Marin Headlands, CA Hike with my Annapurna Sanctuary Trek-Mates!

5 02 2020
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Rod, Cathy Ann, Annette, and Uli!

In early January 2020, I spent a weekend in the San Francisco Bay area. My college roommate Michael Matthews lives there, as does Cathy Ann Taylor, who was my guide on treks in Bhutan, Peru, and Nepal.

I contacted Cathy Ann and we decided to do a nice hour-or-so hike up in the Marin Headlands. Also joining on the hike were two of my Nepal trekking-mates! Annette Brinton and Ulrike (Uli) Koehne. In Nepal, we hiked about 38,000 vertical feet on the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek!

We met at the Tennessee Valley trailhead. It is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The hike wound up the hills and, once over the saddles, we could see all the Bay area! I could see container ships coming in from the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and all the way to Oakland. There was no fog! Cathy Ann said at our highest point we were about 1,000ft above the ocean.

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Cathy Ann kept up a brisk pace. I sweated a bit, but the breeze and my quick dry apparel made quick work of the wetness and by the end of the hike I was dry all over again.

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With Uli!

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Adrian, Annette, Rod, Michael, Amala, Thupten, and Cathy Ann

Following the hike, we met Michael at a dockside restaurant in Sausalito. There were other guests and one total surprise! Cathy Ann’s husband Thupten was with us, as was Annette’s husband. The surprise guest was Amala, Thupten’s mom! I met her in Nepal!

What a perfect day.





Kathmandu, Nepal: Hindu and Buddhist Influences

27 11 2018
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Approaching the Boudhanath

Prior to striking out on our trek to Annapurna, we spent some time in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu. Taken together with the surrounding valley, the greater Kathmandu area has a population of about 5 million. Although Nepal boasts the highest mountains in the world, including 29,029′ Everest, most don’t realize much of the country sits at lower elevation, and Kathmandu is at 4,600 feet.

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My flight to Kathmandu took off from Guangzhou, China, and I was fortunate to sit next to a couple from Kathmandu – now living in Sydney, but who were going home for the popular 5-day Hindu festival known in Nepal as Dipawali – the festival of lights. They told me how the whole city would be lit up like Christmas. And, on Wednesday night, the darkest night, the children go house to house like Halloween and sing songs and get offerings. It is a celebration of light over darkness – and knowledge over ignorance. They said that every household goes out of its way to be clean and beautiful. That got me really excited! Though we would be leaving the city before the climax.

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The giants come into view!

I was also fortunate to be seated on the right side of the plane, so I could see the Himalayas of Bhutan and Nepal! We even saw Everest.

Upon landing, the reality of life on the subcontinent strikes hard. Time slows, and strict schedules suddenly fall away. I knew about this, but jet lag was coming on strong.

Several flights landed almost at once, depositing some 600 jet lagged passengers to be processed by less than 10 officers. The lines didn’t seem to move. In my line, I looked up, and the officer went to lunch! I switched lines, only to have the last person in front of me have a problem and take 15 minutes.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was more! They require another X-ray of bags. And this time, the officer was too busy chatting with buddies to even look at the screen. Finally, I reach the passenger pick up outside the terminal and yell, “Cattara!” hoping a driver was waiting. One guy came over anxiously, but it turned out he was not my driver. Fact was, it took me TWO HOURS to get through immigration, so long my driver went to lunch. And this guy was there in his place. Not to drive, just meet me. About to pass out from jet lag and unable to untangle my brain, I just waited. And waited. And waited. Until I almost couldn’t stand it, and I considered getting my own cab. But then, experience told me, “No, let these people do their jobs. Don’t embarrass him by taking a cab. Save face. It will work out.” And just like that, Karin, my driver, showed up from lunch and I was on my way to the Shangri La Hotel.

If I hadn’t been to other cities such as Saigon, Denpasar, or Phnom Penh, I might have been completely overwhelmed by the rules of the road in Nepal. While it seems like a constant game of “chicken,” and maybe it is, and sometimes cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, cows and pedestrians seem to be going in all directions at once, including head-on at you, and sometimes they indeed are, there is some kind of orchestrated dance going on. How do you walk across the street? I remember my first Bangkok guide teaching us. She said, “Just walk, slowly, deliberately, through the traffic, and look at the drivers. Do not hesitate. They will move around you like a school of fish.” And they do.

We reach the Shangri La Hotel. It is a true oasis in the chaos. The rooms are lovely, and there is a wonderful 1/2 acre sized lawn/garden area out back.

The staff at the Shangri La are very courteous and prompt. I had several issues in my room, including a bad electrical outlet. When notified, the staff arrives promptly and takes care of the issue. But it’s more than that. The staff remembers who you are, and takes care to remember the little things. In fact this characteristic rang true for the entire trek as well.

One my rooms at the Shangri La was spectacular.

Kathmandu hosts some of Nepal’s holiest Hindu and Buddhist temples and World Heritage sites. So I began by heading to the Boudhanath and the Pashupatinath. I hired a guide through Cathy Ann to take me there.

The Hindu Pashupatinath Temple complex, reconstructed in the 1400’s, houses no less than 492 temples devoted to different rites. It was overwhelming, busy, and frequented by visitors from near and far. Brahman priests hold court for people seeking certain rites to be performed. Some of the interiors of the temples are off limits to non-Hindus.

One of the most important duties this temple complex carries out is the cremation of the dead. Hindu practice requires cremation by 24 hours of death. The complex is bisected by the Bagmati River, and it is on the banks of this river that cremation, and the drama of loss and grief, takes place. And I was there to witness all of it.

There are dozens of Hindu sects in Nepal, and each has its own cremation rituals. But for each, they take the body of their loved one to this place, where the body is consumed by fire, and the “spirit,” if you will, is allowed to leave and find a new vessel in which to live. There are perhaps 20 stone platforms along the river.

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A loved one’s body is turned 3x clockwise before laying down on the pyre.

A specialized Brahman is trained to carry out the rite. He lays specially cut logs on the platform. Then a body is carried to the site and spun three times clockwise, before laid down.

Once down, depending upon the sect, men, or men and then women, walk around the body three times clockwise.

I saw one woman ask to see the face of the dead. She was so shocked or grief stricken at what she saw that she fainted and had to be carried back to the steps to recover. This is the drama that is death.

Once the family has retreated, the Brahman can begin the process. He anoints the entire body with camphor oil. The first step in cremation is lighting the head. So I witnessed the priest removing the saffron colored body covering from a body’s head, and lighting it. After a short time, the priest continued lighting the logs underneath. I also witnessed the priests stoking the cremation, and then, when done, sweeping the ashes into the Bagmati River. It is very moving to witness this human drama.

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The next temple complex I was to visit was the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist stupas in the country. I knew it was also one of the largest stupas in the world. When I arrived, I was first amazed at the condition of the roads leading to it. They are just dirt. My guide Bir told me that the condition of the roads was due to bureaucratic gridlock. The clean water bureau, the sewer bureau and the transportation bureau all wrung their hands and nobody will move forward to get the street constructed properly. Until then, the street remains dirt. With some big sewer pipes just in piles!

This Buddhist stupa is very important to millions. And there were thousands here paying their respects. There are prayer wheels surrounding the stupa and many were walking around it, spinning the wheels in respect. The levels of the stupa represent the levels of attainment one must pass to reach nirvana. Only the very top represents attainment of nirvana!

We visited a school where students create Thankas, paintings usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. In their finest and most detailed form, a Thanka can take many weeks to finish. My favorite is of the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life.

Thanka Wheel of Life

I loved this because here, life is set up as a kind of “game” to get to Nirvana, represented by the figures on the upper right and left. Below, the spirit recycles through the six realms of existence of Samsara, some better than others. If you vary from the path, you might fall into the realm of animals, or jealous demi gods, or some other form of desire or suffering. Only by following the true path can you jump into the upper right of left.

So, what was Rod to make of this? It is a perfect pin ball game! Set it down, tilt it, and insert into a pin ball machine. Add flippers, and you get the point. Any mistakes and your pinball goes down the wrong hole, and back into Samsara. Only the exact correct combination of flipper flips can get that pinball into enlightenment!

Next up we pay a visit to some of the outlying temples near Kathmandu, Bhaktapur!





Trekking Peru: The Cordillera Huayhuash – Acclimatization Days 1-2: Huaraz

10 07 2017

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Here we go! This the first of about a dozen blog posts covering my June 2017 trek in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash! This was a big deal. Back in 2007 I did a Himalayan trek of Bhutan’s Chomolhari with Cathy Ann Taylor, and it stuck prominently in my mind. I watched her Cattara website for an Andean trek and when this one popped up I jumped at it!

These treks are simply the “bee’s knees” of hiking/camping trips. They involve undertaking the “ultimate challenge” level of athletic perseverance and mental toughness. Hiking 8 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. day after day at altitudes ranging from 13,500 – 16,404. All that effort is rewarded with beautiful, dry weather, flowers along the way, and views so spectacular as to literally defy description. But there is more: You don’t have to carry a big pack. Or cook. Or set up your tent. Staff brings coffee/tea to your tent to awaken you in the morning. And, they bring you hot wash water morning and after your hike. On this trek, we even had a portable shower – and one of our stops was at a thermal bath!

Why do these treks? I’m sure everybody has their own reasons. For me, it’s the chance to see mountains so big they are unimaginable at home. To conquer the athletic challenge. To completely disconnect from the snowglobe of distractive thoughts and temptations that are the Internet, e-mail, news, and ties to home. To peel off layer after layer of that routine, getting to the core and reconnecting with natural rhythms once again. For it is only then, free of the pull of those “can’t waits,” that things start to get back into perspective.

 

Huascaran from Airport

22,205ft Huascaran towers over the airport at Huaraz, Peru

 

There would be 13 trekkers on this trip. We all flew into Huaraz to meet Cathy Ann (CAT). Our first two days would be acclimatization days, staying at the Hotel Club Andino. Huaraz, with a population over 100,000 sits at 10,150ft. At this altitude even climbing the hotel stairs was a struggle! But we’d have to do more – for our very first camp would be at 13,776ft!

Hotel Andino is a Swiss-owned Euro-style hotel perched on a hillside street at the top of town. Rooms have a mountain view and the restaurant is 1st rate.

 

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View from my room!

 

 

 

On day two, the plan was a 4-mile hike at Huillcachocha Lake, up to 12,650 feet. We hiked to a rock where Inca sacrifices were performed. From this hike, we had horizon to horizon views of the entire Cordillera Blanca Range! And we encountered some local families going out for the day.

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To me, the thin air and exertion of this “warm up” hike seemed like the max. But I knew in the next two days we’d be hiking to over 15,387′ and yikes. Can I do this? Will I make it?

The staff was excellent, making a slow, do-able pace. And they let us take breaks to get water, snacks, and adjust our clothing. The views would be one thing that would keep me going!

 

Cordillera Blanca Pano

View of the entire Cordillera Blanca! It’s the range next to the Cordillera Huayhuash.

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CAT and our local lead guide, Roger (pronounced “Roher”) of ExplorAndes, show us a map of the area

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Myself with Anna, local Assistant Guide

So, how much equipment, staff and stuff did this 12-day expedition take? 10 Llamas, 16 donkeys, 2 “emergency” horses, 13 staff, kitchen tent, meal tent, a dozen or so Eureka! tents for guests, plus food and emergency gear. Yes, we had supplemental oxygen just in case. Quite the production!

 

The day’s acclimatization hike complete, we enjoyed a terrific welcome dinner at the hotel. Tomorrow, we’d be off on a 5-hour drive to our first trek-camp!

So, you may ask, “How do I prepare for such a trip?” Answer: 4 months of preparation. Lots of cardio. Running is fine, but about six weeks before the trip, switch to hour long hikes/walks. Four times a week. Hikes with elevation gain are the best preparation because instead of static roads, you’ll get the benefit of walking amongst rocks and such. Even better, hike with a 20 pound day pack. Because on the trek, you’ll be carrying a day pack with rain gear and layers, plus two liters of water.

OK, upcoming are a series of posts from the trail! Passes, 20,000 foot peaks, avalanches, glaciers, emerald lakes, Llamas, and flowers galore! Stay tuned.