December 31, 2010

Snow Camping in Antarctica

Can you really sleep in a snow cave?

The US Antarctic program recognizes most people who journey to this frozen continent are not as comfortable in snow as they need to be to survive an emergency situation. Therefore, anyone who will be going into the field is required to spend 48 hours in "happy camper" or snow school.

We were told to report to the Science Support Center at 0900 hours dressed in all of our warmest clothing. We were to bring a water bottle and a change of clothes - all other necessary equipment and food would be supplied.

For snow shelters we created a quinsy hut - a low-tech version of an igloo. We piled our duffel bags in a heap and on command from the instructors, covered them with a couple of feet of snow. We left this mound to sinter, or freeze solid, in the sunlight and went off to get even more up close with the snow.

Next we created a screen to protect our tents from the intense Antarctic winds. Our instructors emerged with snow saws and shovels and we began sawing, digging and carrying blocks of snow to build several protective walls around our tents.

At nightfall, it was time to dig a small door in our "snow heap" and remove the duffel bags from its center. Jim volunteered to be the first one into the tube shaped doorway barely big enough for his shoulders. He dug his way in and began handing out the bags. In about half an hour Jim reemerged covered from head to toe in snow, grinning from ear to ear. Mission accomplished, we had a snow cave large enough to sleep several members of our group. Around 7pm, our instructors - satisfied they had shown us the basics of snow survival quietly disappeared back to the warmth of their hut, leaving eighteen snow neophytes to survive the night outdoors.

Soon we were all in our sleeping bags completely enclosed and protected from the environment by snow. What had earlier been our "enemy" was now our blanket. I drifted to sleep enjoying the blue light penetrating the snow walls. I was surprised by how cozy and warm the cave was and slept like a little bear in my corner of the cave.

Jim, however, had a very different Antarctic experience.

We awoke huddled inside our snow cave after making it through the frigid Antarctic night. I was happy, wrapped in the warmth of my sleeping bag, while Jim greeted the morning shivering and huddled amongst the frozen clothes in the bottom of his bag.

We struck camp and headed to the instructors hut for a debriefing. One person pointed out how surprisingly warm the fleece sleeping bag liners kept them. "Fleece liner?" interrupted Jim. "What are you guys talking about?" Apparently Jim's sleeping kit was devoid of one of the warmest pieces. "I had no idea there was supposed to be a fleece liner included, I guess that's why everyone else is so chipper this morning?" Jim quipped.

Acting on the false assumption that everyone else was as miserably cold as him in their sleeping bags, he kept his mouth shut all night so as not to appear to be whining. The instructors used this as an example of how important it is to be forthright about your condition in an extreme situation, at which point Jim asked for more cocoa.

Overall the second day of snow school found our team closely bonded and full of the confidence gained by passing such a difficult test.

- Betsy Y.

* Betsy Y. is a teacher at Phoenix Country Day School and a research technician for the U of Arizona. She's writing to us from Antarctica where she is participating in the TEA program (Teacher's Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic.) She will be conducting daily sampling of arctic snow for chemical analysis, launching weather balloons to sample ozone and gathering other meteorological data. Her trip takes her out of her classroom for a few months but she has created a suite of lessons to help her students understand the science that is being conducted. She's hopeful the excitement of this adventure will inspire the kids to become scientists and explorers.

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December 30, 2010

My LOWAs Survived a War

I am a United States Marine who has just returned from Kuwait with a pair of your boots and I would like to personally thank you. I first heard about the LOWA Tanarks in a Men's Fitness article and I bought them during all the talk, when war with Iraq seemed inevitable.

In the months leading up to the war, my unit, 1st Recon Battalion of the 1st Marine Division, went from military base to military base — getting in as much diverse climate training as possible.

I wore my Lowa Tanarks from mountain training in Tahoe, California, to desert training in Palm Springs. These boots were on my feet from departure to Kuwait on the 1st night of the war to the end of our post-war peace keeping efforts. They walked through almost every major city from Al Nasiriyah, to Al Hay, to Al Kut, to Baghdad, to Ba Gubah, and then back down south to the Kuwaiti International Airport.

My Tanarks took a beating, survived a war, and got me home blister-free. I would like to personally thank you for making such a great boot.

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December 28, 2010

Campo Imperatore, Abruzzi, Italy

Campo Imperatore, the Abruzzi Mountains, Italy

Rent a bike to explore Italy's best kept secret. Here, the Italian lifestyle has not changed for centuries. On your way to the Campo Imperatore, you'll find ancient beechwood forests inhabited by wolves and bears. Century-old pathways are still used by colorfully-attired shepherds, herding their flocks.

Ominous castles stand alone, now, guarding desolate stretches of wilderness where the only sign of life might be a soaring eagle or a shy family of mountain goats.

Limited traffic, rare for Italy, makes this region ideal for cycling. Rolling hills are perfect for the casual pedaler. Steep routes of the Campo Imperatore and Maielletta are gruelling, though well worth the effort. Mountain bike lovers find their thrills on single tracks in Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Sirente-Velino and the Campo Imperatore plateau.

Set between towering peaks and a golden coastline, Abruzzo contains diverse and breathtaking beauty. Most visitors reach the Campo Imperatore by car using the long, winding mountain road or ride the Funivia, avoiding a difficult, uphill trek.

At the end of your wild ride, fantastic fresh pasta awaits you.

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December 22, 2010

Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

Pack a loaf of bread, a bottle of Ticino Merlot and head to the Verzasca River.

So beautiful, so dangerous. Warning signs are posted all along the shore, though locals swim here everyday. Join them for a picnic on these implausible rocks.

Looking for cheap thrills? The gigantic Verzasca Dam is one of the world’s highest bungee-jumps, a 722-foot heart-stopping plunge. Hey, if James Bond (Golden Eye) can do it, what are you worried about?

Ticino is the southern-most canton (state) bordering Italy. It is here where you'd begin the 'Trekking dei Fiori,' a wonderous seven-day trip that begins in the palm trees of the Brissago Islands and winds up in a remote mountain hotel at the snowfields of the Basodino Glacier. Trek through vineyards and chestnut groves, zigzag into Italy, re-enter Switzerland at Bochetta, in the Valle Maggia.

If you're looking to lose yourself, this is the place. Just remember that Ticino locals feel they wound up on Swiss soil by accident. They consider themselves Italian. Drop the 'hi,' call out a friendly 'ciao' and you'll make friends everywhere you go.

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December 11, 2010

Rosengarten, Italy

Laurin Pass, Rosengarten, Italy

The Rosengarten is a magnificent area in the Dolomites, famed for its lustrous pink glow at dawn and dusk. Sheer-rock faces, pinnacles and towers, plus endless unclimbed routes, draw mountaineers from all corners of the globe.

If you are more of a walker than a climber, explore the wonders of the Rosengarten by way of the 'Via Ferrata.' The Italian Alpine Club has laid out hundreds of easy to difficult routes along the most scenic mountain paths.

Laurin Pass takes it’s name from mythical King Laurino, who laid a curse on roses, turning them to stone. Rosengarten means Rose Garden in German – aptly named since the trails are crowded with German tourists during the summer hiking season. (Don’t panic if they nod at you and say, “Gruss Gott.” It’s just their way of saying hi.)

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December 10, 2010

Canyoneering in Zion National Park

Ecochallenge, here we come.

In July, we were officially initiated into the grand world of canyoneering. My LOWA's took a licking and kept on kicking, wading rivers, climbing rocks, rappelling over waterfalls, and squelching in Utah mud.

Summary: in a whirlwind trip, we flew and drove to accomplish a week's worth of Zion NP play in just three and a half days, including two world famous canyoneer hikes — the Narrows (partway) and the Subway.

Thursday night, our posse of six flew to Vegas, where we picked up rental cars and hit the road. By Friday morning, we had crossed the Nevada/Arizona border and the Arizona/Utah border within an hour, and were entering Zion.

The weather was gorgeous and fairly clear, although the faintest clouds threaten thunderstorms in the Southwest. Our first hike was to Emerald pools, an easy, 5 mile hike to see pools and waterfalls. A professional-looking photographer was working hard, ankle-deep in muck, at the upper pools. He had LOWAs too!

The next morning, thunder struck. Lightning flashed, rain poured. It seemed like canyoneering that day would have been impossible. Nobody in their right mind would be anywhere near a canyon. Power was going out all over the area, and rangers were roaming around, keeping folks away from waterways. The slot canyons would be treacherously full of rushing water, rocks, trees.

Just an hour or so later, the storm broke and the clouds blew away. So we hopped on the park tram (which runs through the whole park -- excellent idea) and went to the mouth of the world famous Narrows. Along with all the tourists, we waded up the first four miles of the Narrows, with a close watch on the sky. Most of the water was about knee deep, and not moving terribly fast. The best thing to wear is a pair of dayhikers (like the LOWA Renegade mids) to protect toes from rocks and support ankles as you cross uncertain, slimy terrain underwater.

We reached the classic Narrows section, where the canyon narrows nonstop for a one-mile stretch, reaching a significant junction with another tributary slot canyon, much narrower (about 15-20 feet wide), called Orderville. Just around the bend lie the most classic section of the Narrows, where the walls close in to about 15 feet wide and thousands of feet high.

We saw overnight backpackers hiking out; the stormy morning did not make them too happy. Clouds were passing in large masses over us, and getting darker. The walls of the Narrows at the Orderville confluence, thousands of feet high and about 20-30 feet apart, were creating an echo of rushing water that made any thunder impossible to hear. Trees were jammed by flash floods in the rocks hundreds of feet up, bridges to nowhere.

We reluctantly turned back downstream. Little did we know the current had nearly doubled since we began our hike (due to rain-related drainage upstream). We could feel the air pressure building for another Thunderstorm.

In the safe, wider sections of the river, we found a couple wonderful swimming pools, including one with a wonderful boulder for cannonball dives. We splashed downstream, eventually back to the tram and hotel, when thunder started to roll, confirming our cautiousness.

By darkness, we were watching a spectacular, thunderless lightning show. It lasted about half an hour, lighting up the entire sky so we could see where the rain was pouring like a giant flume directly over the Narrows, with dramatic rocky peaks sillouetted.

The greatest adventure of all was still ahead of us. The next day, the weather was perfect — so comforting and balmy and not the least bit threatening. This hike was an ambitious 9.5+ miles of serious, semi-technical canyoneering, with some scrambling, swimming, rappelling, and map-and-compass navigation mixed in.

A famous canyon called "The Subway," required a complicated two-car spot, one at the top of the hike, one at the bottom. The drive to the trailhead was spectacular, entering the more remote "Kolob" wilderness of the park.

We passed incredible rock formations towering above us, mixed with dark green pines and pristine yellow fields of grass and flowers. The hike started with a calm descent and minor route-finding in an low profile alpine forest, dense lush with ferns and flowers and small creeks.

We then descended a gorgeous red slickrock mountainside, one huge, striated, wavy red rock formation. Sharp downhill, tough on the quads. The Renegades held like glue. We then climbed/smeared up slightly over a saddle/hoodoos, and came eventually to the first sharp descent into the slot canyon, which was a teetery scramble down a dirt, roots and rocks cliffside.

Down we went and we emerged into the first major gorge of the Subway. Rock walls began to become rounded, arched overhangs about 20 yards across, with streams and waterfalls here and there — almost a tunnel in places. Eventually, we came to our first swim, across a long, 15-foot wide, bottomless pool of still, black water so cold it stole your breath — literally. It helped to make noises going in. Even our trekking poles were too short to touch bottom. I was the first to experience the cold, feel out the footing, and find all the shin-bonking rocks underwater. In places, the pool was ear-deep for me. We had to carry our packs over our heads like Navy Seals. But that was just the beginning of the technical challenges.

The next pool we came to was much more challenging at first. Water funnelled into a "keyhole" - a deep hole bored into a rock that eventually spills into pools below. Some of us rappelled over the waterfall and swam through the keyhole, resting packs on a chockstone (a river-worn boulder jammed overhead between the walls of narrows) while swimming underneath it. Some of use chose a drier rappel that required careful crawling along a slippery rockledge to reach. Those shoes gripped where there was nothing to grab. The ledge was slick with mud and under a low overhang, so you had to crouch and crawl.

But the best of the Subway was still ahead. We came to another short rappel, passed through almost tunnel-shaped narrows, where perfectly round pools and keyhole pockets were filled with water and huge froglets and tadpoles, and several more chest high swims.

In one section, there was a ruler-straight furrow in the rock about 2 feet wide and four feet deep, going for maybe 30-40 feet, where the water ran through like a channel. Several small rock "rooms" were bored out alongside this channel, and one even had a person-sized doorway to the next. The water in these rooms was warm and shallow.

After one more spectacular rappel (bolted) down a lovely rock face (we were getting much faster with the setups now), we crossed a gorgeous, red area where the rock spread wide and the water ran in thin rivulets over the entire area. The river widened and the walls grew taller and redder around us. And then we exited the narrows and were in regular streambed. We still had about 4 miles of rough terrain to go, and it was about 5:30. So we plowed through, crisscrossing the stream a million times, following rabbit paths and scrambling over rocks.

It was a steep climb or "escape" from the canyon, and we reached our cars, roughly 9 hours after our start, at 8:30. As the sun sank, we sped all the way back to Vegas, returned the rental cars, checked in, caught another hamburger, boarded the plane filthy and smelling like the river, and arrived home at about 1:00 am. Its funny — after such a spectacular weekend, the everyday stuff, like work, seems so unimportant. I don't even really care any more — except for the money, that is.

Ah, the zen of canyoneering.

Charity D.

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December 9, 2010

From the Earth to the Moon

Many walking enthusiasts will take a four-mile daily constitutional for exercise or to observe the scenery, but Bert Simon, who covers over 25 miles per day on his trek around the world, serves a higher purpose. Simon, 30, is on a one-man mission, wandering the Earth to raise awareness for the welfare of children. He's highlighting the work of YMCA clubs across the globe and their efforts to support kids and the communities they live in.

Simon has a lofty goal in mind to get his point across — he wants to walk 226,000 miles, the approximate distance from the Earth to the moon. Which is why he has named his campaign "Walk to the Moon for the Earth's Children."

Simon got the inspiration to walk the earth when he was visiting a YMCA in the Philippines. The horrible conditions and all of the sick children he saw living and eating out of cardboard boxes struck him. Thinking about what he could do to better the situation, the 24-year-old noticed a map of the area when he was waiting at the airport. He told himself that he could carry the medicine to the kids on foot if need be. He decided to put on some hiking boots as a symbol of what can be done when people put effort into life.

He joined the German army, to get in shape for his journey, and used the money after his discharge to walk the planet and raise funds and awareness for the YMCA. A skilled photographer, he started out visiting schools and showing slide presentations of his trips around Europe. He visited 300 schools in Germany alone, earning over $6,000 for a variety of charities.

Now 14,000 miles into his trek, including 6,000 miles in Australia, Simon has landed on American soil — to begin a trip that will circle the nation. A vegetarian who lives on salad and coffee, he can't live without the laptop, palm pilot and cell phone he carries in his 35-pound backpack. Once Simon surpasses the 30,000-mile mark, he will have set a world record for long distance walking. He estimates that it could take him 25 to 30 years to complete what he called a realistic goal to walk the distance to the moon.

"There will be a time when I gotta leave this place, and it might not necessarily be after the end of the journey," he says. "Who knows? But if I go, I go with the knowledge that I've at least made a difference in some people's lives."

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December 1, 2010

Berner Oberland, Switzerland

Schreckhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Berner Oberland, Switzerland

Straight ahead... Terror Peak, one of the most difficult of the 4000 metre Alps to climb. Have you been there? Send us a story!

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