Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hike like an Egyptian: Pyramid Peak

The Aspen forecast called for rain most of Sunday, clearing out by 9 or 10 pm. Monday looked like a perfect day for a climb up one of Colorado's shorter (but more challenging) 14ers.

Mark had been to Pyramid Peak before, soloing to 13,600 feet or so before turning back. But this wasn't a grudge match. There's no room for vendettas when you love the mountains this much. It was just an opportunity to get out with some friends and enjoy a day or two of late summer hiking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Several people were invited to come along for another attempt, but for various reasons I was the only one able to make it out with him.

Either we were operating under outdated information, or the guy working the entrance gate was new. We arrived at the gate around 4:30, and he told us that, even though we were overnighting, we needed to wait until the last busload of day visitors had run before he could let us drive through. So we parked on the side of the road and spent a few minutes in bafflement. But before too long we were allowed to pay our ten dollars and cruise up to the overnight lot.

The Maroon Bells from the main parking lot
I was amazed to see that the location where so many people photograph the Maroon Bells, their burgundy peaks reflecting alpenglow on the still waters of Maroon Lake, was less than one of my meager stone's throws away from the parking lot. Surely you're supposed to hike at least fifteen minutes to catch a glimpse of such rugged natural beauty.

The light wasn't going to yield any postcard-quality photos this day.
The hike to Crater Lake, our destination for the evening, was uneventful. Low-hanging clouds clung to the peaks that surrounded us in all directions. The rain we were promised sometimes sprinkled but never poured down. We took note of the location where the trail to Pyramid intersects with the main path, anticipating that we may have to find it in the dark the next morning.

Looking back at Maroon Lake
There are eleven camp sites near Crater Lake. Arriving late on a Sunday would have given us dibs on any one of them. Mark had read good things about the last two, so we bypassed the others without any inspection beyond a glance at the signs marking their various turn-offs. By the time we reached our spot, we had gone well beyond the lake and were as far from the Pyramid trail as the main trailhead is.

Campsite 10 above Crater Lake

A view from our campsite
For once I didn't feel like I had over-packed for our one-night trip. In fact, I under-packed due to some carelessness before leaving the house. When we met at his place, Mark lent me a puffy jacket. My own was still on the back of my chair at the kitchen table and would have been sorely missed once we got up above 12k feet. I had enough food, but my spork had gotten misplaced and I left my cup with the spare camp stove in the back of my truck. A spoon carved out of deadfall pine and a Ziplock freezer bag converted into a bowl would make up for those oversights.

The weather held out as we went about the business of settling in, and it didn't begin raining in earnest until after we were ready to turn in for the night. But it kept up through the time our alarm woke us at 4:30 the next morning. Fortunately, it was just a gentle rain, without so much as a distant grumble of thunder. Laying in our sleeping bags for an extra few minutes, we briefly discussed the potential complications to our climb that would arise if the rain persisted. But it soon abated, and we ate breakfast and made ourselves ready for the hike.

We left camp at 6:00, the sun just beginning to brighten the horizon to the northeast. The cloud cover above us remained low, but the weather looked otherwise promising. We decided to get at least as far as the Amphitheater, where we would discover whether the night's rain had turned the trail up to Pyramid's northeast ridge into an impassible mudslide, or if we would be able to proceed.

Crater Lake at dawn
Pyramid's peak was never fully visible during the approach. A wisp of cloud draped around its angular shoulders as we clambered up the talus field.

Pyramid peak from the talus field below the Amphitheater
The 1000-foot climb out of the Amphitheater was in good condition, but brutal nonetheless. My heart raced and my calves burnt. Every few minutes I paused to allow my biometrics to return to more normal levels before pushing on. If such an effort had to be maintained for much longer than it did, I wasn't sure I would be in shape to attempt the summit.

But the ridge was gained without a full physical failure, and we took a break there at 13,000 feet to rest and contemplate the gloomy ceiling of cloud that now fully enshrouded the peak.

Heavier cloud cover obscuring Pyramid's summit
A mountain goat was nearby. For some time she just sat at her leisure, but after a while curiosity got the better of her and she came over to see what we were about.

We weren't certain how the reduced visibility would impact our summit bid, but we decided to move on and find out. We went around the corner, made the leap of faith, and edged along the ledges toward the white rock. We were well into the mists by that time. Mark asked how I felt about the conditions. "The view sucks, but it doesn't seem to be impeding our progress." So we pressed on.

Going into the clouds. Photo: Mark K
On the ledges (on the way out). Photo: Mark K
The term "goat path" is often used in a figurative sense to describe circuitous and questionable routes, but at the top of the white rock we found ourselves very literally in a maze of goat paths. And it seems that every hapless soul that has made its way along any one of these saw fit to build a cairn marking the route that surely is the correct path up the mountain. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter exactly which way you choose - the only wrong way to the summit is down.

We arrived at the top of Pyramid Peak on the north end of the summit around 10:30, where a cairn of a more reliable variety stood faintly visible through the fog. The air was unusually still and there was an unsettling feeling that the world below us had altogether ceased to be. A misstep over the precipitous edge could send a person falling forever into a bottomless void.

Mark at Pyramid's summit
On the edge of nothingness. Photo: Mark K
Refueling on the summit. Photo: Mark K
On top of Pyramid Peak
As we shed our packs and engaged in the time-honored tradition of breaking bread where stone and sky meet, a white shape materialized - something more solid in the sea of vapor that surrounded us. The mountain goat from the ridge had followed us up to the summit. I like to think that she was there to ensure we made it safely up the slopes that are her home.

In time we departed the top of Pyramid, leaving our ghost-like guardian to her unyielding solitude as we made our way back down the various winding goat paths to where the route becomes more certain.

The life of a mountain goat must, at times, be very lonely
We retraced our steps down from the ridge, across the Amphitheater, and down the trail to reconnect with the one which would lead us back to camp. At some point along the way we caught our first clear glimpse of Pyramid's summit. The cloud cover had lifted some time during our descent.

Pyramid peak, now clear of its mantle of cloud

A pika on the cairn marking the trail junction
On this trail we also encountered the first people we had seen all day. While we toiled in the upper elevations, the more accessible areas of the wilderness had been filling up with other visitors. Some were just out for an afternoon of light hiking. Some were embarking on, or returning from, adventures of their own. All of us were in awe of the majesty of the mountains that surrounded us.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Slow and Steady

Sometimes when I'm out riding my bike or running or whatever, the old tagline moral from The Tortoise and the Hare crosses my mind: "Slow and steady wins the race."

The next thing that crosses my mind is, "What a load of hogwash!"

I mean, slow and steady will always get you to the finish line (unless you're in the mountains and some heavy weather starts moving in - struck-by-lightening loses.), but the truth is, fast and steady wins the race.*

At the first 10k I ever ran, I overheard some guys talking a little way off the starting line. "All these people start out too strong. But they'll all tire out before they're halfway through and then we'll be passing them." Once I'd passed, I didn't see them again.

Don't get me wrong: in general there's nothing wrong with slow and steady. Sometimes just making it from start to finish is what it's all about. But don't let that adage be an excuse not to push yourself to your full potential. I'm not out there to win; I'm out there to see what I'm made of.

But isn't it supposed to be about having fun? Yeah, that too. The thing is, there's a certain confidence and gratification that comes from finding out that you are capable of more than you previously thought. And that feeling, to me, is a big part of fun.

So get out there and push it. Hold today's performance up against what you think you can do. As long as you're beating that self-image, you're winning.

* I'm not here to spray about how great I am. For the record, I'm much more in the "moderate and steady" category.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pedal Terminology: there, I fixed it.

Today I found myself getting all fired up about bicycle pedals. Specifically, the names we have for different types of pedals has always bothered me.

It all comes from not being able to see the future. But maybe that's not where I should begin.

Okay, so let's look at what we have. First is your basic platform pedal.

Platform pedal
You may find these in the bottom of a spare parts box. They were removed within five minutes of some newly-purchased bike's homecoming (right after the pie plate behind the cassette was taken off, but those are never saved). They can also be seen on cruiser bikes (as witnessed above), or fancier models might grace the cranks of a BMX or trials bike.

The second kind of pedal is still basically just a platform pedal, but it has "toe clips" on it.

Pedal with toe clips
These are employed on hipster-style fixed-gear and gentrified randonee bicycles. Okay, and also track bikes, maybe. And in this case, my daughter's WeeHoo 3rd-wheel trailer bike thing. The straps mostly just keep your feet from being thrown from the pedal when either your bike decides it's going to keep going whether you want it to or not (fixed-gear); or when you find yourself out of your depth, cadence-wise (all other types). They are also a training mechanism for the dexterity needed to graduate to the next evolutionary stage of foot-bike interface....

Finally, we have pedals which lock onto cleats on the bottom of special-purpose cycling shoes.

Clipless pedal and cycling shoe with cleat
In one form or another, these are found on most road and mountain bikes. Aside from the obvious revenue boost to the cycling apparel industry, this kind serves a couple of purposes beyond the toe-clip variety: 1) they allow a greater amount of upward force to be applied when pedaling, which increases efficiency; and 2) they cause new would-be bike racers, having failed to wrangle their foot free in time, to fall over when they come to a stop. The latter helps the cyclist learn the humility required to be seen in public wearing brightly-colored Lycra during future bicycling ventures.

So back to my terminology gripe.

Platform pedals are reasonably named. They do, after all, provide a platform for you to push your foot down on just before it slips off and your shoelaces get caught in the chain.

But the second two types cause some major problems. You see, through an unfortunate lapse in foresight, the things that hold one's feet to the pedals of the second type were called "toe clips" rather than "toe straps." Little did they know that some genius would come along some years later and invent a pedal that you actually clip into. So once the final pedal came along, eliminating the "clips," this piece of technology came to be known as "clipless" pedals.

That's right. You clip into clipless pedals. How confusing is that?

So here's my proposal:

  1. Clipless pedals should be known as "clipful"
  2. Pedals with toe clips will be called "strapish"
  3. So long as we're renaming everything else, let's call platform pedals "backups" or "spares" or "little Billy's ticket for a new pair of shoes"
I think you'll have to agree that this arrangement clears up a lot of confusion.

You'll note that there's not a single Wikipedia reference or Sheldon Brown citation here. That's because all bike geeks suddenly know all of this stuff the second they walk into their first bike shop. Please just accept everything here as unquestionable truth.

Eating Vegan in Korea and Japan

One of the things many people have asked about our trip to Korea and Japan last month is how did I maintain a vegan diet while we were there. Those countries are heavily reliant on seafood, and even in dishes that are not inherently meat-based, some kind of fish sauce is often used in the preparation.

When planning the trip, the details of how I was going to eat were something that gave me a certain amount of anxiety. Even if vegan-friendly dishes are on the menu, the language barrier would make it difficult to ask the wait staff (if there is any) about them. Some people have blogged about how to travel and stick with a strict vegan diet. That's not what I'm doing here. Before we left home, I decided that the best way to approach the situation was to just do the best I can with it.

Fresh vegetables are easy to find in Korea.
While staying at my sister's house in Korea, things weren't so difficult. For meals that were prepared at home, we generally knew what was going into them. But that wasn't always the case. At one of the open-air markets we went to, I bought a few different items from a kimchi stand. When we served them with dinner that night, I found that one of the big piles of seaweed on my plate was saturated with fish oil. I ate it anyway. It freaked me out a little, but I figured that as long as it was there, I may as well have the culinary experience.

The scenario would repeat itself to lesser degrees at various restaurants - the udon might be prepared in fish stock; the baked goods may or may not contain dairy or eggs; the rice and vegetable dish might have shredded dried fish as a garnish. I decided that I wasn't going to let that be too much of a hang-up.

Tofu and bean curd vendor in Pyeongtaek
So did I "cheat" on my diet? I wouldn't say so. When people talk about cheating, I imagine it to mean that there's some forbidden thing they just couldn't find the willpower to resist. But in foreign countries, there are some food dishes that are just intrinsic to the culture. I'm not sure it counts as cheating to make a calculated decision to experience that aspect of the journey despite the fact that it doesn't hold up to the standards we would keep while at home. And the classic definition of veganism allows that the best we can do is make every reasonable effort to avoid the exploitation of animals. It doesn't say anything about having your super-powers revoked just because you can't speak the local language.

Anyway, the short of it is: I didn't want to turn the family vacation into a frustrating exercise in foraging for food in a land where the notion of veganism is as foreign to them as their traditions are to me.

Ad for a Vegan phone (yeah, I know...)
That said, I think it went pretty well. We managed to find soy milk at the 7&I convenience stores (7-11 equivalent, to those here in the US).

Japanese soy milk - the picture of the beans is a give-away, but also look for "大豆" (soy) or "豆乳" (soy milk)
They also had steamed rice and seaweed with sesame oil in the refrigerated prepared foods section. At grocery stores we found everything from fresh produce to breakfast cereal to eat in our hotel room that were known to be vegan. When eating out, there were always tofu and vegetable dishes that appeared to be fish-free. And I discovered that an extra helping of steamed rice does wonders for one's sense of satiety.

Oh... did I mention we found some yerba mate at the street market in Pyeongtaek? The vendor had a big jug of it (iced) and was handing out samples. We bought a bag of yerba which came with a pack of paper filter baggies and instructions (in Korean) for preparing it. Not quite the same as sipping it hot from a bombilla, but it was a refreshingly cool twist on something I learned to love during our visit to Argentina a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Happy is on the road: bicycles in Korea and Japan

Transportation in Korea, at least outside of major cities, was a free-for-all. We saw everything from cars, trucks, and bikes to tractors, 4-wheelers, and gas-powered wheelchairs on the roads. Bicycles were common, but I can imagine riding there to be a risky prospect.

"Happy is on the road" - almost enough to make me start carrying a purse.

Old man with a bicycle at the street market in Osan, South Korea

In Japan, transportation seemed to be much more regulated. Bicycles were much more prominent, and it was interesting to see how they integrated into pedestrian and vehicular traffic. They freely flowed from sidewalks to streets as necessary, and though it felt like it would be easy to get hit by one while walking, it was probably never unsafe.

A typical Japanese town bike at the playground of the Imperial gardens, Kyoto, Japan

Bike parking at a train station

A small shop that sold wire bicycle models. I really wanted to buy one, but resisted the urge to accumulate more useless stuff.

I got the impression that there wasn't much of a bike culture, per se, but that bicycles were just part of the larger culture in general. But in both countries, along with the masses of people using bikes for practical purposes, there was some evidence of an enthusiast camp who rode for fitness and sport. That is to say, they also have roadies in Lycra and mountain bikers pounding down the unpaved trails. And as evidenced above, there were accessories for people who just love bikes.

Nearly all of the town bikes had kick stands attached to the rear hub which allowed the bike to stand freely (visible in the playground picture above). I almost bought one of those to bring home and put on my touring bike. The two-legged stand I have on there now gets in the way of the chain a little bit.

Some bikes also had arms extending from the handle bars with a clamp on the end to hold an umbrella, but it was more common to see people just steering with one hand and holding their umbrella in the other. When not deployed for protection from sun or rain, the handle of the umbrella was hooked onto the seat post while the other end ran back between the wheel and either the kickstand or fender mounts.

It was also not unusual to see people riding around while smoking cigarettes. On town bikes, squeaky chains and brakes were the rule. I'm not sure any of them actually cared, but I wanted to get a big bottle of Triflow and put up a sign advertising free bike lubes.

My observations of Asian bicycle security were interesting, too. The approach seemed to be that, as long as someone couldn't hop on the bike and ride away, the bike was safe. So cable locks were often wrapped between a wheel and the frame, but it was rare to see a bike actually chained to a stationary object. I wish bicycle theft were as small a problem here in the US.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The First Day of Summer

While I don't remember all of the ways I spent my summers when I was a kid, I can definitely remember the way summer felt - the anticipation leading up to the last day of school; the long days playing in the woods behind our house; big slices of watermelon on the back porch; week-long trips to visit my grandparents' farm.

As adults, we generally don't get to revel in summer the way we used to. It would be easy to get lost in nostalgia and feel like something has been lost. But for me, it still kind of has that exciting feel to it, and I want to do everything I can to make the summer live up to the expectations set by my childhood.

True, there isn't as much time to spend playing when most of the days are spent earning a living. But most of us still have mornings, evenings, and weekends to live to their fullest. We still have vacation time accrued to compress into a week what used to take a month to do.

The Solstice - the official start of summer - was late last night, which makes this the first full day of summer. The kids have been out of school for about a month, now, but the last field trip for my mountaineering class is tomorrow (it's my last day of school!), which will free up some time to pick and choose how I'm going to spend my off day each week. And the other weekend days when I'm taking care of the kids are full of promise, too.

As far as I can see, this summer is going to be all about climbing, hiking, slacklining, biking, skateboarding, and teaching my kids what I can about all of those things. What are you doing this summer?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Korea and Japan: a late Yule present

Back during the winter holidays, I didn't get any gifts for anyone. And I mean that literally. Nobody got anything from me. At all.

Part of it was that I didn't make the time to do any shopping. And part of it was that C made sure that the people who matter most got gifts from our family. But mostly I think it was because everyone I would have bought gifts for doesn't need anything. On the contrary, most people I know complain that they want to simplify their lives rather than accumulate more stuff.

But I didn't want to be a Scrooge, so I told my family that my gift to them would be an all-expenses-paid adventure to the destination of their choosing.

I spent the next several hours arguing that Disney Land did not count as an adventure.

This heated debate subsided into the kind of subsurface boiling that lava might do after a violent volcanic eruption. A few days later C turned to me with narrowed eyes and said, "I want to go to Japan." I'd been called to account, and now I'd have to put my money where my mouth is. "Sounds fun," I replied.

Of course we couldn't actually get away until after the school year was up, so we planned the trip for the first two weeks of June. Which means that at the time of writing, I've had just enough time to recover from jet lag.

The trip actually entailed a week in South Korea - visiting my sister, who is stationed there right now - followed by a week in Kyoto. It was probably the best vacation we've had.

We flew out of Denver on a Thursday, caught a connecting flight in Seattle and landed in Seoul on Friday evening. The time zones are such that you lose a day in transit. My brother-in-law picked us up from the airport and took us to their home in Pyeongtaek. Travel is exhausting, and I don't sleep well on planes. So we had just enough time to settle in and hang out for a bit before going to bed at a pretty normal local time. We all got up the next morning feeling more or less adjusted to the new time, which was a pleasant surprise.

The next few days were spent going all over the place, seeing museums, visiting temples, going to amusement parks, walking through markets, and playing at a water park on the US Army post where they work.

One particularly nice coincidence was that their neighborhood, comprised largely of Americans working for the military, held a barbecue one evening while we were there. We enjoyed a sense of community that I haven't felt in a long time. There's a unique bonding that takes place when you're all strangers in a strange land, or so to speak, that doesn't happen much here in suburban US of A.

C and M at a street market, Osan, South Korea
Korean War Memorial, Seoul, South Korea
Korean War Memorial, Seoul, South Korea. A trove for AFV enthusiasts.
Tofu vendor at a street market, Pyeongtaek, South Korea
Traditional dancers and musicians, Korean Folk Village
Buddhist temple, Kwang Duk Sa, South Korea
Kwang Duk Sa, South Korea
T-Express roller coaster, Everland, South Korea

Our week in Korea flew by for me. Before I knew it, we were being shuttled back to Seoul to catch a flight to Osaka. From there we traded in our pre-paid vouchers (acquired from a stateside travel agent) for rail passes and took a JR train to Kyoto. The train station is essentially part of the airport, so it was much less stress than I thought it would be. Still, I'm glad that we insisted on fitting everything into a single suitcase plus backpacks. Shepherding two kids through public transportation is challenging enough without a lot of extra baggage.

Even though we didn't manage to do much more than one destination per day, Kyoto was a whirlwind of palaces, temples, museums, and trains. It was a great choice for first-timers in Japan, as there is so much history there, and the city is quite manageable in size. I think Tokyo probably would have been a bit overwhelming.

Nijo-jo (a shogun's palace), Kyoto, Japan
Tea house, Imperial gardens, Kyoto, Japan
M and some monkeys, Iwatayama Monkey Park near Kyoto, Japan
A train station somewhere north of Kyoto, Japan
Trees at a Buddhist temple (Yasaka?), Kyoto, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan
Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan
Waterfront, Toba, Japan. We were on an island, so the kids wanted to see some water.
Katsuya Terada work at the International Manga Museum, Kyoto Japan
Imperial Palace, Kyoto, Japan

It was a great experience being a visitor to such very foreign countries. I mean, everything from the landscapes and architecture to the languages and alphabets were completely new to us. It's really humbling to immerse oneself so thoroughly in the unknown.

The flight home was from Osaka to San Francisco, and from there back to Denver. It all went smoothly enough, but while we once again arrived in the evening and should have gotten a good, on-schedule night's sleep, I was slower to adapt back to Mountain Time. Hopefully tonight I won't wake up again at 03:00 wondering whether I'll be able to coax myself back to sleep for a couple of hours.

There will be more about this trip to come. There was simply too much to encompass in a single blog post.