Saturday, November 26, 2016

City Welcome Sign Gets Thumbs Up - From Me, at Least

I like it.  Sorry, but I do.  It’s big, lit up in blue and you can't miss it.

The new City of Valdez Welcome Arch at the intersection of Egan and Chitina.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

As with nearly every public project, the new City of Valdez welcome sign was controversial and generated much discussion at City Council meetings and over coffee pots and water coolers across town this summer.  Angst over the sign especially heated up after it was announced that the sign would cost much more than anticipated.  I get it.  We spent a lot of money to buy a sign.  Yet, now that the bill has been paid and it’s done (Mayor Ruth E. Knight flipped the switch in October), it’s time to enjoy it.

The sign is more than a stand-alone project.  It's really just one component in a large scale, multi-year redecorating plan.  Much like an individual who undertakes a project to redecorate their house, the City of Valdez Beautification Task Force has been working for a number of years to spruce up the town.  I’m not on the Task Force and have kept up on its activities only peripherally, but let me take a stab at why they're doing this.  I think it’s because people live here (unlike Deadhorse where folks fly in, work, then fly out again).  And, people generally like to live in places that are homey, welcoming, clean, comfortable, well lit, and have some elements of beauty, art, or visual interest.  Judging by the appearance of most homes, we Valdezans fit into this generality.  Nearly every home in our community – be it a mobile home or a custom built home —is well kept.  Lawns are mowed, houses painted to the best ability of the resident, flowers abound in the summer.  For the most part, residents appear to place value on aesthetics, not just function. 

The projects that have emerged from the City’s beautification initiative help make town look and feel like a place we might want to stay a while.  We can, and do, make other arguments to support beautification so that the funding and time spent on it can be better justified – it’s good for tourism, for example—but in the end these projects are for us. 

One of the first notable beautification projects was to improve the small boat harbor:  board walks, fish cutouts mounted on posts, sidewalks sporting fish imprints, and restructured parking.  Next came the creation of pocket plazas with benches, garbage cans, and historical interpretive signs.  Then the improvements to the city dock – including the “Pringle” (some call it a potato chip) which is used regularly to shelter community music and sports events.  Along with these projects, the City upgraded several parks, including extending the civic center hill trail, adding the adorable and well-used pirate themed playground on the park strip, and improving Ruth Pond. 

The Egan Street project is the latest and includes, but is not limited to, the welcome sign.  Along with the sign, the City improved sidewalks, expanded pocket plazas at intersections, constructed large built-in planters, and installed decorative street lights.  All summer, I heard complaints about the project (granted, many of us had construction fatigue in general from all the work being done around Valdez):  how would snow plows possibly get around these new design features without damaging them or the equipment?  How expensive and time consuming will it be to maintain these things?  Won’t the sign blow down and/or will snow build up on it and damage it?  Do we really need so many lights – isn’t it overkill?  It’s so expensive –shouldn’t we spend the money on other things? 

I used to work at the museum where, because of my position and the role of the museum as an important cultural institution, residents would frequently complain to me about our town’s lack of character.  People would admonish me and the board to do something, suggesting things like promoting facades on all the businesses along main street to hearken back to the gold rush days or require business owners to paint or display flowers.  Anything, residents seemed to say, that would elevate the look and feel of our town above utility. 

The improvements on Egan are nice, but in actuality, they are minimal and low impact as municipal beautification goes.  The City Council didn’t pass an ordinance requiring business owners to put gold rush facades on their buildings.  They didn’t ban the shipping containers that so many businesses use for storage.  They didn’t increase taxes to pay for maintenance.  Maybe there will be problems with some of the new features:  maybe the light bulbs will burn out and have to be replaced, maybe a plow will put a ding in a planter, maybe the welcome sign will need shoring up.  I think we can figure out how to deal with these things.

New decorative street lights along Egan Drive dramatically brighten up the street -
a welcome improvement for walkers and runners now that it's winter.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

I like to run and often do so in the mornings before heading to work.  The week after the welcome sign was unveiled and the new street lights were electrified, I took a circuitous run through town.  I ran along the bike trail behind the Senior Center where alders were fading and grass was golden.  I continued on down the bike trail along the Duck Flats, then turned and ran along the boat harbor where seagulls watched over the vessels resting in their slips.  I jogged on toward the John Kelsey Dock, past peaceful Ruth Park and looped under the Pringle.  Then I headed up toward Egan Drive.  I turned onto Egan and was delighted by the cleanly defined corridor created by the neat rows of blue-green light posts.  The decorative hooded fixtures created an attractive border for our main street.  I trotted along, checking out the nice designs on the new walls of the planters, imagining the greenery that will appear in them next spring.  Then, finally, I ran alongside the welcome sign.  It’s contemporary, made of steel, and stylized mountains stretch across the arch.  In bold font, it reads “Valdez Alaska”.  Taken with all of the other pleasant design elements that are now pieced together throughout our community, I turned and gave it a thumbs up.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Backpacking Power Meals

Two days into a backpacking trip that would take Matt, Bonnie, and I over three mountain passes, across 43 miles of Sierra Nevada wilderness, and to a high point of 11,400’ I reached a physical and psychological equilibrium.  Daily climbs up long series of switchbacks taxed my heart, lungs, quads, and calves and the subsequent descents into valleys strained my core and punished my feet.  Yet, overall, my energy level was high.  My meal planning was paying off.
Bonnie climbs a set of calorie-zapping switchbacks
to reach our campsite at Columbine Lake
in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

Over the past several weeks, I had planned out meals and snacks for this trip and, more than for any previous backpacking adventure, I had tried to take a strategic approach, thinking primarily in terms of packing in enough calories to power six days of high level hiking.  The trip we were on started at 7,500’ at the end of the Mineral King Road in California’s Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.  Although the trails were well maintained, therefore not as taxing as backpacking in the untrodden backcountry where we often find ourselves, the hiking did require non-stop calorie-zapping exertion from the moment we jostled our packs on and took the morning’s first step to when we’d set up camp.  I estimated that I burned between 4,000 and 5,500 calories per day, hiking between 5 and 8 ½ hours.  I planned to consume 2,500 to 3,000 calories each day to try to keep up with the energy demand.  This number of daily calories was far in excess of what Matt and I normally consume on shorter trips (typically we eat 1500 calories daily, less than I take in on a day of computer work).

Calorie count was my priority, but I also considered several other factors.  I tried to include food that would stimulate my appetite, since a high level of exertion combined with hot weather tends to suppress my appetite.  For example, I tried to incorporate a variety of tastes and textures – difficult to do with foods that will pack well and last for six days.  Additionally, I paid attention to weight and volume.  We wanted to get by with carrying one large bear canister for three people and that would be a stretch, even though we took advantage of on-trail food lockers at our first two campsites.  Finally, I looked for creative twists to enliven our menu – Matt and I have backpacked together since 1996 and have rarely changed up our backcountry menu.  I wanted to try something new on this outing.

Following is the menu I followed.  At the end, I’ve included reviews and notes.  Please keep in mind the calorie counts and expenditures in this article are based on package information, commonly available on-line tools, and My Fitness Pal app.

Day 1
5.25 hours backpacking
Breakfast (at trailhead): 635 Calories
2 mini bagels, Tom’s 100% whole wheat
2 Tbls Adam’s crunchy peanut butter
½ banana
20 Blue Diamond Smokehouse almonds

Lunch:  710 Calories
Triple decker peanut butter & jelly
(3 slices Dave’s Killer Bread thin sliced whole wheat, 4 Tbls Adam’s crunchy peanut butter, 2 Tbls strawberry preserves)

Trail Snacks: 536 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet of GU energy gel
2Tbls homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
16 oz. of prepared Gatorade

Dinner: 773 Calories
Backpacker’s Pantry Charros Bean & Rice (two 8.3 oz. packages split 3 ways)
1 oz. white cheddar cheese
1 100% whole wheat tortilla

Dessert: 381 Calories
Snickers candy bar (small)
½ apple
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor
Matt brews custom combinations of French vanilla instant
 coffee, hot chocolate, and Starbucks Italian Roast
instant coffee (individual packets) for after dinner treat.

Day 2
7.75 hours backpacking
Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup granola, Firehouse Bakery (Anchorage, AK)
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  710 Calories
Triple decker PBJ (same composition as Day 1)

Trail Snacks:  573 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  551 Calories
Backpacker’s Pantry Lasagna (2 packages split 3 ways)
½ apple

Dessert:  420 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor

Day 3
8.25 hours backpacking

Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup granola, Firehouse Bakery (Anchorage, AK)
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  566 Calories
1.75 oz. smoked salmon
Orchard Bar, cherry almond crunch flavor

Trail Snacks:  605 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet GU energy gel
¼ cup homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
16 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  471 Calories
Mountain House Pasta Primavera (2 packages split 3 ways)
15 Blue Diamond Smokehouse almonds

Dessert:  420 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor

Day 4
8.25 hours backpacking
Here, we climb up to Sawtooth Pass on the last day
hiking, powered on by the previous night's
 Indian Vegetable Korma dinner with croutons.
Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup Kind Healthy Grains Cinnamon Oat Clusters
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  470 Calories
1/4 cup whole roasted almonds
½ cup dried cranberries, sweetened with apple juice
2 Baby Bell cheese rounds

Trail Snacks:  605 Calories
1 Clif Bar
¼ cup trail mix, homemade (nuts and dried fruit)
1 packet GU energy gel
16 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  480 Calories
Alpine Aire Mountain Chili (2 packages split 3 ways)
1 100% whole wheat tortilla

Dessert:  350 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)

Day 5
5 hours backpacking

Breakfast:  280 Calories
2 packets instant oatmeal, prepared, maple flavor

Lunch:  570 Calories
½ cup Granola (Firehouse Bakery)
1 packet (1.15 oz) Justin’s classic almond butter
2 Tbls Nestle’s butterscotch chips

Clean up was quick and easy when we incorporated
dehydrated dinners and cold granola into the menu.
Trail Snacks:  713 Calories
1 Clif Bar
¼ cup trail mix, homemade (nuts and dried fruit)
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  580 Calories
Good to Go Indian Vegetable Korma (2 packages split 3 ways)
½ cup store bought croutons

Dessert:  350 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)

Day 6
5 hours backpacking
Breakfast – No appetite, sick of Clif Bars!

Lunch/Trail Snacks:  603 Calories
1 Probar Base, Cookie Dough (20 grams of protein)
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. water bottle Gatorade

Dinner:  Celebratory Dinner in Visalia! 

Comments and Notes

Apples:  Apples are bulky, but it’s worth giving up some of your pack space in order to have something fresh on the trail.  Apples also produce less waste than, say, an orange.  Of all the fruit we’ve tried carrying, apples are the most resilient and long lasting.  Our hiking partner, Bonnie, had an apple in her pack on the fifth day of this trip – it was a little worn, but still tasted fine.

Cheese:  Be careful of taking cheese on the trail – particularly in warm weather.  We had good luck with a chunk of white cheddar that we packed in for dinner on our first night, but don’t expect most cheese to last longer than that.  That said, I took several rounds of Baby Bell white cheese packaged in wax.  These lasted very well for four days, and I’d guess they’d last longer than that.

Clif Bar:  Though I eventually get tired of eating Clif Bars, they are high calorie, come in a wide range of flavors and contain organic ingredients.  I especially like Blueberry Crisp, Banana Nut Bread, Chocolate Brownie, Crunchy Peanut Butter, and Oatmeal Raisin Walnut.

Croutons:  The store bought croutons packed surprisingly well and added welcome crunch to a dehydrated dinner.  They did not get crushed in the bear canister.

Gatorade:  I alternated between preparing Gatorade in my Camelback bladder at night and drinking it on the trail during the first few hours of the morning hike and preparing and consuming it later in the day.  I found it gave me a needed power boost in the afternoon and especially noticed it kicking in if I drank a substantial amount (such as 8 to 16 prepared ounces) along with a GU energy gel before starting up a session of switchbacks.  We used powdered Gatorade.  Although the Sierra Nevada water is lovely and pure, in other parts of the country Gatorade helps mask off-tasting water.

Granola:  A cold granola breakfast is a great alternative to hot oatmeal.  It’s sweet, contains substantial fat and is quick to prepare if you are trying to get an early start on the trail.  I pre-mixed 1 cup of granola with ¼ cup of powdered milk in individual plastic baggies.  In the morning, I placed the baggie in my mug, added water to the baggie, and ate out of the baggie.  This meant no clean up.

GU:  Gu has been my go-to energy gel for years.  The packets are small and I believe they give me a power boost.  They are sticky-messy if you’re not careful!  The flavor and texture reminds me of a cross between pudding and cake frosting.  Although Gu comes in a wide range of odd flavors, I typically stick with vanilla and chocolate.
Gu, Gatorade, ProBar, Orchard Bars and other dense,
 high calorie trail food powered me on this
43 mile backpacking trip.
Orchard Bars:  Our traditional backpacking power bar has long been the Clif Bar.  However, on long trips I lose my appetite for them eventually and get to the point where I can’t stomach the idea of another one.  On this trip, I tried the Orchard Bar, which contains fewer calories, but offers a very different (welcome) flavor and texture.  Orchard Bars are gooey, super sweet, and fruity-tart.  I find them in the produce section of Safeway.

ProBar:  I ate one of Matt’s ProBars on the last day of the trip and enjoyed it.  It’s high calorie compared to other power bars and was sweet and crunchy (I had the Cookie Dough flavor) – similar to a rice crispy treat.  It also has a high protein content compared to other bars.

Smoked Salmon: The SeaBear smoked salmon I took turned out to be messy (oily).  I’d highly recommend the flavor of smoked salmon for the trail (salty, delicious), but I’d go with a jerky instead.  Perhaps try Trader Joe’s wild salmon jerky.

Tortillas:  100% whole wheat tortillas were a great addition to our menu.  Tortillas are relatively high calorie for the amount of space and weight they take up.  They form beautifully to the outer wall of the bear canisters and last surprisingly well in warm conditions.  They are a nice fresh addition to a dehydrated chili or curry dinner.  They’d be great for breakfast as well with nut butter.
We enjoyed chatting, reading, and planning our
next day's route around a campfire while waiting up to
 40 minutes for our dinners to reconstitute at
 high elevations.
Dehydrated Dinners:  I decided on this trip to go all-in and rely on dehydrated dinners.  The last time Matt and I tried dehydrated food was ten years ago and the taste and consistency was so horrible we swore we’d never eat them again.  However, when I started shopping for this trip, I discovered a new range of vendors had popped up selling gourmet, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and otherwise fancy-schmancy dehydrated backpacker food.  Among them are Alpine Aire, Outdoor Herbivore, Backcountry Pantry, and Good to Go.  The old standard, Mountain House, is also still around.  The flavor and variety has vastly improved and I’d recommend these.  The benefit of the dehydrated food is primarily that it’s pre-made, so it’s easy to prepare, and doesn’t require as much fuel as other options.  You just bring water to boil, pour it into the bag, seal it, wait, and eat.  The down side to these meals is that they are bulky to carry and the used empty package is also bulky.  Note that at high elevations (such as the elevations at which we hiked this entire trip) requires doubling the soak time of all the meals.  We waited between 20 and 40 minutes for the dinners to reconstitute – that’s long enough to cool off.  We emptied the reconstituted dinners into our cook pot and reheated for just a few minutes before serving.

I’d highly recommend bringing along ingredients to supplement the dinners.  For example, try cheese, tortillas and croutons.

One last note, make sure to stir up and crunch up (with your fingers if necessary) the dry food before adding water.  Then, make sure to mix well with the water or you’ll end up with pockets of dry unhydrated foods in the corners and on the bottom.  Take a long handled spoon to mix – the packages are deeper than the typical camp spoon.

Backpacker’s Pantry:  The food was very good and we liked the flavors and consistency of both the Charros Beans & Rice and the Vegetable Lasagna.  However, the company needs to work on the package seals – they were hard to get closed.

Good to Go:  The Indian Korma we tried was my favorite meal of the trip.  The seasonings were fantastic and strong and the beans tasted and looked almost “real”.

Mountain House:  The dinner we tried was fine, but was the least favorite of the dinners for all of us.  The flavor was adequate, but the dinner was less filling and the quantities didn’t seem as substantial as the others.

Alpine Aire:  We liked the Mountain Chili, but it took a long time to reconstitute (40 minutes at high elevation).  Nonetheless, I’d recommend this dinner.

Outdoor Herbivore:  While the Waldorf Salad wasn’t my favorite of the dehydrated foods we sampled, I’d definitely eat it again.  It was a nice treat to have something to mix and eat for lunch on the trail.  Depending on the source of your water, the salad comes out almost cold.  It would also be good for breakfast or as a side dish for dinner.  Outdoor Herbivore makes a couple of other salads that I’ll eventually try.  Follow the instructions carefully and measure the amount of water.  I guessed at the amount and the sauce came out a little watery.  As a side note, we tried a couple of other dinners (Lickety-Split Lentils) for car camping later on the same vacation and they were also good.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Root Glacier, Alaska

I have lived near Alaska's glaciers for twenty years.  My living room windows look east and south and when I am sitting in my chair, like I am now, I count ten glaciers that inhabit the hanging valleys above town.  When I was younger, I worked at a visitor center dedicated to educating people about glaciers.  Every afternoon I led hikes to the face of the glacier, explaining their history, their movements, and the associated geological features – u-shaped valleys, moraines. 

But, glaciers scared me.  They were foreboding and cold.  Slick and dangerous.  Unstable.  Stories circulate around Alaska about tourists who got too close to a glacier only to be crushed when a huge piece of ice fell on top of them.  And of inexperienced people who slid into a bottomless crevasse, with a caveat that the next time they will be seen will be in two hundred years when their body is expelled by the glacier.

I was happy to view glaciers from a distance.

Matt, my husband, guide, and traveling companion, sees them differently.  All winter, he skis up and down and across glaciers.  He has done expeditions that take in multiple glaciers in a single trip.  To him, they are pathways to the high country.  At times, as we’ve trekked through Alaska’s backcountry he will say to me, “If we just had a piece of rope and crampons, we could cross this [glacier filled] valley and get to that beautiful ridge [or bowl]”.  In your dreams, I would think. 

But then, last spring, we started talking about glaciers as we planned a trip to Iceland.  Ice Land.  Land of Ice.  Matt had the idea that we should hike on glaciers there, and when he showed me pictures of the glaciers, they were like contact lenses covering an eyeball.  No crevasses.  No looming, leaning, craggy ice wall to navigate.  It began to look like something I might be willing to try.

He bought us matching crampons with tidy orange stash bags from Black Diamond and we took them with us to Iceland.  Where we did not use them.

 Back at home, as we unpacked the crampons, Matt suggested we try them out on a day trip here in Alaska.  The sun was shining.  I was in a good mood.  I said ok.  We settled on the Root Glacier, a body of ice that sweeps out of the Wrangell mountains and includes an intimidating section about eight miles up the valley called the Stairway Icefall.  The approach, he told me, was not rugged.  The glacier, he said, was flat.

Thus, it came to be that, on a gorgeous June Saturday during what turned out to be the sunniest summer in Alaska’s recent history, I sat on a mushy gravel moraine at the foot of the Root, fitting my crampons onto my hiking boots.  The crampons are one-size-fits-all and require the user to fit them to the boot – similar to old fashioned roller skates.  Then, you criss-cross the straps and hook them into place around your ankle.  They are somewhat rigid, but allow the foot to move relatively naturally. 

We headed up the glacier carrying day packs and wearing hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and standard hiking clothes.  I used ski poles for stability.

My cleats sunk reassuringly into the ice as I took my first step onto the glacier.  I tested my traction.  My foot held.  I took another step – both feet on the ice now – I wasn’t slipping at all.  I took another two steps, then four, then we were off, heading up the smooth pebble strewn apron of the Root.  The sun was bright and the sky brilliant blue.  Shallow rivulets of melt-water ran downhill, trickling peaceably.The glacier climbed gently up the eroded face and then leveled off as we reached the main body.  Here, the glacier spread out ahead and to both sides, undulating, blinding, magnificent.


We wondered across the Root in a northeasterly direction, heading generally toward Mount Blackburn and the Stairway Icefall.  The Root, like all glaciers, is like a river.  It has a point of origination, like a river’s headwaters.  The Root’s source is the great ice fields of the Wrangell peaks.  The ice pours out of the fields and then, like a waterfall, cascades over the steep mother rock under the Stairway.  We wanted a closer look.

I kept getting distracted from the grand views of mountain peaks and rock walls around us by the micro features.  I was enchanted by dime-sized holes where a tiny black rock that once lay on the surface had heated up enough to melt its way a foot down – a tubular hole that I could have slid a pencil into up to its eraser.  Frisbee-shaped indentations held ponds of blue water.  The ice sported stretch marks.  Angled pockets appeared in the ice and I knelt to peer inside.


As we walked further up-glacier, the terrain became more varied.  I thought that glacier travel was really just like all our backcountry treks – we follow the land’s contours, up and down, avoiding obstacles. 

On the Root, a rushing creek formed a braided channel that blocked our way.  We made our way down into the creek’s bed at an oxbow, jumped across – barely making the other bank without getting our feet wet, then climbed back out of the drainage to a bench.  We circumnavigated a deep funnel-shaped hole filled with sapphire water.  I stood at the edge of a columnar pit with water gushing into it from the surface, gravel plinking against the icy walls.  I could not see the bottom.

Several miles into our hike, we encountered the medial moraine.  To me, it looked like a paved walkway.  The rocks that made up the moraine were mostly flat shards that ran uniformly and conveniently another mile up valley.  We took off our crampons and continued our walk. 

The day was giving way to evening.  The moraine had petered out and the Stairway Icefall lay ahead, an imposing tongue of jumbled ice.  We turned around and headed back to the foot of the Root. 

Under my feet, the glacier was solid like the earth.  It did not give or quake or crumble as I walked.  It was like the mountainous terrain all around -- changing, but ever so slowly.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mayor's Midnight Sun Half Marathon, Anchorage, AK

On what turned out to be one of the rainiest days in Anchorage this year, my sister, Saree, and I braved rain, mud, and wind to finish the 2014 Mayor’s Half Marathon.  Fun it was not, but lucrative it was--together we racked up plenty of unbudgeted misery points in a fitness contest with our relatives.

Last fall as our motivation to exercise waned, several of my family members, including me, two of my sisters, our cousin, and my sister’s daughter-in-law hatched a plan to create a game in which, based on an elaborate matrix of achievements, we would earn points toward a reward vacation.  Each of us determined our own goals at the beginning and then dug in as the months ticked by.

When Saree and I struck out on the Mayor’s Half, she’d already earned points by competing in the Tour of Anchorage ski race, Gold Nugget and Eagle River Triathlons, Alaska Run for Women, Ski for Women, and the Bike for Women.  I’d netted points for the Tour of Anchorage, two 5K runs in Valdez, and the Gold Nugget.  Paige had brought home points for the Campus 5K in Pullman and a sprint tri in Lewiston, Idaho.  Our cousin Gay and my niece-in-law, Emi, who both live in Texas, socked away points for running the Armadillo 5K and then Emi powered on to run several more 5Ks including the Blue Bonnet, Color Run, and Run for Zero in which she took a 3rd place finish.  Along with all those points we were scoring, we all nabbed what we termed “misery points”.  This term was coined by several of us a few years ago when we were training as a team to ride the 200-mile Fireweed bike race – the hours of riding in wind and rain and pedaling up long hills to build our leg muscles led to the concept of misery and discomfort being something worth acknowledging like badges of honor.  For our 2014 fitness challenge, we assigned actual points to pain and agony and to date all of us had earned our share.  Weather, hills, participating in events for the first time, competing in events alongside men (sorry guys, but you can be intimidating) all helped us ratchet up our points.

Early on, I knew that we had a good chance of bringing home some misery points from the Mayor’s Half Marathon.  Not only was it the first time either Saree or I had done this event (cause for stress-related agony), but seven days before the event, rain was being forecasted for the solstice weekend.  One evening after I had finished a training run, my husband, Matt brought his Mac over to show me the satellite image.  “It’s going to be drenching rain,” he said almost gleefully.  He is the original weather geek, so for him this was exciting news – for me, not so much. 

As I flew over to Anchorage on Friday afternoon, the sun was shining.  I looked out over Cook Inlet from my seat on the plane and could clearly see the Alaska Peninsula’s volcanic summits white against the horizon.  It was a beautiful day across Southcentral Alaska.  Yet, the forecast was still predicting bad weather for Saturday’s run.  And, indeed, while Saree and I were enjoying dinner with our parents in Eagle River Friday night, the storm came in with alarming power lead by thunder, lightning, and pounding rain. 

By Saturday morning, the thunder and lightning had dissipated, but the wind had increased and the skies poured rain—drenching rain.  We headed to the start line after having waited in the car until the last possible moment and found a small crowd of runners huddled under an office building awning.  We waited a few more minutes with this group, watching the cottonwood tree limbs billowing in the gale and listening to the Star Spangled Banner sung by a trio of men.  When the mass of runners started to move, we eased away from our shelter and merged into the street.

There were 1800 runners in the Half Marathon, despite the weather conditions.  We bobbed and jogged toward Turnagain Arm and the Coastal Trail, forming a rainbow-colored undulating ribbon.  My fellow runners were dressed in typical running gear – jackets, headbands, t-shirts, some in shorts—and a surprising number wore Hefty garbage bags with cut-outs for their arms and neck.  Saree and I, having grown up in Ketchikan, thus being experienced in the art of staying dry, were perplexed by this strategy.  Wearing a garbage bag is like creating your own personal sauna – what moisture the bag keeps off you, it makes up for in the sweat it produces.  Bizarrely, some runners wore their bags the entire 13.1 miles.

The streets were packed with runners for the entire first mile and it was several hundred yards down the Coastal Trail before we started to spread out and everyone settled into their pace for the long haul.   I had run the half-marathon distance on a couple of occasions in the distant past, but in recent years mixed it up with swimming, cycling, and short-distance running.  When I started planning my 2014 events, I penciled in the Mayor’s Marathon.  I had looked at my calendar and the sixteen weeks prior to June 21st looked clear enough to give me time to train.  I started out strong, but when I hit long-runs of 10 and 11 miles, my will to run 26.2 took a nose dive – way too much time pounding along on pavement to count as fun.  I quickly adjusted my plan to the Half Marathon, which was fine except that it meant I’d have to make up for the point differential somehow.  I needed misery points.

The rain pelted the herd of runners for three miles along the Coastal Trail, but the lining of shrubs and trees offered some protection from the wind.  I warmed up nicely and was running along at my race pace comfortably on the mostly level path.  My mind wandered:  I pondered the garbage bags a bit more, enjoyed the misty view of the tidelands, became familiar with the men and women who were going to be in my pack – I identified them by their hair, their clothes, their strides.  Then, we turned onto a long open road behind the Ted Stevens International Airport and left all form of protection behind.  We now ran straight into a howling headwind and driving rain.  I could barely hear the sound of the jets taking off to our left over the accursed storm.  At mile 6, my forearms were numb even though I had pulled my hands into my sleeves and was shaking my arms out every few strides.  I tucked my head down and kept running thinking the faster I ran the faster I’d get back to the Coastal Trail.  About a mile later, I gratefully reached the water-station at the turning point.  Volunteers dressed in full water-proofed-regalia stalwartly distributed plastic cups of water and Gatorade.  There was no question that those volunteers were the heroes of the day – they had the absolute worst possible location and were as cheerful and helpful as anyone we passed.  I thanked them adamantly as I turned into the forest – thrilled to be out of that wind.  Misery points, I chanted, lots of misery points.

Yet, I wasn’t quite finished earning points.  We were now on a cut-off trail that connected the paved road behind the airport to the Point Woronzof section of the Coast Trail.  While it was protected from wind, it had received its fair share of rain and overnight had turned from what was presumably a pleasant dirt path into a mile-long mud chute.   There was an immediate and nearly impenetrable bottleneck of runners slipping and sliding down the steep single track.  Some people simply stood stunned at the top of the chute trying to calculate their first steps.  Others tried to tiptoe down, arms circling like propellers to stay upright.  Still others catapulted down the center, mud-be-damned.  I took a deep breath and ran through a clump of people who were hesitating at the top, stayed to the margin where there was a modicum of grass for traction, slid like a snow-boarder down some of the steepest mud, and somehow stayed standing the entire way.  At the bottom, I stamped my shoes to rid the the soles of clotted mud.  Well, more misery points for me, I smiled.

The last half of the race was almost pleasant – save the fatigue that settled into my legs somewhere around mile 11.  The rain let up, I dried out, and the wind relented.  The clouds lifted and I saw fresh snow accumulated on the Chugach mountains.  Runners were cheery.  A woman with a beautifully consistent stride passed me and I kept pace with her for a mile.  My mind wandered again, aimlessly.

Soon we rounded the corner at Westchester Lagoon and there was one more obstacle to reach the finish line – a solid uphill leading all the way into the corral.  I was ready for one more challenge, so took the hill as strongly as I could muster, passed under the arch, and claimed my finisher’s medal.

I cooled down, stretched out, and then headed back to the car where I knew a fuzzy blanket, PBJ, hat, fleece pants, and dry socks waited.  There, I could tally up my misery points.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal

People I know say that international travel expands one’s perspective and provides a jolt big enough to gain new appreciation of one’s normal surroundings.  As Matt and I began planning our trek to the Himalayan country of Nepal a year ago and the extent to which we would leave behind the familiar became apparent, I was certain that, at a minimum, if we completed the trip as anticipated, I’d at least return home with a lofty feeling of achievement.

As overseas novices, we started from scratch.  We decided to hire a local guide to help us navigate and a porter to carry our gear.  Next, we settled on a route that, over 21 days, would take us from a point on the map called Jiri, east across the green foothills of the Himalaya, then, turn sharply north at the Imja Khola and lead us into the mountains to Everest Base Camp.  From there, we would return to a high altitude 10,000’ landing strip perched at the edge of a hanging valley and fly back to Kathmandu in a Twin Otter.  We’d reach a higher altitude and hike more consecutive days than either of us had ever achieved.  This physical challenge would be magnified by immersion in a world comprised of a different language, different foods, a different monetary system and where health and sanitation would be constant concerns. 

We secured our passports and entry visas, learned to count to 10, say thank you and hello in Nepali, and signed up for evacuation insurance.  Finally, we packed our bags with down parkas, hiking shoes, sun screen, sleeping bags, cameras, and a long list of essentials and, in mid-October, left Valdez, Alaska for the Nepali Himalaya.

Over the first seven days, we hiked over three passes that exceeded 10,000’ on trails that were rough and rocky and steep.  Nepalis call the terrain in this region hilly, but hilly does not do it justice.  The land is deeply incised by rivers and slope angles are relentless.  The only level ground is found on the cultivated terraces that extend like mazes as far as the eye can see. 

 I walked through this landscape in a state of awe, sugar rush, and sleeplessness.  These hills enchanted me from the beginning with their lovely streams, stone farm houses, gardens of cascading marigolds, and lush crops of millet, mustard, and tea.  As we walked, women clothed in beautiful saris passed us, herding goats or cows.  “Namaste”, I’d say as we passed.  “Namaste.  Hello,” they’d reply.  Children would scamper away or peer at us from inside houses.  “Hallloooo,” they’d yell from a safe distance, shy.  “Kasto Chaa?” I’d say back.  Giggles in reply.  Each morning, we rose before daylight and met Hari and Naren, our guide and porter, for breakfast in the chilly tea house dining rooms.  The menus, written in quaint Nepali-tinged English, presented us with a standard list of starchy breakfast options:  chapatti (one piece); toast with jam and peanut butter; omelet with cheese; apple porridge.  The servings were small compared to my normal morning fare and I began to call for crunchy cane sugar with everything.  Lunch was similarly spare – a bowl of Rara noodle soup or a plate of fried potatoes with greens.  I began to eat Snickers bars, the only energy food available along the trail.  At night, after dinner and as it got dark, I retreated to our unheated tea house rooms, snuggled into my down bag and tried to sleep.  Although tired from the daily ascents, I had trouble sleeping.  The jet lag, congestion from dust, and the newness of my surroundings kept me tossing and turning all night long.

I became obsessed with the dark, smoky kitchens hidden behind doors and separated from the big-windowed dining rooms where trekkers gathered.  In the mornings, I sat cross legged on the benches surreptitiously watching the kitchen door, behind which pots banged with breakfast-making activities.  Lodge owners and their help, usually sons and daughters, swept in and out of the kitchens carrying big floral thermoses of black tea and plates of food.  In the evenings the porters and guides would disappear into the recesses of the kitchens for dinner and we’d hear them chattering away with the lodge owners, presumably telling stories about their clients or talking politics—the country’s second-ever democratic elections were less than a month away.  At times, I got glimpses into a kitchen when doors were left propped open.  In Bhandar, I sat on a stone step outside the dining room and watched the lodge owner form chapatti dough into balls while his toddler ran laps around the garden and scarlet minivets called from the trees overhead.  In another village I’d peered past the young man taking my order for hot lemon and caught glimpses of women making momos and steaming rice.  I looked up words in my Nepali phrase book that I thought, when put together, would make the sentence “may I see your kitchen”, but I hadn’t gotten the nerve to inquire yet. 

On our fourth day of hiking, I finally found my way into a kitchen.  That morning, we set out from the lovely village of Sete heading to Junbesi, a walk that took us 4,000’ up to Lamjura Pass at 11,581’.  We started up through the terraced farms, the sun streaming over the hilltops.  We crossed bridges over clear streams, passed goats tethered in their sheds and chickens pecking under shrubs heavy with squash, and circumnavigated inscribed stone memorial walls.  We entered the rhododendron forest where roots crossed the trail like snakes and fog lay thick in the spindly trees.  When Matt and I stopped to identify a cuckoo and admire bulbous yellow flowers the wind chilled us quickly back into motion.  Finally, the summit village emerged from the fog and we saw our army-green duffle propped against the weathered siding of a low slung tea house, a sure sign that this is where we would eat lunch.

Sister, here!  Brother!”  The familiar lilt of Hari’s voice reached us and he motioned us into the kitchen – the kitchen, not the dining room!—where he and Naren were already hunkered over the earthen stove.  I stepped across the threshold of the kitchen reverently.  Hot red flames licked the oven’s top, heating a tin pan of water.  I joined them, pushing myself as close to the heat as possible.  “Nani, milk tea!” Hari instructed the youthful daughter of the Sherpa lodge owner.  She quietly dodged around us prepping lunch.  Soon, I was drinking hot tea and Matt was stirring sugar into his Nescafe.  A French family, a German couple, and their porters and guides, arrived soon afterwards, all chilled to the bone.  All of us crowded into the dim kitchen, rubbing our hands and laughing at our good luck to find such a warm fire, while rice boiled in the pressure cooker and our hosts chopped cabbage, carrots, and onions  for dal bhat.

Main Trail – Into the Mountains
Namche Bazaar – it was a name on a map that we’d been examining for over a year and finally we were near.  It took a strenuous day to get there by a trail that at first rolled along the forested shore of the Dudh Koshi, but then, as every section of trail we’d hiked so far, pointed up an arduous 3,000’ hill.   At the top of the hill, Namche sprawled across a striking bowl, replacing a glacier that had vacated the area long ago.  A stupa (a Buddhist monument) stood at the village entrance near a river that tumbled hard and white from the mountains above.  Although the day was cold and overcast, men and women bathed and washed clothes in the water, draping laundry over boulders to dry.  Stone walkways and staircases wound among the densely situated buildings—most of them tea houses or shops selling Chinese-made prayer wheels, miniature incense burners, beads and knock-off Mountain Hardware and Northface gear.  This was Nepal’s answer to the Tourist Town.  Walking uphill to our lodge, we pushed aside donkeys burdened with sacks of sugar and fuel canisters, rounds of yak cheese and bushels of apples.  The following day, we found all of these goods and more spread out on blankets at the outdoor Saturday market.

When we saw Mount Everest for the first time—from a barren overlook above Namche—it surprised us.  We hadn’t expected to see it for days yet, but there it was, rising high and bare beyond the beautiful Ama Dablam.  The clear sky was interrupted only by the single cloud that blew back from Everest’s face like a mane of hair.  We looked and looked at the mountain, trying to understand its place on earth.

The next day, we walked on into the Himalaya.  I was dazzled by the backlit summits – everywhere snowy peaks came out of hiding.  Matt charged ahead to Tengboche, exhilarated by the mountain air.  Naren followed him closely.  Hari languidly walked ahead of me, stopping now and then to let me catch up.  I took up the rear, hiking for a while, then stopping to take a photograph or drink water or exchange friendly talk with porters and trekkers.  My Nepali was improving, but was still limited to pleasantries and statements such as “Himal sundar chaa” (the mountain is beautiful!).  In the early afternoon, I rounded a final switch back and came upon the Everest panorama – the same ensemble of mountains we’d seen at Namche – but ever closer.  From here, Mount Everest was a warrior of black rock and bold striations.

At 3 o-clock, as I approached the Tengboche monastery, guttural chants droned throughout the village; a call to prayer.  Ravens swooped across the courtyard and I walked under the ornate arch and up the wide stone steps.  Slow, low drum beats joined the chanting.  At the doorway, Matt and I removed our shoes and ducked to enter, pausing to let our eyes adjust to the dimness.  We made our way to the far right side of the sanctuary and took a seat on a carpet, against the wall.  Twenty monks sat cross-legged on backless benches in rows oriented toward a middle aisle and at the head of the aisle was Buddha – not pudgy Buddha, but fit mountain Buddha, large, muscled, and stern.  The walls and ceiling were painted with elaborate geometric and floral designs in yellow, red, gold plate.  The monks wore traditional richly-hued brandywine robes, and underneath, some wore Northface jackets to stave off the cold.  For an hour, they chanted discordant, atonal mantras, punctuated by undulating drum beats, clanging hand bells, and the moan of mouth horns.  A young monk entered the room swinging a tarnished incense burner from a chain, then walked the aisles between benches, sending clouds of sweet juniper smoke across the room.  I was entranced.  Afterward, in the fresh bright Tengboche air, a monk greeted me, “Namaste”.  I greeted him and thanked him for the service, “Danyabat”.  He did not speak English, but pointed at my ankle-length insulated skirt, which I wore every afternoon upon arriving in the villages.  Then, he smiled, pointing to his own long robe.  We’re dressed similarly, he seemed to be saying to me.  Later, the monks played badminton in the monastery yard while feral dogs lounged on the fading grass.  Fog curtained Mount Everest.

The Summits
Above 14,000’ we woke in the mornings to find rime ice on puddles outdoors and on the toilet water inside.  Trees and brush disappeared.  Although Hari repeatedly told me the names of the peaks we now walked among, there were too many to retain, so I began making a list of them:  Lobuche, Island Peak, Cholatse, Kangtega, Ama Dablam, Pumo Ri, Lingtren, Cho Oyu, Lhotse Shar, Nuptse.

We noted the point at which we exceeded 15,000’, then 16,000’, then 17,000’.  We strode along a beautiful high bench above the headwaters of the Imja where swaying yak trains descending from the high camps kicked tawny dust clouds into the air.  Then, we climbed to a pass where stone monuments, memorials to people killed attempting to climb Mount Everest, stood clustered in a snowy field.  From there, we dropped into the majestic Khumbu Valley.  Though it was still many miles and two days away, we could now see our tantalizing final destination, the bright white toe of the Khumbu Ice Fall – the base of Mount Everest. 

Gorak Shep is the highest outpost in the Solokhumbu region and would be abandoned in a matter of weeks when the weather in these high elevations became too bitter for trekking.  Already, a foot of snow dumped by a recent storm covered the ground.  The handful of tea houses here were large, crowded, and busy with visitors coming and going from Base Camp or Kala Pattar.  After a frigid night bundled in my down sleeping bag, I woke to find my full water bottle frozen solid.  I dressed quickly and headed to the dining area for breakfast, disappointed to find there would be no fire in the dung stove until nightfall.  I stirred sugar into my milk tea, ate my apple porridge and a two-egg omelet, and as the sun skimmed the jagged ridgeline of the Himalaya, we set out for our destination.

 I moved slowly at 17,000’, even though the trail was nearly level and the footing was good.  My feet and legs felt leaden and I breathed heavily with each step.  The air was so thin.  The previous evening, Matt measured my blood oxygen at 78%, this morning it was 85%.  Matt paced me -- I had to keep moving or we’d be all day walking these few miles.  I followed him through the rocky moraine, barren of all vegetation.  Gray-blue ice was visible below us, peeking out from under piles of glacial rubble.  The mountains rose sternly above us on both sides in walls of lofty summits penetrating the atmosphere at 28,000’, 29,000’.  The sky was dazzling blue behind the snow white peaks.  Wind buffeted us and I pulled the hood of my parka tighter around my face.  We were dwarfed in this terrain.  Matt ushered me down a gully and across a section of ice, then to the rock-strewn place known as Base Camp.

Relief and emotion overtook me.  The length of the trip, the ceaseless uphill climb, and the thin high altitude air had made this hike much more difficult than I’d thought it would be.  But the honor of standing at the head of the Khumbu Glacier, the highest mountains on earth forming a glittering amphitheater around me, was so undeniably, perfectly worth it.

Back at home, I unpacked the souvenirs I’d collected from Nepal.  Some sand, rocks, yak wool shawls, a small painted canvas, a few unspent rupees.  I laid them out on the carpet, remembering the places where I’d found or bought them: an icy streambed, a mountain valley, a stall in busy Kathmandu.  I reflected on what the trip had meant to me, what I had gained and achieved.  I felt a sense of achievement and the trip had left me understanding the privileges and quality of life I enjoy.  The trip through the Himalaya also confirmed for me that tucked away all across our globe, spectacular special places exist.  Places that I need to see.