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), 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, and Dinknesh, the mules and the mule handlers 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, mules, and mule handlers 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, Señor 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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part Two

A clearing makes an excellent camping area in Chagres National Park
A clearing makes an excellent camping area in Chagres National Park, © Josh G

Day 2, distance 11 kilometers, difficulty: hard

After a fitful sleep due to the nighttime animal noises from the nearby selva, we depart from the last outpost of the human world. We follow the Río Boqueron today. At this time we find the river is about twenty feet wide, and only a few feet deep.  That can change dramaticly of course, depending on the rainfall.

It is not long before the first of many rain showers soaks through our clothing.  These are showers are interspersed with numerous river crossings. Between rain, the river crossings, and the humidity, it is impossible to stay dry.

We come across some huellos of a gato grande, which Señor Morales verifies as puma tracks using a reference sheet. Puma tracks can be distinguished from Jaguar tracks as they are pointier at the toes, among other things.  I think about the puma visiting our camp at night, seeing a bunch of human burritos wrapped in hammocks.

As we walk next to the Río Boqueron, I continue to keep watch for more tracks.  We are far too noisy and visible to ever get a glimpse of a big cat itself though, and perhaps that is for the better.  Not more than an hour later more big cat tracks are spotted in the sand, but with rounder toes. Alvaro says these are Jaguar tracks.  In twenty years of guiding, he has never seen a Jaguar.  Today would be no different.  Jaguars are not known to bother humans much anyhow.  We did not want to be the exception.

After a few more hours of slogging through mud, and sloshing across the Boqueron, we arrive to a nice swimming hole, and a flat beach that will be our camp.

Those of us with the interested and energy for a short excursion continue on for about fifteen minutes, to see the sixteenth century cobblestone remains of the Camino Real, and to swim in an even more spectacular pool, bordered by a waterfall.  Purple butterflies flutter in the distance.

After a refreshing swim in the pristine water, we return to camp to set up hammocks, followed by la cena consisting of beans, rice and tortillas, while sitting on giant jungle leaves.  It's the same dinner we had yesterday, but somehow it tastes twice as good.  As they say, hunger is the best flavoring.

By half past six, it is black except for the lights of our headlamps. We retire for a meager eleven hours of sleep to the loud chorus of frogs.

Interested in doing the Camino Real expedition? See

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Camino Real Jungle, Part One

Nature Dominates Chagres National Park
Nature Dominates Chagres National Park, © Josh G.

The Camino Real (Royal Pathis the route the Spaniards travelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to remove the gold and silver looted from Peru, and transport it to Spain.  This route was used during the dry season, and Camino de Cruces (Path of Crosses) was travelled during the rainy season.

The original Camino Real stretched from Panama City to the city Nombre de Dios (Name of God). After numerous pirate attacks, the Camino was changed to end in Portobello, which was thought to be a more defensible location.  Even so, with the immense wealth continuing to flow through Portobello, it would continue to be attacked by Henry Morgan, Francis Drake and other pirates for hundreds of years. 

The Panama Railroad became the overland route of choice in the mid-nineteenth century.  Sixty years later, after tens of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of millions of dollars,  the Panama Canal eclipsed the railroad as a means of commerce.  At the time of this writing, the Panama Railway operates daily for tourists who want a train ride along the length of the Panama Canal.

A Word on Risk

It is difficult to know the extent of the risks, as we tend to exaggerate some dangers, and overlook others. It is likely to be equally or more dangerous riding in a taxi in Panama City, or in your home town.  That being said, here is a list of some of the perils of the Camino.

While mosquitoes may seem to be simply annoying, these insects are in all likelihood the most dangerous of the Camino's perils.  The Centers for Disease Control says that areas east of the canal have mosquitoes harboring malaria. In addition, mosquitoes can carry Yellow Fever, Dengue, Chikungunya, and other diseases.

Various venomous vipers, including the notorious Fer de Lance, inhabit the area. As snakes do an excellent job camouflaging themselves, it would be easy to accidentally step on one.

While there are few places on the trail at which a slip could prove fatal, even a broken or twisted angle would be a grave problem far from civilization.


Rick Morales - Head Guide
Alvaro - guide
Segundo - guide
Porters (3)
Aden & Bree (Australia)
Markus & Sonja (USA)
Susie (Germany)
Beatrice & Xavier (Columbia)
Hilde & Wonder (Holland)

Day 1, distance: 7 kilometers, difficulty: easy

It is the morning of the first day of the expedition, and guide Rick Morales walks into the hostel with confidence, which you hope will bode well for the following days.  You soon get aboard a large van and meet people from around the world; your new teammates. There is no turning back now.

Hiking relatively easy terrain on a muddy road, you pass several small farms, which become further and further apart with time.  Humidity gradual increases, an aspect that will persist for the remainder of the expedition.

As the civilized world falls behind, nature begins to take over.  Humans are no longer the masters of the domain here.  Instead we find some other organisms take precedence.  A long army of leaf cutter ants march back and forth, carrying small bits of leaf to be used in fungus farming.  This is the first of many instances we will see the ant armies busily at their work.

A perezoso hangs motionless in a distant treetop.  It might be nice to be a sloth for the afternoon. The sloth doesn't move at all.  We say goodbye to the sloth, and continue on on the muddy road.

In a few short hours we arrive at a couple of small structures where we will spend the night, an indigenous community and the last outpost of the human world.  We learn how to set up hammocks, and then eat a typical dinner of meat, beans and rice.  We go to bed early, with fireflies twinkling, crickets singing, and frogs croaking in the nearby river.

Interested in doing the Camino Real expedition? See