April 11, 2012

Tom Engelhardt: The Afghan Syndrome

Tom Engelhardt sums up the impact of the war in Afghanistan on the legacy of Vietnam, including this:
Increasingly poorly remembered, Vietnam is now one for the ages. After so many years, Afghanistan has finally emerged as a quagmire beholden to no other war. What an achievement! Our moment, Afghanistan included, has proven so extreme, so disastrous, that it’s finally put the unquiet ghost of Vietnam in its grave. And here’s the miracle: it has all happened without anyone in Washington grasping the essence of that now-ancient defeat, or understanding a thing.

The “lessons of Vietnam,” fruitlessly discussed for five decades, taught Washington so little that it remains trapped in a hopeless war on the Eurasian mainland, continues to pursue a military-first policy globally that might even surprise American leaders of the Vietnam era, has turned the planet into a “free fire zone,” and considers military power its major asset, a first not a last resort, and the Pentagon the appropriate place to burn its national treasure.

After Vietnam, the U.S. at least took a few years to lick its wounds. Now, it just ramps up the latest military flavor of the month -- at the moment, special operations forces and drones -- elsewhere.

November 19, 2011

Fred Beckey

I drove to Tacoma last night to attend a Tacoma Mountaineers-sponsored talk featuring the legendary climber Fred Beckey. The talk was similar to one I’d attended about ten years ago in Olympia, where he showed slides and talked about the climbs he’d done over the decades, ranging from Alaska to Mexico. His voice was strong and his mind was razor-sharp – he didn’t hesitate for an instant as he clicked through the slides – every mountain’s name, every companion, every outcome was on his tongue.

He talked about the mountains with an aesthete’s appreciation, a reverence. For the mountains he showed, he mentioned the form of the peak, the quality of the rock, the interest of the route, or the outcome of the climb. It was almost like he was showing off his friends – each of them was real to him.

I was impressed by his focus on safety. He mentioned abandoning climbs several times, due to safety concerns. He often mentioned climbing at night to avoid hazardous snow conditions. I think this is a result of his appreciation of the mountains. They’re not there for him to conquer; the exist outside, independently of his desire to visit them – he’s there as a suitor, or a student. If the mountain doesn’t let him in, he respects that, and retreats. I don’t know how you get to your seventh decade of active climbing without that perspective. And a little luck.

I had my own teenaged, do-it-yourself climbing period, inspired by his book The Challenge of the North Cascades. I didn’t have the fire to keep it going – and other events intervened – but I continue use the skills I developed during those years in my hiking these days and I still plan trips that call for the freedom of the hills that those skills allow. And I share Fred’s awe and appreciation for the mountains of this special corner of the world.

March 13, 2010

Web Photo Albums Now Available

The first draft of photo selections from my Patagonia trip are now being posted at Picasa. Though some of them need a little work and I will post more later, these are the most representative selections, at least as I see it now.

Rio Grey to Puerto Natales

March 12. This post was to have been titled something else, maybe just “Puerto Natales,” but the logistics continued their slide from last night. We gathered for breakfast, expecting the boat at 10:30. By a little after 10, we learned that the boat wasn't coming – all day – due to mechanical problems. Apparently there was more than the weather involved last night and repairs could not be made overnight. By today, they realized that parts would be needed – parts which would have to come from Punta Arenas. I seriously doubt that the boat will run tomorrow, either.

So, we saddled up once more, carrying our hiking and “extra” gear, and headed south, over a ridge and onto the Rio Grey (the outlet of yesterday's glacier) and thence to the nearest road, where our bus would be waiting.

The weather continued last night's wind and rain, so it was not much of a scenery walk (though this walk, especially up-valley, would be excellent in sunny weather). There was wind and this area is a designated windy area, so it was good that it was at our backs all day. It was strong enough to knock you off balance (and it did me several times), even from behind.

The walking was easy, once we were over the ridge and into the valley, because this is a huge glacial outwash valley, five kilometers wide. Most of the walking was on smooth trail, with little grade, through grassy fields. You could see the old river channels braiding back and forth across our path.

There was plenty of traffic on the trail, as we weren't the only refugee party stranded by the lack of a boat across Lago Pehoe. And, as we approached the end, and the administrative center for the Chilean government agency responsible for the park, we met a flow of people headed in, too – brought in by the afternoon bus. They had a harder time of it – no good views and a strong headwind.

After four and a half hours, we saw our bus and trudged the last hundred meters to its side and bundled ourselves in for the drive to Puerto Natales, skipping the planned sightseeing. Our hotel, the Francis Drake, is comfortable (hot showers, reasonably-sized rooms, and Internet, though no wireless), so comfortable, that no one wanted to leave. The wind wasn't as strong as in Rio Grey, but it still qualifies as blustery, and the rain is harder. While we have an hour or two before dinner to wander, no one has taken the opportunity.

Most of us had dinner at Ultima Esperanza, a seafood restaurant a few blocks away. Norm's Spanish came in handy to get an idea of the menu, but they had English-version menus and the waitress had enough English to make it work. The menu had a nice selection of seafood, mostly local, and the usual meat selections. The star of the menu was the Abalone. I had a taste and it was excellent. I had a good scallops dish, two pisco sours, and a Calafate mousse, all for less than $25. I like this town.

Grey Glacier

March 11. Today was our last hike, the one reserved for poorer weather, since clouds won't obscure the views as easily. We were headed up the large, Lago Grey to the Grey Glacier, a huge glacier that rolls directly out of the South Patagonian Ice Field.

Breakfast was cafeteria style, but with the usual ingredients – toast, jam, cold cuts, juice, instant coffee – and a couple of new things, like poorly scrambled eggs. Still, its pretty amazing how they can feed so many people in so little time.

While yesterday started calm and developed wind, today was different. It was windy and rainy all night, but the day dawned clear – and windy. We set out a little after 9:00 and began a climb through “Windy Canyon.” (This may be a local name; it's not on any maps. It's not hard to see where the name came from.) It was windy this morning and very windy this afternoon, on the return trip.

We passed out of Windy Canyon and entered another windy place, undulating over ridges of rock left by the glaciers, overlooking a small lake and then, after an hour or so, Lago Grey. This lake is very large and hosts many icebergs, most of which tend to gather at the south end, pushed by the prevailing winds. About two hours up, we reached the first viewpoint, from which you can see both sides of the glacier's snout, the peaks flanking it, and – in better weather – onto the great Ice Field itself.

Half of the group turned around there, and the rest of us hiked up more undulating ground to Refugio Grey and its viewpoint. While the first viewpoint is better for the big picture, this one gets you closer to the snout of the glacier. It was worth the trip, but we didn't want to miss the boat back to our first camp on Lago Pehoe, so we took our pictures and turned around quickly.

The return trip was even windier. So windy, in fact, that the boat that was to take us back to our first camp didn't arrive. It had turned back due to the winds. Juan says that this is the first time in five years. So, we're back in these tents, here, at Paine Grande.

A great day, a fitting end to the hiking portion, and a bit of excitement, between the wind and the boat.

Valle del Frances

March 10. This morning dawned perfectly clear, offering views of the top of Paine Grande for the first time. We got to sleep in a bit, because we're taking a boat across Lago Pehoe, where our camp is, and it doesn't sail until 9:30. Breakfast was the usual flatbreads, cereal, and coffee. We loaded our stuff for two hikes and one night across the lake and embarked on a nice catamaran for a 30 minute crossing to Refugio Paine Grande, one of the gateways to the Paine Circuit.

The refugio is quite large, with lots of tent camping (our home for the night), a big dining hall (our meals), and a couple of dozen rooms (not our style). Trails lead east, west, and south from here. Today's trail heads east, toward the Val del Frances (named for a Frenchman who homesteaded the valley long ago). We left Lago Peho and skirted Lago Nordenskjold to the entrance to the valley. We climbed a bit and then crossed the river, on a suspension bridge, to Campomento Italiano, another station along the Paine Circuit. It looked a bit cold to me.

From there, we climbed up the valley, around layer and layer of moraine, to an initial viewpoint, which shows Paine Grande in its snowy glory. Its top, a serrated comb of rock, was frosted in ice, and its flanks are carved by a series of glaciers on benches that actively fall down the cliffs onto the next bench's glacier. While we watched, at least a dozen avalanches poured down the cliffs.

Later, we climbed up another, bigger moraine to an even better viewpoint. It showed Paine Grande, even closer, but also all of the other peaks further up the valley: Fortress, Sword, Leaf, Mask, and the North and Principle Horns.

All this time, we had sun and calm (very non-Patagonian weather). Coming down, the clouds formed and the winds kicked up, rivaling yesterday's. Spindrift was tossed on the lakes, the trees bent, and even the birds stayed put. By the time we got to the Refugio, it was plain windy, but showing signs of a precipitation enhancement. By dinner, in the dining hall, it had started to rain. By bedtime, it was raining. It still is.

Dinner, by the way, was fixed and served cafeteria style, made for about a hundred people. There was juice, asparagus soup, a salad with corn, beans, and an artichoke heart, pot roast and mashed potatoes. And apricots for dessert. Not bad for “free.”

Time to turn in: the wind is blowing and the rain is pelting, but I'm warm inside this tent. Another hike tomorrow!

Rio Ascencion

March 9 . Today's hike was up the Rio Ascencion, on the east of the Paine range. It forms the right-hand side of the “W,” which is the big hike here in the Torres del Paine National Park. Getting there was an interesting process.

We left our camp at 8:30 and drove most of an hour over undulating terrain to the east. Along the way, we saw a couple of condors and a number of guanácos. At a lot overlooking a river crossing we switched to a smaller van, as our usual bus doesn't fit across the 50-year-old, steel, suspension bridge over the river. And that's no exaggeration. There wasn't more than two inches on either side of the van, side view mirrors retracted. From there, it was another 30 minutes over bone-jarring roads, roads as bad as the Dug Bar road in northeastern Oregon.

We unloaded at a huge resort, the Torre Hotel, with rooms from $1200 a night. While El Chaltén is more of a small business-style entrepreneurial town, this place was more of an estancia-style development. It's the trailhead, though, so we unloaded and headed out.

The trail works up around the canyon protecting the entrance to the valley, climbing up to the entrance and then traversing along the slope before dropping down, crossing the river, and coming to a refugio and campground.

Did I mention the wind? It was windy all day yesterday and calm this morning (though not mountain silhouette calm), but it was windy by the time we started hiking. And entering the valley was an education in windy – walking into it, of course.

From the refugio, we climbed along the river, crossed it again, and climbed away from it into the woods. The trail continued to the base of a tall moraine, which was our route into the basin below the towers. We made the steep climb up the margin and finally out onto the big rock pile, until we topped out and were blown away.

In the basin, was a cold-looking lake. Around the lake: a smooth wall of granite, rising almost vertically to a steeply-sloping bench of more granite. And rising from that bench, from left to right: The bulk of Almirante Nieto, the three sheer towers – north, middle, and south, – and the ragged black top of the Condor's Nest. The view was absolutely amazing, thrilling, and unparalleled.

And the wind was punishing. If anything, it rose as we left, so that the exit from the valley was even most unsettling with the wind at our backs. Back at the hotel, we boarded our van, made the river crossing, reboarded our bus, and drove back to camp. The wind was so strong that it was good-sized waves were crashing onto shores with 200 meters of fetch. Swirls of spindrift were rising and running across the lakes. And, yet, tomorrow's boat was out on the lake as we returned. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Upon our return, many of us were ready for showers. And we weren't disappointed by the facilities. I, for one, am glad.

Dinner was good, accented by the stupendous view (though there are more clouds tonight). Everyone was tired and are now in bed. Time for me, too.

Torres del Paine National Park

March 8. This morning, we arose early again (better weather, less grumbling), ate breakfast, our new driver, Javier, and hit the road by 7:15. We drove out of the canyon of El Chaltén and onto the steppes of Patagonia. We drove out along Lao Viedma, crossed the river Leona, which drains Viedma into Lago Argentino, stopped at La Leona roadhouse (where I bought a café medio), again in Esmerelda for gas, and then turned west for Chile and Torres del Paine National Park.

We got a little surprise when we turned off the highway (well, two lanes of pavement, the fabled Ruta 40) and onto a gravel road (a lane and a half wide). This was our road for the next couple of hours. After a while, we stopped at the Argentina border post, then at the Chilean border post, about 20 minutes down the road. Chile's interested in preventing problems with their fruit production, so they were interested in whether we were importing fresh fruit. Since we'd been warned, we were good. We had a substantial lunch at the roadhouse a block from the customs house, where we also changed our money for Chilean pesos (500 to the dollar).

Our new guide, Juan, met us at the Chilean border house. (We wondered how he got there, out in the middle of not much at all as it is.) He's friendly, communicative, and knowledgeable. Paola is still with us, too.

Although the restaurant was only a block away, we got in the bus and drove there. The wind was so strong that the restaurant was shuddering with it during lunch and the trip out of and back into the bus was more adventure than it should have been. The wind has been strong all day (as it was yesterday). If anything, it is worse today, with gusts strong enough to set road gravel in flight and to make it difficult to keep your footing. During the first few days, we were repeatedly told that the sunny and calm weather we had was unusual. I think we're back to normal. It's been warm, into the high 70's, but quite windy and with puffy clouds overhead and with looming clouds over the mountains.

Along the way, we saw guanácos, rheas, crested caracaras, a hare, and lots of cows and sheep. As we neared the park – still on gravel, with lots of bus traffic – we stopped for photos in a spot with fifty or so guanácos. They're quite graceful and gracious to allow us to gawk at them.

The camp is beautifully situated, on a peninsula in Lago Pehoe, which is fed by glaciers. There are a lot of camping shelters, a restaurant with a stupendous view of the mountains, two wash houses, and access to our bus. We're back in tents, though, so no wireless or electricity.

Dinner was the usual three courses (as was lunch), starting with soup, followed by spaghetti with meat sauce, and finished with either flan or mousse for dessert. In spite of hiking or walking every day, I wouldn't be surprised if I gain weight on this trip.

March 7, 2010

Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

March 7. Today's hike was up a ridge named for the “ recumbent fold” in the rock along its length. To the summit, at 1500+m (4950+'), it's 12.5 mi. round-trip from the national park guard station. Add to that the walk the length of town, at least a kilometer, and we have almost 15 miles and over 1000 m elevation gain, both the most yet, and also our high elevation point of the trip.

The day started quite unpromising. The famous Patagonian wind that everyone talks about (and the evidence of which you can see in every tree) finally arrived yesterday afternoon. By this morning, it was very steady and accompanied by rain. As I write this, it's howling still, even to shaking this rather substantial building I'm staying in. Add to that an early start – breakfast at 6:30, hiking start at 7:00, and still dark for both – and you had some mild grumbling.

The wind was at our backs to get us to the trailhead. As we looked ahead, to the south and east, the skies were clear. As we looked behind us, to the north and west, the clouds were low on the mountains and rain was falling in the upland valleys. Still, it was warm enough.

The trail runs up a canyon to a bench, through some mixed woods and meadows, onto a ridge. It then climbs through forest and onto the ridge at treeline. From there, you're exposed to whatever views and weather are there for you and your party. For us, there were dramatic views of the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre ranges, mostly engulfed in whipping clouds, and serious wind. Probably a steady 25 mph, with gusts of up to 10 mph more. As we climbed, the views expanded, the wind became a greater factor, and the terrain became almost entirely rocks.

There were some low plants and a few birds, but the most common, visible, animals were fossil ammonites. For stretch, there were quite a few of them, seen by just looking for a while.

We stopped most of the way up, had a snack, and separated the party, as some people didn't want the extra climb to the top. By the time we did start the final, 30 minute climb, only one person elected to go down. This is a good group.

The top was spectacular: fully 360° views, with the peaks to the south of Cerro Torre now in view, along with another huge glacier, footed by a glacial lake, and drained by a broad, braided river, the Rio Túnel. To the north of that, the Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy groups shrouded in clouds. To the north, the Valle Rio de las Vueltas and the peaks at its end. To the south, the huge Lago Viedma and peaks further south. A huge panorama of clouds, rock, trees, and lakes, all formed by glacial action.

All this time, of course, the wind was howling from the northwest. And, by the time we reached town, it was raining. At this point, we bade farewell to Martin, our excellent guide. Our path back to the hotel was straight upwind, into that rain, and at least as difficult as some of the trail sections of the day.

We finished the day at the restaurant Patagonicus, a pizza-focused menu, with some variety. We had a pretty good time, with beer and wine being shared around the table.

Tomorrow: Chile!

March 6, 2010

Back to El Chaltén

March 6. The morning dawned like it ended, with clear skies overhead and clouds covering Cerro Torre. For those who awoke before dawn and walked to a viewpoint, Cerro Torre wasn't hidden. There was one of us who told that story, but she didn't have her camera... Still, we believed her.

We left camp at the usual time, headed down the Rio Fitz Roy's interesting valley toward El Chaltén, where we'll spend the next two nights (showers! Internet!). From the camp, the trail rolls over a series of moraines, more than I could count, until we reach the last one, which is anchored near the current course of the river by a huge, stubborn block of rock. Beyond that, the trail steepens downhill, though not seriously, and enters a canyon, with cliffs and benches reminiscent of eastern Oregon. Throughout the hike, we were treated to wonderful views, as Cerro Torre continued to tease us, while the rest of its neighbors went in and out of view. Further along, Fitz Roy began to appear over the ridge to the north– cloudless, as is usual, I understand, compared to Cerro Torre. Just before we overtopped the last ridge before the canyon – our last chance – Cerro Torre gave us a view of its summit, though not the whole length.

We reached El Chalt é n and the Pudu Lodge at mid-day. The lodge is new and quite big, even architecturally interesting. It's built with very nice fixtures and good materials, but poor craftmanship. The best thing, though, was the clean clothing in our suitcases, the showers in the room, and the promise of a cold beer at the cerveseria down a few blocks.

John and I cruised the town for an hour or so, checking out the new construction, the restaurants, the Internet cafes, and the hosterias. We found the trailhead for tomorrow's hike, over the river by the National Park building. The building had a fine set of the usual national park exhibits, but including all of the climbing routes up the many peaks in the area, with their first ascents. One of the exhibits was about the huemul (sp?), the local, small, and endangered deer species.

We had dinner with Paola at La Tapera, a nice little restaurant on this side of town. Martin dropped in with his daughter for a beer. He smiled a lot more in that 30 minutes than he had in three days, I think.

There was a lot of talk about coming back down here for another trip amongst the group on the walk back to the hotel.

Tomorrow, we meet early for a hike up to a viewpoint above town for one last attempt at Cerro Torre (just the view, thank you).

Cerro Torre

March 5. The high clouds that rolled in yesterday over the ice field were engulfing the tops of Fitz Roy this morning. That left us with a warm morning and, of course, a suggestion of rain. Breakfast was the usual little toasts and toppings, coffee, cocoa, milk, and sugar powder with hot water, and mixed cereal. Following that, we bade farewell to our kitchen staff and the camp at Laguna Capri and headed north, around the ridge behind the lake. Our route took us up a bit and then around the ridge, where we headed south, by Lagunas Madre and Hija, which are in a slowly rising basin, ending in a ridge that rises up the peaks south of Fitz Roy. These lakes don't have outlets, but drain by filtration through the gravelly soil. They also support amphibians, at least, as Paola, our guide, found a small frog called “four eyes.” I also saw a couple of diving ducks in the other lake, so there must be something to eat.

Our route took us down into the Rio Fitz Roy valley, over rolling ridges (old moraines?), through pretty meadows, and forests of increasingly large deciduous beeches, called “linga,” or “tall deciduous beech.” These trees are everywhere here, constituting the only species of tree here (except for an occasional partner of the same genus, the “antarctic deciduous beech” or “nida.”) Some of them hug the ground, others make up the woody brush, and the big ones make up the forest. There are no other tree species here. They are never very tall, but they are clearly tough and can live to 250 years of age.

The biggest linga so far are around this camp, Campo Fitz Roy, near the last terminal moraine of the Grande Glacier, which flows down from the back side of Fitz Roy and around Cerro Torre. We dropped our stuff and immediately headed up onto the moraine, because cloudy though it was, the forecast is for more weather tomorrow. Today is our best chance for the views.

We followed the moraine – a very tall one and the one closest to the glacier, but not the only one – up to a view point high on the north side of the valley, near the present terminus of the glacier. Enclosed in the moraine is a large lake, into which the snout of the glacier projects. And above that, the glacier rises up through an ice fall, to the left over another cliff and on to the south, and to the right, carving the slopes of Cerro Torre, its neighbors, and Fitz Roy and its neighbors. The latter lobe of the glacier is carrying a huge quantity of material scraped off the slopes, so much so that it's hard to see the ice at all.

Sadly, while the lake, and the view down-valley of row after row of moraine and glacier-shaped walls, and the dramatic and multi-colored glacier – even the tiny climbers making their way across the complex glacier-scape – were excellent and interesting sights, we were unable to see Cerro Torre, as the clouds that were obscuring the top of Fitz Roy earlier in the morning were also covering the upper slopes of Cerro Torre – and all of its neighbors. Martin, our guide, had warned us that Cerro Torre, less than a kilometer from Fitz Roy, but that much further west, closer to the ice field, had poorer weather.

None of us complained, however, as the views were extraordinary. We all knew how lucky we'd been with the weather, so far. And, while cloudy, it was warm and dry. To ask for more? Too much.

With that, we returned to camp, worked out our tent assignments, and lounged. Except that Glen and I made a run over to the outlet of the glacier's lake to look at the Tylorean Traverse set up for climbers to cross the river for access to the glacier (which is not possible on the other side, the side we used to get to our view, the Maestri Mirador, because at the viewpoint, a huge slide ends reasonable traverses of the slope). Along the moraine, a fine Caracara presented himself for our enjoyment.

After a fine dinner of pumpkin soup, a stew of chicken, rice, and vegetables, and pudding for dessert, we called it a day. Still warm, still dry.

Cerro Fitz Roy

March 4. We were so enthused by the sunset last night, that we all resolved to see the sun rise on Fitz Roy, the gorgeous and dramatic peak looming over our camp. The morning dawned clear, with only a little high cloud to the south and east (perfect for the sun rise) and we shoot a couple of hundred photos.

After another good breakfast, we headed out on an easy, undulating trail, through a trough running parallel to the range to the edge of the slope. Our route from there took us up and over a ridge in front of the lake and glacier at the base of Fitz Roy. I was warm going, steep and dry, over very good trail, to an amazing view of Fitz Roy and its companions. Srunning.

\We had lunch at the lake at the base of the glacier, staring at the peak a good part of the time, and then we walked up a hump to the south, from which we could see another glacier, carving the southern neighbors of Fitz Roy and pouring into a deep cirque, with a big river running out.

If nothing else comes of this trip, it has been worth it.

We extended the trip to the north, once we returned to the level trough, in which our Laguna Capri sits, to a couple of viewpoints that show off the Piedras Blanca glacier that carves the northern slopes of the Fitz Roy massif. It's a big, broken glacier, spilling hundreds of feet down a cliff into a lake. The lake itself is enclosed by moraines hundreds of feet high. Originally, the glacier filled the valley and formed a huge terminal moraine. As the glacier receded, a lake filled the space behind the moraine. At some point, the gravelly dam failed and unleashed the lake and washed out a channel through the moraine.

One highlight of the afternoon was the arrival of the llamas with our dinner and a dozen or more beers. Another was a nice, cooling dip of the feet into the laguna. And the last was the changing of the weather. That high overcast that made the sunset work gradually increased through the day, so that the peaks have some clouds over them – Fitz Roty's summit was obscured a few minutes ago. No one seems too worried, and it's still quite warm, but we might miss out on views of Cerro Torre tomorrow. We'll see.

The group solidified today, our first real test. Everyone did well, no real laggarts, no real problems.

El Chaltén

March 3. Today we loaded up the trailer and boarded our bus for the trip out around Lago Argentino then north to the north shore of Lago Viendma, another giant glacial lake collecting melt from the eastern slopes of the Andes. Our destination: The trekking center of El Chaltén, situated at the feet of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres. Compared to the small town on Calafate (which has about 18,000 people), El Chaltén is a village, home to a few hundred people, including our guides. It only has a summer season, however, so many of its residents migrate out for work. It's a new town, founded in 1985 to support Argentina's claim to this area, which was under dispute with Chile, and has found its life as a trekking center. It's growing as fast as Calafate.

Along the way, we stopped at a roadhouse that, long ago, hosted Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid. As we approached and drove along Lago Viedma, we were treated to increasingly excellent views of our destination, helped by a day of perfect weather – warm, calm, and clear. (Everyone mentions repeatedly that this is very unusual. We saw Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre and their minions. We saw the Glacier Viedma flowing into the lake. Each view was closer and more exciting.

We also saw some of the classic Patagonian wildlife: several condor, including one that flew right over us into the sun; a number of guanáco, in small groups; a pair Magellanic woodpeckers, like our pileated with a full red head; and a trio of Rheas, the local version of an ostrich.

After meeting our new guide (Paola is staying with us), Martin, and stashing our suitcases in the outfitter's office, we hit the trail. We took our time (it was warm, even hot), eating lunch on the trail and stopping for increasingly stunning views of Fitz Roy (Cerro Torre is out of site for the next couple of days), and arriving in early afternoon at Laguna Capri, where we will camp for two nights. The campomento has a kitchen tent, a dining tent, a couple of guide tents – all of these are classic wall tents – and a number of mountaineering tents with plenty of room for double occupancy.

We were free to wander the lake and its environs for the afternoon. I walked up to the ridge to the south, opposite Fitz Roy, where I got some nice views over the lake. Dinner was served at 7:00, comprising pumpkin soup with little toasts to dip, a savory goulash and mashed potatoes, and a tasty pudding with cocoa for dessert. Since we're outside, it started getting dark right after dinner, so we all scattered to various points for some sunset photos and made plans for sunrise photos tomorrow morning.

March 2, 2010

Perito Moreno Glacier

March 2. Hosteria Hainen has a nice breakfast, with very robust coffee. We left at 8:00 in a bus, with a local tour guide, for the Perito Moreno glacier. The guide explained much of the lifestyle in the area, the various creatures we might see – the big ones – none of which we did see, except the Caracara, which is pretty ubiquitous. We drove to the end of a peninsula, surrounded by two legs of Lago Argentino, where the Perito Moreno glacier descends from the South Patagonia Ice Field, serving both arms of the lake.

Every couple of year, lately, the glacier strikes the end of the peninsula, cutting off the southern arm from the northern, and its outlet. Over time, the southern arm builds up water and eventually breaks through the ice dam to reunite the lakes. Today, the glacier has a remnant on the peninsula, with a channel about 30 meters wide between land and ice, and a good flow between, from south to north.

The weather was fine as we drove up, but there were clouds over the ice field. We spent a couple of hours walking the trails below the visitor center to view the many perspectives on the ice and watch for calving on the glacier's front. Small ice falls were common.

The park is very well developed and organized. The trails are amazing. All of the old soil and concrete trails are closed and are being replaced by catwalks and stairs with railings. This keeps the foliage (almost all deciduous, with the trees being kinds of beeches) and the soil safe. It also prevents fools from danger. A sign along the way informed us that between 1968 and 1988, over 30 people were killed by falling ice. As frequent as the ice falling was and as foolish as people can be, I don't doubt it.

By the time we were ready to leave, a storm had rolled down the glacier and treated us to a short, but fierce, rainstorm. While it cleared up soon enough, it was a timely reminder of how the weather can change here.

Upon returning to town, I walked out along the lake again, to confirm the black-fronted? Ibises I'd seen yesterday (photo pending) and the get another look at the flamingos feeding in the shallow water west of town. The wind, the famous Patagonian wind, turned me around after about 30 minutes, so I wandered in town for the rest of the afternoon.

After a nice dinner (soup, steak, and a fine Malbec), I called it a day. Tomorrow, we hit the road for El Chaltén, about three hours north, and then the trail, for real.

March 1, 2010


March 1. This morning we awoke early (was it still dark?) and boarded a bus for the airport to fly south to El Calafate, in Patagonia. The airport was pretty quiet that time of morning, so we were able to grab a bite and the amount of caffeine necessary to the day. The flight was delayed about an hour, so there was lots of sitting around time. Other than that, it was airport time – not much else to say.

The flight passed over the coast for part of the trip, over water when there was a bay and over land at the points, before plunging over land – the grand altiplano – which is pretty rugged, even badlandy. El Calfate is situated on a huge glacier lake, Lago Argentino, and shows signs of age, growth, and money, though it's still quite rustic. Our place, Hostel Hainen is nice, new, rough, and rustic itself. It will be a comfortable place for the next couple of days.

The weather is good. It was cooler and dryer than in Buenos Aires, though it has warmed up this afternoon. A nice breeze keeps it comfortable. We wandered down the hill to town and bought some lunch and some more for tomorrow.

The town is situated on hills above the lake, and stays away from the shores, mostly. There might be issues with water levels in the spring. Along the shore, especially to the west, they've built a street and boardwalk, some ten feet above the broad margin, right now above water. There are a lot of birds on the western lagoon, just out of town. I'm out of my depth for identifications, but the flamingos are easy.

We had dinner with Paula, the local host's representative, and got organized. Tomorrow is an excursion to the Perito Moreno glacier, which rolls off the South Patagonian Ice Field into a huge glacial lake, like Lago Argentino down the hill.

A Day in Buenos Aires

February 28. Our day in Buenos Aires started with a good breakfast in hotel, following which we boarded a medium-sized tour bus for a four hour tour of the town. It was a good mixture of history, culture, rich neighborhoods, and poor. There seemed to be more enthusiasm for La Boca, actually. At least half of the tour was spent there, including more time on the streets than anywhere else. At least two people told me that La Boca was sketchy, but the tour took us there, dropped us in the streets for 45 minutes, and suggested that we return, if we left by 6:00 PM. There was certainly a big tourist focus there, and some very interesting buildings and museums. I'll return (if before 6).

We had our usual chaotic, waiter-crushing lunch at the Libertad Cafe on Santa Fe at Libertad. After that, we went our several ways. Four of us went to MALBA (Museo Arte de Latinamericano Buenos Aires), a very fine modern art museum. It's organized by decades, with a few European greats and a log of Latin Americans (including Diego and Frida) near greats. There was a lot of powerful and intriguing pieces. I regret that I can't remember any names, now, for there were some real beauties.

After that, Mike and I walked to the Museo de Belles Artes, which is a pretty comprehensive fine arts museum, with representation from European paintings and sculpture from the fifteen through the twentieth centuries, by which century the representation broadens. Overall, it is a very good collection, not great, but if this was your museum, you could learn a lot about fine arts by studying its collection. The greats were represented by minor works, but there were some very good paintings, contemporaneous to the greats, from painters I'd never heard of.

By that time, the day was ending, so Mike and I walked back to the hotel, slowed somewhat by my making a wrong turn, which caused us to have to backtrack several blocks. Mike was gracious about it.

We had dinner up the street at Torre Paris, where several of us insisted on steak (which was very good, and inexpensive), before we hit the sack for a very early morning the next day.

A full day, warm and muggy.

February 28, 2010

On the Ground in Buenos Aires

February 27. So far, everything has gone swimmingly. The group assembled without incident. The flights went off on time and landed safely. The views coming into Buenos Aires were amazing – flat, flat land running off into the hazy horizon and, on our route, wet, wet land, with a huge braided river (the Parana?), with many back channels, sloughs, ponds, and ditches.

We made our way through fee payment, passport control, customs, and a final baggage check, where we met our guide, boarded our bus, and drove into town. Along the way, I saw fields of pampas grass and then it hit me: the Pampas are just out there! The real Pampas!

Our hotel is across from Plaza Libertad, just off the main street Av. 9 de Julio. The Plaza has its own Facebook page, according to the sign. It's comfortable and will do fine. I expect it will be the fanciest we'll see on this trip.

After an early (for Buenos Aires) lunch, a group of us headed south for the Museo Historico National, in Parque Lezama. One taxi driver knew the way and gave the riders the thumbnail version of Argentina's history. Our cab driver needed the map to find it, so we were glad to get there. It's housed in a mansion-type building and has some interesting artifacts, but it is not impressive. A set of twelve or so displays offers to tell three hundred years of the country's history. I can't be sure because all of the text was in Spanish, but I doubt it was successful – there was just too little for so much history. Still, there are some valuable artifacts, including three enormous paintings of various epic scenes in Argentine history and enough San Martin paintings and other artifacts to support a cult.

We left the museum and headed north, toward the Museo de Arte Moderno. It's being refurbished, so we continued north, out of closed commercial into weekend commercial, Plaza Dorrego, which was hopping with crafts and food, and through the Mercado de San Telmo, which blended antiques, plain old junk, and fruits and vegetables. We soon arrived at the Plaza de Mayo, which was festooned with banners supporting the veterans of the war over the Malvinas (the Falkland War). As we passed out of the plaza, we passed the Chilean embassy, around which the streets were blocked off and filled with camera setups. Was that because of the earthquake today near Santiago?

Just got back from a restaurant in Puerto Madera, a section along the river that has seen considerable redevelopment of old buildings and is now in the midst of a run of new building construction, which look like a lotof office and residential towers. We had dinner at a very respectible buffet-style retaurant, with an Italian slant, called La Bisteca.

We've had an excellent start to the trip. The group is great, the weather is very summery (25° and somewhat humid), and the city is fascinating. Tomorrow, we see more of it.

February 23, 2010

I’m Going to Patagonia

It's been months to get to this point, but in a couple of days, I'm boarding a plane to fly over the equator for the first time. I'm one of a dozen Mountaineers on a two-and-a-half week trip to Patagonia, in the mountains of southern Argentina and Chile, for hiking and sightseeing.

We'll spend a full day in Buenos Aires for sightseeing. After that, we'll fly to El Calafate, in southwestern Argentina, from which we'll travel to glaciers pouring off the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and hike to view some spectacular peaks, such as Cerro Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine.

As before, I plan to blog the trip and will upload when I can get a connection.

January 29, 2010

Test of Open Office with Weblog Publisher

In preparation for my trip to Patagonia in a few weeks, I've been making preparations, including buying a cute little netbook to write my blog entries with. It's a big step up from the IPAQ and Bluetooth keyboard I used on the Alps trip a couple of years ago. This device, while heavier, runs real Windows, has a real hard drive, has much more battery, and enough screen to read Web sites on.

In order to keep costs down, I've opted to use Open Office. So far, I find it quite good enough for documents – and the price is right. So, this is my test for easy updates to my blog, using the Sun Weblog Publisher. If you see this, the test was successful.

Here goes!

October 19, 2009

The Northwest Corner

My wife and I spent the weekend in the northwest corner of the state. It was a fine way to spend a rainy weekend. The goal was Neah Bay and the Makah Museum, with a hope for Cape Flattery.

We drove around the south and west sides of the Olympics, through torrential rains and general gloom. Talking books help a lot. By the time we got to Neah Bay, which is a trim little town, there was hope of better weather. Still, we went for the museum, and by the time we came out, it was raining again.

The Makah Museum is my favorite museum and I was very happy to be visiting it again. It struck me as powerfully as it did the first time I was there, decades ago. It's a treasure trove of artifacts, hundreds of years old, recovered from a coastal village buried in a slide. The clay preserved even fabrics. But the best part – the profound and powerful part – is the interpretation. This is the Makah's history, the history of the people still living there, who have survived pestilence and persecution to make it to this day, when they can reconnect to their past through these items and the stories that go with them. It's worth the drive.

When we came out of the museum, it wasn't exactly raining, so we decided to take a chance and headed toward Cape Flattery. It was fairly bright and only slightly drizzling when we got to the parking lot, so we took the trail. The woods were dripping and sizeable, considering how close to the blustery coast we were. The trail has been recently reworked and it was very good. At the end of it are several viewing platforms, perched on the very corner of the country. While there was rain coming, it hadn't arrived yet, so we reveled in the sights: ships on the horizon; the lighthouse on Tatoosh Island; gulls, oystercatchers, cormorants, ravens, and even a heron; and a seal fishing the waters below our perch. The rain caught us on the way back.

We returned to Forks, where we had a clean and good-sized room at the Olympic Suites Inn. Can't say that Forks offers much in the way of dining, but we did find a dinner and a breakfast good enough to eat. The weather the next morning was promising, so we turned north, toward Lake Crescent, with a thought to Hurricane Ridge, should it actually clear.

At the west end of Lake Crescent, we turned off to take in a segment of the Spruce Railroad Trail, which winds along the steep and lonely north shore of the lake. The weather got better and better and, for a time, the skies were almost clear. The sun brought out the colors of the yellow bigleaf maple and scarlet vine maple. The trail is wide and easy and we had a great walk.

By the time we finished, the clouds were building in the mountains again, so we left Hurricane Ridge for another day and returned home along Hood Canal.

December 4, 2008

States I've Visited

I thought this was interesting. I've been through or in (at least a highway-blast-through or an airport-touch-down) more states than I thought.

visited 33 states (66%)

Create your own visited map of The United States.

November 8, 2008

“Ashland Nerds”

My wife and I have been travelling down to southern Oregon to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every year since 1996, before we were even a couple. But it is only this year that we seem to have become “Ashland nerds.”

It might have been the fact that we made the trip twice this year, as our usual five-day trip, this time in June, wasn’t enough to get us the plays that everyone was talking about. We returned in October to catch this year’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.

It might have been that we have stayed in the same bed and breakfast for the last three trips. Or that the proprietors of the Shrew’s House are particularly social and friendly.

Or, it might have been the arrival of a new Artistic Director and the inevitable speculation this change would create in the “regulars” about what changes this might bring to the Festival.

Whatever the reasons, I’ve found myself engaged in conversations with strangers about the Festival throughout the year. Our visit in the spring featured the usual talk around the breakfast table about the plays we’ve seen and are seeing, but it really didn’t get started until someone noticed the 2009 season’s list, which included The Music Man, which is something of a departure for the Festival. This, combined with the disastrous addition of songs to the season’s sad version of A Comedy of Errors, motivated the discussion of what this change could mean.

Weeks later, I found myself engaged in a similar conversation with another stranger, in a much stranger context – on the most remote section of the Pacific Crest Trail, according to Backpacker Magazine. One of my companions on an August trip to the Canadian border is also a regular at Ashland. He visits each year and writes about the plays for an alumni magazine. So we spent some time along the way, as we walked, talking about our experience with the Festival and our concern with what might be a different direction for the coming years.

In fairness, given all of this concern with the future artistic direction, I am told that the new Director is conducting community forums this year, which strikes me as a very good sign, considering how intertwined the town and the stage are.

My wife coined the term “Ashland nerds” during our visit two weeks ago, when we found ourselves spending an hour or two each morning discussing the Festival, our experiences, our likes and dislikes, and our questions about the new Director, with the innkeepers and their guests. It was the end of the season, everyone had seen most of the plays, sometimes more than once, and it was just cool to be member of this club.

Possibly more hooked than heretofore, we find ourselves considering another two trips next year. Apparently, once is no longer enough.

October 1, 2008

A Season of Backpacking

I intend to log more items here than I have over the last several months. I’ll start with this summary of my backpacking season.

It started during a favorite month for hiking: May. During May’s first weekend, a couple of Mountaineers and I hiked up to the beginning of the big patches of snow in the Elwha River, in Olympic National Park (ONP) – all told, 16.5 miles one way. (We were more than a little tired at the end and not much less tired the next day.) We had good weather (which means no rain, even a little blue sky) and saw lots of wildlife, which is why May is such a good month. There were several bears, lots of deer, a few elk, a pair of Mergansers, several Harlequin ducks, an eagle, hummingbirds, a Hairy woodpecker, and lots of song birds.

I extended Memorial Day weekend to hike the 24 miles of the wild Olympic coast, starting at La Push and exiting at Cape Alava to Lake Ozette, accompanied by three Mountaineers. This stretch of the ONP coastal strip is easier than the southern portion in that there are few required bluff climbs, but harder in that the footing is quite difficult. There were almost no stretches of sand, but we walked on every variety of rock you can imagine – rough, smooth, hard and soft, big and small, settled and slipping, sticky and slippery. This is a wild and beautiful coast and a good place to see bald eagles (and the occasional bear on the beach).

A month later in June, three of us Mountaineers hiked up the ONP’s Hoh River trail in the hopes of seeing Mt Olympus’s Blue Glacier from Glacier Meadows. We had good weather and a beautiful hike, but the creek crossing in the second avalanche chute stopped us. It wasn’t that the chute was steep, it was more that the creek banks were too unstable to safely cross. So, we hung out in the sun and headed back down, ready to return for another go as soon as we could. Maybe next year.

The highlight of my season was the trip along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Harts Pass, in the far North Cascades, to Manning Park in British Columbia. This trip was organized by another Mountaineer leader, who couldn’t make the trip due to injury. He did, however, drive the four of us who weren’t injured to the trailhead. That’s generosity and that’s commitment. We had wonderful weather for all five days and the scenery was stupendous. This part of the PCT spends a good amount of time actually very near the crest itself, traversing ridgetops surrounded by the peaks of the North Cascades. Part way along, we fell in with a group of hikers who had been taking trips into the wilderness for the past 16 years, supported a string of good-sized donkeys. We also met a man near the end who had just completed the entire Crest Trail in several installments. The end of this trip, at Manning Park, offered an unusual opportunity to eat a meal in a restaurant, which we took advantage of twice, not to mention an afternoon beer on the day we arrived.

What should have been the highlight of the year (except for the weather) was my last backpacking trip: completing the last 33 miles of Mt Rainier National Park’s Wonderland Trail, from Longmire to Mowich Lake. I hiked the other 60-odd miles a few years back. My wife and I took the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 19, off to drive my car to Mowich Lake and then drive her car to Longmire, where we stayed in the National Park Inn. It’s a nice little inn with a good restaurant. That afternoon was pretty nice, with sun and some dramatic clouds showing off the Mountain. During the night, however, it started to rain and didn’t stop until early Sunday morning. I did enjoy the hike, but I never saw the Mountain again – I rarely saw the next ridge; nor was I dry until I changed at the end of the hike. Even without the views, I could see that it is a very dramatic stretch of trail, lots of ups and downs (10,000 feet over the distance), bridges over canyons and rushing rivers, or logs precariously perched over braided channels in broad debris beds.

I’m already thinking about the places I’ll go next year.

April 8, 2008

Hurray! Fafblog! is back!

Fafblog! back to save the universe.: "So for the last five years all the liberals and the hippies and the nattering nabobs of normalcy have been coming up to Giblets and going 'Was the war a mistake Giblets?' and 'Are we losing the war Giblets?' and 'Oh look at all the dead people Giblets, maybe we should stop the war.' And the correct answers to these questions have been 'Shut up,' 'Shut up you traitor,' and 'We'd be winning already if you'd just shut up.'"

February 23, 2008

A Perfect DC Morning

This is as good a way to break the silence of the last couple of months as any. I was in Washington, DC last weekend for the Winter Meetings of the National Association of Utility Regulatory Commissions (how's that for an awkward title?). I had a couple of hours to kill before the first meeting, so I walked down to the Mall from my hotel (which, while nice, wasn't as bright as the photos in the link suggest, nor do the photos do justice to the forty foot deep construction hole arrayed around two sides of the hotel, including the side that held my room's windows).

My first stop was the Canadian Embassy, which has Bill Reid's masterpiece, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, on display in the courtyard (although it is somewhat jammed into the corner). I recommend a visit, if you're in DC; even better, if you are in the Vancouver, BC, airport, visit its version, which is displayed more fully, I think. While I was there, I noticed a group of young people at the other end of the courtyard playing in a raised circle railed into the end of the courtyard, so, when they left, I walked over to see what the fun was about. Above the circle of courtyard is a shallow dome, which, when you make a sound in the center of the circle, like stamping your feet, reverberates several times. Echo, echo, echo, echo... Pretty cool.

I crossed Pennsylvania Ave., and swung by the Apex Building, headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission. I love the deco building and sculptures around it, especially Man Controlling Trade, by Michael Lantz. It caused some reflections on a time when labor -- the construction of actual things -- was respected in this country. I walked west along Pennsylvania, past the John A Wilson Building, which houses part of the DC's government, and the White House, and then slid back down to Constitution Ave., at 17th, feeling better the farther from the center of the executive branch that I walked. I continued west along Constitution to 23rd, where I turned south and looped around the Lincoln Memorial, stopping to read the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural addresses inscribed on the walls and to consider the view over the Reflecting Pool, imagining filled with hopeful Americans, listening for their dreams or for the wisdom to end a war. It was empty that day.

From there, I walked the length of the Mall to the National Gallery of Art, where I attended an interesting overview tour of the East Building, which houses the modern art collection. It was an expertly done tour, but only covered the building and a handful of works, though it included the wonderful Pollack they have in the collection. I did go back a few days later, when I had the chance. I finished up with a salad at the cafe, soothed by the sound of the cascade waterfall, and hoofed it back up to my meeting, a perfect morning, completed.

January 3, 2008

Climate Change as Homesickness

Clive Thompson on How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds:
Australia is suffering through its worst dry spell in a millennium. The outback has turned into a dust bowl, crops are dying off at fantastic rates, cities are rationing water, coral reefs are dying, and the agricultural base is evaporating.

But what really intrigues Glenn Albrecht — a philosopher by training — is how his fellow Australians are reacting.

They're getting sad.

In interviews Albrecht conducted over the past few years, scores of Australians described their deep, wrenching sense of loss as they watch the landscape around them change. Familiar plants don't grow any more. Gardens won't take. Birds are gone. 'They no longer feel like they know the place they've lived for decades,' he says.

December 9, 2007

Our Second Snowfall

We're an inch from the month's worth of rainfall, and it's only the 9th of December. (Click on images for larger version.)

November 22, 2007

McMenamins Edgefield

My wife and I traveled down to Troutdale to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at McMenamins Edgefield. I struggled briefly with how to characterize this place, what to call it, and left it at "Edgefield." It's not exactly a resort, nor is it any one other thing that I can think of. It occupies the site and buildings of the Multnomah County Poor Farm, initially built in 1911. It now houses a hotel, brewery, winery, distillery, glass studio, pottery studio, spa, pitch-and-putt golf course, restaurant, theater, and a number of pubs, all on 38 (right now windswept) acres overlooking the Columbia River east of Portland.

All of the buildings are nicely refurbished and maintained in a sound, but relaxed, even fanciful, way. Nothing too polished or slick, but quite nice. Adding to the charm of the place is the amazing effort put into its decoration. Surfaces everywhere, even on the sprinkler pipes, are decorated with murals, paintings, and historical photographs. The paintings and decoration are in many styles, reflecting the work of many artists, but it all shares a lightness and fanciful appreciation of life's delights and the history of this place, which finished its social service life as a nursing home in the middle 80's.

This picture is an example of one of the prominent artists, on a coaster advertising our home town McMenamins location, The Spar.

We spent the morning walking all over the grounds and poking into the buildings (there's a pub in every shed, it seems). The strong down-gorge winds made it a cold walk (and are still buffeting the trees and our room's window), but the sun and the interesting sites kept us going. The golf course looks fun, but only a committed and unserious golfer (Are there any of those? We did see a few later along the walk.) would think today's wind an enjoyable golfing partner.

October 27, 2007

Electronic Books Have Their Uses

I had occasion to look into electronic books while preparing for my recent trip to the Alps. I wanted reading material for the train and plane coming home, but didn't want to carry a bound swatch of paper for two weeks before I could read it. Since I was taking a PDA, I looked into electronic books.

My first impressions were disappointment. The titles on offer at several of the vendors were limited and decidedly third-rate, for the most part. Anything of any quality at all was relatively expensive -- what you'd pay for a trade paperback edition of the same work. This was discouraging, but I did select a couple of Hemingway titles that I hadn't read before: To Have and To Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. In spite of having been written over fifty years ago (are they in the public domain?), they were $10 each.

The next barrier was selecting a reader. There were three formats available from the vendor I selected and you bought the e-book version for the reader you selected. The readers are free. Thinking this was the simplest route, I chose the Microsoft Reader.

I downloaded the MS Reader and installed it. Next, I had to "activate" it, which Microsoft is very big on and can be a significant barrier to getting their software to work. I'm not sure why one has to activate free software. In any case, I was unable to successfully activate the software and was, therefore, unable to use it with the e-books I'd just purchased.

My annoyance was great enough that I worked my way through the trackless swamp of Microsoft's support pages to find a link to a support function for the Reader. From what I could tell, the Reader is something of a deprecated product. There is no Reader support page, so I used the closest thing, a more general Mobile page. To their credit, I did get a rather stilted message advising me to do a couple of things that didn't work.

By that time, however, I'd downloaded another reader, "Mobipocket," and contacted the e-books vendor, who very quickly and kindly shifted my subscription to that reader. I should have gone with the Adobe reader in the beginning. It shouldn't be that expensive, nor that hard to get an e-book to work.

In the end, I found that it worked surprisingly well. The reader I used worked in portrait or landscape mode, offered excellent text clarity and zoom control, and was quick to turn a page with just a button click on the PDA. It opened each time from the spot that I'd stopped the time before. There were lots of other features for searching and moving about in the text, but I didn't use them much, once I started reading. I turned off the progress bar at the bottom, because it took screen space and displayed a discouragingly high page count.

The first one, To Have and To Have Not, was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, and Lauren Bacall and stands as one of my favorite movies. As a novel, though, it's something of a mess. Only the Bogart character, Harry Morgan, Brennan’s, Eddie, and a fragment of the plot where Morgan asserts that he won't carry human cargo, because that cargo can talk, made it into the movie. It's just as well, because William Faulkner made a fine screenplay out of those elements. Still, there is some wonderful writing in the book, especially when he's writing about the Gulf Stream and fishing upon it.

I found For Whom the Bell Tolls stunningly beautiful, a masterpiece. It is taut and focused. Its characters stand out, individuals. The language, aided by the transliteration of the formal address in Spanish to English, full of "thee" and "thou," is lyrical. And the action gathers relentless tension as the moment of the clash of armies arrives and breaks upon the characters. It must have been heartbreaking to write through the cruelty and waste of the Spanish Civil War, when it is so clear that the author loved the people and the country.

I found it easy to use an e-book in the same way I use a printed book. Once I got past the problem with buying and displaying the book on my PDA, the experience of reading was very similar. I'd use an e-book again, under similar circumstances, and more often if there were more, high-quality selections and they didn't cost so much.

October 26, 2007

Court of Honor

Last Sunday, I participated in the for my nephew's Eagle Scout Court of Honor. It has been years since I was around Boy Scouts and it was both new and familiar to me.

My son was involved with Cub Scouts, but declined to continue with Boy Scouts when he turned eleven. I, on the other hand, was certain that I wanted to continue from Cub to Boy Scouts. I remember coming home from an early Boy Scout meeting and declaring that I was going to become an Eagle Scout.

I had a wonderful time as a Boy Scout. My troop had a scheduled outing each month and in that way went on my first backpack at age eleven. I learned how to build a fire, cook a meal over flames, carry my gear over miles of muddy trail, sleep in a tent in the rain, and generally have a good time in the out of doors. From that early experience, I was able to become a confident hiker and backpacker. I've carried that with me for over four decades. I also made friends that I've kept all these years.

And, although it took longer than my father believed that it should have, I did earn my Eagle Scout award. For this reason, my nephew asked me to participate in the ceremony, reading the Charge and the Pledge, just before he received the award.

I was proud to be asked and happy to agree to do this. I did so, however, with some ambivalence, as I have problems with the national leadership of the Boy Scouts. To my mind, the national program has been taken over by narrow-minded fanatics who have turned their backs on the inclusive and (dare I say it?) liberal tradition of the best of the Scouts. The program I grew up with emphasized diversity (before it earned that name and became a cliché and lightening rod). In those days, of course, it was race. It's been a sad degeneration from those idealistic days.

But, I understand that all of these kinds of experiences are local -- much depends on the leadership of the troop -- so I went and participated.

There aren't enough of these kinds of events. There are so few that mark a young person's entry into a wider sphere of his community. I think a longing for this kind of recognized rite of passage is behind the proliferation of school graduation ceremonies. It's too bad we can't do better than that.

I was pleased with the whole ceremony. The portion of the troop that attended was diverse and reminded me of the kids that I consorted with as a Scout. The leadership clearly cared for the boys and everyone seemed very comfortable with each other. I was also pleased with the words that my nephew selected for me to read. They were wise and true.

I was proud to stand on that stage with him, in front of his family, his friends, his mentors, his troop members, and his fellow Eagle Scouts, and charge him with living up to the potential of his achievement.

October 22, 2007

Guide to Haute Route Posts


How to you say “Haute Route”? (Aug. 5): Text

Haute Route: Find the Right Partner (Aug. 16): Text

Haute Route: Going Where And Going Long (Aug. 23): Text

Haute Route: Getting Psyched (Aug. 26): Text

Where is the Haute Route? (Aug. 27): Text

The First Week

Dispatch from Chamonix, France (Sep. 6): Text Photos

Dispatch from Argentière, France (Sep. 7): Text Photos

Dispatch from Trient, Switzerland (Sep. 8): Text Photos

Dispatch from Champex, Switzerland (Sep. 9): Text Photos

Dispatch from Le Châble, Switzerland (Sep. 10): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane du Mont-Fort (Sep. 11): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane de Prafleuri (Sep. 12): Text Photos

Dispatch from Arolla (Sep. 13): Text Photos

The Second Week

Dispatch from La Sage (Sep. 14): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane de Moiry (Sep. 15): Text Photos

Dispatch from Zinal (Sep. 16): Text Photos

Dispatch from Gruben (Sep. 17): Text Photos

Dispatch from Gasenried (Sep. 18): Text Photos

Dispatch from Europahütte (Sep. 19): Text Photos

Dispatch from Zermatt (Sep. 20): Text Photos

Munich and Home

Dispatch from Zermatt, Still (Sep. 21): Text Photos

Dispatch from Haar, Germany (Sep. 22): Text

Dispatch from München, Germany (Sep. 24): Text Photos


Impressions (Oct. 3): Text

What Worked and What Didn’t (Oct. 9): Text

Updated with new links on 11/15.

October 9, 2007

What Worked and What Didn’t

This will be the last of my Haute Route posts, in which I’ll sum up my experience and offer some advice to those who might be considering this, or similar, trips. I’m not done with the posts I have, however. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll make some editorial corrections and additions, especially photos, other images, and links.

The one thing that I didn’t have with me that I would have liked was a towel. I hadn’t expected that it would be so easy to have a shower each day and so difficult to get a towel to go with it. I recommend taking a light-weight, quick-drying towel with you, should you try this hike or something like it. I made do with my t-shirt, which also dried quickly, but a towel would have made the marvel of a shower after a day’s hiking just perfect.

I took more stuff than I needed, making my pack heavier than it needed to be. It ran about 30 lbs (almost 15 kg), which was fine on the downhills, but it slowed me on the climbs. I took three quick-dry t-shirts and used two, four sets of hiking socks and used two, and I probably had more town clothing than I absolutely needed, but I did wear it all.

Another thing that I had, but probably didn’t need was reservations for all of the places I stayed. Most of the people I traveled with didn’t have reservations and none of the places that we stayed were full. I was happy that I had reservations, if only because I knew exactly where I was going each afternoon. But there were other good reasons, too. I was traveling alone and having reservations provided a specific contact in each of the places that I expected to be, each day – it seemed a useful precaution. I was concerned about the fact that I didn’t really have either of the languages of the places I was traveling. I was able, because I could look at Web sites for information, to book with places taking their rates into account. I’m sure that, without the look ahead of time, I would have missed the Restaurant Waldesruh in Gruben, which was the best deal of any place I stayed. And, though I didn’t know it when I did, my booking with the hotel in Zermatt gave me a nice upgrade, at the same price, when the hotel had problems with its water.

On the other hand, having reservations beforehand meant that I was more locked into a schedule. That wasn’t a problem for me, but many of the people I met had an extra day or two that they could use anywhere they decided along the way. I fully intended to walk the route straight through, but tarrying a day in Zinal or Arolla would be a pretty good way to spend some time. I would think that doing this early in the season might increase the need for reservations, especially in the bigger towns.

The experiment with writing a complete post for the Web each day worked very well. I used an HP iPAQ hx2495, running Windows Mobile 5. For writing paragraphs, I used an iGo Stowaway Ultra-Slim Bluetooth keyboard. Both devices worked fine, especially the keyboard. I was able to connect to a wi-fi network once (in the hotel in Zermatt, for free!), but I probably could have done so more often. Most of my posting was done at Internet cafés, using a Sandisk ImageMate 12 in 1 USB card reader to access the SD card from the iPAQ. That led to some interesting adventures with French keyboards, Open Office in French, and MS Word in French and German. On the whole, it worked quite well. What I wanted to do was to describe the events and impressions each day – to capture the immediacy. Writing each day, without the need to transcribe from my usual, handwritten journal, worked well.

My physical preparation was successful, as well. This is a strenuous hike and I experienced no soreness. I credit my regular walking, which averages 100 miles (160 km) per month, and the addition of the several trips up steep trails in my neighborhood, for preparing me for the effort. Because I was confident I could do it and didn’t suffer any consequences when I did do it, I was able to enjoy the experience more fully.

I had a German cell phone along, which I used a few times to check in with home. Were I more telecommunications-practiced, I could have done more with the pre-loaded dollar amount. I could have saved money by texting, instead of calling in messages. It would have been possible to use a cell phone to connect to the Web and post to my blog, though that was more technology than I wanted to deal with. Coverage wasn’t a problem. There was virtually nowhere where the phone couldn’t find a network. And, when it ran out of minutes, it was easy to find a pay phone that took my VISA card.

For more information about this trip, I recommend starting with the book that was in the hands of most everyone I met along the trail: Kev Reynolds’ Chamonix - Zermatt, The Walkers’ Haute Route (it’s now in a new, fatter, heavier, more colorful edition). I also found the following personal accounts of the trip useful, both for inspiration and information:
  • Dawn DuPriest's report of a September 2002 trip is my favorite. She also has posted GPS waypoints, which I used to find Cabane du Mont-Fort. (Thanks, Dawn!)

  • David Preston hiked the first half in July 2006 and finished in July 2007. He’s posted a lot of photos.

  • Jo Collingwood describes a in September 2003 group trip.

  • Alan White and Lesley Williams describe a September 2001 trip. No photos, but some good details.

October 3, 2007


Now that it’s been a week since I returned home and started back at work and I’m well past the effects of jet lag, it’s time for some impressions and conclusions about the trip to the Alps. I’ll follow this up with another post more focused on lessons from the trip that might be of use to others considering hiking the Haute Route.

The first and strongest impression I formed along the way is that there is nothing like this in the US. The combination of the stunning scenery, the quality and abundance of the trails, the many comfortable places to stay, the good places to eat, and the availability of public transportation make hiking in the Alps (and much of Europe, I imagine) unlike anything you can find in my part – or any part – of the United States. I know there are huts in Maine, and maybe a few elsewhere, but there’s nothing like the network of them as in Switzerland, nor is there the combination of factors that make this a world-class trekking location.

The next is amazement at what the Swiss can do in and with the mountains. They can build anything anywhere, as far as I’m concerned. There wasn’t a plot of useful land anywhere that I saw on my trip that hadn’t been put to use. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t see how a road or even a trail could be built to it, there was a hut or hovel in place, if not a small herd of sheep. It was very impressive.

I also was impressed at how many of the old timber buildings – barns and storage – were still in use. Black, checked, and gap-filled though the timbers might be, the buildings still stood and were still useful. The photo is proof, showing an old building being given a new foundation.

Everywhere I went, I saw evidence of a walking culture in Europe that doesn’t exist in the US. There were people on the trails, people on the roads, and people on excursions to the high points, even if they rode a chair lift to get there. I saw young people, middle-aged people, and old people on the trails. I saw families of three generations, individuals, small groups, and large groups, all with their rucksacks and trekking poles, walking up and down those steep trails. You see it in the low lands and valley bottoms, too, with people on bikes along bike trails and people walking along walking paths. Almost everywhere that my route followed a road, there was a footpath that paralleled it and, usually, was far enough from the road that you could forget it.

And, while this was a great trip, and a great way to see a small part of a great destination, there are alternatives to walking fourteen days straight and topping a new pass each day. Some people on the trip skipped sections that had less interest or too much climbing or bad weather and took transit around to the next point. Others, like the two retired, Swiss gentlemen I met on the Col de Riedmatten and in Arolla later that day, were driving from promising town to interesting village, taking day hikes from those places each day. There were some towns, Zinal prominent among them, where you could easily spend several days day-hiking. There’s a lot to be said for sampling more fully what a single valley can offer, though, for my part, I liked the broader survey and the long-distance approach.

September 24, 2007

Dispatch from München, Germany

For breakfast, Stefan and I visited the local bakery (which is right next door) where Stefan enthusiastically purchased a variety of fresh and fantastic-looking baked goods. I was struck by how many of the items there can also be purchased in my home-town German bakery, Wagner's. I have to say, though, that this bakery presents their goods more attractively. I could hang out there every day.

My wife's nephew, Aric, came over shortly after breakfast, and we headed to München for Oktoberfest. First, though, he took me on a car tour of the north and east of the town, then he showed me his new apartment, which is very nice, and then we walked through town to Oktoberfest. Along the way, we detoured through the Englisher Garten, which is München's answer to NY's Central Park. It was a sunny day and there were thousands of people out on the grass and along the streams and walks.

The Oktoberfest grounds are huge and the whole thing is built from the ground up each year, in preparation for the festival. In some ways, it reminded me of a big state fair -- the rides, the multitudes of people, the food booths, the smell of fried food in the air. In others, it is nothing like a state fair in the US -- the shot and cocktail booths, the lack of a thousand acres of parking, and the "tents."

Of course, a good number of the people there (and in the town otherwise) were in traditional Bavarian dress: dirndls or similar full and frilly dresses and lederhosen. In a lot of ways, the dress reminded me of the clothing at a country-western dance in the US. The dresses the women wear are quite similar. There were a lot of bandanas, western-cut shirts, and even cowboy boots.

There are about a dozen big (and I mean big) buildings they call tents, but the only tent-like features of them are the soft roofs. Otherwise, they are giant barns, holding thousands of people each inside, with more seating outside. This is the heart of the Oktoberfest experience.

Which is: the enjoyment of beer, food, music, and the massive, celebratory energy in the room. Beer is sold by the liter. (No wimpy pints for Oktoberfest.) Well, there might be other sizes, but I didn't see any. Food comes hot and simple. Aric and I had a half-chicken each, along with a couple of liters. But that was outside where we could get a seat.

After that, we tried another couple of tents and got into one. We worked our way in, to the back, and found a couple of seats. We were in.

The place was packed and electric. It's an experience like no other I've ever had. The closest thing to it was that Grateful Dead concert back in '73. I spent most of the evening standing on the bench, which is pretty much how it works for about half the people there. There was a big, well-equipped pop band (no oompah band in this tent) occupying the raised stage in the middle, and they played for all of the three or four hours I was there. Amazing. But I mentioned the energy?

People danced, they drank, they talked, they made out, they sang along with a surprising number of the songs. Everyone was friendly: I saw several instant friendships formed right around me.

We practically closed the place. Thankfully, Aric can hold his better than I (because we'd had another couple of liters, at least). That meant that he could put me on the train and I got back to Haar safely.

I could say that I've felt better upon awakening, but after a bit of Stefan's homemade mueslix, I felt pretty good. I headed into München for the afternoon. After bidding Aric goodbye, I headed through the center of town to see what I could see.

I had the choice of several art museums and exhibits, but the Deutsches Museum had the pull on me. It's a fantastic museum of science and technology that Judy and I had visited when we were last here, in 1999, and I was sure that there was an important section I'd missed on that visit.

I was right. I spent almost all afternoon in the "maritime navigation" hall, which comprises a wonderful collection of models (most 1:50) and actual boats (a couple are 20m long). Great exhibits and very good text in English. Another thing that we'd visited in '99, but didn't really impress because it was cloudy, was the sundial garden, so I climbed up to the top floor and tested them out on this (one more) sunny day.

I'm so grateful for the opportunity to take this trip, and for the marvelous and generous hospitality that Stefan and Nancy have provided me, and for the friendship that Aric showed me while I was here. I am a lucky man.

Sept. 24 from a sidewalk table at the Maxxwell Restaurant, München: map.

Updated for spelling, links, and photos on 11/18.

Link to photo album

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Dispatch from Haar, Germany

So, this was a travel day -- all day on three trains to München and another to Haar, nearby. I finished packing up and dragged my stuff downstairs, checked out, and got an early breakfast. They were still setting up, but didn't bat an eye when I showed up, they just found me a seat and set me up with coffee. Great service.

The train down the Mattertal is a slow ride. The track is often steep, several segments have the cog wheel rail in the middle, and there are many turns. Still, it's not a bad thing, as the scenery is great. Seeing the big slide at Randa up close was interesting. The train now crosses the river and rides up onto the bench on the other side to get around the slide. It used to stay on the slide side of the river, but was buried in the slide, along with the highway.

I changed trains at Brig, in the the Rhone river valley. This was a faster train, through more populous country, and it had completely filled by the time we arrived in Bern.

I changed again in Zürich and had a bit of a layover, so I bought a sandwich and watched the scene. And what a scene! The station in Zürich is big and it was bustling. After a short time, the noise level began rising, so I went to see what it was. There was a demonstration or march beginning there, with flags, matching t-shirts, flyers, and whistles. By the time the marchers trooped out of the station, about thirty minutes later, the whistles were deafening. There was definitely a trade union theme, but I won't know what issues were motivating them until I can decipher the leaflet (which is printed in German, French, Turkish, and Italian, of course).

The train to München was even faster and not quite full. The country was pretty: green, rolling, productive. At some point, I crossed the border, but I didn't see any marking. The signs changed somewhere, but I didn't see where. Upon arriving at the Hauptbahnhof in München, I made my way through the many layers of floors and halls to the S-Bahn and took the S4 to Haar, where Nancy and Stefan, another extension of my wife's family, live. They had offered me their hospitality.

After greetings and some time to get my self organized, we went out to a German Sunday dinner at a restaurant they like: beer, a big, tender piece of pork roast, and a potato dumpling, all swimming in brown, savory gravy.

Now, because I have landed somewhere familiar, it seems time to reflect on what I did on this trip. I'd thought that I'd have a sense of accomplishment, and I do. But accomplishment doesn't seem to be the main feeling I have, even after all of the planning for the effort of the trip.

The most valuable part of hiking those many kilometers is not having done it, but what it was like while I was doing it. It was seeing those places that I'd only read about. It was meeting the people -- even those I just passed on the trail with a "bon jour." It was topping a ridge at a pass and having a new world, a new set of sights available to me. And what comes with that is the knowledge that I only saw a tiny piece of this small part of the world.

Sept. 22 from Haar, Germany: map.

Updated for spelling, links, and photos on 11/18.

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