A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Monday, March 23, 2009

Snowy Peaks and Cloud Forests

Well, it didn't take too much to wash the bitter taste of Mt. Mitchell away. Fortunately, a New Hampshire snow mountaineering training course and then a jaunt to the Costa Rica cloud forest with Esperanza came on that trip's heels, and provided great new thrills!

The EMS snow mountaineering course and one-day guided ascent of Mt. Washington certainly "took me out of my comfort zone," as they say--and then some! The stuff we did (two other guys I didn't know and an instructor named Craig) on day one was well beyond what I thought we might do that early. I expected the self-arrest, crampon and ice ax travel, and glissade training. But not the rope travel seminar or rappel. The most breathless moment was learning to frontpoint up a short steep section while roped up. I didn't get the hang of stuff as fast as the other guys, who were more experienced on snow (and probably not as freaked by heights). But while my heartbeat raced and I was sweating bullets at time, I never panicked or lost it. So I came out fairly proud of myself.

Day two was just me and a guide named Ethan ascending Mt. Washington from Pinkham Notch up Lion's Head. A mostly sunny day that turned more cloudy as it progressed. Mild temps by NH standards (40s at the bottom, I suppose 20s on top before the wind chill, but peak winds of maybe 75, Ethan was calculating). First time using ski poles on the lower section. Pretty cool. Then the crampons and ax came out. Learning to cross over and snake up sideways with ax in hand was strenous and challenging. Layers went on as we got further up and it got more exposed and windy. Incredible views as we looked back down, but it mostly required a lot of continuous focus and effort and didn't feel much like a pleasure jaunt! So cool to be on top! Amazinginly cold once you stop, even out of the wind. Hands freeze rapidly. Going up to the true summit with the sign and obligatory photo spot was a highlight. Another was the exposed fence you can lean on and over and get the full force of torrential winds that you do everything you can to keep from knocking you over.

Going down was technically much tougher, if not as physically taxing. Lots of more experienced or just less fearful folks just zoomed by. I had to pick my way down more carefully. There was enough ice (more than usual on that route, apparently), and I was not so trusting of my crampons and ability to use them, so my mind was screaming for caution. On one set of steep "snow stairs" (uneven, irregular) I caught a crampon on the other while trying to switch which direction I was lowering myself down sidewise and feel on my side and slide down. A few steps below, Ethan caught me. Of course, I had dropped my ax and the ski pole he had added to help my balance. So much for self-arrest training! (It somehow threw me off to have something in both hands, and to have to keep switching hands, I think). Scared the $%8 of me! Just thinking of what could have happened. Not a free fall, but would have flown feet first into some trees next to the steps, caught a crampon and surely broken or twisted or torn something had he not caught me. I struggled to regain my composure and get my head together after that.

Seeing how slowly I was progressing downward, and with other EMS guided groups coming up on us, Ethan and the other guides decided to organize a few unharnessed, arm to arm rappels down a few steep sections after that. Not as secure a feeling as the harnessed rappel I'd learned the day before, but felt good to have that assistance. Then it was the long bottom section back on ski poles and boots, as we struggled to make it in my sunset, and just did. I think we did just about 4 1/2 hours up, an hour on top including lunch and views, and about 4 hours coming down. I was definitely a slow descender.

I'm still digesting the experience a few weeks later, but I enjoyed it a lot and found it be really challenging. It took incredible concentration and will power for me. That one fall put an immediate damper and what would have been a 100% positive experience otherwise. But as time passes the overall experience stands out mor than those few seconds. It's not something I think I could have imagined myself doing earlier in my life. I feel like I crossed some kind of boundary. But I'm conscious of other limits, too. Can't imagine doing this without an experienced guidance and expert company. Could never get the hang of the knots and ropes and such, so un-mechanical am I. And I know I'm not the most coordinated person, and that clumsiness increases with tiredness. So I realize that it would take lots of practice time, further training, great concentration, and making sure to have a good margin for error it I'm to take some humble next steps in this process. But I *am* eager to have a go at some kind of guided course and ascent of Rainier this summer, that much I can say!

As for the cloud forest part of this post, well, just a few days later Esperanza went off to beautiful Costa Rica. We stayed four nights at an Ecolodge run by the University of Georgia near the town of Monteverde, and the last night at a nice little inn run by the Von Trapp family near the airport. Wonderful experience. The lodge, San Luis, in the middle of a slightly warmer section of the forest down in the valley below Monteverde. Esperanza found it quite an adventure to make the 15-minute walk back to our room amidst the forest using headlamp and flashlight. The first night there having just arrived and not being well oriented, we missed the turn on the dirt road, and almost walked right into the river just past it, before we realized our mistake!

The wonderful resident naturalists at the lodge took us on a night hike guided by headlamp to see insects and other exotic little creatures. To the nearby beautiful waterful, which was a nice 3-4 mile RT hike. Spectacular! And to a nearby organic coffee farm and grinder, which were really interesting to see close up (especially me having just taught a book about fair trade coffee production in Mexico!). The communal meals at the lodge were great, and besides the interesting naturalists, we meet lots of interesting folks, like those from an environmental NGO who accompany scientists around the world in helping them conduct research (in this case on birds' impacts on coffee farming).

The true highlights were undoubtedly the guided trip to Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and then another day to a less-visited nearby preserve whose name I forget now. We saw so much flora and fauna at Monteverde we wouldn't have known where to look for it wasn't funny (tartantulas in their daytime holes, exotic little rodents, the rare Quetzal multi-colored bird, butterflies and birds galore, the list goes on and one)! Such dense forest! Then we had time on our own, and took a beatiful hike up to the continental divide, at 3,000 or so feet, where you could see both the Caribbean and Pacific from the same spot. Had our lunch up in that area. Beautiful views out over the jungle and toward the sea. Well-maintained trails. Sun coming in and out, and low-hanging mist and clouds everywhere...you know, cloud forest!

At the other preserve, called Bosque Eterno de los Nin~os, and with a main trail called Sendero Bajo del Tigre (gotta love those names!), we basically had it all to ourselves, as opposed to the somewhat numerous but well spread out (and well behaved) folks with guides at Monteverde. A couple of hours of mostly admiring the exuberant flora, and mostly hearing but not see the abundant fauna. But THEN, after hearing the howls and following them, not far from the exit/entrance, we came upon...the Capuchin monkeys!

These were the guys we'd come looking for! Maybe eight or 10 of them, feeding in the trees while hanging upside down or rightside up, and not at all spooked by us, at times maybe 20-30 feet away. The smaller ones, presumably young and/or female, following behind the much larger dominant males, who seemed to be leading the way as they passed through in a procession, each stopping to feed periodically. We must have admired them for a good 10-15 minutes, just in total awe, and taking pictures like mad! Then once they finally all traveled out of view, and we got back to our car, Esperanza spotted yet another (or the same?) group of monkeys, in the trees right above and beside our car! Again we admired them for 5-10 minutes, and got some more great pictures. These were among the most exciting moments of the trip.

Besides a great lunch we had at a cafe/bakery our last day in Monteverde, and the nice visit to the terrarium to see the exotic frogs, another memorable aspect was just the experience of driving with 4wD on incredibly primitive back roads for the last hour or so of the trip to/from San Jose, and in the area around our lodge. At times reduced to 10-15 mph, and on slopes so steep you had to downshift all the time to brake or climb.! It's so great they keep the area protected from development by not paving the roads, which they easily could do. Great way to make it a haven for ecotourism. The only downside was that it made the El Arenal volcano (which I'd seen on my trip back in 2000 or 2001 when I was first there) too far for a daytrip in practice, even if by mileage and based on the map you would think it would be no problem Slow going on those roads, but no matter, there was so much to do in Monteverde, we just scratched the surface, and we just loved the downtime at our lodge, nestled in the jungle. Had a couple awesome short trail runs on the dirt roads and single-track trails in the early mornings! Once you got out to the "main road" (still primitive dirt), which passed by farmhouses and a little school, etc., you faced unending, steep hills that left you breathless!

In fact, breathless is a good word to describe the entire experience of both these trips!

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