222 Kilometers in 60 Hours

**** Apologies for not posting pictures but these India internet cafes just can’t handle it.

Quick fact:  The Himalaya mountain range is higher than any other in the world.  The  imposing presence of the peaks strike fear into the hearts of many mountaineers and adventurers that look up at them from towns below, wondering if they will make it to the top when their impending climb begins.  But now there are not just climbers with this sense of uncertainty, but runners as well.

This past week, I had the honor of crewing for my friend, ultrarunner Samantha Gash (www.samanthagash.net), as she attempted to become one of the first women to complete “La High”, a 137 mile ultra marathon across the two highest motorable passes in the world, Kardung La and Tanglang La.  Both of these mountains are over 17,000 feet high, where the human body gets less than 33% of oxygen that it normally would at sea level.  I met Sam last year when we both competed in the Sahara Race, a 155 mile run across the Sahara Desert.  While that run’s distance was longer than La High, it was over 5 days.  La High is a continuous race, which means that the runner can do whatever he/she wants, as long as they finish the race within 60 hours.  Knowing Sam as well as I do, I knew this meant there was going to be very little sleeping going on over those 60 hours.  She was planning on running continuously for 2 and a half days until she crossed the finish line.  Yes, I know that sounds crazy, impossible, insane, etc.  I agree with you.  And yes, she is crazy, but in a good way.

Before I get into the details of the race and what happened over those intense 60 hours, natural questions to ask are “How the hell do you crew for a runner? “ and  “What does that mean?”  I was a bit unsure myself when I signed up, but as the race got closer and I learned more about it, I learned that these are the main tasks performed throughout the race:

1.  Pacing.  Basically, this means keeping the runner company throughout the race.  137 miles and 60 hours can get really lonely, so it’s important to have someone running/walking with the runner throughout a good deal of the race.  This is really important to keep them motivated, but it’s even more vital to make sure the runner is in good health.  Running/walking over two mountains at over 17,000 feet can bring on a number of altitude problems, including High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), as well as severe fatigue, and even death.

2.  Nutrition.  I originally thought this meant that I would get to eat a lot.  Unfortunately, that was not the case. (Sidenote:  The nickname given to me during the race was “Guts”, due to my voracious appetite… how embarrassing)  When someone is up that high, it’s a natural reaction for the body to have a loss of appetite.  When you throw running into the mix, you actually get less hungry.  So it was also our job to monitor Sam’s calories to make sure she was ingesting enough of them, and to encourage and force her to eat at specific times throughout the race.  We had two vehicles loaded up with foods of her choice that she could eat at each hour of the race.

3.  Being a General Badass.   At this altitude and distance, there are so many variables that can come into play to throw off the crew and runner that you have to be prepared for everything; from holding her hair while she throws up, to covering her with a sleeping back when she has a 91 degree temperature and is hypothermic, to navigating her safely past army trucks and through, snow, rain and rock falls to keep her unscathed.  All of these things happened.  And compared to the runner, the crew has it easy!

Sam brought along a crew of 4 people to help her attempt this crazy race.  Besides yours truly, there were three other integral parts of the team:

Sarah: The logistics guru and the one in charge.  Because of the long time period that we would be at high altitude, we arrived in the town of Leh 10 days before the beginning of the race.  Over this week and a half, Sarah set up a game plan as to who would pace Sam at what points, and an hour by hour nutrition guide for what Sam should eat.  This was her first time trekking and doing intense outdoor activities and I must say she did an awesome job.

Nic – Sarah’s boyfriend and an unbelievable film expert and photographer.  Nic was in charge of a number of things besides pacing Sam, including being the official photographer for Sam’s website, which he also designed, as well as shooting a great deal of footage for Sam’s sponsors.  While we were out acclimatizing to the altitude, Nic would be behind the scenes working his ass off to come up with clever, funny and unique videos based on the race.  Based on what we have seen so far, Nic did an awesome job… especially at getting embarrassing one liners from me.

Jim–  The third and final Aussie, Jim dressed very similar to me during the race, but is younger, smarter and better looking than me.  Damn.  You win some, you lose some.  Jim had similar responsibilities to me, which were to focus on pacing Sam over the 137 miles, keeping her in a positive frame of mind, watching out for puddles, and making sure she didn’t get herself into some serious trouble out there.

We arrived in Leh ten days before the start of the race to acclimatize to the altitude.  At our first team meeting, we were told that two tourists had died that day from altitude sickness, so that set the tone pretty quickly that it was better to stay on the conservative side of things when trying to come up with a plan to acclimatize.  We spent the first 10 days hanging around Leh, soaking up the Buddhist culture, and doing some treks and drives up to 18,000 to get our bodies ready for the race.  What made this a really tough race for the runners, besides the obvious reasons, was the leadup.  Usually when a runner is doing a big race, they can’t even think much about it until 24 or 48 hours before, because they have the rest of their life to take care of, like their job, family, etc.  But with this race, the runners had nothing else to think about for ten days besides the enormous task of getting over these two mountains and through 137 miles in the allotted time period.

After camping at 15,000 feet and surviving some intense wind storms, we were finally ready to get started.  After a hectic start at the beginning of the race, Sam was off and running at 6am on August  11.  Our team plan to start was to have her slowly climb the first mountain to conserve energy for the 60 mile stretch that she would have through the valley through the first night and the plan worked brilliantly.  While the first ascent to almost 18,000 feet was a struggle for everyone involved, Sam and the rest of the team were in real good spirits as we summited Kardung La.  At this point, Sarah and I went to lower altitude and got some rest while Jim and Nic took over pacing Sam for the next 6 hours.  We went back and forth throughout the race using a staggered rest pattern.  While Sarah and I rested, Nic and Jim would be on duty, and vice versa.  We used this plan until around mile 100, when it became “all hands on deck” mode.  We knew that after all of us constantly moving for 48 hours, especially Sam, it was important to have everyone on hand pulling and helping each other to get Sam across the finish.  In her defense, we probably needed her more than she needed us as she still looked really good as we ascended Tanglang La on the evening of August 12.  This is where we ran into some trouble.  A heavy and biting wind met us around 9pm that evening.  We continued to climb altitude but met the race operations team on the way up.  They had come from the summit and explained to us that there was a white out on top, which basically means you can’t see up from down or left from right.  A whiteout in these circumstances is really dangerous, especially for runners and crew that are extremely tired.  Disorientation can lead to major mistakes, with the worst case scenario having someone just walking over the side of the mountain to impending doom.  The organizers strongly recommended that we head back down until the weather cleared and we really had no choice but to agree with them.  We headed back to the camp below for a few hours to hope that the storm would clear out of the area.  During this time, we found ourselves in a hotel type arrangement that wouldn’t exactly be called 5 star.  I found myself sleeping between another man and a squat toilet, which isn’t in the guide book of fun adventures, but it was an adventure nonetheless.  For all those reading that think traveling and doing exciting things is all upscale and roses, let this story assure you it is not.  But it is always an experience, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, the weather subsided and at 3am we were back up the mountain where we left off pushing for the top.  The heavy rain had turned into a mix of snow and rain, which made it lighter on your clothing and easier to move.  After many hours and with daylight over us, we made it to the top of Tanglang La.  At this point, Sam was exhausted.  She had just pushed hard over the two highest motorable passes in the world and had traveled over 115 miles with little oxygen.  This is the point where having a crew really worked in her favor.  We were able to pace her, watch her temperature closely as she was hypothermic at this point, feed her the necessary calories when it would have been trouble for her to think for herself and keep her in a positive frame of mind with a daunting 18 miles left to go.

Because of the 6 hour mandatory stop we incurred due to the weather, we were shorter on time than we expected to be, which meant that even though Sam and the rest of us were exhausted, we had to stay on the top of our game to make sure she crossed the finish line in the allotted 60 hours. As the clock approached 4pm on August 13, we approached the finish line about 58 hours after we started two and a half days earlier.  We left Sam on her own for the last few kilometers to let her grasp what she had just accomplished… the completion of the toughest and highest ultramarathon in the world.

The rest is a blur… the finish, the drive back to Leh, the party the next evening.  What a trip.  So after all was said and done, I stopped to reflect.  What did I learn and what could I take away from the race?  One thing that was really fascinating to me was the group dynamic.  Up to this point, I had never participated in a race that dealt with teams in nature.  It was unique to see 5 different personalities working towards the same goal.  I would be lying if I said there weren’t disagreements and arguments over how we should approach different parts of the race.  But we were always able to take a step back and realize that we were 5 smart people taking their own approach to solving the issue and we were able to put our own thoughts aside to make the best decision… the sign of a highly functioning team.

I also learned how important logistics and planning are in situations like this.  In a race of such a long distance, flexibility is vital as things will change on the drop of a dime.  But all of the planning that we did beforehand gave us such a strong backbone that it facilitated our flexibility, which made the difference in our success.

I learned once again that with the proper purpose, passion and perspiration, one can achieve amazing things.  And I won’t ever forget that.

And finally, I learned that I don’t like sleeping between guys and squat toilets.  This may be the most important lesson of all.

Congrats to Samantha Gash and Team SG.

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Rickshaws, Religion and Running

Preface: You can take this with a grain of salt since I have only started travelling more over the past year, but I have now been to five continents, and India is by far the craziest place I’ve been… and I’ve only been here for four days.  What makes it so crazy, insane, sad and wonderful is that you see every face of humanity every time you walk outside:  The beauty and kindness of the people, the intense poverty, the extravagant economic growth, the wealth, the food, the music, the traffic, the adventure.  I can’t even put into words, nor will my pictures ever do justice, to the experience of being in India.  But I will try to give you a glimpse of my experiences and let you draw your own observations and conclusions.  I have just finished my first day of wandering around New Delhi, so I need to write about my few days in Mumbai before my memory fails me yet again.  I could literally write 10 pages on my 4 days in Mumbai but I don’t want to bore my thousands of readers so here it goes:

Day 1

I arrive in Mumbai after a 15 hour flight which was surprisingly not bad.  This could be because I can sleep literally anywhere.  I probably slept for 12 hours… most sleep I’ve had in months.  It was glorious.  Upon arrival, I get picked up by my hotel, which was quite the nice gesture, and head back with a U.S. Army engineer who was staying at the same hotel.  We make it back to the hotel but it’s about 11 at night so we chat for a bit and head to sleep.

Day 2 

I awake and decide I am going to leave my suburban hostel and head to downtown Mumbai to get a more central location for the next few days.  I speak to Raj, the generous hotel owner, and he points me in the right direction towards the train heading south.  I take a rickshaw for the first time, which was awesome and simultaneously scary as hell.  I head to the train station, purchase my ticket, and hop on.  All is calm.  A few people in the corner reading the paper, others just hanging out, getting ready for their day of work.  A stop or two goes by and everything stays the same.  “This is going to be pretty calm,” I concluded.  Then all of a sudden…BAM.  We pull up at one stop and the train car completely fills up.  I am on top of 30 other people, all of us breathing, leaning and sweating on each other.  It stays like this for 30 more minutes.  Throughout the ride, I learn the magnificent art of crowds getting on and off of the train.  At a busy stop, all of the riders on the train that need to get off pile in front of the door in a battering ram position.  As soon as the train comes to a crawl, the entire bunch shoots off of the train.  At the same time, there is an identical group of people waiting on the platform trying to get onto the train.  They do the exact same thing… form a bunch and all charge the train entrance!  You can see how this goes… it’s just mayhem.  With both groups being pretty large, it gets quite violent.  But the one thing that permeates through all of the pushing, elbows, and shoves is wide smiles on both sides.  The commuters actually enjoy doing this.  And I must say, once I got into the mix, it was pretty damn fun.

I finally make it down to a hotel and they have an open room, which is a welcome relief, as I am pretty hot, and sweating like a banshee (great word).  The hotel is nothing special but the location is great and the staff is really nice so I agree to stay there.  I spent most of the day walking around and seeing the sites of the Fort and Colaba districts.

One thing that I found really interesting was the amount of Indians that wanted to take pictures with me.  Luckily, this time they didn’t think I was ugly soccer start Wayne Rooney, just your standard westerner.  I took pictures with a bunch of Indian teenagers who asked me random questions about this and that.  In the evening, I took a walk up to the bazaars to do some shopping.  Being that this is the monsoon season in Mumbai and most of India, I knew it was only a matter of time before the heavens opened…and boy did they ever.  Most thunderstorms in NY are pretty intense but usually only last for a half hour or so.  This storm was similar in intensity but lasted about 4 hours.  I got stuck in the rain and ended up back at the hotel smelling and looking like a wet dog.

Day 3

I awake to a downpour once again.  I had originally planned to wake up around 7am to go check out the city but a steady rain deters this plan until around noon.  I head back down to the gateway of India, which is a main tourist area, and hire a guide to show me all of the sites in India.  He takes me to an area of Mumbai which is designated for just washing clothes for businesses and commercial enterprises.  Only these are done by hand by the entire community.  Walking through this area was definitely an eye opening experience that really had the Indian work ethic on full display.

On the tour, we also went to see Gandhi’s house, which was pretty inspiring.  It led me to start reading Gandhi’s autobiography “My Experiments with Truth”.  Within the first 5 chapters, I learned that Gandhi got married at 13, disobeyed his parents and became a meat eater for a short period of time, and was trying to get laid the moment his father passed away.  So I guess no one is perfect!  But his life story is an inspiring one, and we can all use his story to aspire to change the world in our own little way.

I finished the tour around 3pm and decided to head to a local pub to grab the first beer of the trip.  The local beer is called Kingfisher, a lager that doesn’t taste half bad.  I took a sip, pulled out my Kindle, and settled in for a quick read.  Upon scanning the room, I noticed a girl sitting across from me by herself.  While I’m not the most outgoing person, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by going to chat with her.  I asked to join her for a drink, and she approved.  A few hours later, Dipika and I had talked about life in the States, life in India, Mumbai, jobs, relationships and religion.  It was really refreshing meeting a great person from India who was willing to share their city and culture with me for a few hours.  We left the bar and headed out via rickshaw to a bunch of places in India that she thought I should see.  It was getting late so we decided to part ways, but she agreed to show me some sites the next morning.   I headed back to my hotel to get some sleep, my last night in Mumbai.

Day 4

I awoke early in the morning, checked out of my hotel, and traveled about 45 minutes to meet Dipika at our agreed upon spot.  I made the mistake on the way there to take a seat once I got on the train.  When it came time for me to get off at my stop, it was literally impossible to fight through the dozens of bodies that had accumulated on the train.  I got off a few stops later and backtracked to where we were supposed to meet.  Thankfully, she hadn’t given up on me and was waiting for me at the train station.  We jumped in a rickshaw and headed to a famous Hindu temple, where we recited the Hare Krishna and I learned more about Hinduism, which was really interesting.  About 80% of India is Hindu, so you are confronted with it each day.  One of the most attractive aspects of the religion is its openness to outsiders.  I truly felt welcome every time I was in a Hindu place of worship.

Upon leaving the temple, we headed to Juhu beach, dipped our feet in the Arabian Sea, and then headed to Gloria Jean’s to get coffee, which reminded me of roaming the Staten Island Mall as a teenager.  We got into a pretty long conversation, and before we knew it, my impending 17 hour train to New Delhi was fast approaching.  At this point, my train was in two hours and we were about 45 minutes from my hotel, where I needed to pick up my bag, and another 60 minutes to the train station. This is where things got interesting.  We jumped on the train and headed south.  We finally made it back to my hotel, grabbed my bag, and jumped in a rickshaw to head back to the train station.  We finally made it back to the area where my train was but we were really low on time.  We frantically grabbed another rickshaw and headed to the train.  At this point, I felt like I was in a Bollywood movie, weaving through the streets past cows, children, trucks, food stalls, outside bathrooms and other rickshaws.  We almost died at least 5 times and crashed into about 20 people…. I can’t describe how fun this was.  It was like being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in DisneyWorld, except this was the real deal.

We pulled up at the train station with 10 minutes to spare.  Our adventure had been a great success.  I hugged Dipika goodbye and thanked her for all she had done for me to make my Mumbai experience a memorable one.  As the door closed I settled into my 17 hour train ride to Delhi.  There was only one problem:  my seat had been double booked, which meant that I didn’t have a place to sleep that evening.  At this point, I just hoped that the issue would work itself out before evening fell.  In the seats next to me were three middle aged men wearing the traditional white Muslim garbs.  They offered a seat to me and we started chatting.  I was a bit thrown off guard when two of their first questions were about where I was from and what religion I practiced.  I explained to them that I was raised a Catholic but didn’t practice much and that I was from NY.  I’m embarrassed to admit this but negative thoughts did seep into my head based on political events dealing with Muslims in past and current situations throughout the world.  What made me feel even guiltier about this momentary feeling as the trip progressed was the unwavering love and kindness of my Muslim friends.  They had brought some delicious chicken curry that one of their wives had made them, and they literally stuffed me until I could not eat another bit.  Besides the meal and the dessert that came after, they were constantly concerned about my sleeping situation, repeatedly pleading with the train manager to make sure I was given a place to sleep.  Before I knew it, I had a great spot to sleep right across from them.  The rest of the train ride went smoothly and upon our arrival to Delhi, I thanked them sincerely and bid them farewell.  It’s likely I’ll never see them again but their treatment of me affected me and I hope to somehow pay it forward to a traveler in need sometime in the near future.

I hopped in a cab and headed to my hotel in New Delhi.  In a few hours, I would be meeting my Australian friend Samantha and her friends to begin the next adventure of helping her complete a 222km race across the two highest motorable passes in the world (http://www.thehigh.in/The_High/index.html).  I arrived at the hotel and checked into my room.  So satisfied with the people I met and the amazing experiences of Mumbai, and thinking about the task of my friend Sam and her crew, I lay down, closed my eyes and smiled.  Tomorrow, the Indian adventure begins anew.

Posted in Running, Travel | 3 Comments

Wild Donkeys and Even Wilder People

I recently had the honor of volunteering on the Racing the Planet (RTP) 250km Atacama Crossing, and what a week it was.  For those not familiar with RTP, it’s a company that puts on 250km multiday races through the four main deserts of the world: the Sahara in Egypt, the Atacama in Chile, the Gobi in China and Antarctica.  This past October, I competed in the Sahara race and am registered to do the annual roving race in Nepal this November.  Since I am down in South America traveling, I  figured it would be a cool experience to see everything that goes on behind the scenes of a race like this and all of the work that goes into it.  To say I was surprised by the amount of planning that it entails would be an understatement.

I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the host town on a Thursday evening.  Volunteer training began that Friday, with all of the competitors arriving Friday evening and heading to the desert to the first camp on Saturday night.  I had requested to be on the course team because I thought it would be an interesting way to see what the runners would be up against, interact with some of the local team that is hired for the race, and work with the other volunteers and RTP staff.  Friday morning arrived and I headed out with Javier, Jorge, and William, three local guides from San Pedro.   I don’t know what I though being on the course team entailed before I signed up for it, but 14m of running and marking the course on the first day was a rude awakening to the poor shape I was in.  I have been doing a ton of hiking over the past 2 months, but the day to day life of being on the road has cut down on my running big time.  With the higher altitude of 8,000 ft., I was sucking wind the first few days.  Most days would consist of using a GPS system programmed by the course director, Javier, to follow and mark a set course that the runners would be running the next day.  Jorge and I were doing the majority of the marking and 155 miles doesn’t get done by itself, so I was pretty beat by the end of the week.  What made it a bit easier was the awe inspiring scenery that I ran in each day.  The Atacama Desert is one of the only places I have ever been in my life where, if you stop in your tracks and listen, you hear complete and utter silence.  No birds chirping in the background or wind whipping through the trees… just nothing.  Throughout those days of marking the course on my own, I would often stop to take in the silence and enjoy something that is so rare in most of our lives.

One thing I did find amusing were the certain areas where it wasn’t silent due to the large amount of wild donkeys that inhabited  areas of the desert.  I think after I took my 20th picture of “burros” running around, my partner Jorge started to have questions about me.  But it was cool running through the trails and finding donkey bones, and herds of live ones looking at me curiously and wondering what the hell I was doing running around putting pink flags into their land.

As for the race itself, it was really difficult, and one that I feel is tougher than the one I completed in Egypt.  But just like competing in one, what made it truly an amazing week was working with an unbelievable set of volunteers and competitors.  One thing that is truly unique about an RTP event is the very large role that the volunteers play in making the event a huge success.  The RTP staff, led by Sam Fanshawe and Alina Browne, does an unbelievable job in handling the logistics to perfection, but without the strong support of a volunteer group of about 15 and a volunteer medical team, the race would be impossible to put on.  I have such enormous respect for the volunteers that were up each day before the competitors and worked on short hours of sleep but always with a smile, positive attitude and a humorous takes on things to keep everyone focused.  It made me think back to when I ran and helped me to appreciate so much more all of the volunteers that were out there each day giving me water and taking care of anything I needed.

Anders Jensen,  who beat me out in the Sahara Race, took first in this race as well, which I was really happy to see.  Not only is he a world class runner, but more importantly, a stand up guy and gracious competitor.  It was a really close race to the end but one that he prevailed in.  But there are always so many other stories besides who wins.  Stories like that of Diego Carvajal, who came back to the Atacama a year after dropping out due to injury, to complete what he started.  And so many other stories of people that refused to quit, even when their feet were blistered and double the size of normal.  The stories and the people are what make being a part of the race worthwhile.

I am currently registered to do the 250km race in Nepal this November, but to be honest, I was thinking of dropping out at one point.   The massive time commitment of both training and searching for prospective sponsors is daunting, especially when you throw in my current travel plans for the second half of this year.  But standing at the finish line of the long day, watching the day’s winner Darren cross with his hands held high, changed my feelings about Nepal.  He had just pulled off a pretty big upset after 74km of running, and I watched him as he took a seat and grabbed some water.  He sat for a moment, and his eyes began to water a bit as he stared off into the distance.  I could only imagine the sense of achievement he felt at that moment, the sense of pride in himself and in what he had just accomplished.  And it made me think back to how I felt when I crossed the finish line on the long day in Sahara, and it made me want that feeling back.  I better start training.

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Top Ten Travel Songs from the Road

This trip has been a tough one between Music and I.  I blame most of it on Apple, who, for the second straight time, has given me a faulty ipod which fails to hold a charge after an hour or so.  Think about going on a 25 hour bus journey and having your ipod die after an hour… this, after you had just fully charged it for 4 hours.  It doesn’t make you a happy person, to say the least.  Luckily, I am quasi-narcoleptic and can pass out anywhere, so sleeping is normally what occurs.  But when I have had music, these are the ten songs that I have continually been going back to when I want to get excited about life, travel, and journeys with uncertain conclusions.  Apologies to Laffy Taffy by D4L and Rumpshaker by Wreckx-N-Effect for just missing the cut:

1.       Sunday – Bloc Partyhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9pf3omyGzw

2.       Lost –Coldplay featuring Jay Z – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJPPR8UcQ_c&feature=related

3.       Where the Streets Have No Name – U2http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWUXcmoPZxw

4.       Crosses – Jose Gonzalez (Tiesto Remix) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MazSvu7OxEw

5.       Free Fallin – Tom Petty version as well as a John Mayer live version – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20Ov0cDPZy8

6.       Baba O’Riley – The Who http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3lVzmtoeZE

7.       Open Your Eyes – Snow Patrol http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk1Q9y6VVy0

8.       Sweet Disposition – The Temper Traphttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxKjOOR9sPU

9.       Love is Noise – The Vervehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdTzmIgRuQ0

10.   Fake Empire – The National – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KehwyWmXr3U

This is obviously a subjective list, and one that is highly influenced on what I currently have on my ipod, most of which I took from friends.  If you have some other songs that you think I would like, shoot me a comment so I can find a way to “borrow” them on this trip.

–          RB

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One of the Only Good Reasons to Wake up at 4:30AM

Out of a Story Book

Most times when you wake up at 4:30 in the morning, it’s not for a good reason.  A bad dream, urgent phone call, or lousy bladder is usually the culprit.  But this past week, I had the pleasure of seeing one of the most spectacular displays of natural beauty that these not so young eyes have seen to this point.

The journey started after an epic hike with my Irish crew Vicky and my step brother Adam (that’s another story altogether).   After hiking for 8 hours, I hitchhiked back to town.  Yes, yes… I have seen Kalifornia and all of the other movies that would make one think to not hitchhike, but down in most parts of South America, especially through many areas with national parks, it is quite common.   In reality, I actually felt like less of a traveler since I had gone three weeks without giving it a shot.  I made my first experience a short one as it was only a few miles into town from where I stepped from the hiking trail onto the dusty, gravel road.  Upon making my decision to hitchhike, I gave myself a 20 car limit, which doesn’t seem like many rejections, but on an unpaved road in a small town, I figured 20 cars could take a while.  If I got turned down by all 20, I would wait for the bus that was to arrive in 90 minutes.  As I saw the first car approach after a few minutes, I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best.  To my surprise, the car pulled right over, and a woman in her early forties opened the passenger’s door with a smile and offered me a seat.  Damn, this is pretty easy, I thought.  Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time?  She drove me back to town, I thanked her as graciously as possible, and I was on my way to the bus stop after a quick shower.  What was up next was more difficult than the 8 hour hike that my friends and I had just completed: a 25 hours bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten.

After waiting on the corner with a bottle of Quilmes beer for 3 hours due to a delay in the bus schedule, I finally boarded the bus at 1AM, completely exhausted.  The exhaustion turned out to be a good thing as it helped to pass the first night and most of the following morning.  As I came to my senses the following afternoon, I started chatting up the girl next to me, who was from Israel.  I came to learn that she was traveling with two of her friends, who were sitting on the other side of me.  After losing a game where I unknowingly had to shout out for all of the bus to hear that my new friend was my queen, I met a few other Israelis who were also traveling together.  Upon finally arriving in El Chalten earlier than expected at 11pm the following evening, I jumped in a cab with three of my new pals to a hostel for the night.  A full day of sitting on a bus was finally over, but with the help of the cool people I met, it was actually pretty fun.

The following morning, we all decided to hike out to Monte Fitz Roy, which is the crown jewel of the El Chalten region.  Reaching over 9,000 feet, the jagged peaks are well known throughout the world for their unsurpassed beauty and ruggedness.  Our plan was to hike for about 4 hours past lakes, and across ridges to a campsite for the night.  From there, we would awake at 4:30AM the following morning to complete the last 90 minutes by 6AM in order to see the sunrise on top of the mountain.  This is a popular strategy because for a few minutes in the morning, the sun hits the mountain just right and gives the peaks a reddish tint that is a sight to behold.

Our hike went great the first day and we settled into camp along with a new bud Rafael, a medical student from Valparaiso, Chile.   Our friend Yuval had cards so I taught everyone how to play the game “Asshole”, and then proceeded to become the asshole in the game three consecutive times… typical.   After a big meal of rice and pasta, we settled in for a night’s sleep.  4:30 arrived and by 5 we were climbing the mountain.  We arrived at the lake right below the mountain at approximately 6.  Even in the predawn darkness, the images of the mountain still stood out and commanded respect.  Did I mention it was a bit cold on top?

The Girls Freezing at the top

We were all trying to hide behind any rock we could find to block us from the wind.  Unfortunately, a few groups beat us to the top and stole the VIP seats so we were left to bear the brunt of the wind’s fury.  By 6:45, the sun was already a bit in the sky and we had yet to see the “pop” we were looking for on the mountain.  But at 7, the sun rose above a ridge and blanketed the mountain in color that the below video does not come close to doing justice to.

It only lasted for a few minutes, but it made the previous hour of windburn and cold worth every second.  Looking at pictures afterward, I kept thinking I was standing in a green room and the images behind me were being projected by a computer… that’s how fake they looked.  The peaks are so jagged they look like they’re out of a storybook.

After another hour or so of admiring the view, we made our way back to our campsite, had breakfast, and got back on the trail.  Most of the group had plans to leave El Chalten that night or the following morning, and I was intent on camping for another evening, so we parted ways.  But not before taking a snapshot of us all.  With a group made up of people from the U.S., Chile and Israel, it’s realistic to think we’ll all never spend a day together again. But I’ll make sure to keep the snapshot in the files of my memory when I think of the day I saw Monte Fitz Roy light up like it was on fire.

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The Four Horsemen (Plus Me)

Riding Off Into the Sunset

After leaving Pucon, I headed south for a few days of camping in Parque Nacional Payuhue.  This was to be my first time camping on my own so it figured to be an interesting few days.   Traveling alone definitely has some ups and downs.  Whenever anyone goes on vacation or travels somewhere, they always come back and say it was the most amazing trip, which it probably was, but they always leave out the parts about it that were tough.  Well, I will be honest and say that the three days of camping on my own had some lows and some highs, but I think that the lows helped to accentuate how amazing the highs were.  Here are some examples of them intertwined in my three day camping adventure.

Day 1 – After traveling by bus all day from Pucon to Osorno (5 hours), and from Osorno to the park (2 hours), I was pretty sluggish.  Upon stepping off of the bus at the entrance at around 6:30pm, I was greeted with blustery winds and a steady rain.  Luckily for me, my amazing step mom had purchased a great waterproof jacket for me before my departure, so I didn’t mind the rain much… at first.  After storing some of my stuff at a facility, I departed on a hike that was estimated at 3 hours to my first campsite.  I walked for about 40 minutes and came to a barbwire fence.  There was a trail leading behind it, but it didn’t seem to be the correct one since it was blocked off.  To the right of the barbwire fence was a small trail leading into the forest… there it is, I thought to myself.  So into the forest I went… but within 5 minutes I couldn’t find the trail.  ”Could it really be marked that poorly?  Am I missing something?”  I backtracked two or three times to see if I was missing the trail to no avail.  At this point, I’m pretty frustrated as it’s cold, raining hard, and getting later.  The sun is out till about 9:30 this time of year so I still had about 2 hours before it got dark, but this wasn’t how I wanted to start my trek. “Maybe the trail is further down the road and I completely went the wrong way? Let me go check.” I headed twenty minutes back in the opposite direction to see if I had missed it.  Sure enough, there was an entrance to something that resembled a trail, so I headed onto it.  After hiking for about 30 minutes into the woods, the trail just ended.  At this point, I start questioning life, thinking what I did to deserve such a fate, and if I was actually on some hidden TV show similar to Boiling Point.  It’s too late to head up the mountain, so in the rain and cold, I throw up my tent on the wet floor and jump in soaking wet.  My first day didn’t get me more than 5km, I am in the middle of nowhere, by myself, in a tent, with absolutely nothing to do but listen to the rain hit the nylon fabric above me.  This was definitely one of the low points of traveling alone.

Day 2– I awake to… wait for it… sunshine!  Already things are looking up.  I decide that I am going to go back to the information booth to find out how I missed the trail or what I did wrong.  This is where my poor Spanish really hurts.  I go back to ask questions and I can barely understand anything.  The gentleman is speaking too quickly for my low comprehension and Chileans are known throughout South America for putting their own spin on the language.  This adds up to me saying “Si, Si” and agreeing to anything he says.  Great job on my part.  Luckily, one of the farmers on his staff is heading up and can show me the way.   We head right back up to where I was the day before… the dreaded barbwire fence… or should I say, barbwire gate.  As we get to the barbwire, the farmer pulls a tin hook off of the side of the fence to open a portion of the barbwire fence and lead me onto the trail behind it.  At this point, I don’t know whether to be mad at myself or mad at the fact that I have never seen a barbwire gate made of wood before.  I soon realize that were I to be in the situation again, I would still think the same thing.  As I hiked through and discovered about 20 cows, I realized the barbwire was for the cows and not for the hikers… but then again, I don’t see much of this in NY, so I am giving myself a pass on this.  And to be honest, it actually worked in my favor.  The night before when I began the hike, I failed to realize that it had an ascent of over 1000 meters (over 3000 feet).  The first three hours of the hike were straight up, and were I to have done this the night before; I would have ended up sleeping in a fetal position halfway up the mountain, soaking wet.  I finally reached the campsite where I was supposed to sleep the night before, and decided to push on to the next site, which was another 4 hours away.

Huffing and puffing to the top...

The scenery from this part of the hike was unbelievable.  It reminded me of a desert and made you feel like you were walking on Mars.  This was definitely one of the highs of the trip as I felt so mesmerized by the scenery… every step brought a new angle, viewpoint and discovery.  This is where it would have been nice to be traveling with a friend or partner.  Just to be able to turn and look at someone you care about and say “Do you see what I am seeing?  Is this insane or what?”  The picture below is beautiful but doesn’t come close to doing justice to the beauty of this park.

Parque Nacional Payuhue

I linked up with a Czech couple for a bit and chatted.  While we were walking, we were met by a girl walking back from Camp 2 looking for help for an Israeli hiker who had gotten too close to a geyser and badly burned his leg.  She was going to walk as far as she could to get to help by morning and have a horse come transport the wounded hiker out of the park and to a medical facility.  Upon arriving at Camp 2 later in the day, I met the wounded Israeli and took a look at his leg.  While not life threatening in any way, his leg was pretty badly burned and he had blisters the size of baseballs that could potentially become infected if not treated properly, so getting him out of the park the next day was pretty important.

The camp was right next to some hot springs and I sat in them for a bit and toasted to myself an excellent day of immense beauty.

Day 3 – About 2 hours from the camp, there were some geysers that were a must see, so I woke up and did the 4 hour round trip hike and was back in camp by around noon.  After soaking in the hot springs and having some lunch, I packed up my stuff to head back towards the first campsite, closer to the exit of the park.  I planned to stay there this night, and wake up early the next morning to make the 1000 meter descent.  Before leaving, I checked on the injured hiker since I was the last one in camp with him.  As we were speaking, 5 horses appeared on the horizon.  As they approached, I noticed one of the horses didn’t have a rider on it… this was to be the horse to transport the hiker out.  On the other four horses were two farmers (the same one that showed me the trail Day 1) and two officers from the Chilean national police force.   I helped the hiker put a bandage on his leg, break down his tent, and get up on the horse, and saw the group depart.

Upon seeing them trot off and realizing I had another 4 hour hike in front of me over terrain I had already crossed, I became a little dejected due to my weariness from the previous 48 hours.  What I would do to be on one of those horses, I thought.  After hiking for about an hour, I could still see the horses out in the distance.  Suddenly, a helicopter appeared overhead.  Now if I was in Santiago or Buenos Aires, this would not be cause for a reaction.  But a helicopter hovering low over a national park did not seem like something that was done every day.  As I stood there watching the aircraft, it suddenly began to descend down to the ground right near the injured hiker and the horses.  Compelled with the drama in the middle of the park, I picked up my pace and caught up with the group as the Israeli was boarding the helicopter.  From what I understood, the Israeli consulate had become involved once they found it was one of their own and ordered a helicopter to have him airlifted out of the park and to a hospital.  While this was good for him, it showed a lack of planning.  The Chileans had just rode out on a 3 hour horse ride to pick him up, only to have a helicopter swoop in and play hero an hour into their return trip.  As I sat there with one of the farmers watching all of this happen, it suddenly struck me that there was now one horse without someone on him.  Before I could think any more, the farmer said a bunch of stuff that I could barely understand, but I got his drift.  “Caballo para mi?” I asked.  “Si”, he said, with a grin on his face.  I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  My four hour solo jaunt across the park had suddenly become a 90 minute horse ride through scenery that made me feel as if I was in a movie.  My only regret was that I couldn’t take pictures because I had to hold on for dear life.  The ride back was over rivers, through snow drifts and very, very steep in some parts.  There were at least 3 or 4 times where I thought I was going to flip over the horse on the way down, and had to use every bit of energy to avoid this from happening.  They took me to the campsite and my smile was still ear to ear.  In my best broken Spanish, I cheesily showered them with thanks and told them I would not forget this day for the rest of my life… but it was true.  It’s cool enough to pay $100 to go on a long horse ride through beautiful scenery, but to do it on a whim, for free, and with some of Chile’s finest had me smiling for a long time, even when I woke up the next morning to another day of rain.

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Pucon Rocks It

As I sit here at 7:15pm in the lively lake town of Pucon, I keep thinking to myself that I can definitely get used to this place.  What makes it unique and great is that there are so many awesome options to keep you busy.  Here is how my approximately 72 hours went.

12PM – Show up at my hostel around noon after wandering around the town for a bit.

3PM – Head to the black sound beach on the lake with crystal clear water on an 85 degree day.

7PM – ??? – Make some new friends at the hostel and party and dance with them until the wee hours of the morning.

6:30AM – Wake up exhausted and somehow manage to make it to the adventure tour company’s office.

8AM – 4PM – Climb a 3,000 meter active volcano.  This was probably one of the coolest things I have ever done.  Upon climbing to the summit with an ice axe and crampons on my shoes, my group was able to look down into the crevice and see smoke billowing out.  The smell of sulfur and the intensity of the smoke were overwhelming and made me cough and my nose run uncontrollably, so I couldn’t spend too much time on the top, but the views from up there made you feel like you were in an airplane looking over the entire world.

On the way up...

View from the top!

8PM – Head to a wine tasting at a different hostel, meet some more new friends (some from NY) and hang for a few hours before going to bed.

1AM – 10AM – Sleep…. Finally.  This hostel even has down comforters… feel like I’m in heaven!

1PM – Head to Parque Nacional Huerquehue with my friends from NY, Amelia and Margaret, and go on a 10 mile, 5 hour hike with sweeping vistas of numerous lakes, valleys, and araucaria trees.  At a rest stop towards the end of the hike, I turn to Amelia and say “Damn, life is pretty good, huh?”

Parque Nacional Huerquehue

9PM – Drink a bottle of Escudo beer with my friend Sandra as the sun goes down.

1AM – Head to the discotheque to dance to, you guessed it, reggae tone.   Needless to say, my performance was abysmal as usual, but at least no one commented on how bad it was or asked me what the hell I was doing, which has sadly happened on more than one occasion.

11AM – After catching up on emails, run to the outskirts of town where there was nothing but horses, cows, views of the volcano, and my kindle and I.

Tonight is my last night here and I’m planning on taking it pretty easy, as I have a bus to the city of Osorno tomorrow morning at 9:30AM.  From there, I am taking another bus to Parque Nacional Puyehue to do some trekking and camping for a few days.  This will be my first time camping on the trip and my first time ever camping alone so it should be quite an experience.  As long as I don’t end up sleeping outside with my new tent broken or unable to be put up, I will consider the trip a success.

I’ll be posting again within the next week on some new stuff!

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