Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

For more about our time in the first few Bolivian mountains, see our posts about:

Condoriri

Pico Austria

Pequeño Alpamayo

So yes, instead of hiking to just camp I (about a five hour walk away, at around 5,000 metres), it was decided that we would go straight past that to high camp (another couple of hours hike/climb at around 5,400 metres); get there for around mid-afternoon, rest and get up at about midnight for an attempt at the summit of Illimani (just under 6,500 metres). Altitude gain of about 2,000 metres in less than 24 hours. Something I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for. Apparently there was no water at camp I, and no snow to melt there. José, who had climbed the mountain a number of times, was to stay with Natalia, whilst Caleb, who had not climbed the mountain before, would go up with me. The one good thing was that we had porters to carry our heavier bags so we were able to go with lighter rucksacks with extra layers in case the cold got to us.

Hot drinks at 7am, though we left at 9am. The sun was still behind the mountain so it was still quite cool and a bit breezy. The walk was quite easy at first; steadily increasing in altitude along a reasonably well trodden path, going up around and over lateral moraines, down again into carved out glacial valleys, and back up over the moraine on the other side. We could see small streams with ice on the surface, with water running underneath, and in one of the small sub-valleys, there was a glacial stream running quite strongly – strongly enough that we were able to re-fill our bottles with it. We made such good progress that we completed the apparently five-hour hike in less than three hours, as we passed a small plateau where wind walls had been built from rocks to protect tents which had been encamped there. The tents had gone, and as we though, there was no water or snow to melt. So  passing that, and upwards.

Which was when the hiking turned into effective climbing and scrambling over scree, and steep, loose, rock surfaces. It was a struggle, that was for sure. We had to be very careful with our footing with the scree and the angles of the falls to our side gradually increased meaning that any loss of balance could have led to bad injury or worse. The fact that we had porters was even more gratefully received as had I had to keep my pack on going up those rocks, I would have … let’s say, had difficulties. Then when we got to parts where we had to cross over ice with steep falls to the side, I was even more grateful as I took step, then a breath, and further steps forward. Painfully uncomfortable for me.

It was more or less consistently like this for the entire two hours we took to complete the trek to high camp. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure: as well as the struggle over the scree  and rocks, the altitude certainly took its effect on me as well, and I gradually became slightly more breathless with the steps I took.  It was great to finally get there, above the snow line, on a small platform of ice, looking down over the valley of base camp and with amazing views of the various summits of Illimani. The porters had set the tent up for us which was even better, as I was able to move in and rest almost immediately. It looked like we would be the only ones attempting the summit in the early morning, as the only other climbers there were going back down to base camp.

Caleb later radioed to José to say we were okay. I could hear him outside the tent talking with him, and I heard him say that he didn’t think it was possible for me to speak with Nat. I guess this was because I was in the tent and he was outside. I didn’t say anything at the time, though I was a bit annoyed about that. I later asked if possible to radio back to them though he said that the radio at the bottom would have been switched off for the night. Definitely would have liked to have spoken with her before I went up the mountain, and I went to bed with slightly negative thoughts about the climb.

Our journey to Illimani didn’t start out too well when the stomach bug that had hit us returned to affect Natalia. It happened early in the morning we were due to set out and it meant that we had to postpone this journey by a day to give time and hope for Natalia to recover. When we did set off, she did seem a bit better but it was clear that all was not fully well.

Though Illimani appears to be very close to La Paz, the journey there takes a good three-four hours. The roads are incredible: carved from nothing along the sides of mountains en-route, terrifyingly steep drops on the edges; spectacular views and can be good fun to drive on. You can see areas of the mountains where landslides have come down over the road though since been cleared up. The road to Illimani for me at least seemed more treacherous than the Yungas “Death Road”  we had cycled down at the beginning of our journey in Bolivia, with even more tighter corners and falls that maybe were not quite so vertical, but were equally lethal should a driver get a bit carried away. The only reason why the road was not considered more dangerous was because the Yungas Road was a main trunk road and the road to Illimani much less frequently used, so less prone to accidents.

What was amazing that along the road is that you pass so many tiny farms in the mountain, with a few Andean girls tending to crops and animals. It seemed so steep that it would be impossible to do anything there. But they, impressively, managed to make a living there.

Illimani slowly but surely grew larger before us as we went around the continual twists and turns in the road. Every now and then it became obscured by the slopes  but then peaked out in the beautiful weather – sunny, calm, blue skies… it was all set to be perfect climbing conditions over the next couple of days. Eventually the road came to and end in a small village further up in a valley that led to the base camp for the mountain – a camp that was a gentle two hour hike away. Again, splendid views of the mountain through the trees – the mountain looked even more fantastic to climb. A couple of mules and a small boy came along and this time we were able to load our main rucksacks on to them to carry to the camp. So it was set to be quite easy for us.

We got going at a gentle pace, though soon it was clear that Natalia had not recovered properly at all. Her stomach pains returned and in spite of having calmed down over the previous day, diarrhea struck. She kept going though the hike transformed into a four-hour struggle for her. We got to base camp an hour or so before dusk and she pretty much collapsed into the tent once it was set up. It was clear that she wouldn’t be able to continue to the next camp. So it was decided that she and José would remain in base camp: apparently there have been some robberies at the camp and disputes between local communities there make it slightly dangerous (in one dispute, one community had blocked off the stream that went to the other side of the valley and as such the other community put a dead animal in the water of the former…). Probably nothing would happen, though it was for the best. This meant that Caleb and I would tackle the mountain by ourselves, even though Caleb had never gone up it before. Furthermore, we would go straight to high camp in the morning instead of taking a day at Camp I, before attempting to summit in the early following morning. It promised to be a marathon couple of days.

The views from the summit of Huayna Potosi were spectacular. We could see the Condoriri mountains with Pequeño Alpamayo; Illimani  was clear behind La Paz… lake Titicaca; Mount Sajama in the distance. It truly felt like we were on the roof of the world. There was a group of five other climbers who shared the summit with us for ten minutes or so, but when the left, it was just myself, Kirk and Caleb. There was not even any wind so there was a blissful silence as we looked over Bolivia. Incredible.

We had a couple of chocolate bars each (these had become our staple energy diets when going up the mountains. Apparently we were easily spending about 5,000 calories each in the course of the ascents); took a few photographs, and packed up to leave. Descending didn’t take too long with the exception of the knife-edge ridge from the summit. Going down was even harder for me than going up, though maybe I was not quite so breathless with each step. I guess in going down, as with Pequeño Alpamayo, we are forced to look at the consequences of any fall… down, and a long way down at that. The wall of ice to our left was a great help as I was able to plunge my ice axe into that every couple of steps and it was nice to have that extra security, but the fully exposed part towards the end, with no ice walls for protection, was again terrifying, but Kirk and Caleb coaxed me along and I was able to maintain my balance. As you can imagine, I was extremely pleased to get to the end of that part.

And yes, straightforward after that – the trail through the ice and snow was quite clear; all the main crevasses were clear either side of this path and no new crevasses opened up beneath our feet, so it was all good. Back to high camp and it was nice to see Natalia and José again, though they were leaving earlier to go down to base camp. We had chance to have a quick nap and some noodle soup before we had to pack our things up to go down. It was heavy work. Going down the perilously slippery rock-ice path with full back packs was tough (no porters); we needed crampons for parts because the snow was quite deep and going down in inflexible plastic mountain boots made it even harder. Then after that, the path just seemed to go on forever until we saw the buildings of the refuge. We saw a group of people on the glacier leading up to the mountain and they were coming down – they soon passed us and apparently this was training that they were doing in preparation for an ascent. José commented to Natalia that in general in Bolivia, inexperienced groups would do this type of training – and it would have been nice if we could have spent time doing it… but ah well, we had managed it anyway.

So back to the refuge; Kirk got us all a beer which was great, then the two hour drive to La Paz, a day’s rest and then, if things went according to plan, to Illimani.

Up at 12.30am for hot drinks, we thought we were a little late, especially as we still needed to sort out our layers and backpacks for the ascent. As it turns out, when I got to Caleb’s tent to get hot water, we were actually doing pretty well for time and we ended up leaving the camp to the summit at 2am.

There were perfect conditions: the sky was perfectly clear and the stars were fully visible, and the weather was calm without even the hint of a wind. We made tea with the hot water, tea which went down pretty well as in spite of the perfect conditions, it was still around -10C, so quite cold. A thick base layer for both legs and torso; middle fleece layers and water and wind-proof outer shells, with big down jackets in our bags in case we were still cold. Oh and yes, big down mittens as well. Headlamps on… gaiters, crampons… ready to go and off we went – with around 25 other lights flashing in the darkness belonging to others hoping to summit.

The walk through the snow and over the glacier was easy enough. As with Pequeño Alpamayo, I was in the rope team with Caleb and Kirk, while Natalia was with José. They were in front of us and it was clear Natalia was having a bit of trouble getting to grips with the crampons and it didn’t look like she felt too good. Even though Augusto and José had gone effectively separate from us, for some reason we didn’t let them get on with it and we slowed down behind them. I heard Caleb saying some things, seemingly suggestions to help, and also José was saying for us to pass them. I am not sure why we didn’t as José is a more than capable guide.

But okay, we continued on up and a few other groups passed us. Our pace was reasonably good, though and I though that Natalia was doing pretty well considering this was her first time up so high. She had established a decent pace and rhythm and was going well. As dawn approached, however, and as we passed over half way up the mountain, she and José stopped. They started again, though Natalia was clearly uncomfortable. After some discussion and a couple more attempts to keep going, they turned back. It turned out that the stomach problems that almost ruined the start of my time climbing; the same problems that had ruined the second half of Augusto’s mountaineering; had come back to hit Natalia. A real shame as she was getting on so well.

We had no choice but to continue on as José had gone back with Natalia. The sunrise soon lit up the mountains and the snow around us and the goggles I had really did have a tremendous effect in reducing the flare and the brilliance of the light. We drew ever closer to the summit of Huayna Potosi and it was nice to see that there were no steep slopes as there were with Pequeño Alpamayo – though had we gone the direct route, there looked to be a 60 degree climb for anyone brave or strong enough. We instead took the traditional route: going along a path that went past the summit, steadily increasing in height, before doubling back on ourselves to go up the summit ridge.

My favourite part (yes, a lot of irony there!). On reaching this ridge, the first section is completely exposed and less than a metre wide. The fall on the other side: 1,500 metres or so; the fall back to the path below… enough to do a lot of damage. Great. I didn’t have much choice but to walk along it, with Caleb coaxing me along. Not particularly enjoyable. Fortunately, I was not quite so breathless as I was on the previous occasion. After the exposed part, the ridge was built of kind of ice walls which were to our right – stopping any potentially long fall to that side. It certainly eased a lot of the anxiety as it was only the short fall on the left and we were able to use our ice axes to help support as we went along. Half an hour or so later, and we were there, on the summit.

Leaving the Condoriri base camp to go to Huayna Potosi… quite a change

Leaving the Condoriri base camp the day after summitting Pequeño Alpamayo was straightforward enough. We were mostly in cheerful spirits and all of us felt reasonably well and accomplished after the six days spent at the place, in spite of the bugs that had gone around and the varying degrees of illness we all experienced. Natalia still felt slightly bad because of the stomach bug, but was able to manage with the heavy rucksack. All of us turned back on a number of occasions to take last glimpses of the mountains behind us. Now we would have a day’s rest in La Paz before going to Huayna Potosi – what would be the first time any of us (with the exception of Caleb and Kirk) have been higher than 6,000 metres.

It was nice to get back to the hotel and have hot showers, and even get some laundry done, though it wasn’t long before we were up at dawn getting our re-packed bags downstairs to take to the first camp. The itinerary for the journey would be for us to go to base camp for one evening (4,800m), a couple of hours away from La Paz, and from there we would hike for about four hours or so up to high camp (5,200m), and whilst we would arrive there in the afternoon of day 2, we would start our summit attempt at 2am on day 3. Easy.

Huayna Potosi reveals itself

Driving to the mountain was quite impressive. On leaving La Paz, you can only see the peak of the mountain, however, after an hour or so, the full body of Huayna Potosi reveals itself and you can really see how beautiful it is. Also, looking at it up close for the first time filled each of us with a bit of nervousness as we all thought “are we really going to climb that in a couple of days..???!”.

When we got the the refuge at base camp, Caleb decided that we would stay in a small hostel building which was there, rather than pitching our tents. Much easier and much more convenient and even vaguely comfortable – though we could not wear our boots inside and the floor was freezing. We did have chance to play Uno though (which, miraculously enough, I managed to win!) whereas if we had been in our tents it probably would not have been quite so social. In the afternoon we also went for a hike in the area nearby, though Augusto was feeling worse and was not able to come with us. This was the first proper time Natalia wore here heavy mountaineering boots over difficult terrain as well, and it took her a little while getting used to them, but she managed okay with a little coaching.

In the evening, Augusto said that he would not be able to come to high camp as he was feeling terrible. He had just not been able to recover from the stomach bug and needed to get back to La Paz. Not much that could be done about it unfortunately, and it was clear he was not well in the way that he needed to leave the refuge to go to the outside toilets every half an hour or so. So the day after the remainder of us packed our things and began the walk. And it was a tricky hike. We were going over a mixture of loose rock and black ice at a steadily increasing gradient. There were a number of people who passed us as we went down as well and a few of them stumbled. This, again in conjunction, with the altitude, made things extremely slow as though the falls were not the steepest in the world, with rocky landings and our heavy rucksacks, we could have given ourselves significant injuries should we have lost our balance. We were all pretty much exhausted by the time we made it up though – especially considering that most people had used porters to carry their equipment up and we were carrying our own. Our team had used one porter and he had carried up the tents and sharp objects, but at least it was good seeing that the tents had all been setup for our arrival, so Natalia and I were able to crash down in to ours. I just had one task to do before taking  a nap before the summit hike – waddle down 15 metres of snow and ice to refill our water bottles from a water hole made in the ice. Doesn’t sound the hardest thing in the world to do, but after that hike… tiring!

Before I go any further about the time in the Andes, I have to apologise for not having spent much time talking about our team members here in Bolivia. We are with a great bunch of people, who are really helping to make this journey an enjoyable and great learning experience.

Our guide, Caleb Smith, works for Alaska Mountain Guides and has a great experience climbing mountains in South and North America. He has summitted Aconcagua a number of times and Huayna Potosi about four times. He currently lives in Alaska where there are far too many mountains to choose from, and regularly goes mountaineering there – in spite of a massive amount of rain and snow and pretty harsh conditions. He is 27 years old (looks slightly older (sorry Caleb!) probably because of his time spent out in the open and in the sleeping bag, and is already a mountaineering teacher so is certainly extremely competent. A nice guy as well and is always ready to help out and answer any questions, though we all give a bit of a sigh in the mornings when he shouts out “hot drinks!”, to get us out of our tents.

José is our local guide and is a great guy. He is always smiling and is extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the mountains of the Cordillera Real – he summits Pequeño Alpamayo at least three or four times a year! On the subject of Pequeño Alpamayo, José was fantastically helpful at one point for me when I was particularly tired, but I will get to that in another post. Natalia described to me about how one day she saw José back from the summit of a mountain and went to help a load of new teams who had arrived at base camp set up their camps, get their water and get established. Full of life, it is fun listening to the heavy rock CDs which he bought from a Cholita in the street every time we go to camp!

Kirk and Augusto are our co-climbers. Kirk is from New York and is pretty much inspirational. He was a trader on the markets, he had cancer, recovered; left his job, cycled around Africa, cycled for thousands for kilometres through North America; climbed Mount McKinley and Aconcagua… and is now a hockey teacher. He has a massive amount of energy, basically. He has so many interesting stories, you can spend hours… days! chatting with him and not get tired. At the same time, he helps encourage us and he has helped us to push ourselves to our limits in the mountains. It can be quite hilarious seeing him strip off his shirt at the top of the mountain to show off his “guns”.

Augusto, from Italy, now lives in Texas though will soon move to San Francisco. He studied music, and plays the piano, and is now a scientific researcher. He seems to be a true romantic, being a happy bachelor looking for true love! He enjoys photography and often joke about taking so many pictures in order to ensure at least he gets one picture right. At the same time he has a little bit of hypochondria as he showed with an enormous level of concern for Natalia after her cut lip seemed to get a bit infected. It is great that both Kirk and Augusto are really interested and supported for us with our project, both of them always offering support, suggestions and thoughts about the plans.

It is always great to be with a good bunch of people on long journeys, and we are lucky with the people we have found ourselves with. We are about half way through our time in Bolivia, though it will be great to stay in contact with all of our team members after it ends.

Augusto’s headlamp shines as he walks past through the darkness

Waking up at 2.30am in preparation for the ascent of Pequeño Alpamayo, it was clear that Natalia was  feeling quite unwell with stomach problems, and as I looked outside, heavy snow had transformed base camp into a winter wonderland. The mountains around Pequeño Alpamayo were covered in cloud which glowed with the moonlight that managed to get through here and then. As I watched, the clouds were visibly speeding by – one moment the sky over us was clear, the next, clouds obscured everything. Celeb was awake and I asked him if we would be going ahead. Looking towards the mountains, he shook his head: if it was snowing down at camp, with the clouds over the mountains then the conditions up there would be considerably worse. I pointed out the shifting clouds and he said that okay, we would check again at 4am to see if the weather had cleared. I chatted with Augusto for a little and he helped me with a few photos as the camera was playing up.

4am came and I heard Celeb talking with José, our second guide who is local to the region and who has spent his life climbing the mountains in the Cordillera Real. I didn’t quite understand everything they said, but I  didn’t need to as shortly after I heard Celeb saying to us as we sat in the tents that we would not be going up today. Celeb later explained that whilst the clouds had broken, José thought the conditions would be too tricky for us, with us trail-breaking through deep snow. It was a relief in a way as it was clear that Natalia was feeling worse and wouldn’t have been able to make it. We went to sleep. More or less, as Nat was like me when I first arrived, waking up needing more water every few minutes. Not good at all, and I was worried if she would be okay should the weather clear for an attempt on the next day.

Morning light and the barren land around base camp is transformed

Morning came and the camp was brilliant bright with the snow: sun-glasses were well and truly needed. Caleb, Kirk and I were still the only ones who felt well – I guess I felt at around 90% so… good enough. Augusto still had not fully recovered and Natalia… not bad but not great. They decided to stay at camp whilst us three went off for a hike in the snow.

This turned into a hike that lasted six hours and saw us climbing Pico Austria – a 5,000 – 5,300m (not sure exactly how high as it is not clear) peak nearby which can be climbed without any technical equipment. It is a relatively easy climb, though I certainly felt the altitude: after a while, every step that I took was tiring and left me a little out of breath. The trail was straight forward and in São Paulo, down at reasonable altitudes, I would have had no problem whatsoever with the gradient or the terrain, however, after a couple of hours I asked how high Celeb thought we had climbed. He said… “hmmm…. I guess 100 metres or so”… I felt liked we had climbed a thousand. We kept going and got to the top of a pass from where we would approach the peak and chatted about whether I would be able to go on or not. I said that I would, but I would most likely be quite slow… Celeb agreed, though I decided I would give it a shot.

And I surprised myself in that not only was I able to keep going, I was able to keep a decent slow, but rythmic, pace and stay with the others. No headaches with the altitude, no stomach problems or other indications of altitude sickness aside from the occasional need to catch my breath. Slowly but surely, we got to the summit. Though I have been to Everest base camp, this was the first 5,000+ metre peak that I had actually climbed/hiked up and the views… were breathtakingly beautiful, and the sense of achievement was still pretty satisfying. It had been a good day.

Thanks to Casa de Pedra in São Paulo for all your support in making this happen!!

<—Day 1 and Arrival at Base Camp

So it wasn’t looking good, but at least I wasn’t going home – something I have to confess I was quite relieved about. Three out of our team of five, including Celeb the guide and myself, sick. Our guide said that he thought he might have given us food poisoning, possibly from the salami, though it wasn’t certain what it was. The positive side of it was that while I wasn’t feeling great after the first night, by midday the vomiting had stopped, as had the regular toilet stops. Which meant that if everybody had the same thing, then it would most likely be over quite quickly.

The day was spent recovering, with only Natalia and Kirk remaining unaffected – taking care of us all and trying to work out how to use the camp stove. Fortunately, base camp is full of other teams going mountaineering in the area with plenty of peaks to climb, and an Argentine mountain guide helped them work it out. In the afternoon the weather was lovely, I went with them both for a short walk towards the glacier, which is a few kilometres away from the camp. I managed to get about half way there, so I was reasonably happy with that (no energy to take the camera with me though). By the time we got back, Celeb appeared to be on the mend, though Augusto was still unwell.

A better night was spent. I only woke up a couple of times needing water. At high altitude, it is incredibly important to keep drinking water. Lots of it. We did have a few condensation problems in our tent – we needed to sort out the ventilation as it was below freezing outside and with our breathing, we woke up with the insides of the tent covered with a thin layer of cold water which wasn’t so good with our sleeping bags, which also got a little wet. Pretty difficult to regulate effectively, though we just kept on opening more and more ventilation windows to let air circulate more effectively. This created the problem of allowing a draft to come through, though huddling in our bags and sleeping on the opposite side of the tent to the doors with the vents open helped us avoid this.

Third day and things were good. I was feeling good, as were Caleb and Augusto (though Augusto still was not fully fit), so we were able to start skills training with just a day lost. We covered basic prusik knots which would help us lift ourselves out of crevasses should we fall into any on the way up glaciers. Prusik knots work by locking ropes to ropes when sudden friction is applied… Quite complicated to explain but I will try… something called the Texas Kick rope system. Basically you have a rope divided into three: one attached to your waist harness; a short part above this attached to the main rope by a prusik knot, and a longer length of rope below your waist which can reach one of your feet, where you would create a loop at the end to put your foot. At the same time you have another prusik knot attached from your harness to the main rope above this. By this system you create a kind of ladder: when you put weight on the foot, the prusik locks in so you can stand on it and push the higher prusik further up. After this, when you “sit down” the higher prusik locks in so you don’t go lower – you are a couple of foot higher than where you were beforehand – then you would keep repeating this until you are out of the crevasse… Quite tiring but definitely good to know in emergency. I apologise for the lack of photos/video here – though I was feeling better, I still didn’t feel too much like bringing the heavy camera with me in the cold. However, here is a decent example of the texas kick system being used with tree climbing:

Slightly different in the way it is put together to what we did, but the principles are pretty much the same.

But anyway… By the evening we were all suitably tired but well. Augusto was still not 100% but was feeling more confident. The situation was looking so good that we decided we would attempt our ascent of Pequeño Alpamayo in the morning, with a 2.30am start. But then two problems: Natalia went to bed in the evening but started feeling stomach pains, and then… it snowed. Heavily.

Final 24 hours in São Paulo. Quite excited, to say the least; just getting final bits and pieces together. A quick visit to Casa de Pedra where we did some wall traversing, slackline and bouldering for an hour or so. Not long but it was nice to see everyone at the gym again and get a little more exercise before we leave. Final packing of the bags – not everything in the rucksacks, but into a couple of large duffle bags (aside from our summit packs which we will use as hand baggage). Our flight to La Paz will last four hours, as we have a change at Santa Cruz. We will arrive in La Paz at 8pm local time.

From GoOutdoors.co.uk – rucksack guide

Everything will of course go into the rucksacks – I have an 85L and Natalia a 75L pack. There are ways which you can pack to make things easier in terms of accessing everything and distributing the load so it’s all nice and balanced. We find that putting the sleeping bag and the foamless sleeping pads makes it easy to get to them through the bottom zipper at night when we camp. Anything else that we might need at night can also go down at the bottom; heavier stuff going into the middle and also close to the spine – this helps keep the centre of gravity close to your body rather than unbalancing you. Food, cooking kit and long term water supplies are good candidates for here. Wrapping lighter weight items around these is a good way to stop things from moving around when you are going, and then everything else that we might need to access quickly (headlamps, med-kits, sunglasses, rain jackets/shells etc) closer to the top where you can get at them.

Ice axes and other long poles can go on the outside.

Plenty of places online which provide advice about packing rucksacks – REI is a good place to start (http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/loading+backpack.html) as does Gooutdoors.co.uk (http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/expert-advice/rucksack-guide), with a good overview of rucksacks and their common features, and how to pack them, and also (very importantly for the larger rucksacks) how to fit them so the weight is transferred over your body properly.

So Easter has come and gone, and it is back to the five day working week. But the long weekend was quite welcome. We went to the Serra da Canastra mountains in Minas Gerais state on Friday night (we wanted to go Thursday but that didn’t quite work out – though it was fortunate in a way as we had a lot of work to do in terms of behind the scenes planning for the expedition). The bus ride ended up taking us about seven hours or so, and we got the small village of São Roque de Minas at around 7.30am. Again, the wonderful buses in Brazil meant that we were able to get some sleep in pretty comfortable seats (though as soon as one leaves the state of São Paulo into Minas Gerais, there is an instant change in the quality of the roads which can perturb even the heaviest of slumbers!), so when we got there, we were able to pretty much start hiking after having a quick shower and breakfast and have a full day of walking on the Saturday.

The mountains are wonderful for the hiker, casual drives and days out, and for wildlife admirers. We probably walked around 15 kilometres on the first day, and saw all sorts of bird life with the Caracara especially common, along with species of woodpeckers, parrots, and, though we didn’t see them… Seriemas. With these, we were walking along and heard a kind of laughing sound close by to us. We went to investigate, not knowing exactly what was making the sound, but just couldn’t see anything even though the “laughing” was right next to us. Then it stopped and while we investigated some more minutes, we just did not see anything. We were later told that they were Seriemas – a bird that generally stays on the ground though can fly small distances as it nests in trees. Fortunately we were able to see a couple on the Sunday.

And a quick note about ants… Always fascinating to watch and we saw some pretty big ones there, working away, cutting through leaves and carrying them away. It looked like the ground was moving. So efficient that whilst we were watching them, I had put my bag down and when I got back to it there were a few of them on it, and they actually cut a off a segment of some lighter mesh where we put the water bottle… Such endearing creatures…

I think that people in the area thought we were mad to be walking the distances we did – so many cars passed on the way there and on the way back, we were offered lifts by at least six or seven different groups. One guy called Venicius and his mother – nice people who shared a beer (I know, I know, terrible! though it was just the one!) with us when we reached waterfalls at mid-point of the trail – really did insist, but we were enjoying the walking (in spite of having to pass bulls, cows and calves in the middle of the road) and besides, the whole point of us walking the trail was (aside from to enjoy the wildlife!) to help us get used to good long distance hiking with heavy packs. So we politely turned them down and made our merry way back to São Roque. The meal at the end, though, was extremely welcome!

The Serra da Canastra mountains are a gentle 550km away from São Paulo… a long way to go for a weekend, but that is where we are going this evening. We tried last night because of the long weekend, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be – even with extra busses on to take into account the increased demand, all the tickets sold out pretty quickly.

A seven hour or so bus ride, we will get there about 6am, so we shall hopefully get some good sleep in the bus (one of the really great things about Brazil are the inter-city buses – the seats generally always recline by 45degrees or so, even in the cheaper ones). At the mountains, there are plenty of hikes and trails to go on and as we will be getting early, we will still have a good two days there as the bus back to São Paulo leaves at around 10pm.

What we will be doing..? Walking with heavier than normal backpacks to get used to greater loads, and also hopefully see some of the wildlife – eagles, deer, maned wolves, ant-eaters… plenty of animals to see if we keep our eyes open… so here’s hoping!

I wish I had something more exciting to post! But unfortunately, the last few days have been slow and a bit uneventful. Although in slow times is usually when I start to plan things… so here’s what has been on my mind.

I’m so close to completing my first traditional rock climbing rack. I have a bunch of cams and passive protection, got a great deal on some used alpine draws (thanks Mountain Project!) and all I needed was a rope. I have been racking (haha! no pun intended) my brain on what specific rope to get. Who knew ropes could have so many aspects to them!

Ropes can be: various lengths and diameters, dry treated or not, bi-color or single color, single rope or double rope, and more. I had settled on getting a work horse rope, that was dry treated. Basically, a 60m rope around 10mm thick with dry treatment in case it gets wet.  I had a couple options but was struggling to find a good first rope for under US$200. I figured even though it’s nice, I’ll wait to save a little more money and let the weather improve. Then I walked into work. There was a deal going on for a brand new (a rope is something I would not buy used) Petzl Nomad 9.8mm Dry Treated Rope. Green. Not that color mattered. I wish I could share the price but since it was a special for our company, I can’t. Needless to say, when I saw that price it felt like a sign that it was time to get a rope. Plus, I figure we’re not the only company with this deal and there was a big disclaimer on the form that said “ALL BACK ORDERS WILL BE CANCELLED.” I’m placing my order tomorrow.

A note on prices. $200 may seem, to some, a lot for a rope. For someone in my job position, it feels like a lot. But a rope is your safety, your life line, your only means of not dying when you accidentally slip off the holds. So then I rephrase the question: is your life worth $200? Sure is.

As the summer gets closer and I look forward to my months with Adventure Treks I also look forward to the 3 weeks I’ll be spending in Oregon. I can’t decide what to do! Without a car, transportation might be tough but Oregon seems to have a fairly decent daily bus schedule to some of its more popular locations.

I originally wanted to try my hand at mountaineering. I’ll most likely be without a partner though and must confess to my absolute lack of mountaineering skills. Vertical places are beginning to feel like home, but steep snow slopes are still a foreign world to me. I figure I’d head to the Three Sisters Wilderness Area and try my hand at one of the sisters. They are quite beautiful. Yet May in Oregon might still leave the slopes covered in snow and ice. And I still don’t own any crampons or ice axes. It’s still in the back of my head, but the sisters are slowly fading.

Instead, I’ve set my sights on Smith Rock. A rock climbing mecca in Oregon, this seems like a much better option. Tons of sport climbs with some trad mixed in, over 1,500 routes, and climbs so above my skill level I don’t think I’ll get bored in any amount of time I spend there. While I’ll be going without a partner, I can offer a belay and a local beer to hopefully convince someone to climb. A bit of dirt-bagging, but it is bound to be a blast.

I still want to try my hand at some mountaineering though. I just have to convince my friend to drive to Mount Thielsen. Check out Summit Post’s description of this “lightning rod of the cascades” (although the website seems to be down currently). Supposedly its a long non-technical day climb with an 80 foot 4th class scramble to the summit. Then when you look down the north side – a 2,000 foot drop. Talk about exposure! Cross your fingers that this will all get done – then these blog posts will go from planning to action!

So yes, yesterday Natalia and I got ourselves some new mountain boots: Salomon Wings Sky GTX.

There were a fair few boots to choose from (strangely enough at a mountain store of all places… who would have thought..!?) though we ended up choosing these because they seem relatively very light, and are also waterproof and breathable as well as extremely comfortable. Natalia got the red ones whereas they had no orange in my size (BR 43; UK 10.5; US 11) so I had to be content with the black ones… not complaining though as they still look pretty nice!

The boots being lighter may have issues with durability – the really heavyweight ones will last forever – though these are also versatile and great for trekking not just through mountains but all sorts of terrain, from marshes to deserts to tropical forests… which is where we will also eventually be using them. We were pleased to see when we got back reviews of the boots which were nice and positive as well.

Spent the rest of the afternoon yesterday wandering around the house in them which was a bit bizarre, but should hopefully make life easier for us when we start hiking in them.

After a three-hour bus ride then an hour’s taxi ride through the pitch black of the Paranapiacaba mountains to the south-west of São Paulo city, on Saturday night we got to the São Paulo state Intervales Park near the town of Capão Bonito. It was quite a long journey to say the least and quite an expensive one to say the least – park entry fees, taxis, buses… it all built up… Taxi drivers who see strangers to the area with not much of a clue of how to get to their final destination do have a big temptation to perhaps increase costs a little… But it was a break from São Paulo and nice to escape the city so I won’t dwell on that. Furthermore, for Natalia and I, it was more training with a good 15km hike planned for the next day.

The Park is well up in the mountains and features a load of caves as well as over 100,000 hectares of Mata Atlantica forest. Countless  species of birds, mammals, reptiles (snakes… I hate snakes….!) and insects inhabit park so we were looking forward to seeing more of what nature had to offer us. Also, in spite of us arriving at around 9.30pm, they had some dinner waiting for us, though we did have a little trouble finding where we would be staying at the park (stumbling through the pitch black even with our torches was not the easiest of things to do!).

The following day, up bright and early to meet our guide: we were not allowed to go alone on the trail we were going to do – it is pretty easy to get lost in the forest and both Natalia and I did get a little disoriented. Also the trail meant going through caves which were like labyrinths… without a guide we would not have had a clue! And the guide also kept his eyes to the ground to make sure we didn’t come too close to any of our scaly friends…

As it turned out, we didn’t see any snakes, nor monkeys. Lots of butterflies and birds (humming birds in particular) as well as cave spiders. We got pretty grubby going through the caves and waist deep through the streams, which was quite fun (quite tricky as well with the camera in one hand (stopping it falling in the water) and the torch in another as well). The humming birds are just so fast, they are very difficult to take decent pictures of – especially with manual focus (they blend in pretty well with the forest, making the auto-focus very tricky to use), though I think I managed to get a couple of decent shots (I hope you like!). Also, the hike was pretty tiring, going through the forest, up and down hills, and in the end worth the journey (though we will probably stick with places closer to home for the next month or so – at least until the Easter holiday when we would have more time) – if we had more time rather than just our one full day, we would have stayed longer to do some of the shorter hikes… but I suppose this is a good reason to go back there some day as well!