Saturday, August 29, 2015

Stranger than fiction

This began as a Facebook post that started to run on a bit, and I decided to simply turn it into a blog post.

I originally began by saying (in my little Facebook voice!), "So, I've been researching stop off points for our upcoming trip to Yellowstone. We will have to stay in Nevada and rather than do the run-of-the-mill Reno or Vegas thing, I was looking at stopping in a town called Tonopah. It looks like it's completely in the middle of nowhere (just the way I like it!) But having just read Stephen King's book Desperation set in a (fictional - I hope) forgotten Nevada town..."

Well that's when I screeched to a halt and realized that this all really began when I read Desperation!

And that it needed to be a blog...

Cue new beginning.

I've always been fascinated by the Wild West, the empty spaces, the lonely barrenness in the landscape and the tumble weed (which is actually not even native to that area! It's Russian thistle brought in from Eastern Europe/Russia in a bag of grass seed!) When I mention driving through Nevada to my American friends many of them pull a face of disgust like, who'd want to do that? But when you were brought up on a tiny lush island with winding roads, the Nevada-scape is exotic by comparison. There's just something about those long, straight roads disappearing into a pinoint on the horizon that awe me to almost speechlessness. Almost, not completely but even so, it might be why My Husband finds those road trips appealing too!

Even reading Desperation didn't put me off, though I sure hope I don't get pulled over by a cop on highway 50. The stretch through Nevada is known as "The Loneliest Road in America"! I thought it prudent to stay away from Highway 50 altogether, and with the help of Google maps, I discovered Tonopah. What really cemented the deal for this stop was that it will be a great jumping off point for State Route 375. Why this road? Well, here's what it says in Wikipedia about it...

"The top-secret Area 51 government base is near SR 375 and many travelers have reported UFO observations and other strange alien activity along this road. Such stories prompted the state to officially designate the route as the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996. The small town of Rachel, located near the center of the highway, caters to tourists and UFO seekers with alien-themed businesses. Although the area receives some tourism due to alleged extraterrestrial activity, SR 375 remains a lightly traveled route."

At least it's not lonely, right? You know, especially not with all those aliens...

So okay, Tonopah... the pictures aren't very inspiring on Bing Images, so I had a look at the town website which conveniently has a lodging section. All very well and good, until I noticed the second one down - The Clown Motel! As if staying in a tiny town in the middle of Nevada wasn't scary enough they have a Clown Motel as in horror-movie-creepy-ass clowns!

This picture of Clown Motel from the Town of Tonopah website
Upon further investigation, I came across this blog, Atlas Obscura (what a find by the way!) only to discover that if the clowns weren't freaky enough for you, that the motel is sited beside an old miners cemetry! Go read this short blog - I'm just bummed they got there before me, but I'm not one to reinvent the wheel - they've written pretty much what I would have.

And while I'm directing you around the inter-web-thinggy, check out the comments on Trip Advisor about this place - hilarious!

Comments like, "...The clowns in the office were a bit scary..." and another said, "...Gotta admit, the clowns scared me...." and my favorite, "...I was here alone for a ghost hunt in a nearby town..."  Like, seriously? Alone? For a ghost hunt and staying in a freaky Clown Motel? Fair play to ya mate - it takes all sorts, and I'm guessing we'll meet most of them on this upcoming trip!

So will we stay here? You'll just have to read the next installment in a few of week when we hit the road. But here's a clue...My Husband says "NO way!" This is the man who wouldn't buy a house near railroad tracks because he saw an episode of Criminal Minds that had a serial killer traveling on freight trains and murdering people who lived near the tracks!

We intend to hit up some of the big parks in Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and more if possible) before heading north for Yellowstone. I have a vague intention of posting daily...That is if the Big Cop from Desperation, the ailens and the clowns don't get us first!

Byddi Lee

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Mount Whitney Trail

Continued from the last post...

One week to the day before the ascent up Mount Whiney, My Husband was diagnosed with shingles! So much for my spider bite diagnosis - note to self - leave doctoring to the doctors! The Doc said he was over the worst of it and provided he'd trained, there was no reason he should not do Whitney...

We were good to go...

In the run up to Whitney we Flintstones watched the weather closely. Wonder Woman and Superman where used to rough conditions and the Incredibles - well their incredibleness would bring them through it. But I knew we needed perfect conditions to pull this off - I'm way too much of a softie. A few days beforehand the area was bombarded with thunder storms and hailstones. Wildfires had sprung up left, right and center. We'd taken a couple of close friends, who were visiting on honeymoon from Ireland, to the high country that week, and we'd had a mad dash for the car during a thunder and lightning episode on Sentinel Dome - only a 2 mile hike.

But the departure day dawned clear and blue in Lone Pine, California. The rising sun blasted into our hotel room as I put the finishing touches to my backpack. Sunsets remind me of my Mummy - she always loves to watch them, but sunrises are for my Dad. Tears gathered and emotion tugged in my throat. He'd always loved daybreak and had died minutes before sunrise. I  think he knew that the rising sun would give us hope at our bleakest moment.  He had taken me up my very first mountain - the Sugar Loaf in Wicklow, and right then I felt him with me and knew he'd stay with me all the way.

The eight of us left the hotel at 7.20am and headed for Whitney Portal. Mt Whitney looked a long way up and I found it hard to believe that I might actually be standing on that distant peak within the next couple of days.

Driving to Whitney Portal
We parked and stashed any food and toiletries in a bear proof locker and hit the trail by 8.30am. The weather was perfect, thank God, and we set our own pace. The Incredibles took off, led by the Incredibles girl (11) whose pace never faltered for a moment. The Incredibles Boy (8), though irritated by an uncomfortable pack belt, never wavered and plugged up the slope, the bravest little soldier I've ever seen. With that for motivation, how could we give up?  Thankfully our training kicked in and we felt comfortable at our chosen pace. We decided that we would try not to get out of breath once we hit higher altitudes - getting out of breath lead to too many complications.
Whitney Portal to Trail Camp
Our pace was steady, if slower than the Incredibles and Wonder Woman, though I think Superman enjoyed the craic at the back as he often waited for us, on the pretense that he needed a break...he wasn't fooling us, and we loved him for the attempt!

By lunchtime we'd reached outpost camp at 10,000ft.  You could feel the effect of the altitude in your lungs. Simply moving was enough to have you out of breath.
Nearly at Trail Camp...
Laughing was arduous - a pity because we were never far from it - especially when the conversation turned to the use of our poop bags or WAG bag (Waste Alleviation & Gelling). There were bets placed as to who'd go first, who go most often and who might go on poop strike altogether!
Instructions posted at the trail head

For a while conversation tapered and eventually we reached Trail Camp (12,00ft) around mid afternoon. Poor Wonder Woman's wheels fell off as a piercing migraine and nausea send her to her tent and filled the rest of us with feelings of empathy and  helplessness. We ate dinner and watched the shadow of the mountains to the west creep up the sides of the mountains in the east,

until the sun suddenly dipped below the ridge and the valley filled with a chilled shadow.
We raced for our warm clothes and snuggled into puffa jackets and settled in for the night - all of us in bed for 8pm.

We slept a little - at least there was a time period of about 2 hrs that we couldn't account for. The moon was nearly full and we were luckily pitched in a moonlight shadow cast by an outcrop of nearby rocks. Even so it didn't prevent the stars from glittering fiercely undeterred by the deep blue background they were set in.

At 4.30am I decided to take advantage of the predawn darkness and use my WAG bag behind a nearby rock - suffice it to say, it was not as bad as I'd thought it might be- quite handy in fact - but still doesn't beat having a nicely plumbed en-suite! Though you'd be hard pushed to find a toilet with as nice a view...

By 5am the sun was glowing its entrance to the eastern sky as a red ball of light.
Wonder Woman had recovered and was raring to go. We ate quickly and were on the trail for the summit by 6am.
We'd been looking up at those switchbacks since we'd arrived at Trail Camp and though I know it took us hours to get up them, for us one slow step at a time, sucking as much air into our lungs as possible, I think one of the side effects of altitude is how it affects memory. 
When I look back, I feel like it didn't take that long to get up to that first ridge. At Trail Crest, where you go over the ridge and slide in behind the sky-piercing peaks, Superman - now firmly established as our mountain guru, advised us to don a thin fleecy and a wind proof jacket. 
We took his advice and began the next bit which I can only describe as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
I don't know why I hadn't considered the fact that we'd have steep drop-offs and "scary" bits. Denial, I suppose. I'm just not great with heights if I'm freestanding - I get woozy and sway...vertigo sets in. 
So this next section was arduous but stunningly beautiful, and I just focused on breathing because that had become the biggest challenge. My hands had swollen with fluid and looked awful but weren't painful, so I didn't pay much attention to it. 
The hardest 1.9 miles ever!
Again, we were behind the others but they waited for us shy of the top, so that the Incredibles, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flintstones all reached the summit at the same time. It was amazing!
View from the summit of Mt Whitney looking down at Lone Pine
Remember where the big red arrow pointed in the first photo? That's where we were standing!

We chilled out a bit, took photos, and drank in the scenery.
Then another climber reached the top and roared out in a booming voice for all to hear, "This is not the day we die..." followed by some probably famous motivational quote, which because of the altitude none of us can quite remember but was good! So good that everyone cheered and clapped. It was really Hollywood.

As our wee Irish group looked at each other bemused, I said, "Well, we're on the top of the highest mountain in continental USA. You wouldn't expect anything less!"

"Yes," said Mrs. Incredible, “But where did he get the breath for that?"

We laughed, quiet little breath-conserving guffaws...

I was looking forward to the way down.
Looking down at Trail Camp from Trail Crest after leaving the Shadow of the Valley of Death!
All downhill - I thought it couldn't be easier but at about 13,000ft my wheels fell off. I got a splitting headache and then needed to pee every 10 minutes - nowhere had I read anything about that as a side effect of altitude. It was a good job I'd taken a spare (clean) Wag bag with me too. I needed it - twice! Then nausea kicked in. I still had about 2 or 3 miles to go. I could see the lake we were camping by. If I walked anymore than a dozen paces, I had to sit down and catch my breath. Getting out of breath made me actually retch. It was a slow descent. I remember the thought I had at the time, "This is hell. When will it end?" But as I look back the memory of it is blurred, as if looking through a soft focus lens.Was this another effect of altitude?

I walked into camp looking like a White Walker (this told to me by Mr. Incredible later during the postmortem!) My Husband put me to bed and Superman gave me an electrolyte drink after which I started to rally and soon had returned to the land of the living, thank God.

Dinner was more jolly, and we chatted about our day as we watched the sun head towards the peaks.
This time we were prepared with our warm clothes as nature's lights switched out.
Bed by 8pm and up the next day at 4.30am. I was starving and Mrs. Incredible had some leftover freeze-dry dinners which I gratefully accepted. Himalayan lentil and rice - a true breakfast of champions!

The trek out was easy and enjoyable, and the higher oxygen content most welcome. We had to strap our WAG bags to the outside of our packs, so there wasn't much conversation as we'd to stay well back to avoid each others WAG bag smell! There was plenty of toilet humor, of course, commenting on who had the biggest bag, who'd filled their bag and had been forced to use another person’s bag, who lost a bet and had to carry the entire Incredibles family collection down the hill...  but we agreed that what happens on Whitney stays on Whitney - except the actual poop of course!

These challenges (I've also done the Alcatraz swim and the Grizzly MetricCentury in the recent past) are, for me, less about the fitness and all about the interpersonal relationships. I enjoyed watching My Husband bond with and really get to know these friends I've had for 20 years. Seeing the Incredibles children rise to such a huge challenge with the gusto and the determination gave us all something special that you don't get in ordinary circumstances.

As a metaphor for life, Whitney has it all. Getting to the top is just half way there. You aren't done until you are back down and for someone who feels that they are half way through life, like myself, it's okay if its "downhill" from here. Downhill is not a bad thing. Downhill is where the breathable air is, the place where you can reflect on the journey uphill and what it's like at the peak. It's were the vineyards, flushing toilets and ice dispensers are too. For some, climbing high may indicate success, but I'm not sure I agree - it's by no means comfortable up there. Lushness and beauty lie in the lower slopes. High up, the peak is exposed and the rocks bare. Success is enjoying wherever you are, high or low. And remember, no matter when or where it happens, you still have to carry all your shit with you, uphill or down.

Byddi Lee

Photos by Helen Cassidy

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Preparing for Mount Whitney

When my mountaineering friends from Ireland suggested we climb Whitney together when they came to visit, I agreed on one condition - My Husband had to come with me. I guessed the camping element would put him off, he'd say "no" and I'd explain that I couldn't go with him etc etc. We still had to "win" a permit in the permit lottery. I guessed the whole deal would flop, and they'd find a marathon or triathlon to do with another crazy-fit mutual friend who lives here too.

To get some perspective on how fit these guys are compared to us, let me put it this way. The visiting mountaineers are like Wonder Woman and Superman, the mutual friend and her fitness fanatic family are The Incredibles (without Jack Jack - unless you include their dog who also goes running with them!) By comparison, My Husband and I are the Flintstones - and I'm not even Wilma or Betty, oh no - I'm Fred and he's Barney!

But I never win raffles and things like that, so I was quietly confident that we'd be grand - there'd be a road trip to somewhere nice and we'd have a great time, as it's impossible to not have a blast with those guys.

Mrs. Incredible applied for the permit back in February and waited for the results. I completely forgot about it and was pretty engrossed in organizing my Irish Book tour for March to November, starting around Easter. I was actually in Ireland when she sent me an email. We'd won the lottery and gotten the damn permit!

I hoped at this stage that My Husband would still say no, but to my shock (and horror) he said, "Sure why not?"

There were lots of reasons why not, but ultimately, I had no excuses...I had committed to it, and if I say I'm going to do something, I do it (or at least give it my best shot!)

We were set for Whitney at the end of July 2015 with 13 weeks to train for it from pretty much a standstill! So I found a 12 week training plan, printed it out and put it on the wall. I need to do the "crossing off "thing to inspire me. We had a week to stand and look at the plan before we began...

Then we started the training together...

There are so many elements to Whitney...
There's the distance - 22 mile round trip.
There's the elevation gain. You start at about 8000 feet (2400m) and need to gain 6500 feet (2000m)
There's the camping. We got a permit to camp two nights halfway up.
There's the carrying all your food and gear for 2 nights/3 days. We'd never hiked with heavy packs before but now we needed to buy the right kind of pack and get used to "mountain food".
There's the lack of plumbing. We needed to filter the water that we'd get from streams and lakes.
There's the lack of plumbing (part 2). There were no toilet facilities on the mountain so we'd have to pack out our solid waste - yes, that meant carrying our poo out in a bag!
And finally there's the lack of oxygen... Mt Whitney is 14,505 feet (4,421 m) high. We'd be hiking higher than a Cessna airplane can fly. It's the highest mountain on continental USA (lower 48 States) and the air is pretty thin up there. Altitude sickness was the big unknown. You can train and prepare for everything else, but not least, not in the time frame (3 days) available to us.

Training for distance was fine - we followed our chart - ticked off our training schedule and basically had sore muscles for a solid three month period. At one point I wondered was it better to not train and just suffer the once! I hated the runs that had been scheduled. I learned to use the step machine while ironing and critiquing for my writing group - training is just so time consuming and hell, I have a life!

But My Husband and I found that we enjoyed the hikes, having hiked smaller easier hikes a lot, we liked expanding on this. It brought us closer too and we found we worked well as a team. The Incredibles were training too. The kids, 11 and 8, were getting some experience with backpacking and we kept up with their progress on social media, engrossed as we were on our own schedule.

It was hard to find high enough hills locally, but we did have a couple of hikes that had elevation gains of 3000-4000 feet. Since in any one day on Whitney we'd have no more than 4000 feet, we were happy to consider that as a good yardstick.

On April 26th we began with a loop of our local park clocking up an easy 3 miles and 630ft elevation gain.
Looking at our house from Santa Teresa Park.
As the weeks went on we donned packs, filled them with heavy stuff from our cupboards (the cans of soda exploded so we switched to bags of rice) and increased our hike length and elevation accumulation. By May 23rd we'd hiked the longest trail we'd ever hiked - El Sombroso - 11.8 miles and 3,083ft.
Mt Umhamum as seen from El Sombroso peak.
It was half the distance of the Whitney Trail and nearly half the total elevation we would need...we were making progress.

Then we attempted Murietta Falls - a "butt kicker" as described by the trail book, leaving from Del Valle Lake along the Ohlone Trail. We had 20lb packs and started off strong, but the steep descent of 500ft into a valley and ascent up the other side broke our spirits. We'd not been mentally prepared to descent mid-hike, and we worried that we'd run out of steam to make the 500ft ascent on the way home. So we turned back, a 1.5 miles short of our goal.
The turn around point on way to Murietta Falls.
Two weeks later, we struck out for Mt Sizer in Henry Coe with 35lb packs and did the full loop - a whooping 15 miles and 4200 ft accumulated elevation. 
Mt Sizer hike.
Yes, we'd arrived back at the car in pitch darkness, hearts pumping because we let ourselves worry about mountain lion attacks, falling down steep ravines and axe murderers - things that rarely happen but just might in the dark - well, maybe not the axe murderers, but we do watch too much TV!

Yes, we were nearly crippled the following day with aching legs, backs, arms ... well, everything, but we knew that as far as distance and elevation gain went, we were well on course for Mt Whitney. We just had to figure out the camping, the food, and the plumbing!

The hikes that followed that were fun and easily knocked off the list - Mission Peak,
Me pointing at Mission peak summit were we'd just visited.

Mount Montara,
View from Mt Montara, near Pacifica, CA
 and a few blasts around Santa Teresa Park.

We decided to return to Henry Coe to practice backpacking. We only hiked far enough to find a campsite (1 mile!) and set up camp with a gorgeous view.
Campsite at Henry Coe
There were toilets too - so the plumbing was sorted out...or was it!

The pit toilet (called a long drop in some places) hadn't been used in a while and there were spiders everywhere. They'd strung their webs right across the opening of the toilet. We found big sticks and put on our head lamps. As I looked down the toilet, the light bounced on something in the pit, in a flash of horror, I thought it was a toddler standing down there about three feet tall. (I do read far too much Stephen King!) I forced myself to look and saw that it was a tower of turds! What with the drought and the ultra dry conditions, waste moisture was being wicked away immediately but the poops were landing roughly in the same spot each time and staying there without a cesspit to slough about in. The turd tower was building up like a stalagmite in a limestone cave, except this was a stalagshite!

Over the weeks we'd been experimenting with the freeze dried food packs and had selected our favorites. My Husband had thrown himself into the tech side of the project buying a Garmin, a personal locator beacon and most importantly a Jet Boil stove. This thing can boil water in a matter of minutes and it proved to be amazing.
The Jetboil
To filter water, he got us a gravity fed micro fiber filter but all the springs in Henry Coe had dried up so we practiced using the tanked-in water they provided.

Everything worked like clockwork, except for the sleeping bit - our foam mats were not soft enough and we couldn't get comfortable. We didn't sleep a wink and got up just before sunrise, packed up camp and headed for home.

After some research we decide to buy some ultra light backpacking thermarests. Our pack's weights were at their limit. We didn't want to carry any more than 35lbs. The thermarests were pricey but still less expensive than a night in a hotel. My Husband, not a fan of camping, refused to go backpacking just to try out our new sleep system, so we decided to put the tent up at home for one night. Embarrassed to be seen by our neighbors emerging bedraggled in the morning, we put the tent up on the bedroom floor.

We needed to make a pillow too. It reminded me of that scene in Apollo 13 when the guy says "You need to make this work with this using that." Only using what we were bringing, we shoved our spare clothes (there was very little to spare actually) and our puffa jackets into the stuff bags from our sleeping bags. The new mattresses worked well and by 1am we were both sound asleep in our tent on our bedroom floor. I awoke at 5am needing to pee. Getting out of the tent, I woke up My Husband. Since the purpose of the experiment was to determine if we could go to sleep on those mattresses and we'd proved that we could, we decided mission accomplished - it was okay to sleep in our own bed again. It didn't take us long to scramble into the real bed!

Two days later we attempted Murietta Falls again. And failed! My Husband wasn't feeling well. He'd developed a rash or been bitten by something on his hip. We suspected a spider bite... the wee monster had seemed to chow down, walk about and then chomp a little more. So my husband was feeling weak and sore, and we turned back, this time only one mile short of the falls.
The turnaround point for the 2nd Murietta Falls attempt

Would we ever make it up to the Falls and was this an omen for the Mount Whitney Hike in less than three weeks?

To be continued....

Byddi Lee