to take your picture, you are expected to pay them!!!***

Red Pyramid

It took Sneferu three times to figure out the right angle for his tomb in Dahshur. The Red limestone pyramid is the first success as well as the third largest such edifice in Egypt. (His son went on to build the largest–more on that later). It was covered in white Tura limestone but people in Cairo took the blocks for their own buildings. It’s thought that the man known as “the good pharaoh” was buried in the three chambered Red Pyramid. A mummy was found there but it disappeared. Keep an eye out for it on ebay.

There have been recent finds from a queen’s tomb nearby and there are at least 11 other tombs that haven’t been explored yet.

Saggara Necropolis

Nearby the Dashur pyramids is the city of the dead for royalty and merchants from the ancient city of Memphis. It covers an area of 4.3 miles by 0.9 and was surrounded by a 32 foot wall. There are some burials from the second dynasty but It all went crazy with the third dynasty step-pyramid (of Djoser). Everyone wanted to spend eternity with the rock-star king’s so it expanded with an entry courtyard, a court of 40 columns, open courtyards and many smaller tombs called mastabas. Rituals and burials happened here for 3,000 years.

I found several tombs to be very interesting. Idut was the daughter of King Teti (6th dynasty, circa 2,360 B.C.) Her tomb shows every day life with hunters, fishermen, and even a relief of herself carved on the wall. Head west to Inefert’s tomb. He was the prince Vizier and on the walls is a carving of them entering a bedroom with two beds that servants are preparing. The other tomb we tripped on by accident as it’s away from the main complex. Maya, the treasurer of Tutankhamun has beautiful carved walls.

***Be prepared—there are men at the main entrance who act like they’re going to show you around. At first I thought it was included in the entry to the UNESCO World Heritage site. But I quickly figured out that they wanted to be paid. I stopped the man rushing us down the entry hallway and said, “I don’t want a guide. I won’t pay you!” He continued to follow and tried to show us things. I told him at least 3 more times that I wouldn’t pay him before he got snippy and made comments about “you’re rich from America.” I had to raise my voice to get him to leave us alone. It happened again at Maya’s tomb. I again warned the man who ended up cursing me. We were so frustrated we didn’t finish looking at the tombs in that direction. I’m certain that if we had a man with us this would have been handled quickly and quietly.***

Ghost Towns of Montana

Even on this bright sunny day I can feel the dead watching as I walk down the street. The intuition isn’t sinister, although dead criminals from the past did harm others. No one wanted to guard those in jail. There was too much gold to find. Therefore, hangings were swift.

What gives me goosebumps today are emotions saturating the breeze. Regret. Fortunes found and then drained at the saloons or spent on Hurdy Gurdy Girls in the dance halls. Prostitution was rampant and in my mind I hear laughter and the blue haze of burning hand-rolled cigarettes.

Few women were respectable although shining stars graced the gritty environment. Mary Babcock Moore was the first women to practice medicine in Bannock, Montana. Sarah Bickford had been born a slave in 1852. After the civil war and against all odds Mrs. Bickford married a white man before the new state of Montana forbade such a thing. Even more unusual, she became a very successful business woman after her husband’s death.

It takes a short walk to the cemetery. There are so many dead children. Diphtheria. Measles. Flu. Whooping Cough and Scarlet Fever. Mourning and hardship left a smothering ghostly atmosphere in the early territorial towns of Virginia City, Bannack and Granite.

Virginia City –the second territorial capital of Montana

There’s the ghost of a six-year-old girl in the building that was once the Metropolitan Meat Market on Wallace Street. She can be heard laughing from the elaborate mirrored meat cooler where she played on hot summer days. I felt her when I descended the steep stairs into the basement. It wasn’t just the cool breeze rushing up at me but the air pressure changed. Closing my eyes, I felt her broken heart at the loss of her mother. Today, her spirit still resonates with women. Her grandfather tried raising her until disease snatched her away.

Technically, Virginia City isn’t a typical ghost town and it’s considered to be one of the best preserved sites with a blend of flourishing independent businesses. This was due to the preservation efforts of Charles and Sue Bovey from 1940 through the 1970’s. With over 200 preserved buildings, Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. It’s a special treat to experience the town and the unique artists and shopkeepers.

Bannack –Montana’s short-lived first territorial capital

Bannack began in 1862 when John White discovered gold in the creek. The town was named for the Bannock Indians, but when the name was summitted to Washington D.C., someone mistakenly dropped the “o” and put in an “a”.

By 1863, life in Bannack was down and dirty. Road agents stole and the sheriff was said to be the ring leader. The gallows trapdoor swung open when vigilantes executed over 20 members of the robber gang in one month. Montana highway police and the national guard sport a patch with the numbers 3-7-77. This warning was painted onto cabins or tents of the next vigilante murder victim. The numbers are the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet by seven feet by 77 inches. In the past, people were proud of those who took the matter to hand. But history casts doubt over some of their choices. Especially for a Chinese man who never received a trail.

Hotel Meade operated from 1891 until the 1940’s. This was a 5 star establishment with linen table cloths and crystal goblets in the dining room. There are well-appointed rooms (including suites) on the second floor. Standing at the bottom of the sweeping staircase, I could easily imagine men dressed in suits and women in long sweeping skirts. In the large kitchen the wood-fired oven doors remain open. It’s an invitation from the ghosts to get cooking.

The Masonic Lodge is another exceptional building. The school was downstairs. I loved the “rules for teachers” printed on the board. Especially “You will marry during the course of your contract.” Wonder if any ladies turned a blind eye to that one? The upstairs lodge was not open. My guess is the condition of the building might have dictated it’s closing.

At one time, over 10,000 people lived here. Examples of dwellings at Bannack range from bare-bones bachelor quarters to wealthy merchant, William Roe’s frame home. Many of the houses still have decorative linoleum on the floor and shredded wallpaper on the walls.

Climb the hill behind town to the hilltop cemetery and the gallows. There’s equality in death. The good, bad and the ugly all buried side-by-side. There’s a second cemetery with more intact grave markers when you exit the park towards the highway.

The silver-lining of visiting during Covid is we crossed paths with only 3 other people throughout our visit. Truly a remarkable experience.

Granite Ghost Town–the silver queen

Granite Ghost Town State Park is three miles (uphill) from Phillipsburg Montana. To visit, it takes courage to gain 1,280′ on the narrow dirt road. A high clearance vehicle is prudent. I’m glad we explored here during Covid because if two cars meet, it requires someone backing up around hairpin turns with steep drop-offs. Getting there was only half the fun.

This is the most rustic and remote of the ghost towns we visited on this trip. That means no services and no cell phone reception. Heed my warning to bring food, water, toilet paper and a good sense of direction.

Nature has reclaimed the site with towering trees and shrubs. At first, it doesn’t seem there’s much here. We decided to just walk down twisty old dirt tracks to see what we could find. 3,000 people used to live here. We were confident we’d find something.

First stop was the bank.

And then the roofless miner’s union hall and a small miners cabin before we came to a dead end. Down in a hollow below us, we could see collapsed buildings sticking out of the snow. I’ve since learned this was the Chinese part of town with the red light district behind.

We backtracked and walked uphill on a muddy narrow road. Bob said, “There’s a building to the right.” That’s how we found the mining superintendent’s house.

Down below was the hospital in ruins. Walking straight we ran into an old mill, remains of smelting and the Granite mine. Look left and uphill. The Ruby mine shaft is at the very top.

What a treasure to experience this by ourselves. Every corner or twist of road produced something else to see.

Further research showed two interesting details. There wasn’t any water here. It had to be brought in from the valley below. Something tells me that the 18 saloons sold liquid of another kind. Oddly, there’s no cemetery here either. Too much rock. People who died were brought down to Phillipsburg for internment.

When I go back, I’ll stop in Phillipsburg first. I just learned there’s a map of the town at the chamber of commerce.

Alien Planet

Wyoming is chock full of diverse landscapes. Tectonic plates continue to push and pull mountains, remodeling the terrain like playdough. Earthquakes rattle and shake tons of rock into place. Geothermal pools bubble, pop, and hiss with steam.

This COVID road trip takes us into the alien landscape of Yellowstone National Park. Earth has never looked so strange and beautiful.

There’s something freaky when you think about driving into the caldera of one of the largest volcanos on earth. The magma chambers have been active in Montana for over 2 million years. What makes Yellowstone extra special is the large variety of hot pools.

Thermophiles (bacteria and algae) create brilliant colored mats. Each of those colors supports life at a specific temperature range. Blue and Aquamarine are the hottest (up to 189F).

The hottest geyser’s are in the Norris Basin where trapped steam builds pressure 1,000′ below the surface. This boiling water speeds up the chamber and erupts into the air. Temperatures there are the hottest in the park ( 459F)

check this neat video produced by Berkley University :

This primeval environment is quite toxic. Groups of bison have been found dead, indicating a quick demise downwind from gas vents that emit flammable hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Sulfuric acid burns skin and causes difficulty breathing. The animals died from a chemical asphyxiant near the Norris Geyser Basin but there’s other low lying toxic areas in the park. One remote location is called “death gulch”. Rivers and streams in the park are monitored for arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals. One ranger joked that if the national park hadn’t been created, it might be a superfund site. Thankfully, most tourists experience simple water vapor and not these poisons.

Yellowstone has a diverse animal population due to the thermal environment. Buffalo wander at will. This wolf was just beyond the distance of my camera lens. We saw several fox. Trumpeter Swans flew overhead. Big eyed Elk calmly watched tourists drive by.

Nothing matches the topography and geology of the park. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is breathtaking in dramatic colors and shapes created by hydrothermally altered rhyolite sediments.

Huge hoodoos dot the landscape. The river flows 1,000′ below in the sculpted gorge and steam vents are pocketed in the walls above. We tried to get to artists point for sunrise, hoping that the lower falls would be illuminated by the sun. It took me 1 1/2 hours to realize that the location of the winter sun doesn’t highlight the falls.

We loved exploring here Halloween weekend. The park isn’t usually open that late, but COVID and good weather were on our side. It wasn’t crowded although goofy things did occur. We heard about 2 men arrested for trying to cook a chicken in one of the boiling pools. They’re lucky they didn’t slip and fall in. The bodies of previous rule breakers dissolved in the acid and were never recovered.

Exploring Bitterroot National Forest

For the first time in sixteen years, I’m spending this Covid summer exploring my backyard (the entire state of Montana).

We headed down the highway with our 5th wheel RV for Camping adventure #3 to the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton, Montana. There are three campgrounds at Lake Como: (1) Lake Como lower site has electricity! This is a rare treat in U.S. National Forests, so it fills quickly on first-come-first serve basis. We arrived on a late Sunday afternoon–thinking people would be heading back home since the kids have started either on-line or reality school. No such luck. (2.) Three Frogs campground is just above the lake and is recommended for small RV’s or tent campers. Our rig might have been able to fit, but by that time we were already established at (3) Rock Creek horse camp which has large spots and neat horse related accessories. We had two quiet week nights with only 2 other campers. Mid-week, a group of trail riders arrived with horse trailers in tow. With fire restrictions the evenings were still very quiet.

Blodgett Canyon Hike

10 miles to Canyon lake–in and back. Rated: Moderate/difficult

After driving an hour on mainly washboard roads, I grabbed a soaking wet backpack out of the truck. The water bladder lid had loosened, spilling over a liter of water.

I knew the forecast was for 93 degree F. temperatures. But we arrived early and it was still cool. “Hey Bob–how much water did you pack?” I asked my companion. Between the two of us we had 1 liter and a pint. Not enough.

I’m ashamed to tell you that I ignored one important hiker’s rule. This shouldn’t have happened, because I consider myself experienced and fully understand that ignoring the rules can lead to harm or death

I should have headed back to town to fill up or done the hike the next day, and maybe went kayaking and swimming. Instead, ego as well as impatience led to a misdeed. I stuck with an imperfect plan and talked myself into a dangerous situation. “We can ration water and push through.”

The trail is rated moderate and 10 miles (round trip) to Canyon Lake. For four hours we zigzagged around boulders and walked on glacial remains (uneven footing= toe kicking and ankle rolling). The trail in spots is sketchy and not marked well. Several times I found myself off-trail and in thick brush, requiring back-tracking. As temperatures soared, I got crabby. How difficult is it for the forest service to build cairn markers or nail up some signage?

The fun part of listening to the roaring creek, viewing soaring canyon walls and checking out all kinds of berries evaporated. Especially when we reached a steep ascent (1,500′ in a short time) to the saddle where the lake is located.

We checked a digital map. Three-fourths of our water was gone and the remaining trek would be 2 miles up and back from this point. But I could see the top of the ridge. Pausing, I finally kicked myself in the backside and suggested turning around.

The last two miles back to the trail head were miserable. Symptoms of dehydration were evident: Lethargy, thirst, dry mouth, dizziness and headache. I hadn’t urinated in over 5 hours. I fell. We ran out of water. What a shit show.

I’ve never, ever been so happy to see a parking lot. I’m telling you this as a lesson. Pay attention to my mistakes. Furthermore, I promise to not be an idiot again.

We hightailed it to Hamilton and the Bitterroot Brewery to recuperate and lick our wounds–cold water, super beers, and great food. Two outdoor patios to keep social distance.

Lake Como Waterfall Hike

7.2 miles in and out. Rated: Easy Elevation gain: 571′

Another day of temps in the nineties and I was still feeling physically out of sorts from the previous day’s errors. Instead of doing the loop trail around the lake, we started near three frogs campground on the north end of the lake. This was for two reasons: It’s a bit shorter than the loop and there’s a balance of shade/sun.

This trail starts on a flat blacktop surface that is handicap accessible. The route then continues single track, packed dirt that runs along a steep slope dotted with beautiful large Lodgepole Pine trees. Rock slides intersperse this terrain. Lake Como was once a canyon before the government built the earth dam that creates the lake.

Along the way, we saw an Eagle standing on a dead snag. He looked right at us, acknowledging our presence before scanning the lake for fish.

Our lunch spot was below the bridge, next to ripples and small cascades.To see the waterfall, cross the bridge and go up the trail. At the top, look for a narrow path on the right. This takes you to an overlook where you can see the entire falls.

Go back down to the bridge and cross it. Start back on the trail, but keep looking for another narrow but poorly defined trail on the left. It would be worth the time to carry flagging tape to mark your way up (and remove on the way down). Go uphill to another ridge that takes you to a magic place above the waterfall.

Lake Como Sunset Kayak

There is nothing more amazing than summer in Montana. On the equinox the sun doesn’t set until after 10:30 P.M. We took advantage of the longer days with a 3 mile after dinner paddle on Lake Como. To circle the lake, it must be about 7 miles.

Jewel Basin

I’ve lived in Montana for seventeen years and listened to friends crow about the beauty of the 27 lakes in the Jewel Basin, Flathead National Forest. I kept saying, “I’ve got to get there.” But Montana is a big state and this area is just a tick too far from my home for a day hike. Enter Covid and a loss of overseas travel to shoot The Basin to the top of my RV bucket list.

We camped at Wayfarer’s, Flathead Lake State Park, thinking that late afternoon swimming and wonderful sunsets would be an additional bonus. I suggest reservations instead of fighting for first-come-spots. It’s easy to book on-line at montanastateparks.reserveamerica.com

The Flathead National Forest Service office in Big Fork has hard maps for all the Jewel trails. It’s easier to stop and pick one up, since paths interconnect and aren’t always well marked. Alternately, there’s a map posted in the parking lot and you can take a picture of the routes with your phone. But you won’t have elevation markings.

From Big Fork, we drove past Echo lake to the Jewel Basin Road. The majority of trails in the Jewel require driving this washboard, potholed road to Camp Misery. Get there either early or later in the day but expect parking problems between 9:30-2:30. Check sunset times if you plan on going late. There is another way into the Jewel–from Hungry Horse reservoir–but prepare for a steep, hard climb in exposed terrain.

Our next decision was which trails to experience. I asked my friend, Moon National Park Travel Guide author, Becky Lomax, for recommendations for two days: Mount Aeneas and Wildcat Lake.

Mount Aeneas Summit Trail

rated: difficult (I’d call it more moderate) 6 miles out and back

Elevation gain: 1,781′

The trail starts along an old jeep trail, wide but definitely uphill at a nice grade. On the way, there are impressive views over the entire valley and Flathead Lake. Clouds seem to float just above ones head, but in reality there’s more to accomplish. (Hello? It’s named Summit Trail.) Of course it’s uphill but I found numerous switchbacks much easier to handle than mountain goat terrain.

As a matter of fact, there really are many real mountain goats on this trail and they are pretty docile–not that I’d tempt fate on that one. But many people had their dogs on leashes and the goats didn’t seem alarmed by anything.

There is one meeting of trails called “dysfunction junction” where 5 trails come together and the route doesn’t seem clear. The far right trail goes down to Birch lake. The next uphill trail is the easiest one to take to Mount Aeneas.

Coming up the last switchback, there’s a weather station and many goats laying around. Continue on the ridge to the top of Aeneas. There was snow still on the peak when we hiked it in July. Views are 360 degrees. Literally takes your breath away and I don’t mean from working too hard.

Wildcat Lake Trail # 8, #7 and #723

Rated: Moderate Distance: 5.2 miles +

Wildcat Lake Trail starts at the north end of the Camp Misery parking lot. There’s plenty of shade/sun mix as the trail steadily climbs uphill.

Above the trees, the views are spectacular into the Flathead Valley. Eventually, the path takes a hairpin turn, heading east. Start counting the surrounding peaks. Five of the mountains have names.

We reached a junction where trails split. To the right is #8 that loops back to Camp Misery. The middle trail heads down to two sapphire view lakes and the left trail leads to Wildcat Lake and Wildcat mountain.

Pass the junction and you’ll begin to see twin lakes down below. In the distance are peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. To the North is Glacier National Park.

When we reached 5.2 miles, the path was blocked by knee deep snow and we didn’t have snowshoes to cross. From there, the plan was to take trail #7 back so we could walk the ridge above picnic lakes. But nature had other plans when we encountered snow again and the trail was obliterated. Back-tracking we did an in-and-out on # 8,

First Journey

                                     Camping in a time of Covid

With the threat of Covid, how can a person remain safe but still explore and have adventures?

Camping, of course. With all of the travel refunds returned to us from cancelled trips, my partner invested in a 5th wheel RV to travel here in the US. We safely distance ourselves and have our own meals. An added pleasure of driving, is discovering interesting history or wildlife along the way.

 Our first trip takes us to the Montana/Idaho border where we explored the Hiawatha Bike Trail at Lookout Pass on the repurposed historic Milwaukee rail line that once took elite travelers to Seattle. We wandered the streets of historic Wallace and hiked the Pulaski Trail before the sky-high Lone Lake Trail #138. Driving back towards Montana, we laced on our boots again for the Blossom Lakes Trail located at the top of Thompson Pass. 

                                              The Hiawatha Bike Trail

skyhigh trestles span the valley from Lookout pass

RideTheHiawatha.com I-90 Exit O on the Id-Mt state line

What’s not to love about 15 miles of bike riding through 7 high trestles and 10 tunnels in the middle of the USFS? It is both amazing and terrifying at the same time.

We heard from experienced friends that riding downhill and taking the shuttle back to the top provides terrifying moments in the Saint Paul Pass tunnel, which is the longest at 8,771’. On our day, everyone riding came out of the darkness covered in mud and wet. Conditions were slick. If you ride from the top, you’ll travel 15 miles on a 2% grade.

We chose to ride from the bottom at Pearson and pedal up to Moss Creek, avoiding any bike riding on the roadway or encountering that top tunnel. This route changes the overall mileage to around 22 roundtrip miles. Really, the uphill isn’t bad at all. What I had a little trouble with was inexperienced riders coming downhill taking up the entire width, not realizing that it’s 2-way and most are going way too fast. Trail etiquette needs to be reviewed.

I walked over some of the trestles, mainly so I could appreciate the view and not have an accident. It is quite beautiful. There were two longer tunnels at Kelly Creek and Tunnel 25 that I walked through—because I couldn’t see where I was riding. To be fair, our lights (both on the bike and on our heads) weren’t bright enough. (300 Lumen is recommended).Next time I’ll have a bright torch!

Bikes, helmets and lights are available for rental up at the ski lodge located at the pass. Current price to ride is $13 for adults and the shuttle (if you ride top/down) is $12 for standard bikes.

                                                           The Pulaski Trail

4 miles out and back. 741’ elevation gain. Rated easy. Located just outside Wallace city limits.

The Big Burn (book of the same name. Author Timothy Egan) is what the great fire of 1910 was called. 4,700 miles of Idaho, Montana, and Washington were destroyed on August 20-21 after strong winds created an inferno. Entire towns burned to the ground and many people lost their lives. Today, this area is lush, but try to imagine the water filled with burnt ash and too warm to drink.

Edward Pulaski, a ranger leading a crew of firefighters, kissed his wife good-bye that day, telling her that he might not return and urging her to save herself.

Out in the woods, he realized firefighters couldn’t outrun the approaching tornado of fire. He gave his horse to an older gentleman and told him to ride like the wind. Yelling above the noise of the approaching disaster , he gathered his crew to hightail it to the Nicholson mine tunnel.

This wasn’t without rebellion, as the terrified men panicked. Edward did the sensible thing. He pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot anyone who didn’t lie face down in the mine. Two men did die from the gassy fumes and heat but the rest survived.

The trail ends across the creek and above the mine. This route is dedicated to all firefighters and their heroism.

                                                             Lone Lake Trail # 138

Lookout Pass accessed from Wallace through the Moon Pass. Rated moderate. 5 miles out and back. All Trails App states 1,666’ elevation gain. Our recording showed 2,000’. Rated: Strenuous.

This trail starts out on an old mining road before a rock cairn marks where the trail narrows. It’s all uphill (no two ways around it) but it’s also a good challenge with a fine mix of shade and sun. 

There are so many wildflowers, huckleberries (still green mid-july) and more flowering elderberry than I’ve ever seen on a single trail. As you progress uphill, the mountains close in on both sides and you’ll enter a narrow valley with dense shrubbery. There’s a waterfall you can’t miss right off-trail. Pass that and switchbacks take you up quickly with fantastic views to the Northwest before entering an evergreen forest. You’ll arrive above the lake with minimal downhill to reach the shore. We were all alone up there, enjoying our lunch and watching the trout jumping. Darn! our Montana fishing license doesn’t work in Idaho!

                                         Blossom Lakes Trail  (LoLo National Forest)

Start at the top of Thompson Pass. 5.5 miles out and back. Rated: Moderate. 1,141’ elevation gain. Can extend to do Pear Lake as well for 8 miles.

Hey! We’re back in Montana by a spit. The trail is not signed, but thankfully other people pointed out the trailhead. If you’re facing the forest, it is a narrow trail on the left—same side of street as the parking lot right next to a board posted with history information. 

The flora is much different here than our lush Lone Lake Trail. This one is mostly evergreen forest with a soft needled surface that’s gentle on your feet. Plenty of green huckleberries in Mid-July.

The trail starts flat along a ridge, but don’t expect it to stay that way. It’s roly-poly. Up and down–but mostly up. Several trails intersect, (notice the return is always to the right) Unfortunately, it’s a multi-use area, so expect to hop-scotch around horse dung and maybe a few riders. Of course, there’s plenty of mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies. Along with bug spray, bring bear spray too.

Near the top, there’s one log crossing where I watched baby trout swimming. The first campsite was full of horse poop, so we moved on across the back side of the lake to sit on flat rocks at the lake edge.

Below the Sacred Mountain

The entire world has been slam-dunked by a global pandemic. While I’m sitting here, alone, I’m sending out prayers to all of you. Please be safe. Be healthy. Laugh and learn something new in these days of “shelter at home.” One question : would you like to see Iceland or Egypt next? Send me a note!

Today we trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. I’m tired of squatting to pee over an open hole with a wet floor. Why can’t people hit the yawning pit? Is that too much to ask at 2:00 A.M. in the dark?  I roll back into my sleeping bag and grimace in the freezing cold room. I fall asleep and dream of taking a 30 minute hot shower with a super-sized bottle of body wash.

We’ve been inhaling tiny particles of dust kicked up on the trail which hardens to concrete in our lungs. I’ve worn masks or buffs across my nose and mouth until heat builds up in the thin air and feelings of suffocation overwhelm me. Now I’ve come down with the Khumbu cough along with our guides and other team members.

After breakfast, my mood lightens. Wonders of a meal and a warm room. Brilliant blue sky arches overhead and I’m filled with elation. We’re gonna make it! God willing. 

Of course it’s uphill, but the terrain has changed to glacial skree. Boulders. Ice fields covered in dirt. Amazing sculptures erupting from a jumble of frozen water Every step requires concentration.

I stop often. Not because I need to, but because I must take in the majesty surrounding me. Slow down. Capture this beauty into your soul. I am so insignificant in this process of creation but I’m honored to witness the soaring peaks that surround me in every direction. ( Lobuche-20,075′, Nuptse–25,830′, Lhotse–27,939′, Kalapathar–18,192′ and Everest–29,029′)

We keep stepping off trail to allowing transport animals the right of way. And the biggest disappointment? The traffic jam of people here. Nothing zen about a conga line ordering “Step to the right!” Gritting my teeth, I follow a snaking line of hikers heading for Gorkashep where we’ll drop our bags at the tea house and eat before heading to Base Camp in the afternoon.

It’s been a surprise to some of my companions about the limited time at Mount Everest. And there’s restrictions. Of course, you can’t wander through the expedition tents. Think about it. Makes sense. They won’t be waiting for us. They need to focus on their own hardship and goals.

After lunch we head across the first valley which is merciful in its flatness. But it doesn’t last long. Up.Down.Up.Down. Climb over uneven rocks. Hug a cliff wall. I won’t stop in fear now.

We tread along a high ridge where an avalanche roars like a jet engine to our right and a rock slide tumbles into a chasm on the left. I’m so dry I cannot spit. Fighting fatigue, we step off trail to drink and eat quick snacks. Jerky. Nuts with sweets. Protein bars. Can’t get enough and will learn later that my weight dropped twelve pounds. I share with the Sherpas and their smiles make me joyful. New friends. You can’t ever have too many.

I’ve been so intent upon putting one foot before the other, it takes me a few moments to realize we’ve arrived at the stupa for the dead above base camp. Then my world begins to crash into an unexpected tsunami of feelings.

I walk farther, taking quick pictures of base camp before afternoon clouds roll in. Yes. There’s the Khombu Ice. Quick look at the tents. But my heart is drawn back to the stupa for the dead. I’ve written messages on prayer flags for my deceased husband. This close to heaven, he’ll certainly hear. “Please help our kids. Give them dreams of how to proceed safely in this world” or simply, “I’m sorry that you suffered so much”. Twenty-two squares of fabric. Twenty-two appeals to eternity beyond.

I’m shaking with emotion, my body turned away from the mountain as a friend helps me connect my flags onto a chain of hundreds of prayers already there. This turned out to be the most important moment of my six year journey through death and grief. Later, I realize the gift the goddess of the mountain bestowed upon me that day. The veil of mourning sloughed away, transforming me with concious effort into a healed version. The next steps are with intentions for survival, hope, and renewel.

Day 9– To Lobuche, EBC Trek

Stats: Dingboche (14,460′) to Lobuche (16,347′) . 5.9 miles. Lunch at Thukla. Overall elevation gain= 2320′.  Net= 1,887′.

Once again, we are graced with bluebird skies as we trek uphill to a flat ridge. Mountains rise above us with snow-capped peaks in every compass direction. IMG_0702I turn in circles, filled with awe. We pass deserted stone crofts where trekkers stop to rest. The walking is easy in this section. For a bit.

Ahead there’s a hard slog up to the stupas that honor lost Everest expedition members. Mountainers such as world renown guide, Scott Fisher who died descending Everest in 1996 during a blizzard. Fisher refused to leave his weakened client and when his lead Sherpa radioed that a rescue was being mounted, Fisher threatened to throw himself off the precipice rather than endanger more lives. Eight people trapped in  whiteout conditions were hammered by snow flying at 75 miles-an-hour. Temperatures plummeted and they died.

Too many climbers were on the mountain that day, slowing ascent. This is a frequent story and the main reason so many are dying at Everest. Too many permits. Too many people rushing to ascend. Delay’s eat up oxygen. This leads to many questions: What kind of drive makes such risks worthwhile? What do surviving parents, wives or husbands, and children feel about this? Climbing is an addiction of sorts.

In many relgions, the visual reminder of a stupa means inmortality.   Prayer flags flap in the wind, gentle pleas for peace, rememberance and perhaps forgiveness. Here we are, standing on the rooftop of earth, not only experiencing the raw power of creation under our feet but feeling the spiritual creator in the surrounding air.

Leaving, we wind our way down to the river, where yaks stop to drink milky aquamarine water.

White boulders fill the lower plain, remmants of last monsoon’s flood. Now we climb back up and where the ridge levels,  we stop for lunch at Thukla/Dughla. I sit drinking lemon-ginger tea and smile. The most difficult part of the day is behind us. 

After lunch, we pass Lobuche base camp where orange tents dot the flood plain and a line of colorful trekkers dressed in rainbow colors cross to the start of the upward trail.  IMG_0738It’s amazing to me that Everest is not the queen in the crown of technical mountaineering. There are many other peaks to conquor in this region that are more difficult. Our walk continues along the ridge line, with gentle elevation changes before we drop down to the small settlement of Lobuche. Tonight we’ll stay at Oxygen Altitude tea house. Appropriate name, since tonight we’ll sleep more than 3 miles above sea level. IMG_0739

Acclimation Day in Dingboche (EBC Trek)

Stats: 14,100′ to 15,525′. 3 hour hike. Goal: Go high. Stay in the devine place + sleep low.

This is our second acclimation day and if you checked my previous posts, you already know that I tanked on the first one in Namche. This day arrives with clear blue skies and  I’m not worried. Time will unfold as intended and I’ll take what comes one second at a time. Step lightly with joy.

IMG_0656

view from my room. Is that crazy or what?

Nepal in peak season means conga lines of trekkers snaking uphill. Instead of being irritated by crowds everyone is in good humor today. An umbrella of peace covers this mountain. Before we know it, we’re on the ridge above Dingboche, looking far below upon green and red roofs.IMG_0665

I sit on a flat-topped boulder, wanting time to mentally chart the stacked rock cairns and prayer flags gently moving in the wind. This is holy ground.

 Within minutes I see my celestial companion, the Steppe Eagle, with a wing span of 5.4-7.1 feet. Although there are 22 species of raptors in Nepal, the Steppes are the only ones who accompany us on our daily trek. Their spirit sign is courage, wisdom, strength, and they carry messages from earth to God. I breath deep and smile. My intentions float up. 

But I don’t dally long. The number of people heading uphill is growing and I don’t want to miss the stupa or have my photos obstructed. It will prove difficult to photograph with the crowds already here.

All too soon it’s time to descend back to town. We’re all anxious to wander around the village.

Some friends are heading to a bakery with good internet. But my heart is intent on other things. Earlier in the day, I heard the clinking of metal hammers on stone. Masons take rocks and bang away until they are transformed into square building blocks. Evidently, it’s cheaper to have men pound raw material than carry bricks from Lukla. 

I’m lucky to catch two tradesmen who hauled merchandise here and are selling their wares to shopkeepers. No wonder the price of bottled water has doubled. 

 I see my first solar heater used to boil water. This will also become a common sight at our next stops. I look for children, but don’t see any. This will prove true for every village higher up. Are they at boarding school at lower elevation or do they live at remote farms?

At dinner, we hear about a man needing emergency evacuation for altitude problems. I’d mark Dingboche as the line where the compromised will peel away from the strong. From here onwards, this amazing beautiful place will become more harsh and physically dangerous. Go with grace and God Speed.