It’s All Downhill From Here

May 24th, 2017

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

We are back in Namche.  Same lodge.  Even same bedroom, for that matter.  The only difference is that it’s 12 days after the first time we were here and in the meantime we have trekked 100 or so kilometres, climbed to over 5000 m half a dozen times (including all three passes we set out to cross), have seen some amazing views of four of the six highest mountains in the world (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu), and eaten about 30 pounds of dahl bhat.  None of that is exaggerated.

Considering everything that we’ve accomplished, it feels like a lot longer than 12 days since we headed up from Namche in a counter-clockwise loop from east to west.  When we came around the last corner of the trail today to overlook that natural amphitheatre that Namche sits in, there was a great feeling of achievement for both us, and all of the experiences of nearly the last two weeks flashed through my head.

Before setting off, I was optimistic that we’d be able to accomplish everything we set out to do on our trek, but you never really know what can happen until you head out and do it.  Above 3000 m, altitude sickness can stop even the fittest trekkers in their tracks if proper measures aren’t taken to acclimatize properly, and I imagine it can’t be that difficult to roll an ankle while staring off at the views in any direction that you choose.  So there were certainly some things to be mindful of. We took our time, built in extra days to acclimatize and see some lesser visited parts of the region, and enjoyed every minute.

In addition to our experience under the shadow of Everest, there were just a couple other highlights along the way:

Everyone calls it the Everest Base Camp trek, because that’s the ultimate end point, but the reality is it should be called the Ama Dablam trek.  Ama Dablam, which at just over 6800 m is a dwarf of a mountain compared to Everest, is always watching you once you get above Namche.  But it is a beautiful, aesthetic mountain with a distinct, rounded yet steep summit ridge, and broad shoulders on its southwest and southeast flanks. It was there to our right when we walked from Pangboche to Dingboche; it’s massive north face was there when we looked south down the valley from Chhukung; it was there to our left when we climbed towards Kongma La and behind us when we climbed over Cho La, and it was there to the southeast, punching through the clouds, when we watched the sunset on the roof of the world.  We even took the opportunity to visit the mountain’s base camp on one of our acclimatization days. Although the fall is the most popular time to climb Ama Dablam, there were a few expeditions set up at base camp.  We had a chance to talk with a pair of climbers from New Zealand/Australia (Gavin and Damien), who where planning their summit bid for the days ahead.  It was fascinating to listen to their experience and nice of them to spend time chatting with us.

Each of the three passes were unique, rewarding, and offered incredible views. They offered wonderful opportunities to get off the “Everest Highway” as at times we would walk for hours without talking to another trekker.  And to top it all off, we were fortunate to have perfect weather conditions for each of the crossings.

The first of the three, Kongma La, was the highest (5535 m) and perhaps most physically demanding.  The ascent started from Chhukung, at the first light of the day, amidst a thick bank of clouds.  Eventually we climbed out of the clouds and into the  blue sky, up several steep sections (including a bit of a scramble the last 50 or so metres), and arrived at the pass to be welcomed by incredible views of Lhotse, Nupste, Makalu, and the Imla Cho valley. Despite the high elevation, I at times felt like I was bouncing up the trail, out of pure excitement and adrenaline as I enjoyed all of the views and got nearer to Everest.  And, I think, it was a great feeling of accomplishment for Kim who definitely pushed her limits to get there.  The physical toll was obvious when we both promptly fell asleep after lunch in Lobuche.

From Dzonghla we climbed over Cho La and down into the Gokyo valley.  The second pass was slightly lower than the first, and perhaps less tiring as well.  By then we were certainly acclimatized to the elevation and moving well through the mountains.  There was short section crossing some snow up to the pass, and the descent was a little treacherous along steep rocky sections filled in with ice.  Fortunately we avoided any wipeouts.  The last stretch in Gokyo was highlighted by a crossing of the Ngozumba glacier, the majority of which was moraine, but included some groaning sections of ice that needed to be crossed quickly.

It was all downhill from Renjo La, the lowest of the three passes at about 5360 m.  Unexpectedly, Renjo La offered us perhaps our best views of the whole trip as we arrived at the pass under crystal clear conditions.  Everest was in perfect view, as well as other giants of the Himalayas.  And the village of Gokyo, nestled in the valley next to the Third Lake, looked incredible beside the teal-colored water. We spent almost two hours at the pass, enjoying the sunshine and admiring the views.  When it finally was time to head down the back side, I had a hard time pulling myself away and saying goodbye.

The spectacular scenery was made even more enjoyable by all of the friendly Sherpa people that we met along the way.  At many of the lodges, especially on the early stages of the trek, we were the only trekkers spending the night and so were offered a very unique and personal experience:  the father and daughter in Sete who invited us to join them for dinner in their dining room (which also served as their bedroom, living room, and kitchen); the kids in Junbesi who corrected by Nepali pronunciation; the couple in Pangboche who gave us a tour of the local monastery and showed us pictures of their sons on the summit of Everest; or the kid in Lumde who asked us to go inside when he herded the family yaks into the yard at the end of the day (he didn’t want us to get run into)!  The local people were a wonderful part of the experience, and it’s no coincidence were are back at the same lodge in Namche: when we arrived earlier today the owner had a big smile on her face when we walked in the door, and was excited to hear how our trek had been.

Tomorrow is a down day in Namche, as our flight out of Lukla isn’t for another couple days.  It will be nice to spend one last day high up in the Himalayas and see a few of the sights that we skipped on the way up.  From here, it will be a long but doable day down to Lukla which, after a short flight back to Kathmandu, will mark the end of this incredible experience.

This Is What We Came For: Our Visit With The Highest Mountain in The World

May 19, 2017 – 3:00 PM

Dzonghla, 4830 m

It’s been all downhill today, for a change. Sort of.  The day started a little after 5:00 am when I left Gorak Shep and decided to blast 400 m up to the top of Kala Pattar (for the second time in less than 12 hours) and ended a couple hours ago in the tiny village of Dzonghla at a little over 4800 m.  Dzonghla is the staging point for the Cho La, which we hope to cross tomorrow.  I am wrecked, but it’s the best kind of wrecked that one can be.

The last 24 hours have been the realization of that dream I’ve been envisioning for the last 15 years.  Yesterday morning Kim and I left the village of Lobuche shortly after 7:00 am and made the two hour trek to Gorak Shep, the last settlement before Everest Base Camp.  There we found a place to spend the night (a small wooden-box type of room with slanted beds and a great view of Pumori), unloaded our packs with everything we didn’t need for the day, grabbed a packed lunch and headed back out the door.  To Base Camp!

Both during and at home prior to the trek, some people suggested that going to the physical base camp was a bit of a waste of time given that there aren’t actually any views of Everest and, if you’re there in the fall, the place is basically deserted.  But excluding that part of the trek was out of the question for both of us, as we were trekking during the peak (har har har) of the climbing season on Everest and also because it was just one of those bucket list things.  It did not disappoint.

A devastating avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall (the first and scariest part of the climb above base camp) in 2014, followed by the 2015 earthquake that also claimed nearly 20 lives at base camp, meant that two climbing seasons on Everest were essentially shut down. Climbing and trekking expeditions are one of the biggest sources of tourism revenue in Nepal (the cost of a permit starts at $11,000 USD per climber), and in an effort to get climbers back into the region, the Nepali government decided to extend climbing permits from the two lost season into 2016 and 2017.  The result was that the 2017 climbing season on Everest was anticipated to be one of the busiest on record.  Some people we spoke to along the trail indicated that there were close to 350 Western climbers waiting to go up the mountain, and with an average of at least 1 Sherpa per climber, there were potentially over 700 people planning to climb, plus presumably more support staff staying at camp.  When we finally stumbled into the makeshift village on Day 15 of our trek (May 18th), there were hundreds of tents pitched along the groaning Khumbu Glacier, climbers and teams milling about, and helicopters buzzing up and down the valley ferrying climbers and probably some sick trekkers back to Namche.

It was a perfect, beautiful day to be there with clear skies, bright sun, and warm weather. We walked from one end of the camp to the other, and spent a couple hours talking to climbers, soaking in the views, and simply taking in the whole experience.  Before arriving we had learned that the climbing permits for Everest expire on May 28th and there was a fair amount of buzz going on because the climbing Sherpas had only fixed the ropes to the summit a couple days prior because of poor weather and high winds. It was shaping up to be a busy 10 days of climbing:  commercial expeditions were making their summit bids (or were potentially already coming down from the summit) as we were sitting there staring up to the sky!

With the binoculars we were able to watch a group of climbers navigate their way down through the Khumbu Icefall (it looked crazy), and while having a bite to eat we watched another group who had just come down the mountain march through camp.  With the packs and gear they were wearing, they could have just gotten back from outer space.  Scott and Elliot – we’ve basically been trekking together the whole way – told us earlier today that they got invited into an expedition’s mess tent and had a chance to talk to some of the climbers who had just summitted.

Shortly after walking past the prayer flags in the centre of camp, we met a fellow from Calgary who stopped to chat with us for a few minutes.  He’d been living up there with his team of three plus a guide for almost seven weeks, and they were planning to start their climb for the summit at 3:00 am this morning, with the summit still 5 whole days away.  We bumped in to him again a bit later and learned that this was the team’s second trip to Everest.  The first was two years ago.  When the earthquake hit they were actually in the Khumbu Icefall but were fortunate to make it out alive when so many others didn’t.  We wished him luck and went our separate ways.

After having spent a couple hours above 5300 m in the blistering sunshine, and starting to feel a little tired, we filled our water bottles with fresh Khumbu Glacier water and made our way back to Gorak Shep for lunch.

Even more popular than Everest Base Camp, on most people’s trekking lists, is Kala Pattar.  Compared the gigantic mountains that surround it, Kala Pattar looks like nothing more than a mole hill, despite it’s elevation of over 5500 m, and sits on the edge of a sand pit in Gorak Shep.  Its popularity stems from the fact that from its summit, there are some of the best views of Everest that you can find in the Khumbu Valley. On the trail to Base Camp, there are actually only a couple brief views of the mountain, and only the peak can be seen.

Our trekking guide book boldly states that “very few trekkers are able to visit both Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar in the same day due to the exhaustion and effects of altitude felt above blah blah blah…”.  Over our lunch back in Gorak Shep Kim and I discussed heading up Kala Pattar in the same day as Base Camp.  We weren’t overly exhausted and the weather was fairly clear, so there was an opportunity to witness a pretty amazing sunset.  After a half hour power nap, during which Kim didn’t bother taking her hiking boots off because “if I take them off there is no way I am going back out”, we headed out the door at about 4:30 in time to see the sunset shortly after 6:00.

It turns out that the guide book was right.  Between 5100 m in Gorak Shep and 5550 m at the top of  Kala Pattar, our pace slowed to a crawl.  The book was also right about the part where very few trekkers do both trips in a day, because when we got to the top (which we did in pretty good time all things considered), there were only 5 other people there to watch the sunset. On the walk up we weren’t sure if the clouds would hold off, as Everest was often hidden from view.  But patience paid off and over the course of the almost hour that we spent up there, we were rewarded with some incredible sights.

From Kala Pattar, one begins to really appreciate the size of Everest.  The majority of the giant west face can be seen from the summit, and the tents at Base Camp look like nothing more than colorful specs on the side of the glacier.  The South Col is clearly visible, as well as the Southeast Ridge and parts of the Northeast Ridge, all prominent features on the established climbing routes.  The views really were spectacular, with the best part coming as the sun went down and lit up the whole face of Everest to end the day.  Tough to put into words what the feeling was like sitting there watching, but needless to say it was special.

It was so special in fact, that I decided that one trip up Kala Pattar wasn’t enough, and so this morning I was out the door just after 5:00 to do it all over again (Kim had the sense about her to stay in bed).  As I sit here now thinking about it, just maybe did I bite off a little more than I could chew, because today is probably the most tired I’ve felt since we started. That being said, this morning the sun was on the complete opposite side of the sky than it was last evening, and so the only way to tell when the views were better was to head up and see for myself.

If I had to pick one, I would choose sunset, but seeing the sun come up over Tibet (only a couple kilometres away) and then light up all of the Khumbu Valley was also pretty cool.  And there was not a cloud in the sky so the views were even better than 12 hours before. The full scale of Everest was on display from Base Camp all the way to the summit. Well worth the second trip and lack of sleep.

As I sit here writing this in Dzonghla, after a four hour or so trek from Gorak Shep and one solid nap, I can’t help but feel a bit of a drop in energy and excitement.  For me, the focus of the trek has always been about getting to Everest, and now that we’ve completed that part, I wonder a little if I will have to re-focus a bit for this last week of trekking.  I don’t think it will be much of an issue, as there is still some spectacular terrain to see, including some side trips in Gokyo (where we are heading tomorrow) that are supposed to have amazing views back to the Everest region.  But before that, it’s time for another nap.

Namche, Kati Tha Dhat Cha? (How Far is it To Namche?)

May 11, 2017 – 3:00PM

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

Today is our first rest day of the trek.  Or rather, we’ll call it our first “acclimatization” day of the trek, because we still wandered around a whole bunch and the trip planning books build in extra days to help adjust to the elevation. We’re in Namche Bazaar, the closest place to a city that the Khumbu valley has to offer, and it is bustling with trekkers and climbers all coming and going.  It is fantastic to be here.

It’s taken us a full seven days of walking to get this far, but the experience to date has been incredible.

The topography of Nepal is such that many of the valleys drain the glaciers of the high Himalayan peaks in the north, along the Nepal-Tibet border, and flow into the plains towards the Indian border in the south of the country.  The route from Shivalaya just about all the way to Lukla conveniently runs from west to east, meaning that for six out of seven days it has been straight down one side of the valley, and straight up the other.  I’ve already lost track of how many vertical metres we’ve climbed (it’s a lot), but there have been at least a few days where 1000 m of climbing is the norm. Throw in a steady flow of oncoming donkey trains hauling materials from village to village (as well as their seemingly incessant stream of delightful droppings) and its been a nice way to get our hiking boots dirty and our legs in trekking shape.

The benefits of all the up and down (if you can imagine any) are actually many:  the trail has been relatively deserted of other trekkers; the villages, though often still under re-construction following the earthquake, are authentic; and our experiences with the local lodge owners have been friendly and personal.  Add to that the fact that we followed along the same route used by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary during their first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, and we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Although the trail from Shivalaya wasn’t busy, we weren’t the only trekkers to be spotted.  There were at least three others, and they were usually either right in front, between, or behind us. We met them on our third night in Sete: another Canadian couple from Toronto and moving to Vancouver in July (Scott and Elliot) and a German guy (Laurin).  The five of us have teamed up and been trekking together for the last few days, which has been really nice.  We’re all planning to do the Three Passes trek, so we’ll see how long we stick together.

The walking itself has been straightforward and pleasant, and the locals have been more than happy to show us the way when needed. Big mountain views have been few, thanks in part to the mostly cloudy weather, but we did have our first views of Everest the other morning in the village of Phurteng:  it was the tiny-looking peak way back on the horizon that we probably wouldn’t have noticed if the goat-cheese-selling lodge owner hadn’t pointed it out and if we didn’t have binoculars in my pack.  But the cold smoke blowing off the summit was distinct! And it still brought a little mist to my eyes after dreaming about the trek for so long.

Aside from that we have mostly followed along steep trails on the hillsides and enjoyed many amazing views that the foothills have had to offer: the Dudh Khosi, monasteries and stupas, crazy suspension bridges crossing streams and rivers, terraced vegetable fields, and how could I forget the wonderful rhododendron forests (I’m told that we may have just missed the peak blooming season).

The day before yesterday we merged into the main Everest Base Camp trail, just north of Lukla, and there was an obvious increase in pedestrian traffic.  Our five days of walking prior to that really started to shine, however, as we skipped past many trekkers who had just gotten off the plane in Lukla and were still finding their legs and adjusting to the elevation which approached 3000 m.  The most impressive of all on the trail, though, have been the famous Nepali porters who will carry just about anything to where it needs to go.  Yesterday we saw a guy carrying no less than 15 cases of beer, stacked neatly in and above his wicker basket and balanced perfectly on his back, and our lodge owner in Phakding told us that some of them can carry up to 100 kg of materials.  Crazy!

When we haven’t been on the trail, there has been plenty of time to unwind at the lodges, and read, study the map, or make conversation with our hosts. I picked up a pocket-sized Nepali phrase book before leaving Kathmandu and have been studying most nights and blabbering incomprehensible one line phrases to any Nepali who will listen. In Junbesi the other night an 8 year old boy corrected my Nepali pronunciation while I interrupted him doing his homework and asked him if he likes to play sports.  I would consider that my vocabulary level has reached that of an advanced three year old Nepali child and I’ve mastered how to say “I don’t understand” every time someone responds to my one liners.  There have been many laughs and the local folks really seem to appreciate the effort.

Today we did an easy half day tour through some of the villages near Namche and climbed to over 3800 m to see what the air tastes like (a little thinner than what we are used to in Vancouver).  We are starting to feel like we’re getting into the big mountains now.  The weather was somewhat clear this morning and there were great views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Nuptse, and the odd glimpse of Everest when she felt like poking her head through the clouds.  The scale of things is enormous and it is a little hard to believe that our high point for the trek is still over 2000 m higher than where we are sitting now.  From Namche we will continue along the main Everest Base Camp trail for a few more days before branching off to the northeast towards the village of Chhukung.  From Chhukung we will attempt the first and highest of the three passes (Kongma La, 5535 m), before re-joining the main track and heading up to Everest Base Camp itself.  I can’t wait, and it all starts tomorrow.

Time to Stretch Our Legs: Shivalaya to Lukla

May 4, 2017  – 8:00AM

Shivalaya, Nepal

So it’s that part of the trip where I’m not skiing all the time.  But I am still as excited as ever.

Kim and I have just finished our breakfast in the tiny village of Shivalaya, which is a little less than 200 km east and north of Kathmandu. It also happens to be the trailhead of our three week long trekking route that will lead us into the high Himalayas, to see some of the tallest mountains in the world.

For me personally, this trek has been a long time coming.  Longer than since I’ve known Kim, longer than before I moved to Vancouver, even longer than since I finished high school.  Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, based on the 1996 Everest disaster where several climbers were caught in a storm and died high up on the mountain, first triggered my fascination with Mount Everest and the Himalayas.  The first time I read the book I think I was in grade 10, and soon after finishing it I decided that one day I would trek to Mount Everest Base Camp to see what it was all about.  Now that I am 32, yes still 32 thank you, that means I’ve been dreaming about this trip for basically half of my life.  Understandably, being here in the foothills of the Himalaya is all still a little hard to believe.

Getting to Shivalaya wasn’t the easiest thing either of us have ever done.  I arrived in Kathmandu six days ago from Istanbul and Kim flew in a couple days later via Beijing and Bangkok. It was a wonderful reunion when I met Kim at the airport.  It was less so when I arrived to Tribhuvan airport on my own: when my driver from the hotel arrived a few minutes after I walked out of the terminal it was clear that alternative transportation was needed: the tiny little Suzuki car he showed up in was shorter than my ski bag, and probably weighed only a little bit more.  Fortunately the taxi touts in the parking lot were helpful, but not pushy, and soon I was off to the hotel in Kathmandu’s Thamel district, with ski bag in tow.

We’ve spent the last couple days wandering around Kathmandu, trying not to get food poisoning or hit by unpredictable motorcycle drivers. Kathmandu is busy, dusty, and dirty.  Apparently these days the concentration of particulate matter in the city air is almost five times greater than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. There are still piles of rubble lingering from the devastating 2015 earthquake, cows lying in the middle of busy streets, and garbage stacked neatly on sidewalk corners.  The Thamel district, our home base before heading out, bustles with tourists, touts and bicycle rickshaws.  Despite all of that, I was immediately captivated by the city.  Not necessarily by the beautiful skylines and modern infrastructure (there is little of either of those), but for what the city represents:  a starting off point to the highest mountain peaks in the world.  For Kim and I, that exact starting off point was the Ratna Bus Park, at 5:45 yesterday morning.

The bus ride from Ratna Park to Shivalaya was a serious exercise in patience, but we arrived in mostly one piece. Prior to getting on the bus I’d read nothing but horror stories about the trip:  the buses break down; the drivers are crazy; one blog post I read even said that on one trip the rear wheels of the bus went over the edge of a cliff before the driver pulled it together.  Fortunately, our driver seemed to value his life, and so at no point did either of us really fear for ours.  However, it was long (10.5 hours instead of the advertised 8, for an average trip speed of less than 20 km/h); it was bumpy (we had “good” seats near the front, but our knees were still jammed into the seats in front of us), and it was hot (windows opened most of the way to allow a nice flow of dust into our mouths).  The driver seemed to have a collection of horn tunes, and cycled through them depending on his mood and the riskiness of his uphill-blind corner passing manoeuvres.  Music blasted loudly (presumably to keep the driver awake), and people (and the odd animal) hopped on and off throughout the journey.  At about 5:00 PM we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, and the bus crawled along to the remainder of its destinations and out of our lives.  The highlight of the ride was at about 5:00 PM when we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, seconded closely by a first delicious lunch time meal of dahl bhat, prepared at some random roadside pullout along the way.

Shivalaya itself suffered quite a bit of damage during the earthquake.  Our host was explaining that it took them an entire year to rebuild their “Hilton Shivalaya” lodge, and the building across the street is still under (presumably) re-construction.  The lodge owner also told us that there have been far fewer trekkers on the route post-quake.

But we are here now, and just about ready to go. Backpacks are full (Kim claims hers is “way heavier than mine”), hiking boots tied up nicely, all set for our first day of trekking. From Shivalaya it’s a 6 day walk to the town of Lukla, considered by many to be the gateway to the Everest region (saner people just opt for the 45 minute flight to get there instead of the full day bus ride + 6 days of walking).  From Lukla we’ll continue climbing towards Mount Everest for another two weeks and change, and if we are fit and fortunate, we’ll complete the “Three Passes” trek, which cross three alpine passes over 5000 m in elevation, all in the Everest region. But for today we’ll just focus on the walk to Bhandar, the next small village about 4 hours east of here.

Onwards…

April 24, 2017 – 1:00PM

Geneva Airport

Today is a bit of a tough day, and it’s hard to believe that it is already here.  I’m sitting at Geneva Airport, waiting for the next onward flight.  This time I’m alone.

This morning Matt and I said our goodbyes to Chamonix, after 7 amazing weeks of skiing in the Alps.  A few hours later we said our goodbyes to each other, after almost 3 months of travelling together and seeing some incredible places.  We both struggled to choke back the tears.  Today Matt heads home to Canada (to face the grim reality of going back to work next week :)), while I continue to head east for the second (and non-skiing) stage of this round the world trip.

Yesterday, Matt and I were saying how leaving Chamonix was kind of like leaving Tadoussac after weeks of summer holidays.  It’s a special place that has obviously grown on both of us, and I am sure we’ll both be back someday. Saying bye to Matt was also tough, but in a different kind of way.

There aren’t many people in the world who I would follow blindly into the mountains, but Matt is one of them. Growing up as kids, the five year age gap between the two of us at times seemed enormous, but at recently 28 and still hanging on to 32, the age gap is non-existent.  For the past three months we’ve challenged each other, and looked out for each other, to complete some of the most intense, craziest, scariest, funnest skiing that we’ve ever done.

On the bus in to Geneva this morning we were discussing that when you’re doing all of this stuff you don’t really realize the full magnitude of what you’re up to, because you’re so focused on the moment.  It’s only once you take a step back after the fact and reflect on the experience (like I am doing right now), that the accomplishments kind of sink in:  almost 50 days of skiing in Morocco, France, Switzerland, Italy, all completed with only each other (and a few friends along the way) to guide us. With the exception of a broken binding and a weak stomach in the Atlas Mountains, we did it all without so much as a scratch.  Which I consider to be fortunate (obviously), but also a reflection of preparation, planning, and decision-making out in the backcountry.  None of which would be possible without taking the time to learn the appropriate skills, practice them, and continuing to gain experience.  We’ve come a long way from Spillway, Power Line, and Windigo.

As the eldest sibling of three (I assume this extends to eldest siblings in general), there is a tendency to assume that the oldest always knows better.  When Matt and I are out in the backcountry, that tendency doesn’t exist.  It has been a lot of fun, not only this year, listening and learning from my “little” brother, particularly as he starts dabbling in professional-level avalanche training courses and, while at home, spends far more time in the mountains than I could hope for with my regular 9 to 5 job.  I still offer my advice and thoughts, but not from “older-brother-knows-better” point of view.  And together we continue to arrive at good decisions and agreements.  The skiing in the Southern Hemisphere, excited as I am about it, won’t be the same without Matt.

Despite the sad emotions today, there is still plenty to be excited about. A little later this afternoon I will hop on a plane to Istanbul, where I’ll have three full days to explore a new and exciting city.  My friend Marie-Marguerite has graciously allowed me to stay at her place, even though she is also off travelling.  And then, on Friday night I will fly to Kathmandu to realize a long time dream of trekking to Everest Base Camp.  Kim will meet me there on Monday and we’ll have the next two months to spend together. Not bad at all…

Eat-Ski-Sleep-Repeat: The Story of our Lives in Chamonix Mont-Blanc

April 16, 2017 – 11:00AM

We didn’t ski today. I know this is a ski trip, and the title of this entry suggests otherwise, but…it’s gotten to that time of the ski season where if it’s not sunny out, and if there isn’t a big dump of fresh snow, then it isn’t really worth getting out there.  It’s full on spring time in the valley here and you can more or less go outside, stare up at the mountains, and literally watch the snowline recede.  Today is cloudy everywhere, and it may? be snowing up high, so instead I find myself brainstorming my first blog entry for the Cham segment of the trip.

There have been few/no blog updates from Chamonix because the reality is our six weeks here (five if you consider we were away for a week skiing the Haute Route Traverse) have gone pretty much like this: eat-ski-après-eat-sleep-repeat.  Beyond that there are just some minor day to day differences and so no sense in putting anyone to sleep.  Some days we eat before après.  Some days instead of eating we just have an extra helping of après. And some days we don’t ski – usually following that extra helping of après, or the above mentioned lousy weather.  Most days we throw in a shower just to keep our tiny one bedroom apartment hospitable.

This whole little routine got started back at the beginning of March, the 4th to be exact, when we arrived in Chamonix fresh off an exhausting and taxing trip to Morocco and settled in to our little one bedroom apartment (there is a pull out in the living room that Matt has been sleeping on). We’ve lucked out in our little spot.  From the couch (i.e. Matt’s bed) you can look out the window and stare in awe at Aiguille du Midi, le glacier des bossons, and the mighty Mont-Blanc (the highest point in Western Europe).  It’s a 4 minute walk (three if you run – we’ve tried) to the bus stop to the hills, and less than a 10 minute walk to the famous Aiguille du Midi tram.  We take turns walking to the bakery in the morning to pick up a fresh baguette for lunch and fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast.  C’est la vie…

March 5th – the day after we got here – just happened to be the start of the biggest snowstorm of the winter.  Matt and I have a bit of knack for timing these things (read: 2 m snowfall two days after we arrived in Gulmarg a few years ago, a massive dump three days into a Japan trip in 2013).  Knock on wood it continues.  Anyway, by March 7th almost 2 metres of fresh snow had fallen on the ground, including almost a foot right in town.  People were going crazy.  Kim’s sister Pam, conveniently located a short flight away in Amsterdam and who had been monitoring the snow forecast like a hawk, joined us for four days of skiing in amazing powder conditions and by far the best powder turns of the trip. Face-shot styles.  I’m sure glad I dragged my fat skis all the way to Europe for that specific storm, because I haven’t used them since.  In fact I sent them home with my buddy Trev a couple weeks ago and haven’t missed them a bit.

Speaking of Trev (as in Wallace, our good friend from Tadoussac), he joined us for a week in mid/late March in what we will call “average” ski conditions.  When he asked me for a gear list, and I responded with ice ax and crampons on the list, I think he was a little nervous.  When we got whited-out on the glacier d’Argentière and Matt pulled out the rope to tie each other to each other, and I pulled out the compass to navigate us back to the crevasse-free side of the glacier, I know he was out of his comfort zone.  But we got back to safety and Trev is better for it now.  We also had some non-whiteout days of skiing while Trev was here, including a descent down the legendary Mer de Glace, with a tour over to Italy for coffee, of course.  It was a great week and cozy but manageable in our little pad.

If three was cozy but manageable, four would definitely be over capacity, but that’s exactly what happened when Matt’s buddy Ben showed up mid-way through the week with Trev, virtually un-announced.  Fortunately Ben had the kindness of heart to sleep on the floor one night to give Trev a little extra breathing room before his long flight home.  With our crew size now doubled to four we certainly kicked up the après factor and familiarized ourselves with what exactly “No Limits” means at the infamous Chambre Neuf hotspot.  Once Trev left, Ben also helped kick up the extreme factor on the slopes: we skied the Couloir des Cosmiques – which required a 30 m rappel before buckling into skis on the side of a 45-50 degree slope, and followed it up the next day with a sh*t-your-pants kind of run down the Couloir Nord/Nord-est of Les Courtes (which averages a cool 48 degree slope over several hundred metres down to the Argentière glacier).

And there have been other friends of friends who have all joined up with us for days of skiing here and there:  Martin, a Czech guy who’s been living here for a few years and works up on the Aiguille du Midi; Ben’s buddy Guillaume, who came over from Verbier for a few days (and showed us around there on our Haute Route trip); Laurent, a hard core skier and Quebecer who recognized our MEC ski bag and introduced himself on the bus one day; and Steve, a British guy who has lived in Cham for years and knows the area like the back of his hand – and still rocks the straight, skinny skis!  They’ve all contributed to the trip in different ways and made it such a memorable success so far.

Despite the fact that everyone here has told us at least twice that this has been one of the worst winters in recent (and distant) memory, we’ll still get close to 40 days of skiing in, out of the 49 days we’ll have spent in the Alps.  Imagine what would have happened if this was one of the best winters in recent and distant memory.  We’ve skied some of the classic Chamonix lines, some in good conditions, some in variable conditions, and some in “don’t-even-think-about-making-a-mistake” conditions: Couloir des Cosmiques and Couloir nord/nord-est des Courtes as mentioned; but also Couloir en Y off the Aiguille d’Argentière, Couloir nord du Capucin, Col des Cristaux, and others.  I feel like we have seen a ton of terrain so far, but in reality we are only scratching the surface.  The terrain is endless over here, with different lines opening up to the eye depending on how much snow has fallen on the ground.

Although we have greatly developed our steep skiing and ski mountaineering skills this winter, Chamonix remains a very humbling place.  It is easy to stay on the pistes and within the boundaries of the ski areas, but once you get out and start exploring the backcountry, you realize how intimidating some of the terrain is.  Steep, STEEP, chutes and couloirs, narrow ridge lines, transport truck-sized crevasses: plenty of places where things can easily go wrong.  And there are many, many, phenomenal skiers in this valley, some blowing by us on the skin track, skiing lines that most would consider impossible.

With a little over a week left in Chamonix, we are starting to feel physically drained, but seemingly keep getting out there day after day.  When we did our trans-North America ski trip back in 2008, I think we were somewhere around 55 days of skiing.  But that was riding lifts the whole time, whereas here we are touring all over the place (though lift assisted) and then often climbing several hundred or even 1000 m to get to the top of some of these runs. So it’s a totally different ball game.  In addition to being physically tired, it’s been interesting observing a mental fatigue starting to set in.  You really have to stay focused on some of these runs because there really isn’t room for error anywhere.  I think subconsciously we are starting to dial it back a little bit, as neither of us wants anything to go wrong these last few days.

After today’s little hiccup of cloudy weather, it’s looking like blue skies again for the rest of the week, so we’ll be right back out there at it again.  “Maybe” there will be some fresh snow, but neither of us are holding our breath.  No reason to stop us from creating a few more great memories before we pack it in and wind up the winter in this amazing place.

The Haute Route Traverse – From Chamonix to Zermatt on Skis

Day 1: Argentière to Cabane de Trient

April 1, 2017 – 8:00AM

We’re on the bus from Chamonix to Argentière, which is a few kilometres up the valley from our apartment and the starting point of the Haute Route Traverse.  As we sit on the bus, still half asleep, I reflect on the six days ahead and how far Matt and I have come as backcountry skiers.  To anyone familiar with ski touring, the Haute Route Traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt is one of those iconic routes that every skier dreams of ticking off.  Big terrain, incredible views, scary crevasses, and ski lines as far as the eye can see.  Not to mention comfortable “huts” all along the route to make the whole thing just a little more enjoyable. When we arrived in Chamonix at the beginning of March the traverse was something we definitely wanted to do, but we weren’t really sure if we’d be able to pull it off, due to route finding, complexity of the terrain, etc.  A few years ago, the thought of completing the traverse independently seemed like a bit of a pipe dream.  The cost to do it as part of a guided group was a little prohibitive to our traveller’s budget, so from the get go it was either do it on our own (which seemed like a big undertaking) or don’t do it at all.  I picked up a guide book the day we got here and we started studying it. And then we picked up the maps we needed and started studying those.  And then we made reservations at each of the huts.  And now here we are sitting on the bus about to set off on the longest ski traverse either of us have ever done – no turning back.  Well, I guess we could turn back whenever we want, but that would be kind of lame.

When the bus drops us off at Grands Montets parking lot, we are right on time to catch the first tram up to the top  (the first segment of the traverse uses the Grands Montets lifts to save about 1500 m of climbing to start the day).  We’re both a little nervous I think, so an early start today is key – even with the lifts, it will still be over 1000 m of climbing and a long day to get to Cabane de Trient, across the border in Switzerland.  Plus the forecast is calling for clouds to roll in this afternoon, and navigating across glaciers in a whiteout is not something either of us want to do on Day 1. Or any of the days for that matter.

As we approach the boarding area for the tram, we are kindly notified by the lady at the gate that there are high winds (presumably blowing in all the clouds) at the top, and all the lifts are currently closed.  More information at 10AM.  A great start to the day.

For the next hour and a half, I stare impatiently back and forth at the information board and the skyline to monitor the cloud situation.  From what we can see, the winds are definitely strong.  We are able to ride the tram to the halfway point, but it isn’t until shortly after 10 that they finally open the tram to the top.  Because we were early, we’re able to get on the first tram up.  From the top of Grands Montets, at about 3200 m, we ski down to the Glacier d’Argentière and put our skins on for the first climb of the day.  The winds on the glacier are howling, but fortunately the sun is still shining.

After a couple hours of skinning we’ve climbed over 800 m to the Col du Chardonnet, which also happens to be the border between France and Switzerland (basically all of the traverse is actually done in Switzerland).  At the col, there is a fixed rope dropping into a steep couloir that we use to rappel into Switzerland then side-step out onto the Glacier de Saleina.  From the glacier, it’s another couple hours of touring to get to Cabane de Trient.  By the time we are safely inside the hut, the clouds have rolled in and we have difficulty seeing the other side of the glacier that we just toured across.

The definition of “hut” (or cabane as they are called in Swizterland) is somewhat different than what we have grown accustomed to at home in BC.  In BC, the huts require you to pack everything you could possibly need – sleeping bag, mattress, cooking gear, food, etc.  Most huts may have a wood stove to keep the dampness away, and a loft for everyone to pile onto and sleep wherever there is a spare corner. It can be crowded, smelly, and sleepless.  Sometimes people accidentally try to set the place on fire with errant camp stoves.

The Cabane de Trient (and presumably the other huts along the route) is a little different.  When we walk in the front door, there is shelf full of hut slippers (should have left mine at home) for everyone to change into.  There are wicker baskets to place your wet items in and put on a shelf to dry overnight.  The dormitory-style bedrooms have comfortable mattresses with “nordic-duvets” (only a sleeping bag liner is needed). There is of course the cold-beer and wine menu that is kindly pointed out when we check in (at 8 euros for a tall can of beer the costs can add up fast!) And finally there is the whole half-board deal, where dinner and breakfast are provided and prepared for you.  Tonight’s menu features carrot soup, followed by green salad to start.  Beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes for the main course.  And an apple custard for desert.  Not bad – the bar has been set for the rest of the week.

Day 2: Cabane de Trient to Cabane du Mont Fort

Today’s route doesn’t actually require a lot of skiing.  Just down the glacier du Trient, a short boot pack up to a nearby col, and then a long ski down to the village of Champex – simple.  From there we will transfer to the Verbier ski resort via bus and train.  The Cabane de Mont Fort, where we are staying tonight, is actually within the Verbier ski area boundary.

As we enjoy our hot breakfast and start to get our things organized for the day ahead, daylight starts to pour through the windows.  There is no sign of the sun though.  Apparently the clouds that rolled in yesterday decided to stick around and upon further inspection out the windows, we realize that it is a complete whiteout. Perfect.

The start of the day at the hut is a bit of a zoo as groups seem to jockey for position and get out the front door before each other, and it’s difficult to avoid feeling like we should also be in a rush.  When we finally do get out the front door there are about 15 people lining up to get going ahead of us.

It’s a pretty short ski down the glacier (about 400 m) and despite the whiteout we can hug the rocks on the skier’s right side and make our way easily to the bottom of the bootpack up to Col des Écandies.  We manage to get going up the bootpack before most of the groups in front of us and when we get to the col we can’t tell up from down.  From the col down Champex, our elevation drops about 1300 m, which we manage to navigate with the topo map and GPS.  Although there are no glaciers on the descent there are some cliff bands and other terrain traps so some route finding is required, and with no visibility there are a few signs of ski vertigo.  An hour or so later we emerge unscathed in the Champex ski area and wait for our bus transfer over to Verbier.

The transfer from Champex to Verbier is a bit of a novelty.  Here we are, emerging from a high mountain environment, only to be whisked off by bus and trains (that run precisely on time of course) to another one of the most famous ski resorts in Europe. Only in the Alps.

By the time we get to Verbier it’s only just after lunch time so we pick up a half day lift ticket and meet our friend Guillaume who shows us around the resort for the afternoon.  Even though we still can’t see anything we enjoy ripping up the groomers and get a feel for the scale of the resort.  Especially when we pile onto the “Jumbo” lift – a tram that packs in 150 people and swoops them up to the top of the mountain!  At the end of the afternoon we cruise down one last groomer and retire to the Cabane de Mont Fort for the evening.  The hut doesn’t see as much traffic as others on the Haute Route, and so there are only a dozen or so people spending the night.  To top it all off, the clouds have gone away, setting up for a great weather day tomorrow.

Day 3: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane des Dix

Day 3 is our biggest day of the traverse – nearly 1500 m of climbing overall – as we pass over three cols (Col de la Chaux, Col de la Rionde, and Col de Severeu) before eventually climbing to up over 2900 m to Cabane des Dix.

Whatever clouds were lingering at the end of the day yesterday have vanished and the weather is perfect to start the day.  We can clearly see the Mont Blanc massif, with the morning sun hitting the peaks, and can trace our routes from Days 1 and 2.

Shortly after 8:00am we step in to our skis and start our climb up the freshly groomed pistes of Verbier.  I joke to Matt that we should carve bigger switchbacks than usual, just to mess up the fresh groomers for anyone skiing down.  Today also happens to be the last stop of the Freeride World Tour, which is taking place on the big and intimidating face of Bec des Rosses, which we are skinning right below.  As we approach the first col of the day, the competition starts and we get to watch a couple of the first competitors throw themselves down some crazy lines.  Helicopters buzz around capturing it all on video and camera – maybe we’ll be on TV?!

As we move farther and farther east from the resort the noise starts to dissipate and soon we are on our own.  The route we are taking to Cabane des Dix is a little off the main highway, so for a time we are breaking trail.  The weather continues to be perfect and when  we arrive at Col de Severeu we get our first glimpse of the famous Matterhorn – it still looks like a long way away!

From the col we descend several hundred metres on one of the longest runs of the week to Lac des Dix, and then traverse south along the lake before starting one last climb up to the cabane.

After about 8 hours on the trail, and feeling tired and a little dehydrated from the hot sun, we come around the corner to Cabane des Dix.  The sight is unbelievable:  a multi-storey stone structure (built in 1908), sitting on top of a little rock bluff, in the middle of nowhere.  Inside the hut there are pictures of mules hauling materials in during construction!  The cabane has a nice patio which faces west, so we celebrate the mid-way point of the trip outside with a two-eight-euro beer day, and enjoy a stellar sunset.

Day 4: Cabane des Dix to Cabane des Vignettes

We’re back on the main track today, so the morning starts a little busier than yesterday.  The route to Cabane des Vignettes marks the high point of the traverse (3790 m at the summit of Pigne d’Arolla) and also includes one of the more touchy sections on the trip – crossing over “la passage de la serpentine“, a steep glacier with big exposure of cliffs on the far climber’s left side.

The day starts a little more slowly than others, given the many groups on the skin track in front of us.  Being on our own, we’d sort of been expecting to get called out by a guide at some point, for something, and today ends up being the day.  On the way up glacier de la Tséna Refien a guide dragging his three roped up clients up the glacier wonders aloud if we have rope with us or not.  Matt politely points out the obvious blue coil of rope that is readily available on my pack and that we’re comfortable in the current conditions without it.  Not appreciating his next comment of “we’re on a glacier, you know?“, I sarcastically respond that we had no idea it was a glacier.  The guide’s tone seems to change when we tell him we live on the west coast of Canada and have been skiing on this type of stuff for several years.  We carry on our merry way, not too concerned with the little encounter.

When we get to la passage de la serpentine, the snow pack is so thin that crampons and bootpacking are needed to get up the slope.  At certain points there are only a few inches of snow on top of blue glacier ice, so we are kicking hard to get our toe picks nicely into the ice.  Fortunately the slope ends up being less intimidating than it looked in the pictures and soon we are on top of a plateau on the way to Pigne d’Arolla.

The summit of Pigne d’Arolla most closely resembles what we’d expected on the traverse:  lots of people packed onto the summit, some coming, some going, a highway of sorts up to the top.  Despite the crowds, and the clouds that are starting to move in, the views are awesome and the Matterhorn is finally starting to look like a nearby mountain.

From the top it’s a nice long run down towards the cabane, though some deviations are needed to avoid the transport truck-sized crevasses.  We were both pretty impressed with Cabane des Dix yesterday, but the first view of Cabane des Vignettes blows Dix out of the water.

The cabane is literally built on the side of a cliff, and is approached via a very narrow ridgeline – how do people come up with these ideas?!  Despite the difficult access there were no shortcuts taken inside – a full lunch menu, beer and wine, and great dining area.  No running water though – we are really slumming it now!

Day 5: Cabane des Vignettes to Cabane de Bertol

Many people complete the route from Cabane des Vignettes all the way to Zermatt in a day, and for this reason breakfast at Vignettes is served from the freakishly early hours of 5:30 to 6:00.  When we get downstairs there is a fair amount of buzz going on, and there is talk that the morning is shaping up to be another total whiteout, although the afternoon forecast says “clearing up”.  There is an “escape route” that goes immediately down to the valley below and then back up to get to Cabane de Bertol, and avoids the majority of the serious glacier travel, but it’s also a less scenic route.  It seems like many of the guided groups will be heading that way given the uncertainty in the weather.  Not feeling rushed, and hoping for the forecast to live up to expectation, we finish our breakfast and go back to bed.  Even if we don’t leave Vignettes until noon, we should still be able to get to Bertol in good time for dinner.

Shortly before 8 the hut staff poke their head into the room to let us know we have 10 minutes to get our things cleared out of the room so they can start cleaning in advance of the next round of skiers passing through tonight.  By now at least it’s daylight and the whiteout has been confirmed.  The number of people left in the hut starts to dwindle as many parties have decided to head down to the valley.  By 10:00 or so there are 10 of us left, on a day that started with close to 100 people staying in the hut.  There are three German teams, a French pair, and us.  Although we are all talking in different languages, the consensus is the same:  we still can’t see the rock bluff 50 feet outside the front door of the hut.

At this point Matt and I start playing head games with each other to agree on a time at which we will leave, regardless of what the weather does: at 10:45 we’ll have a snack; at 11:00 we’ll put our ski boots on, and by 11:30 we’ll walk out the door – if we still can’t see we’ll go down to the valley.  Shortly after 11 we start getting a little impatient with the weather, but suddenly the first major parting of the clouds appears.  We’re still not convinced that it’s enough to send us up the high route, but the other teams also seem excited and we all start getting our gear on.

Just before 11:30 we step outside and are ready to go.  The clouds have opened up enough that we are comfortable taking the high route across glacier du Mont Collon to Col de l’Evèque.  We decide to rope up together for the glacier crossing as there are quite a few exposed crevasses, some of which could house a school bus or two, and the visibility still isn’t awesome.

From Col de l’Evèque, it’s a long 800 m run down the haut glacier d’Arolla, before an equally long and tiring climb up to Cabane de Bertol. When we get to the col almost all the clouds have dissipated and we’re confident that it will be a bluebird afternoon. Three turn into the run Matt hears and feels a pop in one of his skis and he yells at me to hold up to take a look.  It’s not great:  the heel piece of one of his bindings has blown off his ski and disappeared into the fresh snow we had just started skiing. We spend a few minutes looking for it, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and we have no luck.  Fortunately we have a couple ski straps in the bag, and can use the longer one to strap Matt’s boot in place.  It’s nowhere near as strong as a binding, but as long as he’s not launching off any big cliffs, he should be just fine.  Fortunately it’s the second last day of the traverse, and not the other way around.

The rest of the day to Bertol goes smoothly and we are happy about our decision to wait out the weather and enjoy the great views along the way.  When we get to Col de Bertol the Matterhorn appears to be a stone’s throw away and we can start to feel the finish line.  Although we’ve already climbed 1100 m today, the Swiss decided it would be a good idea to build the hut above the col, and so the last 30 m of the day are spent climbing straight up steel ladders that have been bolted to the rock face.  The beer inside tastes colder and more refreshing than usual and we enjoy an amazing sunset for the last night on the trip.

Day 6: Cabane de Bertol to Zermatt

 We’re up early this morning, excited for our long descent in to Zermatt.  Shortly after 7:00 we are out the door and down-climbing the crazy ladders from yesterday.  The sun is just coming up over the ridge and there are a few light clouds blowing off the top of the Matterhorn, making it look just like a chimney.  The visibility is perfect, and it should be a great finish to the trip.

The day starts with a couple hours of skinning up to the top of Tête Blanche (3710 m), a rounded peak just to the west of the Matterhorn and also the border of Switzerland and Italy.  It is windy and cold at the top, but it feels like we can reach out and touch the Matterhorn.  The view is incredible.

The skins come off the skis for the last time at the summit of Tête Blanche and all that is left to do is point the skis downhill for 1800 m into the ski resort village of Zermatt.  Oh, and navigate through the heavily-crevassed Stockji, Tiefmatten, and Zmutt glaciers.  Fortunately the weather is clear and we can see where to ski and where not to ski – not a place I would want to be stuck in zero visibility.  We waste little time under the giant seracs of the Stockji (there were a few recent falls), but do get to enjoy some fresh tracks in cold snow.  The ski out on the Zmutt glacier goes right under the Matterhorn – an amazing way to finish up.  Before long we are back inside the Zermatt ski area and enjoy a long run down the freshly groomed trails right into the town itself.

When we click the skis off for the last time, there is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.  After high fives and big hugs we look back up at the Matterhorn one more time and digest the last few days: over 5000 m of vertical, close to 65 km travelled on skis, between two of the most iconic ski mountaineering centres anywhere, on our own.  Definitely one for the books.