Saturday, March 28, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Three

Metuke looking out over the Simien Mountains
We wake up refreshed as
the second night of sleeping on the ground is better,  as we already are getting used to doing so.

 We eat our usually breakfast of an egg and some porridge prepared by Dinknesh, along with shay (tea) or coffee.  Sometimes the simplest foods are the best. Paired with an out of this world, once in a lifetime view, this breakfast cannot be beat.

Geech camp is busy with activity as other trekkers wake up and emerge from their tents.  The scout Metuke has already finished his breakfast and is eager for us to depart,   I think because of the larger distance we will need to cover today.  "An hit" (Let's go).   I hurriedly stuff an extra egg into my mouth knowing this, and no sooner do we I finish chewing, we start off for Chennek camp.  On our way there we will ascend to 14,000+ feet high point, cross a valley 2000 feet lower, re-ascend to 14,000, and then re-descend to 12,000.

Looking out over an escarpment, it seems we we can see forever.  Metuke points straight across the valley to a faded and impossibly distant point on a plateau on the other side.  Somehow we figure out that he is indicating that we are going there today.  It's hard to be believe that we could walk that far in one day, and we decide just to not think about that.

We come across a few small groups of local children, excited to see us.  As always the ask for pencils, money and plasteek, and some of them have various crafts and items to sell.  We're not sure what they want with plastic bottles, but we know the people here are resourceful, and almost everything gets re-used in one form or another.

The ridge line makes a sharp turn to the south.  We continue ascending, and as we round a bend we begin hearing the sound of water.  The sound increases and we suspect a fwafwate (waterfall) is close by.  Soon this is confirmed.  A cascade streams into a canyon that is so deep that we cannot see the bottom.  The feeling about such a special place is hard to describe, and we are so privileged to be here.  Priceless.


A number of other trekkers have stopped to appreciate the fwafwate, and we meet some travellers on a north to south trip through the entire continent of Africa.  In retirement, and on an African journey with no fixed end date, I can't help being a little jealous.

Continuing on we plod our way down into the first of the two valleys and emerge at the bottom two hours later.  Ascending the other side, the grade and altitude combine to slow our pace.  With stubbornness and patience we eventually top out.  From the apex, Metuke points for the second time that day, to what seems to be another impossibly distant location, and says Chennek denkwan (camp).  Again we try not to think about the distance and just put one foot in front of the other.  Despite the distance (and our fatigue), the views nearly free of human presence also lift our spirits and we never get tired of looking at them. 

Rolling into camp late in the afternoon we see our tent already put up, some of the same strange looking birds are scavenging about, and some hot tea is waiting for us.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Two

The first night sleeping on the ground is usually not the greatest.  Despite this, we get up and say deuna addirk  and deuna addursh (good morning) all around. 

After an excellent little breakfast of porridge, tea and eggs, we say konjo megebno (beautiful food) to Dinknesh.   

Te-ze gaj toohal (Are you ready)?

We set off from Sankaber camp under the watchful eyes of the scavenger birds.  These patient oversize crows are waiting for us to vacate so that they can pick up any crumbs that we have left. 

We set a steady pace to Geech camp, some thousand feet higher, and unknown (to us) number of miles. Once again Dinknesh, the two mule drivers, and the two mules head a different direction, taking a more direct route to Geech Camp.  

Mmm, grass for breakfast!

We reach a small village of several huts.  There are several villagers around and plenty of children.  The children are outgoing, and some of them follow us around.  They ask for pencils.

A shepard tends his flock of beug (sheep), largely uninterested in the foreigners passing by.  The sheep are even less interested in an interruption to their grazing.

Behind the pastoral scene stands a vast array of Giant Lobelia trees, one of the unique species of the area.    It was images of these peculiar Lobelia trees that first drew my interest into visiting Ethiopia.  There are actually many plants referred to with the common name Giant Lobelia, and the more exact name  is  Lobelia Rhynchopetalum.   Now try saying that five times fast. Anyhow, it only grows at high altitude, and for the most part just in Simien Mountains National Park and Bale Mountains National Parks in Ethiopia.

We really like to eat grass.

My nose is itchy.
A villager invites us to a coffee ceremony. We had a wonderful coffee experience in Gondar already,  in which coffee was roasted over coals in a pan at our dinner table,  so we decline politely.  

Coffee was thought to have been first discovered in Ethiopia.  Apparently someone accidentally spilled some beans near the fire.  After the beans were accidentally roasted, the beans gained a wonderful aroma!  The rest is [coffee] history. 

We walk onward out the village, continuing along a ridge line.  Shortly thereafter, we reach a troop of a few dozen Gelada (Theropithecus gelada), grazing on tasty blades of grass. Some of the baboons groom each other as well.  The Gelada Baboon only lives in the highlands of Ethiopia and nowhere else.  They are unique in that they spend nearly all of their time on the ground (as opposed to in trees).  At night they sleep in inaccessible and precarious cliffs and ledges.  Gelada baboons have complex social structures, and an extensive range of vocalizations.
I hope they're not coming over here. I don't want to talk to them.

After watching the Gelada for half an hour, we continue on.  A few more hours of walking among the Giant Lobelia trees, and we reach Geech camp.  At Geech camp we have more company than we had at Sankaber.  Some slightly higher-end tourists have bypassed Sankaber and come straight to Geech camp.  They drove on unpaved road to a place a little past Sankaber, and then walked from there.  Nonetheless, Geech Camp is not crowded, and there is plenty of space.  It's not the Hilton Hotel, but the views are much improved.

Needs more salt.

I'm going to watch the football game. 

Can't you hold still while I'm grooming you?

I don't like Mondays.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day One

It is day one of the five day trek, in which we are to walk from Debark to Sankaber.  I suppose it makes sense that we are to debark from a place called Debark.

After a quick breakfast we head for an 8 a.m. rendezvous at the shed were the supplies were stored from the previous day.  Just a note though, that Ethopia is unique in its calendar and time system.  Not only are they on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar (at the time of this writing it is the year 2007 there), but they also use a time system that is six hours different from from the rest of the world.  The days are measured from dawn to dusk, with dawn being the zero hour, noon or midday is called 6:00, dinner time in the evening is 12:00, and so forth.  You can read more about this on wikipedia here.  Locals are very aware of the different timekeeping systems, and we had thus far experienced no misunderstandings because of the two systems.

At the shed we are met by Dinknesh (the cook), Metuke (the scout), Shegaw and Zerie (the two mule handlers), and two mules.  We try out our newfound Amharic words... Deuna addeursh (Good morning (f) and Deuna addirk (Good morning (m).  It seems that our supplies have survived the night and are packed up on the mules ready to go.  Tyler says te ze gaj toohal (Are you ready?).  Not remembering how to say yes in Amharic, I say yes in English.

Lacking in auto traffic, and with plenty of pedestrian traffic, we set off going uphill in the middle of the dusty road.  It is not long before we take a turn off the main road.Dinknesh, Shegaw, Zerie and the mules continue going straight.  A little nervous that all our supplies and belongings have just departed, we ask Metuke what happened.  Of course with our limited Amharic and his lack of English, this gets us nowhere.  Our best option so far is to keep going and hope for the best.  Perhaps they are taking a more direct route (hopping on a truck perhaps?), while we walk the scenic way.

It is not long before we exit the small town of Debark and enter the hilly countryside and surrounding farms. We have just begin to hit the first of many hills that will bring us from 8000 feet to about 10,500 feet today.  It's going to be a long day!

With every step we go back in time, and become more isolated, more remote.  The hot sun beats down continously. After a few hill climbs, we stop to take a well-deserved rest, and watch a farmer direct his animals to plow a field.  It probably would have been smarter to bring more than a single small bottle of water each.  We notice that Metuke carries no water.  He carries nothing except the rifle slung across his shoulder. Well, there are certainly some advantages to travelling light.

While the altitude is not probably high enough to cause high altitude pulmonary edema, high altitude cerebral edema, or acute mountain sickness, it does have some not so subtle effects. The scarcity of oxygen makes the hills seem taller, the grade steeper, and we get out of breath much more easily.  As the lack of oxygen affects our brains, it's as if everything is in slow motion.  Nevertheless the scenery by far makes up for the difficulties.  With each step we ascend higher above the farmlands below.  While we encounter a few local people on the trail throughout the day, the relative emptiness and quiet of the landscape is exactly what we have come here to experience.

As sun continues to heat us up, I share the last of my water with Tyler.  Fatigue sets in.  We are not used to walking at altitude up steep inclines. But here's the key... we don't go too fast.  We don't stop unless we have a good reason.  With no water left, there is little reason to stop.  Slow and steady gets the job done. While we sputter on, Metuke shows no signs of tiring.

The last few miles we walk along the canyon edge, with a several thousand foot drop on the left.   We overcome a few rolling hills, cross a dirt road, and reach an open grassy area.  At last we have reached Sankaber camp.  We sit down and are pleasantly surprised to be served shay (tea) with popcorn.  This is living the high life!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Will Rock Climbing and Bouldering Help Your Crossfit?

Utah tower climbing
Climbing a tower in Utah. © 
With all the exciting Dawn Wall news from earlier this month, I'd like to do a follow up post to one of my May 2013 blog entries Crossfit and Climbing.  In that entry, I posited the benefits that Crossfit can have for different types of climbing.  In this post, I will briefly post on my opinions of the topic from the reverse perspective.  Will climbing and bouldering help your Crossfit?

1. The occasional pulling required in moderate to advanced climbing routes can significantly increase your ability to produce large numbers of pull-ups that Crossfit requires.

2.  If you climb steep overhangs frequently, this will help with the core strength required for sit-ups, toes to bar, and knees to elbows in your Crossfit WODs.

3. High and long steps in climbing when handholds are minimal will help with general quadriceps strengthening and pistol squats. You will still need to separately learn the techniques for pistol squats once you have the required muscular strength in your legs, and the necessary balance..

I doubt, however, that you will find much gains in your barbell work from climbing.  Nor will you find much gains in cardiovascular endurance, unless you are doing routes with steep, long and burly approach hikes.  If you are doing consecutive laps on the wall,  you can, however, build some muscular endurance for your shoulders.  Watch that you include some pushing in your training though, as otherwise you could be at risk for shoulder impingement syndrome.
Another tower in Utah. © 

Additionally, climbing will not help your rowing, jump rope, handstand push-ups, tire flips, Turkish get-ups,  and farmer's carries in any significant way.

Even though climbing does not have a direct impact on many Crossfit movements, it can be a nice way to mix things up, and to get some exercise, perhaps without even realizing that you are working out. Climb on.

The Day Before the Simien Mountains Trek

Tyler and I arrive in a small ramshackle town in rural Ethopia called Debark, the jumping-off point for most Simien Mountains treks.  The smarter trekkers skip Debark altogether.  But as we are travelling independently and not part of a package tour, we decide to show up and make arrangements on the fly.

Arriving at the trekking office early in the afternoon, we find that unfortunately there are no guides available.  There is, however, a scout, cook, mule handlers, and mules that we can hire for the trek.

The daily rates of pay are as follows:
Cook: 250 birr
Scout: 75 birr
Mule Handlers: 70 birr each
Mules: 60 birr each
Permit Cost: ??

Exchange rate: 18.5 birr to 1 US dollar.  

As our Amharic proficiency is slim to none, we are lucky that apparently the cook speaks a little English.  Tyler, myself and the park office agree upon a five day trek as follows:

Day 1 - Debark to Sankaber
Day 2 - Sankaber to Geech Camp
Day 3 - Geech Camp to Chennek Camp
Day 4 - Chennek Camp to Sankaber
Day 5 - Sankaber to Debark

We pay for the trek in full up front, and we say ameusah ganalo (Thank you). The next requirement is to go shopping with the cook for five days worth of food and supplies.  Our cook's name in Amharic is Dinknesh,  of which the English equivalent is Lucy.  Perhaps you have heard of the famous three million year-old Lucy skeleton found by Dr. Leakey, which we had previously seen on display in a little museum in Addis Ababa,  The Lucy skeleton is a important piece of evidence for the theory of evolution. You can still see this skeleton there today   Hence the of this name of our cook.

Anyhow, we walk fifteen minutes a tiny stall selling packaged food and groceries. Dinknesh has a list, and requests the man at the counter to retrieve each item one at a time.  About ten minutes later there is a growing crowd of customers behind us!  I question Dinknesh if we will have enough megeb (food) and wuha (water), and she brushes off my concerns confidently, in limited English, with assurances of her compentence as a cook.   While she may be barely five feet tall, she surely knows what to food to bring on a five day trek... It's not her first rodeo after all.

Next we walk to the open air market to buy vegetables, followed by renting  some cooking supplies and camping gear.  Dinknesh references her list and knows exactly what we need.  I am impressed with her efficiency and professionalism already.  After haggling a bit too much on the prices for the supplies we need, we stow them in a shed for tomorrow's departure.

After a basic meal, we settle into our $20 motel room.  Anticipating a serious language barrier between us and the rest of our party, we do a crash course of Amharic words and phrases. We wonder what awaits us tomorrow, and hope that everyone shows up as arranged.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Four

The route to Portobello via the Rio Cascaja
The route to Portobello via the Rio Cascaja [Google Maps]

Day 4, 12 kilometers, difficulty: medium

As the sounds of the rainforest fade away, we go through our morning routines.  We know how to quickly disassemble our tarps and hammocks. There is plenty of optimism since that we have the most challenging terrain behind us, yet we are not out of the jungle just yet.

We continue trekking along the Rio Cascaja, west towards Portobello.  crossing and recrossing the river to avoid obstacles, and rocking in the river itself when possible.  No longer does it matter when our feet get wet.

Leaving the jungle temporarily we approach a series of hills crossed with a cattle pathway.  We slog through the mud, which literally pulls your shoes clean off if they are not fastened securely. The mud is not so terrible in that, well it could be worse.  It is the "dry" season after all. Which just means it rains less.  And we know soon we will be reconvening with the river, and the mud will be washed away.

As  the last stretch of the selva approaches, we do not believe that we have conquered the jungle, but rather  that the jungle has allowed us passage in this time. Yet nature has one more card to play.  As the people in the front hack their way through the foliage, we hear "GO BACK, GO BACK, RUN!"  A nest of obispas has been accidentally disturbed, and the wasps go on attack to defend their territory.  The people in the front thankfully escape with only a handful of stings.

After two more hours of trekking (including five medium hills), we reach civilization, in order to then enjoy some well-earned cold bebidas and cold cervezas.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Three

Artwork by Jose Manuel Rodriguez
Pirates ambush Spaniards carrying gold and silver on the Camino Real, © Jose Manuel Rodriguez 

Day 3, distance 7 kilometers, difficulty: extreme

Despite the short distance on today's schedule, our guide, SeƱor Morales, promises day three to be the most technical and challenging.  In fact, he expects us to spend most of the daylight hours travelling. We will cover less than five miles due to the steep slopes and difficult footing, or lack thereof.  We spend an hour alone scaling slippery rocks next to a series of waterfalls.

We cross the continental divide of Panama and begin our descent.  Without the Rio Boqueron to follow, and with GPS unreliable beneath the thick canopy, we depend wholly on the memory and experience our guides.  Descending is equally, if not more difficult. One false step and you can expect to tumble a long way. With careful footwork, one step at a time, we slowly work our way down the slopes.

Our guides keep their eyes open for the trickle of water that will eventually turn into Rio Cascaja, and lead us all the way to Portobello, what used to be the crossroads of the Western world. In a few hours, they have found the stream.

The terrain and navigation are not the only challenges. Camouflaged among the stones and leaves, adjacent the stream that is soon to be Rio Cascaja, hides a baby serpiente.  It is a Fer de Lance, the deadliest snake in Central and South America.  As luck would have it, the snake leaves us alone, and  after a few minutes of observation, we pass without incident.

Most of the animals, however, do not represent a threat.   Such is the case when we hear a rustle in the trees above, followed by some yelling and vocalizations.  A troop of white-headed Capuchin monos is watching us watching them.  None to happy by our encroachment, a monkey tears off a small branch, and beats the branch against the a tree.  We take that as a sign of displeasure, and continue on.

Fatigue has long since set in, yet we continue another few hours before we will stop for the day.  Wet and covered in dirt, we set up our Hennesy hammocks a final time, and take a bath in the river. During dinner darkness quickly sets in, and the sounds of the jungle begin to come alive. As we get into our hammocks to sleep, we realize that we have adapted a little to our new found environment, and the trekking lifestyle.