Sunday, May 17, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Five

As we rise on day five, we are fortunate to find that the rain from yesterday has let up, at least temporarily.  Eating our usual breakfast of one egg and some oatmeal, plus some of the left of lamb from the slaughter, we pack up for one last day of walking.  Shegaw and Zerie load up the mules for the last time.  If only we could backpack with mules carrying all the supplies every time!  Really, it's one of the best ways to travel in my opinion.

We leave the relative familiarity of Sankaber, and set off down the middle of the dirt road for Debark.  If the past few days are any indication, it's completely safe as the number of vehicles that have we saw pass by was a grand total of one; No problems with traffic when people cannot afford to buy cars.

If we're lucky we might even make it to Gonder by nightfall, in time to stop by Sofa Juice for a smoothie.  Despite the unattractive name, Sofa Juice makes some excellent avocado mango smoothies at an amazing price.

Walking on the dirt road for an hour or more, we are happy to see no cars.  Even with the declining altitude, the rolling hills begin to take their toll.  Five days of walking in the mountains at reasonably high altitude, with no rest days, and perhaps our bodies have not been able to quite adjust just yet.  We depart from the road, and head up one hill after another.  It seems that our scout Metuke is purposely taking us directly up the hills instead of around them.  Perhaps he wants us to get better views.  At this point, we have seen the views though, and we are just thinking about a rest day and Sofa Juice.  Merciless, we head up yet another hill, for one last look at the Simien valleys thousands of feet below, and a view that goes on for dozens of miles.

Heading into farm and pasture land, we encounter a brief hailstorm, which paints the ground with a white covering.  It's an unexpected site for Africa, as it looks like snow.  We snap a few photos for proof, and continue putting one foot in front of the other.

Soon we reach what appears to be a hand built farmhouse, surrounded by fields of wheat and barley.  Two kids, no older than seven, come running out to Metuke.  Metuke says ene bet (my house).  We head in side.  Do I need to mention there is no electricity or running water?  In the countryside we are not surprised to learn this.  His kids look happy, and everyone appears to be well fed.

Metuke motions for us to sit down on the hand built furniture as we stop for a lunch break.  His kids watch us closely... They don't have weird looking (pale white) visitors often.  Metuke pulls some teff injera out of a basket and another large container with red paste.  It's spicy, and at this point we are hungry enough that we probably wouldn't really care much, as long as it's edible.  Soon that thought gets put to the test.  Metuke pulls out another huge ceramic container and pour some chunky liquid into a few glasses.  Having seen the cows outside, and the lack of electricity, it doesn't take a genius to realize we are about to drink fermented milk.  They say that "hunger is the best flavoring," at the definitely helps us to down the entire glass of this novel beverage.  I stop at one glass, but my adventurous friend downs a second.  I guess, like bunna (coffee), it just takes some getting used to.

Metuke keeps pushing the food on us, and we appreciate his generosity, but we can only eat and drink so much.  Especially from someone that has so little according to Western standards, its a nice thing he has done.  Or perchance is he just buttering us for a favor to ask?  In our limited Amharic, and his limited English, we somehow figure out that Metuke wants to stay home, and not walk us back to Debark.  If I was in his shoes, I would be tempted to do the same, Not remembering the way back to Debark, we swiftly reject that idea.

Metuke says good bye to his children, who stay home alone (Well except for the cows, dogs, and chickens, so not entirely alone).  We head out from the homestead and we see some dark clouds in the distance.  Just like the day prior, these look threatening and heading our direction.  It is not long before we see flashes of electricity.  We count, one, two, three, four, five... and then the thunder erupts.  Five miles.

The clouds grow to cover the sky, the downpour begins, and the lightening and thunder move in to four, three, two miles, and then they are around us.    We are caught in a storm of biblical proportions, in the land which claims to possess the ark of the covenant that was given to Moses over 5000 years ago, and in which our pre-human ancestors have resided for millions of years.  By luck, or God, or science, we don't get struck by lightening somehow.  Climbing the last hills before the outskirts of Debark, we soon arrive cold and wet.  The storm continues as the streets turn into small rivers, and we enjoy the entertainment from the safety of some outside seating under an awning.  Eventually the storm lets up, and we catch a terrible van ride back to Gonder with nineteen other of our closest friends... Closest by the fact that we are all practically on top of each other in the van.  I guess that's the level of comfort you can expect for 40 birr ($2) on a 90 minute trip.    Oh well, as long as we return before Sofa Juice closes for the day.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Simien Mountains Trek Day Four

Today we will begin the return trek, walking from Chennek Camp to Sankaber.  Eating our breakfast of an egg and some porridge, we look forward to another day of walking and excellent vistas.  Metuke is not surprisingly ready to go, and soon we set off walking.  Due to the longer distance we will cover today, and that we have seen much of the Simien Mountains already, some of the trek follows a quiet dirt road.

We're walking fast, probably five or six kilometers per hour.  I'm not sure why, but probably we want to show Metuke we are in decent shape.  It's a bit silly, considering we are on vacation of course.  I guess that our competitive side just won't go away.  It is nice, however, to put some distance between us and the other tourists.  Since there aren't any cars or buses on the road, we have it to ourselves.  The silence is luxurious, and that's one of the reasons why we are here.

After a few hours of walking the clouds begin to roll in.  Thick, dark and ominous looking.  We hear a few distant rumbles.  Then we feel a sprinkle.  We quicken our pace as the rain starts to come down steadily.  Soon it is coming down in torrents.  A flash appears down the valley.  We count... one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, BOOOMM, then thunder roars.

We hustle through the rest of the hike, dripping wet. Taking shelter under the eaves of the cooking hut, and soon after the storm passes.  A shepard and his folk passes by.  My hiking companion, ever the Paleo man, is craving meat.  He asks if Dinknesh will prepare lamb, and how much that costs. Yes that can be done.  Some negotiations commence with the shepherd.  They reach an agreement, and the shepherd leaves a small lamb with the two mule handlers.  The Paleo man starts to walk away, and I request he stays around for the slaughter, since it is his purchase. 

One of the mule handlers attempts to cut the lamb's throat, but the knife is too dull.  Metuke steps in and takes the knife away.  He sharpens it on a rock carefully, and then quickly kills the lamb. In less than two minutes, he has the lamb skinned, digestive tract removed and the lamb expertly butchered. Clearly he has done this many times before, and I am thankful for his skill and experience.  We take the large bowls of lamb pieces, including liver and one or two other organs (maybe heart, but I can't remember) to Dinknesh for preparation. 

Dinknesh confidently sets to work cooking the lamb.  In a hour or so, dinner is served, but we find that nobody else is eating lamb.  Every Wednesday and Friday is a fasting day for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who represent a majority of the population.  No animal products whatsoever are consumed on these days.  We hope that perhaps the can eat the lamb tomorrow, but Dinknesh says that additionally they are not allowed to eat animals that were killed on fasting days.   Lesson learned.  Unfortunately some of the lamb will go to waste.  Nothing really completely goes to waste, as the bacteria and other animals will consume it eventually, but it's not the ideal situation.

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.