Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Category: Travel (page 1 of 4)

Airport Refugee

Over the Christmas week, I had a truly wonderful time in Jamaica hanging out with my folks, brother, and Katherine. We got to know quite a bit about Jamaicans through many interactions with locals and generally had a leisurely vacation of swimming, snorkeling, eating and drinking in perfect weather.

But that doesn’t make much of a story.

On the way home, we happened to connect through Houston, which was in the throes of “Winter Storm Goliath” (Is there a non-sensationalistic, non-media reason to start naming these things?) I will just give you the play-by-play:

Sunday 1430: Leave Montego Bay on time, as scheduled
Sunday 1600: Pilot warns us of bad weather in Houston and the likely turbulent landing
Sunday 1640: Pilot attempts landing. I feel like I’m on an amusement park ride. Someone pukes in the back of the plane, setting off a rather unfortunate chain reaction. After a terrifying ten minutes of this, I feel G-forces pulling me down. The pilot has abandoned the landing and decides to go to Corpus Christi instead. I wonder how and when we will eventually get back to Houston.
Sunday 1730: Plane lands in Corpus Christi
Sunday 1830: Plane is still on the tarmac. Pilot informs us that another plane is in our way at the intended gate.
Sunday 1930: Still haven’t moved. Pilot informs us that they have “timed out” as per FAA regulations, and will have to deplane in Corpus Christi. Unfortunately we can’t because it’s an international flight and we have to go through customs.
Sunday 2100: We finally move to the gate, after the airline lines up enough personnel to manage customs and immigration. Pilot informs us that there is also a mechanical problem with the pressurization system.
Sunday 2200: Get through customs after waiting an hour. Wait another hour and a half for everyone to get their new flight itineraries. A TV showing The weather channel spews drama about the storm.
Sunday 2330: Get new flight itinerary: a 0930 flight from Houston to SFO then 1600 flight to SLC. Receive a hotel voucher and some meal coupons from United. We pack about 12 people into a small van to go to the hotel.
Monday 0030: Reach the hotel, get a room, go to bed. We inquire about the free airport shuttle and realize that it can only hold 10 people and there are 180 people on our flight. We decide to get up early.
Monday 0430: Get up and notice a discomfort in my right ear. It feels like I have water in it. I try and shake it out to no avail. We grab the next shuttle. There is a minimal wait. When checking in, we hear that the flight to Houston (which would finally finish our flight leg) has been delayed until 1000.
Monday 0600: Go through security and enjoy the free wifi. I am grateful that I brought my laptop and can get some work done.
Monday 1030: Board plane to Houston. Our SFO flight was delayed until 1100. We are scheduled to arrive at 1130.
Monday 1130: Arrive at IAH. Go to United Customer Service to get back in line with a whole bunch of really pissed-off people.
Monday 1230: Atmosphere is toxic. Hispanic family starts throwing racial slurs at African-American employee behind the desk. She calls the police.
Monday 1300: Line lemmings are annoyed that employee is talking with airport police rather than helping us get new itineraries.
Monday 1330: Get third itinerary of the trip. There is only one seat on the next flight to Salt Lake. Katherine gets it and I get a standby ticket. My ear is hurting more and more.
Monday 1700: Get a call from United customer service that a seat opened up on the later flight to SLC (2100). I get it, and relax.
Monday 1730: K boards the plane bound for SLC. I am second on the standby list. Everybody boards, and the gate agent checks the remaining seats — two left. I am pretty stoked, as I am finally headed home. The agent hands me a tag to gate check my roller bag and I walk down the jetbridge. I go to find my seat, and there is somebody there. It seemed too good to be true. The flight attendant tells me she has some “bad news.” I do the jetbridge walk of shame back to the waiting area and, on the way, note that my bag is well on its way to SLC. I feel rather light with only my computer bag. I don’t like not having any toiletries or a change of clothes.
Monday 1800: The gate agent prints out my boarding pass for the next flight. I feel pretty exhausted, so I go and buy a coffee and wander over to another terminal for the later flight.
Monday 2000: The flight is delayed three hours right off the bat. My stomach sinks a little. I decide to buy some tylenol for my ear, as it’s really starting to hurt.
Monday 2210: Finally get hungry again and realize all the restaurants in the airport just closed. Walk over to a different terminal to buy whatever food I can. All that’s left are some chips and yogurt parfaits. I munch on these snacks while watching a replay of a Premier League game.
Monday 2330: Walk back to the gate. Flight is delayed another hour. People around me are upset. I bite my tongue.
Tuesday 0115: Incoming flight finally arrives. Waiting area is notified that flight attendants are cleaning plane. We gather in excitement to board. Then are notified that pilots are “tired” and don’t think they can safely fly. I am devastated. But they will try and line ‘another’ flight staff up. I already know how this will end.
Tuesday 0230: Notified that the flight has been cancelled. A few people start running towards the customer service desk, fully aware that we are all competing for a limited number of seats to SLC the next day. I join them.
Tuesday 0330: The line moves faster than usual. I get to the counter and facepalm while waiting for itinerary #4 from the agent. She is visibly displeased and lets me know there are no open seats to SLC all day on any flight. She can put me on standby and give me a seat for a 1430 flight on Wednesday. I ask to be put on “priority” standby due to my situation. She doesn’t know how to do it and asks for help, then informs me that I am #15 on the standby list. I imagine myself strangling her. She suggests waiting in the airport and getting a “nice big breakfast.” The thought of waiting another six hours in the airport makes me want to cry. I demand a hotel room, even if it is for two hours. The standby flight is at 0920.
Tuesday 0400: I have received a taxi voucher to get to the hotel since the shuttle doesn’t run at 4am. The taxi driver gets off on the wrong exit and then seems lost. I see the comedy in the situation and am simultaneously amused and baffled at the incompetence surrounding me. I am quite hungry but ignore it.
Tuesday 0410: Walk into my hotel room, turn on the light, drop my computer bag, take off my clothes, pull back the sheets, set the alarm, and turn off the light. Simplest hotel stay ever.
Tuesday 0645: Alarm goes off. I dress and stumble back down the hallway, catching the airport shuttle right away. Check in and wait in yet another security line. I feel like a sheep. Baaaaa
Tuesday 0800: Get to the gate for the SLC flight and decide that I need to be the first person to talk to the gate agent. I am out of tylenol and realize I have a full-on ear infection, something I’ve never experienced as an adult.
Tuesday 0830: Gate agent arrives and I explain my situation. She doesn’t understand how they didn’t find an alternate connection and immediately puts me on a 1430 flight to Denver, then tells me that she will find a connecting flight to SLC later. This makes me very happy. I decide to wait out boarding to see how standby pans out.
Tuesday 0900: The flight is mostly boarded and three people on standby get seats. I think to myself, fuck standby.
Tuesday 0930: Get breakfast with a meal voucher, which covers the whole meal. It is my first real food in 15 hours. I feel like an airport refugee.
Tuesday 1330: The United iOS app says I have a seat, but I don’t have a boarding pass yet which makes me nervous. This flight is making me more paranoid than any other flight in my life. I talk to the gate agent and she checks the computer, murmuring something like “that’s strange.” I feel like I’m drowning. After an agonizing few minutes she prints out two boarding passes for me, IAH > DEN and DEN > SLC. I refuse to gain any hope for fear of it being dashed yet again.
Tuesday 1430: I board the plane and get a window seat. Nobody kicks me off, and the plane soon starts taxiing. I expect the pilot to suddenly become ill. No PA announcement comes on announcing mechanical problems with the plane. We take off.
Tuesday 1920: Flight takes off from Denver after a 20 minute delay. I am in agony from my ear. The pressure changes make it worse. I strongly regret not buying more tylenol in Denver.
Tuesday 2000: Touch down in SLC, 54 hours after leaving Montego Bay. It feels surreal. I can’t imagine sleeping a whole night with this ear pain, so K picks me up and we go directly from the airport to the clinic. They take care of me. It is over.

Trekking to Machu Picchu

Hiya everybody! K and I are back from our five-day trek in the Salkantay region of Peru. It was fabulous and we feel quite fortunate to have booked the tour with a respectable company hiring top-of-the-line chefs and guides.

As you probably know, we don´t typically hire guides for our outdoor adventures. When you´re traveling internationally, though, I think it can be worthwhile to pay somebody else to handle the logistics. This was certainly true for a hike to Machu Picchu, the most popular attraction on the entire continent of South America!

Man, was it ever worth it. The trip involved four bus rides, one train ride, a hotel stay, and three nights of camping. The food was absolutely outstanding — we were offered the entire range of Peruvian classics, from Chicha Morada (a drink made from a native variety of blue corn) to Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef) to Rocoto Relleno (stuffed roasted red pepper). I could easily dedicate an entire post to the food — each meal had at least three dishes (even breakfast), usually with a soup starter.

We went with Salkantay Trekking, mostly because of their superior website and above-average price (paying a little more for a reputable company seemed like a good idea). After a pre-trip briefing the night before the trip, we headed back to our hostel in Cusco and packed up. They gave us a good-sized duffle bag per person that would be carried by horse or bus between camps (score!) so we didn´t need to go super-light as on a typical backpacking trip. We woke up at 4am in order to be ready to be picked up by 430 — sure enough, Ramiro, our intrepid leader, was there to grab us. We picked up the other four people in our group, two Canadians and two Brits, and set off on a three-hour bus ride to Mollapata, the starting point of our hike. Along the way we stopped at a Restaurante “Turistico” (a sure sign of mediocre food) for a breakfast of eggs, fruit, bread and coffee.

The first day was a relatively easy hike up 8km or so to our first camp, at the end of the road. We had great views of Humantay (5,917m/19,400ft), a rather intimidating-looking glaciated peak to the North. Much of the walk was adjacent to a still-in-use aqueduct built by the Incas several centuries ago. It was a gorgeous path, smooth, flat, and gradually traversing a mountainside with the river raging one thousand feet below. Periodically we would stop to take a break and Ramiro would explain a bit of Inca history or to describe some of the flora along the trail. A native Cusqueñan, he was obviously quite proud of his heritage and eager to share the natural and cultural wonders of the region.

Incan aqueduct

Incan aqueduct

By noon we had reached Soraypampa, a tiny settlement in a wide valley flanked by huge mountains on all sides. The company had set up semi-permanent structures for our tents as well cook tents, helping to keep out the bitter chill of the area, at around 3800m (12,500ft) The six of us saddled up around a table in one of the tents for lunch and were pleasantly surprised with a multi-course meal with plenty of tea to keep us hydrated. Then, we were allowed a few hours’ rest before setting off on a hike up to Humantay Lake to aid with acclimatization. K and I happily napped, and woke up with plenty of time to start hiking.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

The hike was a gradual uphill, and after an hour and a half we crested a hill to the base of the lake, at a lofty 4,270m (14k ft). Humantay towered above us and occasionally sloughed off pieces of its glacier with a roar, creating a dramatic atmosphere. We hung out for a half hour or so before it started to get chilly. The hike down seemed long but went quickly. After a few minutes’ rest we were announced that “happy hour” was ready. This was really just a euphemism for afternoon tea, as we were served various biscuits, cookies, and occasionally something more ornate like a savory pie, along with coca or another herbal tea.

Happy hours were generally the most social times of the trek, as we had a couple of hours on a daily basis to get to know our trekking partners. We talked about travel, national identities, and the usual subjects when people from differing nationalities gather (in our case all anglophones). Typically by seven dinner was served, and we gorged ourselves on traditional peruvian delicacies, especially impressive given the rustic environment. The trek served as an excellent and unexpected introduction to Peruvian cuisine!

That night was quite chilly (the coldest of the trek) and we were back in our tents by 8, as the plan was to rise by pre-dawn to get a head start on a big day, with 22km (14 miles) of hiking.

“Room Service” arrived punctually at 5am — a worker serving coca tea tent-side. We quickly packed up, ambled over to the dining tent for breakfast, ate, and were on the trail by 6:30. The day’s trek would be the hardest of the trip, involving an 800m climb up and over Salkantay pass at over 4600m (15,100ft), then back down the other side, dropping another 1800m to the next campsite. The clouds started to clear up just in time to reveal the massive Salkantay (6300m/21k ft) dominating the Eastern skyline. This time, the glacier was less than a couple kilometers away. We stopped a couple times along the way for snacks and were joined by 100+ tourists (mostly North Americans, seemingly). Luckily the path was quite large, more like a road, so it never seemed too bad. It just certainly wasn’t a wilderness experience.

By 10am or so we reached the pass. Ramiro explained the locals’ tradition of creating an offering for the Apu, or mountain, at the top of each major pass, and we all stoically placed the small stone we had each gathered at the trailhead. He tucked a coca leaf beneath our stones and we all said some words. There were hundreds of cairn-like piles of rock at the pass summit.

At the Pass!

At the Pass!

With that as our climax, we began the knee-jarring descent, and by noon reached the next town, where we stopped for lunch. It was another delicious meal, but by the end, it was lightly drizzling outside with no signs of slowing down. So we all hunkered down in our raincoats and distracted ourselves with music or an audiobook. For the locals, of course, it was just another few miles in the rain. No biggie. During the hike, our environs almost imperceptibly changed from alpine tundra to jungle. The clouds would flow in and around the lush green mountainsides making for a gorgeous last few hours on an old Inca road. We made it to camp by 5pm or so for a long 11 hours of walking. The evening was similar to the last — hours of cheerful talking around a neverending spread of snacks, dishes and tea. Not too shabby for a quasi-backpacking trip!

Once again, after another tremendous night’s sleep (well, for me anyway) we rose pre-dawn for breakfast. The day’s hike would be another pretty one, starting on a road and then crossing a swollen river to a nice smooth path on the other side. In their usual enterprising fashion, a few of the locals had set up rest areas along the walk to sell snacks, water, and access to a real, flushing toilet . By noon we had reached another trailhead, which began the disjointed part of the trek. We were bussed to the nearest local town for lunch. Pretty much all the tour groups, maybe 60-80 people, were gathered on a second-floor deck for lunch. Our cooks showed off a bit with ornate centerpieces for each plate (Mr. Potatohead carved into a gourd, a shark crafted out of a potato) and we all stuffed ourselves silly. The rest of the day would involve nothing but sitting on a bus or bathing in hot springs, so there was no need to hold back.

Nom nom

Nom nom

At this point we said farewell to our new British friends, Rachel and Ruby, as they had signed up for the four-day version of the same trek. They were off to Machu Picchu Pueblo that evening while we had an extra day in Santa Teresa (1600m). We enjoyed the natural hot springs with Matt and Ashley and were back to the camp spot by dusk. There we were sold, err, shown, a promotional video for a newly-established zipline operation nearby, which, of course, we had just enough time for the next morning!

The morning broke rainy again, so we delayed the zipline until 730 for the clouds to burn off. For those not in the know, a zipline is basically a thick steel cable suspended over a canyon. One wears a full-body harness and is attached to the line with a pulley, and you zip down the line, hopefully with enough momentum to pull yourself up the last bit at the other end. This one wasn’t too steep, but the longest was over 900m long (half a mile!) making for a nice long ride. It was fun, though my thorough desensitization from heights and exposure may have detracted from the experience. Doing a superman (where the pulley attaches behind you so you can ‘fly’) was pretty sweet though, as it did feel a bit like flying.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful — we took a bus to Hidroelectrica, the ‘town’ at the end of the rail line to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and walked the rest of the way along the tracks. At one point we got a great view of the watchman’s hut way up high above the valley. This really piqued our excitement as Machu Picchu promised to be quite the grand finale!

Machu Picchu at last

At last, we woke up at the earliest time yet — 4am, in order to be at the gate for the road by 4:30 so we could be first in line to hike up to the park entrance.  MP is incredibly popular, and most of the tourists take the bus, but if you maintain a fast pace you can beat the crowds to the gate and be some of the first people in.  This really is worth it, as by 11am you’re walking in single file queues to get anywhere.

This is exactly what we did, as Ramiro set a blistering pace up the steep trail.  We made it to the park gates at around 5:45, beating the first bus by 10 minutes or so — very satisfying when you’ve busted your ass walking up 1,800 vertical feet!  Sure enough, our group was the first in.  We headed straight in, and Ramiro gave us ten minutes or so to take it all in before starting the excellent tour.

What a breathtaking place — an ancient city perched on the rib of a mountain, surrounded on all sides by huge mountains, with a thousand foot drop into deep valleys to the North and South.  Clouds swirled around us, occasionally lifting to reveal incredible vistas. We snapped pictures and soaked in the mystery of it all – quiet, majestic yet serene.



Ramiro started off with a brief history of the Incan Empire — Construction of MP began in the last few years before the Spanish invaded, and it was never completed. About 60% of what you currently see there was rebuilt — something I at first disliked, but about which have come around. The original ruins, while certainly authentic, would be much less impressive without the completed walls. Moreover, it is trivially easy to distinguish between the old and new, as the original construction is of a masterful quality.

Thus, we set off for the most interesting structures in the city. I won’t delineate each and every room of the visit, as my memory wouldn’t do them justice, but the tour was superb. Of special interest was the famous Inti Watana stone, serving as an astronomical clock and calendar. We were lucky enough to visit just after sunrise on June 22, the day after the winter solstice, on which the stone cast the second-longest shadow of the year. Later on, Ramiro brought to our attention a large carved rock which almost perfectly matched the silhouette of the mountainous eastern skyline — magnificent!

The tour lasted for a couple hours, hitting the most interesting spots in the city before winding back around to our original point. I was greatly inspired by the surroundings and couldn’t stop taking pictures, which I’ll post when we get back home. We said an emotional farewell to Ramiro, who by that point had assumed a bit of a fatherly figure after shepherding us around for five days, and went back to the entrance area for a break. There we said goodbye to Matt and Ashley, who were off to hike Huayna Picchu (the mountain in the background of all the classic MP pictures), and headed back in to tour the grounds by ourselves. We spent most of the day lounging around the upper terraces, reveling in the spectacular surroundings and general lack of people, before heading back down to the city for another look. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long as the hoards of people became a bit too much, and we reluctantly headed back down in the early afternoon. After another hour of descending we had a rather mediocre lunch in Aguas Calientes before doing a bit of shopping and coffee shop lounging, and were on the train back to civilization by 6pm.

What a great trek! We are enormously fortunate to have had the right combination of good company, a small group, an amazing guide, and excellent food, all for a rather moderate price. I wholeheartedly recommend Salkantay Trekking for your tour if you are headed Machu Picchu way — of course, ask for Ramiro!

Grand Canyon 2012 Part One — Preparation

I’ve been doing a fair number of river trips the last few year, and haven’t really posted a whole lot about them here. Over the last four years I’ve done five major trips and a scattering of shorter 1-2 dayers: Desolation Canyon twice, Cataract Canyon once, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon last year (July 2011). The Middle Fork trip was the highlight of the bunch: a small river running through stunning, remote mountain scenery in central Idaho. Ninety-three miles over seven days resulted in a nice relaxed pace, with plenty of time to hang out, read, hike, go on hikes, or have beers around a fire. Just about perfect.

After that trip, I figured the next year would be hard to beat. I wasn’t even all that excited about doing a trip this year and was content to take that extra time to do a climbing trip or two instead. The one trip that might be able to beat it was the Grand Canyon, so I applied to a follow-up lottery in late March, fully appreciating the low odds. I actually thought I might have missed the deadline when I remembered it at 12:30pm the last day of the lottery, but logged on and submitted regardless. Must have lucked out as Arizona is in either Mountain or Pacific Time depending on Daylight Savings.

Sure enough, I get an email a few hours later congratulating me on winning a permit! I could hardly believe it as I pretty much applied on a whim, not really sure if I even had the time to do it. I didn’t even specify an alternate trip leader in case I couldn’t go. July seventh was the date, so I immediately emailed some river-running friends to try and drum up interest. I had about two weeks to finalize some details and pay permit fees (almost $800!) so it was a bit stressful getting commitments so quickly. I got six firm commitments which was good enough for submitting the application, so we were off, with another three months or so to fill the remaining two spots (it was a small-sized permit with a maximum of eight people).

It was remarkably difficult filling those last two spots, especially as we focused on finding interested women to balance out the genders. There was some interest, but after six weeks or so of deliberation I tried to get firm commitments unsuccessfully. We were back to square one with about a month left before the launch date. However, after removing the gender limitation we filled the remaining spots pretty quickly (surprise surprise), and everything seemed to be coming into place. I had notified my clients of my impending absence, cleared it with Katherine, and seven of us rendezvoused in Salt Lake on July 5th to gather gear and pack the coolers. Cooler organization was a nightmare, as we had to find a way to keep food cold for fifteen days in 100 degree heat. We elected to aim for twelve days of cool food, with the food split over three coolers. Only one cooler would be accessed at a time, while the rest would be sealed with duct tape to preserve its contents. That meant figuring out which meal would go in which cooler for 24 meals. I did my best but it ended up being less than ideal as a lot of ice had already melted.

The next day we took off in two vehicles, one of which would be meeting Cam in St. George. He was driving from San Diego to meet us. The pick-up went smoothly and we ran some last minute errands in Page, AZ before arriving in Lees Ferry at around 11pm. Loading and rigging took all morning the next day, and by 1-2PM all three boats were rigged and we were good to go!

Part two

Adios Barcelona

Well, it´s my last day here in Barcelona, and I wanted to write a quick post before leaving later this morning. I´m typing this up at a public computer of my hostel, which has been a lively place to stay four nights at. I feel a bit old for the daily-clubbing college scene here, but it´s a nice location with nice facilities. Katherine and I had a fantastic week in France and Spain, touring Nîmes and Carcassonne before making our way over the border to Barça. Today I´m meeting up with a friend (currently living in Spain) to go climbing in Margalef, one of the newer locations of Spain´s ridiculous hard-climbing scene. I´m really looking forward to it after not climbing for three weeks (an eternity for me!). And yes, there are apparently a host of moderates to entertain a non-sporto like myself.

Barcelona has been fantastic, it´s a big city with a rich history and a vitality I haven´t seen in any other city. I never really explored the nightlife since it´s not really my thing, but definitely did the beach thing (there are miles and miles of excellent beaches on either side of the city) as well as a ton of sightseeing, mostly with a focus on the Roman history in the area. More on this (hopefully) later.

But for now, I´m off to pull on pockets in Margalef. Venga!


It’s a lazy Wednesday, as I was roused by the impossibly bright Provençal sun at nine this morning. The weather has been perfect for sleeping, around 60 degrees minimum, and I have yet to close my bedroom window in the three nights I’ve spent there. My wonderful Great-aunt and uncle, who rented this house almost a year prior, unfortunately were unable to make it. Louise’s health has been deteriorating, and she was determined to make the most of her holiday rather than be cooped up in the house all week.

The house

They have certainly been missed — the house is much too big for the four of us (my folks, brother and I).

We spent varying amounts of time with them at their estate in the UK. I flew in last and was picked up at Heathrow by my father and Great-uncle (who hasn’t seemed to age in ten years!), then spent a day getting over jet lag. We took a train to the Southern coast and spent the day in Brighton, touring the decadent mansion of Louis XIV and wandering the pebbled beach admiring the salty sea waves. Before long we were saying our goodbyes and on a train to France.

The original idea was to rent (“hire”) a car in Lille and tour the French countryside over three days, staying in hotels along the way. We seemed to underestimate the size of the country, though, as we likely spent more time in the car as on our feet, often in a relentless rain. Chambéry was especially nice, nestled in the outskirts of the French Alps, with an exceptional Sunday market to browse as the fog and rain slowly lifted over the valley mid-morning. Sunday afternoon found us in sunny Provence, where the weather has since hardly changed, and we took full advantage of the pool and ping-pong table the next day.


Yesterday we drove through much of the Provençal countryside (through some stunning tree-lined roads) on our way to the Gorges du Verdon, the largest canyon in Europe. It was nice to tour a natural spectacle for once, rather than the castles, museums and cobbled streets of typical European vacations. The Verdon was spectacular, half as big yet much steeper as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, with a road hugging its cliffsides the entire way. We escaped the car for a nice hike at the canyon bottom, with the overhanging limestone cliffs above us and emerald-green river at our side. I was trying to spot climbers but saw none — probably a bit warm this time of year.

So here we are, halfway through the week in our home in Provence, off to Ménerbes and the Coustellet farmer’s market this afternoon. On Saturday we’ll make our way to Marseille, with Sunday a travel day and the start of the next phase of the adventure…

Europe bound

Well, it’s been a long time coming (over a year now?), but I’m off to Europe on Sunday. I feel like I’ve been telling people about the pending trip for eons, and have started resorting to the terse cliff-notes version out of fatigue. To be honest, I really haven’t been all that excited about it, preferring to live in the moment and enjoy my summer and all the traveling I’ve been doing around the west.

That’s starting to change. Katherine has been the impetus, dropping off tour books and various literature for her sake as much as my own. It should be a non-rushed trip with three countries on the agenda, including one which I’ve never been.

In case you haven’t gotten the brief from me directly, here’s the (rough) agenda:

Aug 21 – Depart from SLC to Chicago. Long story as to why I’m spending the night here…
Aug 22 – Chicago -> London. I’ve never had a non-overnighter across the Atlantic, and am frankly a bit confused why these flights even exist, as I get in at 10:45 and will undoubtedly be exhausted.
Aug 24 – London -> Northern France somewhere (Calais?). I’ll be with my folks and brother at this point and I believe we’ll be renting a car and heading through Eastern France (Champagne, etc.) on the way to Provence.
Aug 27 – Arrive at the house in Provence. Hopefully my Great-aunt and uncle will be able to meet us here for the week.
Sept 3 – Leave the house, go to Marseille, where my folks fly out and Katherine flies in. Begin dirtbagging it. We plan on making our way to Spain, and Barcelona eventually.
Sept 11 – Katherine flies out of Barcelona, leaving me by myself. I will continue the adventure traveling around Spain…
Sept 20 – Fly out of Madrid back to SLC.

Whew! For now I’m wrapping up a project at work and taking care of some odds and ends before my departure. My roommate will be holding down the fort at home (thank you!) throughout the duration.

See you all in a month!

Freelancing: One Year In

Well, technically it hasn’t quite been a year yet, but close enough for me to provide some perspective on my new career freedom.  I guess I quit my job at the end of June 2010, so I’ve been going at it for over eleven months now.  A few thoughts:

  • Holy God I’ve done a lot of traveling.  Several weeklong trips over the summer, dozens of weekend trips, an extended holiday trip: I’ve been all over the place.  Sometime around the end of last year I started realizing how much I’ve been getting around, and started collecting stats (this is for all of 2010):
    1. Overnight trips (at least one night away from home): 21
    2. Days away from home: 82 (divide that by 365, and I’m gone 22% of the time!)
    3. Nights sleeping in a tent: 36 (almost 10% of the time, which is kind of ridiculous as I’m a homeowner)

    And I was only freelancing for half of that year. This year has been pretty much the same, and this summer is shaping up to be the most epic yet — more on this later!

  • I’ve only had a handful of projects, but can already tell that I’m making leaps in my development ability, especially in Javascript.  I can bang out snazzy user interfaces in no time at all, much to my clients’ delight.  The short project timelines (typically less than a month) mean I’m regularly shipping code and building my portfolio.
  • I’m basically working for two companies right now, thanks to one friend who basically single-handedly launched my freelance career.  Thank you, Corey, you are amazing, and I’m so grateful our paths crossed not so many months ago.  Both are a joy to work with, are super laid back, and employ exceptionally talented and good-natured people (I swear I’m not trying to be a kiss-ass, though it’s probably coming out that way…)
  • There’s not a better time to be a freelance developer here in Salt Lake, especially in the advertising industry.  Even if freelancing isn’t your cup of tea, if you’re a halfway decent programmer, make sure you like where you’re at, because you have tons of options.  Just count the billboards advertising for programmers on I-15; it’s laughable.
  • One thing I run into from time to time is the feeling of being expendable (which, let’s face it, is often a reality).  Companies need to keep their employees busy before they can contract stuff out, which sometimes leave the less desirable projects for freelancers.  This might improve with a better relationship with each client (where they learn your strengths and weaknesses and can cater to them), and it may just be the nature of the job.

In short, though, so far so good!  I’ve got a jam-packed summer ahead of me, and I’m trying to save a bunch of money for my trip to Europe this fall while still packing in a few trips.

Yosemite: Part Two

Continued from part one

Tuesday: Royal Arches

After the long day Monday, we decide to stay in the valley. Royal Arches is on the list of climbs and is selected. It has a ten-minute approach, fifteen pitches of climbing, and an excellent position looking over the valley. While waiting in the parking lot for Matt, we witness a tourist almost back over his duffel bag with his enormous SUV, roll forward again, turn a bit, then proceed to drive fully over the bag. Unpleasant crunching sounds emanate and we wince from the other end of parking lot. Rough start to the day.

We have our own rough start as it takes us over a half hour to find the climb. (My bad!) Soon enough, though, we are squeezing up the first pitch’s 5.6 chimney. The route mostly consists of 30-70 foot sections of crack climbing followed by some 3rd/4th class scrambling. We spend several hours working our way up the wall, gaining height and an amazing view of the valley. By 7pm or so we’re out of water and at the top. Twelve rappels, one pulled rope with the knot still in it, and an impressive jimmy-rigged stick contraption get us back to the ground around 9:30. We’re all pretty wiped as we stumble back to Camp Four well after dark. (This would be a common theme…)

Wednesday: Go USA!

Both Matt J and I are huge soccer fans, so we agreed that we couldn’t miss the US-Algeria World Cup game. It is well worth seeing, as the US scores in dramatic fashion in the 92nd minute for the win and advancement out of the group stage. We spend the rest of the day sight-seeing and swimming in the Merced below the gaze of El Cap. It is an excellent rest day.

Stately Pleasure Dome

Glenn on South Crack, a stellar 5.8 on Stately Pleasure Dome

Thursday: Back to Tuolomne

We have a vague plan to go “dome-hopping” back in Tuolomne, and by 11am or so we’re at the base of Stately Pleasure Dome, racking up right off the road. We split into two parties again; Glenn and I choose the highly-rated South Crack while the Matts do West Country, a 5.7 on the main face.

The first two pitches contain some of the best crack climbing I have ever done, clean fingerlocks on impeccable rock. I place almost solely nuts on this section as it is perfectly suited for them. On the third pitch the route leaves the crack, sadly, to venture directly up with rather run-out 5.7 slab climbing. I lead each pitch, and enjoy every one (except maybe the last one, which is 5.2 or something). We meet the other lads at the top, take some pictures, and scramble back down to the car. Tenaya Lake reflects the sky and I take in my surroundings contentedly.

Next up is Lembert Dome, a couple miles’ drive away. This is another Dome practically right off the road, and we decide to do a two-pitch 5.6 called Northwest Books. The first pitch contains some interesting friction climbing, leading to a traverse below a roof and then a thought-provoking corner system. Unknowingly, I take the 5.9 variation (which is, realistically, the natural line) up the corner which is quite enjoyable. Glenn takes the next pitch of easy 5th class to the ridge. We scramble up to the summit and relish another phenomenal view of Tuolomne.

Friday: Half Dome

None of us were quite ready to spend a few days climbing El Cap, so we opt for the just-as-famous Half Dome. There is a 5.7 that sneaks up its South shoulder called Snake Dike. Half Dome is a difficult mountain to get to, and the approach involves a six mile hike, most of it on well-maintained hiking trails. Most of the time I don’t enjoy long approaches, but this is a very notable exception as we pass by two immense waterfalls. We take the aptly-named “Mist Trail,” and I scoff at the other hikers donning ponchos. After all, there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, right?

Stately Pleasure Dome

Looking North from the summit of Half Dome

Well, forty minutes later I’m at the top of Vernal Falls and drenched to the bone. The trail winds within a few hundred feet of the water, turning the surroundings into a permanent tropical rainforest. We snap some pics (one of an amusing sign) and continue on so we can warm up a bit. The trail continues up to the base of Liberty Cap (one of dozens of massive shields of Granite in the area), where we then leave it to get onto a climber’s trail which traverses below and around the Cap. Some bushwhacking and a heinous, loose scramble up slabs brings us to the base of the climb.

Snake Dike is renowned for being both really long and really run out. By this time, we had ample experience with both types of climbing, so the route itself is pretty much a cruise. Even 5.4 can be thought-provoking, however, when you’re 50 feet above your last bolt, but we try not to let it get to us and continue on and on over the 7-8 pitches. A final scramble leads us to the top, and the best panorama of the entire week (which is saying something!) It is a fitting final climb. The nine miles of hiking back to the Valley aren’t too brutal, and we again roll back into Camp Four after dusk.

Saturday: Bouldering

Matt and I rescheduled things so we could catch the next US game on Saturday, which turned out to be a bit of a bummer. Ghana beat us handily to eliminate us from the World Cup. The silver lining was that I was still in Yosemite! The rest of the lads were still beat from the day before, but I managed to sneak out for an hour to do some bouldering with our two very friendly British campmates. The sheer quantity and quality of boulder problems just above Camp Four was, again, staggering, and we only did a few before sputtering out. It had been a long week, and we were all hurting a bit. By 8pm the four of us were back in the car and headed back to Utah.

My photos

Matt J’s Photo Trip Report (excellent photos!)

Yosemite at Last

I started climbing back in May 2007. I was 22, and had just moved to Utah to start a new, brighter, more outdoor-oriented life. I haven’t stopped since; in fact, the longest I went without climbing was the month in Nepal. I’ve probably consistently climbed 2-3 times a week for the past three years.

Thus, it was only a matter of time before I made The Pilgrimage. Yosemite Valley is the spiritual home of American climbing, where the first Stonemasters fashioned their own gear and made their way up the massive granite cliffs by whatever means necessary. I had heard and read so much about the Valley and surrounding climbing that a visit was inevitable.

Four of us packed into a Honda Element (a sweet ride!) to drive over the night of June 19. We diagonally bisected the utterly barren state of Nevada and were in California by dawn. Yosemite is split into two parts: the Valley, far and away the most touristy, populated, and spectacular area, and Tuolumne Meadows, a large expanse of alpine wilderness consisting of granite domes, peaks, lakes and streams. Both areas are beautiful in their own way, and we spent some time in each.


We drive on the Yosemite highway through the valley in awe. Massive granite cliffs are everywhere. A large river to our left reflects the massive Sequoias and Douglas Firs towering towards the sky. We are all rather groggy but excited, and split up to look at wilderness permits and get a campsite at historic Camp 4. After an hour of waiting we get a site for the four of us. Glenn and I are psyched to climb so we gear up while the other two catch up on sleep. We walk over to some cliffs near the campsite and tackle a nice 5.7 in the shade, then toprope an adjacent 5.9 and .10a. Right around then I realized I wouldn’t be doing many challenging routes that week, not because of the difficulty of the climbing but rather my partners’ inexperience on granite. Oh well.

We take a nap, then all regroup to go for a drive and take pictures. As the sun is setting, we reach Glacier Point, on the other side of the valley. We take in a stunning view of Half Dome, the Toulumne alpine, and Yosemite Valley, then make our way back to camp.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley. The granite cliff on the left is El Capitan, over 3,000 feet tall.


I must say, I was quite pleased with my partners’ willingnesss to get after it. We get up decently early, pack in the car, and make the hour plus drive up to Tuolomne. The objective is Cathedral Peak, a spiny mountain jutting out of the high alpine at 10,900 feet. There are several technical routes to the top, and we choose a 6-pitch 5.6 for the ascent. The approach is difficult — due to a series of late spring storms, the snow is still deep and all the suncups make for frustrating hiking. It takes us a couple hours to get to the base, where we promptly run into a party of four retreating from the route.

Huh? I think, then turn around and look at the sky. Storm clouds are brewing to the east. They don’t look too threatening, so we sack up, rack up and start climbing. The rock is impeccable, with fun cracks and low-angle friction climbing. We cruise up the first few pitches, including a fun, exposed, step-around 5.7 move four pitches up. The “crux” 5.7 crack is above, and proves fun and a bit spicy. (It’s funny how different partners can totally change your psych level. Sometimes I’m gung-ho about leading .10c trad yet at times scared of 5.7…)

There is discussion of retreat, and as the storm clouds billow higher and higher we realize we’re covered in metal trinkets attached to a granite lightning rod. Yet the storm still hasn’t moved any closer and we proceed. The last pitch is a relief, leading to an incredible view of Tuolumne from a pool-table sized summit. We don’t dally and expedite the rappels in hopes of descending before the weather starts getting hairy.

It never does. We get a sprinkle of hail on the hike out, but are delighted at the day’s accomplishment. I suggest a route with a shorter approach for the next day…



Time for a rare forward-looking blog post.

EDIT: This post isn’t quite accurate anymore, as I’ve had to bail on this trip to be in a good friend’s wedding in NY. The river trip’s still on; this one, not so much. I’ll be back.

I try to keep myself busy, and it’s been a good winter. At least for my ice tools and crampons, not so much for the skis. It’s pretty clear where my priorities lie these days, and between work/climbing/girlfriend I’ve been staying pretty busy.

A couple years ago I was hoping to get in the groove of an international trip a year. This was right when I got back from Nepal — bitten hard by the travel bug. I haven’t been out of the country since.

That’s about to change. Well, actually, technically it’s not, but I don’t consider where I’m going to be part of this country anyway.

That should narrow it down for you. If not, think cold, think mountains, think glaciers, think BIG. I’m Alaska-bound. May 14 I’ll be flying into Anchorage en route to the Ruth Gorge, Denali National Park. I’ll be camping less then ten miles from the tallest mountain on the continent.

Oh, you’re going to climb Denali! How exciting! No. My aspirations have graduated from merely standing atop peaks to standing atop peaks via the most fun way possible. The Cassin Ridge isn’t quite attainable at this point in time, so the Ruth will have to do. Since we will only have a week or so on the glacier we’re looking at a few “smaller” routes, like Ham n Eggs or Peak 11,300. Because of the fickle weather up there, though, itineraries are useless, so all you can do is come up with the most inspiring line up the most inspiring peak possible and hope for the best. That’s what we’ll be doing. If we don’t spend the week storm-bound in a tent.

Oh, and I’m going on a river trip the week before that. Five days down Cataract Canyon in magnificent Canyonlands National Park. Woohoo!

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