Old mountain goats go high…

There shall be no settling down for these old dudes.   For once you suck the sweet high-alpine nectar, the idea of “acting our age” is really not an option at all!  So, we press on and up and quickly forget the suffering that climbing brings as we seek new terrain here in the Colorado Rockies.   Well, sometimes we forget.

Last time that I had attempted to climb to the summit of Mount Lindsey (14,048′) last year, I was met by an astonished young climber who said to me…

“Sir, when I am as old as you are, I sure hope that I’m also still climbing!”

Ok, I suspect that was a compliment, and I was too tired to read too much into it!  Besides, the profile of the peak past the saddle at 13,000′ looked downright scary to me at the time.   Truth be told, I had blown past the trailhead that led to California Peak, a far more modest peak I had meant to climb, and had impulsively decided to go ahead and climb this one located farther up the road.

From what I’ve learned from reading a couple of hundred accounts of mountaineering accidents, it is the accumulation of small errors in judgment that frequently account for tragedy in the mountains.   In my case, it would have gone something like this:

  1.  Failed to research and study the routes to the summit,
  2. Started late in the day (risking lightning strikes),
  3. Climbed solo.

The hike up to the saddle was mostly steep, involving a couple of nuisance stream crossings at the beginning, but nothing risky.   At the saddle to the peak, the last 1,100′ of climbing to the top looked much more “interesting”.   Since I had not researched this peak prior to climbing, I found myself relying on the few climbers coming off of the mountain for information.  Not a particular fan of exposed, Class three scrambling, I chose the NW Gully (as depicted in the main photo), but was driven back when dark clouds engulfed the mountain and hail began to drop.

My instincts instructed me to haul my old butt off of this mountain … NOW with my cowardly self quickly complying as I returned safely to my cozy home last year.

But… I simply had to return to step on the top of this glorious peak.   Having sipped from the chalice the year before, I was determined to revisit this, as I had come tantalizingly close to her pretty summit.

And this time, I had done the research and had found a great climbing partner in my new friend, Ed, a retired National Park Service Ranger with 35 years of experience in some of our country’s wildest places.   I had joined our county’s mountain Search and Rescue group a few months back, and had come to enjoy Ed’s company and trusted his judgment; the kind of climbing partner that infuses confidence with every step up the trail.

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Hiking up past the boulder field with the promise of great peaks in the distance!

So off we went to find our start in the early morning in August.   Passing the large boulder field, we made our way up to ever more glorious views of this pristine wilderness.   And up we went, slowly… surely, possibly even elegantly, but that would be for others to judge.   Ok, likely not elegantly.

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Hiking the switchbacks to the saddle.

At the saddle (main photo), we stopped to reassess our route options and chose the same one as I had come to know the year before.   Now, mind you, at 58 and 68, our options were not quite what they may have been 40 years ago…, but young spirits prevailed and after a good break, we made our way up the final 1,100′.

Class three climbing in this setting required helmets and three points of contact as we carefully wound our way up.

“Ed, I’m seeing leftover snow, ice, and probably mud on our route.   Your thoughts?”

In his typical manner, Ed quickly quipped,

“Hey, it’s your climb.   You make the call.”

So I did and slowly, we traversed along the rocky and ever faint path to the bottom of the gully, carefully placing our feet and hands and testing our holds.   Frequently, we stopped and rotated lead positions always mindful of rockfall, snow, mud, and ice.

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Ed, having climbing up a few hundred feet up past the saddle.

Three years into my early retirement and now I find myself on this insane (by my standards) route up one of Colorado’s 53 14ers with a much more experienced mountaineer and I begin to ask myself how wise it is to proceed.  But quickly, I mute the voice of doubt.

And up we go, carefully maneuvering past the crux of the route, a deep V-shaped line where we calmly find our way along the side of the gully for sound purchase of footholds along thinner and thinner ledges, I notice the quickly moving and darkening clouds and my heart sinks.

“Crap, Ed!   Looks like ugly weather making its way behind the mountain again this year!”

“Yup.   And we don’t want to have to call our Search and Rescue friends!   I would rather die here before I ever make that call!”

“Agreed.   Let’s break here and have lunch, enjoy the view, and wait this out for a few minutes.”

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Close to our highpoint on the north slope of Mount Lindsey, clouds teasing us as if to say “go ahead, climb on”… only to watch things close up quickly!

So, it was that we sat on this gnarly slope, goofing off, trying to keep warm as the first of the grapple begins to hit our helmets.

I look at my Garmin GPS and note that we are at 13,812’… about 200′ from the summit.

Without much conversation, we decide we’d prefer to live and so we grab our packs and ever so carefully retreat off of this glorious mountain to give it another shot next year.

200′ from the top; the Tortures of Tantalus.

But it was a wise call as we turned around once more to see the entire peak being hit hard with hail.

Back at the trailhead, I reach in for a couple of tasty IPAs, pop them open and hand one to my climbing partner.

“Well Ed, I think we made a good call.  What do you think?”

“Hell yeah, we did.   AND… we didn’t have to call Search and Rescue to get our sorry asses off of this mountain!”

Yeah… bonus.   Maybe next year.

 

 

 

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A Well-Deserved Lunch at the Grand Khan Irish Pub in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

At last, my long-awaited meal came to me as I listened to a sultry Lily Marlene playing over the loudspeakers.   The booth next to me was filled with loud and exuberant young, Russian males regaling each other with tall tales.   The impressive bratwurst and mountain of sauerkraut before me was nicely paired with a towering, Mongolian Tiger Beer and my early afternoon was simply perfect at this point in time.  At any moment, I expected Indiana Jones and his entourage to come through the door and for all of us to be transported back to a time in the 1930s.   The music… was I in pre-war Berlin?

There is something alluring in traveling to the far ends of this planet; places not yet made comfortable for tourists.   Thankfully, many still exist for the lone traveller,  those of us whose souls hail from the Black Sheep, those of us who yearn to break free from the bright lights and vexing stimuli of our ever rushing world.

Ulaanbaatar was still such a place in the Fall of 2012.

Early that same morning, in the intimate restaurant of the Hotel Kempinski, my wife and I enjoyed an unhurried breakfast.   Subtle pleasures come from quietly observing the other visitors.   Slowly streaming in were mostly geotechnical and other types of engineers on assignment to Mongolia to consult with those running the country’s mineral extraction industry.   Building was booming in town and the young people were enjoying the long reach of western fashion and style that was now finding a foothold in this place.  Oh, and there were a few travelers as well, mostly fit and healthy retirees dressed in khaki and kerchiefs; quiet, assured, though ever so slightly betrayed with their eagerness to explore.  Their studied look was otherwise, impeccable.

Bidding my hard-working wife “adieu” that morning as she went off to inspect operations in Mongolia, I took a long walk through town, to the outskirts at the base of the mountains in the south.   With no real idea of what I was about to discover, I simply walked for hours, crossing the main rail line cutting through town, then over the long bridge with the gentle flowing Tuul Gol River below, and then finally up into the foothills.

I desperately wanted to climb the conical mountain I had spied earlier that morning and so I simply walked in that general direction.   A taxi would have been easier, but I find that there is no substitute for what we encounter on foot.  Suffering a bit makes the end of a day’s (first) beverage that much tastier.  And so I continued along, at times on well designed sidewalks, but more often on deeply rutted, hardened muddy surfaces.

Over the bridge and I was almost there until I realized that this part of Ulaanbaatar was ringed with a tall, barbed wire fence.  “Merdes, alors!   Vraimant?”   Searching and searching in vain for an outlet to the mountain, I decided to enter the gates of a military compound. There was no guard, so I continued.

“Haaallo.   You!”, turning around, I saw the massive, Mongolian soldier approach, but he was smiling.  Decades of hard-won instinct commanded my subconscious brain as I became strangely calm.  Returning his warm and curious smile, I asked.  “Please, I am interested in climbing to the top of that mountain.   Is there a way?”  I must have seemed quite odd to him.

His burly and rather large hand was generously extended and I shook it.  After all, how often do we in our pampered environments ever have a chance to visit with a Mongolian on his land?  Looking back years later, this was the day’s finest moment.  I just did not know it at the time.

“I have had much to drink, my friend.   Japanese soldiers visit and we drink until sun comes up.”, confides G. Khan’s modern variant.   Brilliant, I thought.   So now I have this impressive soldier confessing to me of his excessive drinking.  Brain blank, I respond, “Very nice, very nice” as I continue to smile.   All instinct at this point in life, eh?  Placing his very heavy hand on my shoulder, now leaning a bit looking up to him, he points to some yurts about three blocks to the southeast, high octane breath explaining, “There.   But many hungry dogs.”

Parting ways with my new friend, I shake his hand, grinning at the wonderful super-collision of unlikely cultures and bid him a warm farewell.  Life is unpredictable that way, thank goodness.

But now another sense, one not so safe, begins to infiltrate my mind.   Dogs, many dogs. And desperately I continue through the mud streets with the sad looking concrete homes and battered doors, the lace draperies hanging lifelessly inside the small windows.   Past the old people casting their defeated eyes upon the stranger, clothes hanging on the line to dry, swaying in the gentle breeze.

Oh, why must there be hungry dogs?   Explains why I saw no one hiking up the vertical path up to the top of the mountain that morning.

Reminded me of places behind the Iron Curtain where I had grown up in the 60s and 70s.  Grim, Soviet Era housing constructed in haste, but devoid of song and color.  And around the last house on the street, there they were, a group of three dogs as promised; not the friendly ones either.  Small, but they had a certain desperate look.   And in these quick moments of truth, I’ve learned a certain way to walk and look.   No eye contact, stride with purpose, intensity.   Intensity, impatience; that’s it… and be prepared to bluff at a moment’s notice, for this is today’s crux.  Hope my animal smell of desperation does not betray me now.

Through the opening to where the soldier had pointed, I found my escape!   Making haste deliberately, I finally found my way to the other side, to the sea of light brown grasses that lay upon the steep mountainside, to the one path that I could see that led straight up to the summit.   Up I went, looking back occasionally to see the three dogs scavenging through trash, over the bunker-like workers’ homes and yurts.   Now, halfway up, I could begin to make the landscape of the city, the smokestacks belching out their toxic fumes all of which remained captured in the larger valley below.   I saw this vividly as well, when we lived in Ankara in the mid 1970s.

And then, finally to the summit.   A massive rock cairn contained the one leaning, wooden pole on which were tied many colorful streams of cloth fluttering in the breeze; a gift to the mountain gods?   All alone, I enjoyed the expansive view and the thought that I was half-way around this planet and in a place so unfamiliar but fascinating.

From the mountaintop, I looked for another path, one that might take me to another opening… one without hungry dogs.  Over there.  Yes.   Another trail led to another opening through one of the city’s vocational colleges.

It is a comforting feeling when we can relax to the idea that we’d now likely see another day.

“Is there anything more for your, sir?”, asked the slender waiter with the quiet voice.

“Another of your Mongolian Tiger Beers, please.   And the check when you can.  Thank you.”

On the coaster was inscribed an old Mongolian proverb,

“There are men who walk through the woods and see no trees.”  Oh my, how true that is.

And as I savored my exotic beverage in this land so far away from home, a quiet feeling came over me that though the streets were at times quite grim, there were plenty of trees if only we would bother to open our eyes to see.

 

An Afternoon at El Djem الجمّ

35° 18′ N   10° 43′  E

Who was “J. Monti”, I wondered, as I came up to the words and years carved into the ancient stone.   There were two; one in 1914 and another in 1958, the second partially obscured by a subsequent patch of mortar.   Of all of the carvings, why had I noticed these? What mysterious force had caused me to pause here?

I’ve always been fascinated by the North African coastline.  So much history, so many ruins from across the ages.   And with the magic of the Internet, it’s just a matter of making these journeys a priority.   What’s more satisfying and lasting, that fine BMW in your garage, or a series of well illustrated and narrated journals of your travels?

Sitting at the café across from the colosseum that afternoon, my thoughts wandered to an earlier time, 1,800 years ago.   With just a bit of effort, I could begin to imagine the glorious structure restored, with colorful fabrics shading her people, sounds of long horns calling the games to action.   And the carvings…

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Jasmine?

J. Monti…   Who was she?   A nurse attached to some British expeditionary force in 1914? How old was she when she returned?   68?   I imagined a young Lucy in a Room With a View, perhaps she’d received word that her Tunisian lover had died…   Maybe they’d stolen away to this place under a moonless night, if only for a moment. He’d likely carved the first, and she the ones after, with her more delicate and older hands, though the numbers “one” and “nine” look identical.

But the constant flow of mopeds robbed me of this lovely daydream, rudely shaking me into the present moment.

“Monsieur, your lamb kebob.”

“Merci!   Très bien.   Parfait.”, I was desperate for lamb, having spent three of my teenage years living in Ankara, acquiring a taste for this.

With the recent unrest in Tunisia, western tourism had simply vanished leaving  the entire place almost to myself.   A couple of young, Asian tourists asking questions of the menu inside, but I was all alone under the umbrella outside.   Perfectly delightful.

I should have insisted that my driver join me, but I could sense that this would have made him uncomfortable, so I demurred.   Looking around at the contrast between old and new, a feeling of sadness came over me as I thought about man’s inability to simply enjoy this marvelous planet.   Why must there always be conflict among us?

If only we could expunge the Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps then we may finally learn to get along.

Well, I’d enjoy this moment, this chance to simply soak into my day’s setting.  “So long J. Monti, whoever you are.”   Jasmine?   Yes, she had to be a Jasmine.

A Ural in Bolivia

Adventures feed the soul.   When we actively dream, we live.  Plans take form, choices are made, things are sold, and off we go.   Life is so short and if we don’t take time to figure out what fuels us, we’ll continue on a glide path to nowhere.

Drawing, for me, has almost always preceded action.   Visualize it intimately on paper and it will become etched into your mind.

Taking delivery of a Ural motorcycle somewhere in South America and then meandering by the seat of one’s pants seems would be something worth doing.   I had read about two hombres doing this a few years back and it has intrigued me ever since.  Just imagine what the world would look like from a sidecar…

“Oh, but that sounds crazy.   How would you cope when it snowed or rained?”

Exactly.  And perhaps my response would be, “How can you be satisfied seeing the world through the window of a tour bus?”   But, I’m trying to reform.   Read The Four Agreements.   Working not to take the bait these days.  I slip, sometimes.  Please forgive me.

Something quite alluring about a straight road in a remote location, one which disappears in perfect symmetry over to a horizon, one with distant, slightly active volcanos calling you.

The chance discovery of an incredible photo, an impulsive decision to go on pilgrimage, and a profound change in the direction of one’s life thereafter.

“Oh no…”, did I really draw a picture of a Ural with sidecar?

Wandering Among the Ruins

36°25’21.53″  N   9°1’06.49″  E   –   Elevation:  1,857′

 

As males, we can feel threatened with our wife’s success… or if we wise up, we can simply yield to the greater power.   Best if a man knows his relative limitations!  As a rising professional at the World Bank, Caroline would often offer to stuff me in her luggage to accompany her to some exotic location.   And so it was…

I have always been fascinated with Roman ruins, having grown up in Europe and travelled extensively with my parents.  My dad loved history and he would take us to places that had historical significance and tell us a little about them.   When we’d travel up some remote mountain pass over the Pyrenees, for example, he would point out a route taken by the Carthaginians as they made their way to Rome.   These seeds lay dormant for years until I took a course in Roman history and then they began to sprout.

Years later, while renovating homes in the Annapolis (MD) area, I delved into the obscure craft of making mosaics; just couldn’t bear to throw away the pretty marble remnants.   From a textbook on ancient Greek and Roman mosaics I found at a university bookstore, I set to cutting and grouping thousands of stones (tesserae) to construct a ceiling mosaic in our master bathroom.   The gooey mess was phenomenal, but the end results were worth the efforts!  Driven by my silly sense of humor, one design featured a large, black octopus multitasking (naturally, with eight arms), simultaneously combing his hair, holding a mirror, a wine glass, while pouring some Chateaux Margaux 1945…

So when Caroline asked if I’d like to accompany her to Tunisia, I said yes, of course.   The country had just come out of difficult, political times that spring of 2012, but I came along anyway hoping that lighting would not strike twice in the same place (Very sadly, it had just a couple of years later).  I can still see the interesting architecture draped over the surrounding hills of Tunis as our flight neared its destination.    Mostly squarish and whitewashed buildings, tightly woven together and evolving over the centuries, I tried to visualize how it had expanded over time.

We were booked in an opulent hotel by the sea, regrettably, alcohol-free.   Oh, the injustice!

“Dear, I’m heading into the office now.”, she said, as she got up from the table the following morning, the gentle breezes flowing through the leaning palm trees.   “Stay out of trouble and have fun.”

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On the way out of Tunis

Settling up the bill, I walked out to the front of the hotel and found my driver and his tiny car.    The transition from a lush and green Tunis out onto the dusty, arid roads was sudden.   Anticipation grew with each passing kilometer as I reviewed the literature on the ancient city of Dougga.   The day’s adventure was definitely on and I could not wait to get there.

It took just under two hours (112km) to arrive at the base of the UNESCO site.   Typical, north african landscapes with ancient olive trees, wandering goats, and mud-bricked homes lined the two lane road.   As we pulled into the parking area, I could not believe my eyes; there were only two other cars.  No tour busses!  Yay.   With some continued luck, I could go about my wanderings alone and in peace.

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I wonder what this building looked like in its heyday?

But something told me that there was more to my driver than met the eye.   In his early 30s, smart looking guy and observant, I wondered what his real background was; Tunisian Intelligence? Ah, whatever.   Growing up in behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s and 70s, I was used to the ever present “eyes”.    After dropping me off, he also explored the ruins and gave me my space.

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Many of the materials had been removed after the fall of the Roman Empire to be used to construct other structures.

So much to savor, so little time on this wonderful day.  I could have easily camped there for a week, sketching and photographing the many, intriguing elements.   Perhaps I’ll return someday for a more leisurely tour.  Thankful, however, for this chance.

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Some of the mosaics were on floors exposed to the elements.   This one, however, rested inside of Tunis’ Bardo Museum of antiquities.

Sitting on one of the ancient stones, I gazed over the undulating hillsides trying to transport myself back to when this was a thriving community.   What was it like?   How did the people dress?   What sounds came from the markets?   How was the food prepared? What did the surrounding fields look like?

“How is it?  Interesting”, asked my driver as he made his way up the temple stones, ever discreet.

“Wonderful.   Yes, very interesting!”

“Ah, I am happy for that.”, he said leaving again to continue his own investigation of the old structures.

What a sweet chance to visit this ancient place on such a beautiful day.   There were only a few others doing the same and we all respected each others’ privacy and space.  I can only hope that whatever strife continues to plague this region, that they spare these precious historical sites…