Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mount Passaconaway Hike

Two weeks ago, Mark Lotterhand, his dog Sophie, and I hiked Mount Passaconaway in New Hampshire. Snow was a distant memory in Massachusetts but we knew it was still in the mountains up north. To prepare ourselves, we packed lots of winter hiking equipment.

I was excited by the opportunity to break out the hiking boots I had worn to Mount Kilimanjaro. Waterproof, rugged, and comfortable, these things just about walk up mountains by themselves.

I was running late when I dashed out to meet Mark at his house, where we would take his car up to Passaconaway. We arrived at the base of the mountain, popped the trunk, when I had the sudden revelation, "I forgot to pack my boots!"

My brain exploded. I had packed trekking poles, layer upon layer of warm clothes, food, water, everything. I had even brought gators to prevent snow from getting down my boots. My boots, my boots! I can't believe I forgot my damn boots!

I stomped my feet. I cursed. I came short of punching myself in the head. "Maybe your wife can drive up and drop them off," Mark offered as a joke. It was a two hour drive away.

Mark reassured me it wouldn't be that bad, to hike in snow up to our calves in sneakers. When the hike was finished, he confessed he would have told me any lie in the world to convince me to hike that day.

It turned out to not be as bad as I expected, although I learned that hiking in wet cold sneakers through snow is not an ideal situation. My feet are getting cold by the memory of it. I was glad I had worn thick wool socks and brought poles. This hike would not have been possible without them.

We were rewarded with a beautiful clear view of Mount Washington, which towered over the neighboring peaks. Here you can see it from 50 miles away, its rocky summit still covered in snow. There was not a cloud in the sky that day and it never got as cold as we expected.

Passaconaway is one of 4,000 footers of New Hampshire - standing at 4,043 feet. I motivated myself to continue hiking by the thought of being able to put a check mark next to its name on the list and say, "I climbed that one."

Finding the way was sometimes difficult in the snow. We came to two lookouts, giving a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and Mount Washington. Mark held off on taking any photos on the lookouts, we wanted to wait until we got to the summit. We started a slight descent, which suddenly became a long descent, when we realized we had just been on the summit.

Hiking up in sneakers wasn't too bad but the descent was a painful experience. The snow was melting and slippery, forcing us to descend very slowly. In this photo you can see my mesh sneakers. We had seen some other hikers on the ascent, one of them advised the way up was possible without resorting to the use of crampons. I had asked him, "How about with sneakers?"

Despite the cold I felt, Mark assured me I wouldn't get frostbite. In that situation, the worst danger was coming down with hypothermia, which was a extremely remote possibility. The more likely danger was slipping and hitting something. It was slow going.

On the descent, the errors continued when we got lost and had to extend the hike a mile through unpacked snow. The trail we took threaded a path between some of the biggest cliffs I've seen in New England. While working our way down the rocky slope, I bashed my unprotected ankle on a rock which was no fun at all.

We came upon another lookout, standing atop a 600 foot sheer vertical face. I shied away from the edge, envisioning myself accidentally skiing to my doom over the side. Mark has no fear when it comes to heights. He risked his life to get this shot which made the whole hike worthwhile.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part five

Day Five - Shira Two campsite and the Lava Tower

Please read part one, two, three, and four if you haven't already.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful yet again. The sun in Africa was just unbelievable. I was glad to have brought my sun hat and didn't have to apply suntan lotion every hour.

We were at around 12,000 feet when this picture as taken. In it Tom is sitting with our guides and porters. Not all of them are in the picture, conspicuously absent is the one we affectionately nicknamed Dr. Seuss (more on him later). Our head guide Amani is on the far left. Tumaine, our assistant guide, is seated next to Tom in red, wearing an uncharacteristic scowl.

Our porter/waiter Roderick is dressed in black. He's the one who broke my heart when he told us how he was saving his pay for English lessons. How much money a Tanzanian earns is largely based on how much English they speak. English lessons are expensive in a country with few native speakers. Amani learned most of his English in secondary school, which only 20% of Tanzanians can afford to attend.

I never caught the name of the guy in the background with the raised fist but he was great. He was always smiling and shouting encouragement to us while we were hiking, even as he ran past us on the trail. When we tipped everyone at the end, he gave the three of us hugs. He did not speak much English but his enthusiasm was infectious.

Here Andy and Tumaine took a breather as we hiked to the Lava Tower. We were making our way back up to 14,000 feet and I was pleased by how little the altitude was affecting me. I began to think that maybe summit day wouldn't be so hard. I was later proved to be very wrong.

Here's Tom as we hiked to the Lava Tower. This area was barren and rocky, not terribly welcoming at all. I found it ominous and felt like I was hobbit hiking through Mordor. There was some cloud cover up here, which looked like steam rising from a volcano.

Andy and Tom climbed to the top of the Lava Tower while I stayed at the bottom and took this photo. If you click on the photo, you can see their tiny figures at the top.

I had slept horribly the night before, a constant theme on this trip, and didn't feel like doing extreme climbing while tired. I was happy to rest and take the photo instead.

Here's the view Andy and Tom saw from the top of the Lava Tower. The Lava Tower itself is around 150 feet high putting them at over 15,000 feet elevation. In this photo, Tom is seated at the edge of a sheer drop.

When they came back down, the first thing Andy said to me was, "You would not have enjoyed that." Andy knows I am not fond of heights. When we hiked Mt Rainier, Andy jumped over a crevasse and thought, "Dave's not going to like this hike very much."

After climbing the Lava Tower, we made our way back down to Baranco camp. Here Andy and I are standing in a grove of those weird trees we saw earlier. While at the Lava Tower, a cloud had rolled in making it misty and cold. It's a strange experience to walk through a forest of these trees shrouded in fog.

This photo was taken at one of those moments where I was thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?" The hot tea helped but mostly I felt tired and dirty and longed for home. Moments like these happen the closer you come to summit day.

Baranco camp was an intersection for multiple trails so we were suddenly camping in a large group of hikers. We had hardly seen anyone else previous to this. One of the hikers was an altitude sickness-stricken Dane who I gave some aspirin.

For fun we pressed our guide to name which nationality were the strongest hikers. After much hemming and hawing, he answered the Austrians. Americans were ranked as "okay" which I found surprising. When I travel abroad it's important to me to never conform to the stereotype of the slothful, indulged American.

Here's a view of the glaciers of Kilimanjaro as the sun was setting, Andy standing at the bottom right. Just out of the picture was a view of the Northern Breach trail. That was the trail we had intended to take until it was blocked by a landslide a couple weeks before, killing three American hikers, two of whom were from Massachusetts. This was something we didn't spend a lot of time talking about but I thought about it that night at Baranco before I fell asleep.

Next Installment: We climb a headwall and things start getting more difficult