Monday, December 8, 2008

Vs. The Mountain

Mountaineering is a unique sport in many ways. Most sports require their participants to be “on” all the time. That is, if Brett Favre throws 5 interceptions and the New York Jets lose, the crowd boos him and he must explain to the press why he played so badly. If Brett Favre were a mountaineer though, he could just say simply, “I was having a bad day,” and all the reporters would just leave him be. In mountaineering, while certainly not the optimal, nor the desired feeling one can have from a day in the mountains, it is perfectly acceptable to explain away a poor performance by saying just “It wasn’t my day”. All mountaineers sometimes have these days. Every now and then it doesn’t matter how hard you train, how good the logistics are, how perfect the weather is. There will be days you just don’t feel right. It’s an unavoidable fact of climbing. Once Gina and I had successfully climbed  Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, and Mt. Rainier, we set our sights on doing an international mountain. Gina was very enthusiastic about attempting Aconcagua already, but after discussing it amongst ourselves, we figured the cost and time an Aconcagua expedition required meant that we should be more sure of success when we would embark on such an adventure. An intermediate step was necessary, and a step that was within our budget as well. We decided that the Volcanoes of Mexico was the next appropriate climb we should make on our way up the ladder of the mountains. The Mexico trip could be done in just 9 days time, as opposed to minimum 3 weeks for Aconcagua. We could get a “buy one get one free” plane ticket deal to Mexico City, and the thought of climbing not just one peak, but two peaks higher than any in the United States outside of Alaska appealed to our imaginations greatly.

Just a short time in the past, climbers could travel to Mexico and climb all 3 of the highest volcanoes in Mexico. Then in 1994, Popocatépetl (17,887’) erupted, and has been active ever since. So there is no climbing Popo unless you would like to be incinerated by a pyroclastic flow or something. Yet the highest peak in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (18,490’) and Popo’s sister volcano Iztaccihuatl (17,159’), the 3rd and 7th highest peaks in North America respectively, are still available for climbing. It was these two mountains which were our goals for the 9 days we would spend in Central Mexico, and since it was early February and winter in the US (therefore not climbing season), we were eager to getting back to our new passion of mountaineering.

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Mexico City, the towering visage of the surrounding mountains, which included Izta, made themselves visible to us. That is, when we could see them through the overwhelming amounts of smog. I had not been to Mexico since I was young and even then only to the touristy coastal areas. This capital city of Mexico was quite another story. Dirty, crowded and chaotic, Mexico City was nothing like I had expected. When we went to get something to eat I was given another shock. The “Mexican” food that we are accustomed to in the US is nothing like authentic Mexican food in Mexico City. Both Gina and I suffered through the whole trip never quite finding a truly appetizing meal. This trip made me realize that the food we love in the US is really Americanized Mexican food. Of course, we were not here to eat anyway, but I was thinking how great it would be to come down from the mountain to a hot plate of fajitas. I never saw fajitas on the menus anywhere where we ate the entire time in this part of Mexico.

One thing we established on this trip was that when traveling to another country to climb, we weren’t just going to go to the mountain and never see anything else about a place. The culture, sights and sounds of a country would always be a part of our experience when climbing outside the USA. Before heading to Izta, we were able to visit the pyramids and the Museum of Anthropology, playing ordinary tourists for a couple of days. We learned much about the local mythology, and particularly enjoyed learning about “The Sleeping Woman” which is what Izta is known as was to be our first climb. We also were able to get to know our climbing companion Charlie, who was a firefighter from NYC who had been at the 9/11 attacks. The trip was guided by Craig Van Hoy, the owner of Go Trek Climbs. We had heard about Craig the previous summer while climbing Rainier. Jeff (JJ) Justman, our RMI guide, had mentioned that Craig used to hold the record for the fastest ascent of Rainier. He had been to Mexico every year for a decade or so, and knew the mountains we would be climbing well.

It snowed in the mountains that week in Mexico. Snow is a rare thing there, but of course the mountains are snow-capped so indeed at times snow comes. As we drove up to our base camp for the Izta climb, we passed several cars coming back down the road from the mountain. It seems many folks from the city had driven up to experience some of the snow and were now happily making their way back home. We passed several cars with small snowmen built onto the hoods, and a few cars with other ornate snow sculptures covering their cars. The Mexicans were taking advantage of the recreational opportunities snow brings and were having a good time with it. This didn’t bother us so much. We had heard reports of high snowfall on Orizaba, which could impact our climb there, but that was still a few days away and the snow should be mostly melted by the time we reach that mountain. The road to base camp was muddy in places but nothing we wouldn’t be able to pass. The patches of snow were actually pleasant to us, reminding us that yes, we were in fact in the mountains, and these mountains were no different really than mountains back home. The base camp altitude was at 13,900’ and we slept in tents that night there.

The first day was our approach to the Ayoloco Hut. It was a good climb, through mostly scree filled slopes. The route granted great views of the neighboring Popo, and a few times we were able to see puffs of smoke still boiling off the top of it. As we climbed higher and higher, every so often Craig’s Altimeter watch would sound off an alarm. Craig had programmed in different altitudes of world peaks into his watch, and so we knew when we were passing our previous “highpoint” of the top of Mt Whitney (14,497’) and were now breaking our personal altitude records with every step. My backpack felt like it weighed too much, I was still not adept at going light and reducing unnecessary gear, but the views and the joy of climbing were too great for me to be distracted by the extra jacket or two that I was packing on my shoulders. After a half a day’s climb, we reached the Ayoloco Hut at about 15,350’. This would be our camp for the night, so not only was this our new highpoint, but we would be spending the night there as well!
We had time to relax and unwind at the Hut, as we continued to acclimatize. There, another team joined us led by John Race and his Mexican assistant guide, Oso. Oso very likely is the most well-known domestic guide/climber in Mexico and in the years since we have met several people who have used his services on Izta and Orizaba. He was also a very friendly and colorful guy. This team had climbed up to the Hut from the north side, while we had ascended from the south. So it was more company for us. One great thing I was learning about climbing was how fun it was to meet other folks on the mountain. We were all there, enjoying basically the same experience at the same time. This group of climbers was from the US as well, but had a completely different itinerary than we had, and we spent lots of time trading stories with them about Mexico and other mountains in the US. In all the years climbing, almost never do we meet people from the same place as we are from. This, to us, is one of the best parts of the great adventure that is mountaineering. I did have trouble sleeping that night in the Hut. We were drinking lots of water to remain hydrated and help adjust to the altitude, and I must have had to go pee about 5 times during the night.

Finally, in what seemed like the middle of night, Craig arose and we departed for our Summit Day. Our route was the Ayoloco Glacier route, but really it’s nothing like a glacier on say, Rainier. There were crevasses to cross, but they were more like moderate trenches than crevasses, and the climbing was mostly rocky with a few snowy and icy sections to relieve us of the grating sound of our crampons crunching on rock instead of the surfaces they were meant for. As the sun began to rise and shed light on the mountain, a magnificent sight was before our eyes. The “Arista Del Sol” – Ridge of the Sun, stretched out in front of us, and it was brilliant. This has inspired me to a life long love of “The Ridge” that has repeated itself for me on several other mountains. Like a surfer seeing “The Wave”, on every occasion I’m climbing and I come upon a ridge section – I just become filled with the awe and exhilaration that this is why I climb – to see myself and other climbers traversing along ridges and making our way to the top. There is no other feeling that I know of like it.
After climbing for awhile and topping out over a few false summits, Craig finally consulted his altimeter and declared us on the apex of the mountain. We confirmed this when we found lying on the snow covered top the Summit Cross, which seems to populate the tops of most Latin America peaks. The morning weather was perfect and we snapped all our summit photos. We all felt strong and good reaching the top. It was an absolute perfect Summit Success. A look to the west revealed the brown cloud of pollution which perpetually hung over Mexico City, so we looked over to the east in order to pick out what would be our next objective, the highest peak in Mexico – Pico de Orizaba. We descended back to the Hut, gathered our stuff quickly and kept going down to base camp, in what turned out to be quite a very long day of hiking. Fortunately, Craig’s assistant had a hot pizza waiting for us at camp, which we eagerly devoured. We then drove to the city of Pueblo for the night. At breakfast the next morning in Pueblo, I had what I was having for every breakfast I ate in restaurants in Mexico – French toast with a coke and no ice. We were of course worried about the warnings of drinking the water. Unlike Costa Rica, where you can easily find fresh, clean water, all Mexican liquids are looked at with much skepticism. To this point, we had both been very careful. Gina had orange juice with her breakfast, which we were told was OK to drink, by both our guide and all the guidebooks we had read. After breakfast Gina and I had a few hours to ourselves that we intended to go visit some churches (they have beautiful churches in Mexico) and visit some markets for souvenir shopping. No sooner had we hit the first market than that’s when disaster struck.
In less than an hour, we were scrambling back to our hotel so Gina could get to the baño. She had been hit with “Montezuma’s Revenge” or whatever you like to call it. It was bad too. It was very bad. She was in much pain. I had no idea what this illness really meant, having only read about it before, but soon enough I was dispatched to find the nearest pharmacy and something – anything – that would reduce my poor wife’s agony. Some Imodium was purchased and eventually her condition improved a little bit. She was still sick, however, and I wondered if I would be climbing Orizaba without her, or if I would have to make a decision to forego my climb in order to stay with her and take care of her, if she got worse or didn’t get any better. That day of rest in Pueblo turned into a day of worry about the future of our expedition.

The next day we left Pueblo for the town of Tlachichuca and then onto the Piedre Grande Hut where our Orizaba climb would begin. On the way to the hut, the truck we were riding in got stuck in the still muddy roads (from the snow the week before) and we were forced to hop out of the vehicle and help push. Even though I had had ample time to acclimatize by now, the lack of oxygen hit me immediately and I felt like I was totally useless in pushing the truck from its predicament. The Hut sits at just about 14,000’ and we were not even above 12,000’ where we had gotten stuck. It should have been no problem for me by now, and so my lack of strength began to play on mind and worry me a bit. Gina was still sick, but was diverting herself conversing in Spanish with our driver, who was very taken with the first Costa Rican climber he had ever met in all the years he had spent ferrying people up the mountain to the Hut. It’s a common reaction that I’ve seen many times since when sturdy men of the mountains meet my 5’ tall wife and learn that she is a climber of some of the highest mountains in the land. I always feel great pride that she chose me to be her husband at such times. The Hut was crowded with climbers from all over the world. That day we waited outside and watched climbers descending from their summit mornings. We watched a climber fall several times while descending. This looked like a difficult climb indeed. Gina was still not feeling well, but let it be known to me that nothing was going to stand in her way of climbing the next morning. I started to feel a little better and tried to get some sleep. With all the other climbers packed in there, however, sleep became a tricky proposition. There was a lot of coughing and hacking, and constantly someone was getting up either to go to the bathroom outside or to start preparing for climbing the next morning. Our own night was cut short as an early rise to the climbing day is necessary to push for the summit all in one day. Craig woke us up and we geared up for the climb.

Our route was the Jamapa Glacier route. The lower part of the route is mostly rocky, much like our earlier climb on Izta. I was feeling okay, but a little hungry or something. At one point we stopped for a break, and I thought Craig was hurrying things up a bit too much. The batteries on my headlamp gave out, and I didn’t feel like he gave me enough time to change them. To me, it seemed like we were being rushed up the mountain. We hit the bottom of the glacier, just as the sun was coming up from behind the mountain, and rested finally for a little while. From here on out, the team would be roped together, Craig first, Gina second, me, and Charlie bringing up the rear. Although not a dangerous glacier from a crevasse standpoint, the Jamapa glacier is very steep, and any fall could be deadly so the reinforcement of a rope team is an excellent safety measure. We had been roped up on our Rainier climb the summer before, so we felt comfortable with the fine points of rope travel.

As we made our way up the glacier, I became aware that I was not moving as fast as everyone else. I was trying to keep the rope in front of me just off the snow but it kept getting pulled tight. Concentrating both on the rope and on properly cramponing, it was not long before I began to wear down. We kept going but I was getting noticeably slower and slower, and soon I was winded and asking for a break. I was just having a bad day. Sometimes when you are having a bad day on the mountain, there is just nothing you can do, and today was one of those days for me. This was the first time this had ever happened to me though, since we started climbing. Many things went through my head. I should have trained harder. I should have eaten more, drank more water the night before. I was searching for a reason as to why I just didn’t have it today. No reason was readily apparent though. When we reached the rim of the volcano crater, I informed Craig that I could not go on. I had nothing left. The three of them would have to continue on their summit climb without me, and I would have to wait here and watch their summit celebration from afar. I was extremely disappointed. Gina gave me a hug. We both knew I had made the right decision for that day, a day I just couldn’t climb hard enough. It was still demoralizing to watch them all go for the summit, however. I sat with a bottle of water and was soon alone with my decision. Gina summitted without me.

I was having a bad day, that day on Orizaba. It had nothing to do with how well I had trained. It didn’t have anything to do with what I had eaten or not eaten that day. I’ve had these kinds of days there on an 18,000’+ mountain. I’ve had them on our home mountain, Mt Shasta. I’ve even had them on little 9,000’ Mt Eddy. Altitude is not the cause. If you climb long enough, you will have these days as well. There are just some times – some days – You just don’t feel right. They just happen. Unfortunately for me, it happened on this mountain, this day. As I sat on the crater rim, I could see my fellow climbers make their way to the summit. I had fallen about 500’ vertical and 25 minutes or so short of my goal. There were no crowds booing me, though. There was no coach yelling at me, telling me to go back out there and give it 110% or some such thing. There was only the thought inside my head and the constant second guessing and self-questioning that would not stop. As I sat and waited for them to return, a feeling of self-doubt settled over me, a feeling that I would not shake entirely for over a year. No matter what I climbed at home, it would always be with me. Not until our Russian trip in July 2005, when we stood on top of Mt Elbrus, would it finally disappear from my head.

There is no scorecard in the self struggle of climbing. Sure, you can count how many peaks you have bagged, or how fast you reached their tops. That is all fine and dandy, but the only score that matters is the score inside your own mind and what that means to you. Some people need higher and higher peaks to climb to keep challenging themselves and feeling that worthiness. Maybe for some it’s the conquering of a granite rock face with only a few helping cams, nuts and a little bit of rope that gives that special reaction. Then for some folks, the exhilaration that comes with just reaching the summit of a long hike can feel exactly the same as it did to those climbers. It’s the mental battle, the test within, that separates climbing from most other sports, at least in my opinion. For that elusive sensation, that glorious frame of mind, that is what keeps us climbing again and again. No cheering crowds or inquisitive reporters are necessary.

This trip also was the dawning on me that my darling wife was no ordinary climber. I had known without question that she was strong and fit, but I didn’t really realize how incredibly tough her mental fortitude was. Racked with diarrhea the whole night before, she had continued climbing steady, because she wanted that summit more than anything at that point in time. No matter the pain the intestinal infection was causing her, she pushed on and on until she reached the goal she had set for herself. She had won her clash with the mountain, while I had lost. In later climbs I would see again and again the combination of physical and mental strength that made her the world class climber that she is today. We were still learning in Mexico. Among other things, I had learned a little more how great and what an amazing climber my wife was becoming. Even though I had reached a summit over 17,000’ and gained the crater rim of another (around 18,000’), it would be several more climbs before I would have a positive feeling about my own climbing abilities. Something only a summit can deliver. To this day I have not returned to Orizaba. Like Rocky and Apollo Creed, I left Mexico thinking “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” But just like the Rocky movies, I still have some unfinished business that someday… someday…. I will have to take care of.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maximus Lassenus

When we started climbing, back around 2002, we would pretty much do anything to climb something. We were hungry to climb, and no obstacle would stand in our way. Since we lived in the Bay Area, the most elevation we could hope for was usually on the top of Mt Diablo, and that is only around 3,800’. Mt Diablo was our home mountain, and most weekdays we found ourselves on its slopes anyway. However, although the vertical gain on Diablo can be about 3,500’ depending on your trailhead, it just didn’t satisfy our craving for high places. Another complication of life in the Bay Area was the expensive cost of living, which forced me to take a second job delivering newspapers – daily. The only way to take a day off was to hire a substitute driver for the morning I would be gone. Despite this hurdle, we would still manage to take a day here and there, driving up to Yosemite and the Sierras, enjoying precious time in the mountains. Hiring a substitute was not always an option, financially, so sometimes we had to plan 1-day get it all done trips. One such day was Memorial Day 2003, and an adventure to Lassen Peak in Northern California.

Today, we live so close to Lassen that if I stand on my tiptoes in our bathtub, I can see its majestic west face from inside my house. Depending on the time of year, I’m often treated to spectacular sunrises as the day begins and an orange glow illuminates behind Lassen for my drive to work viewing. But back then it was a good 4 hour plus drive from home. We had gotten the idea to go up to Lassen from a “mountaineering class” we had attended at our local REI. It sounded like a fun day out, and all the more challenging when there was still snow on it. At this point in our development as mountaineers we had already summitted Mt. Whitney via the normal route. We had our permit to go back to Whitney two weeks after Memorial Day, to try the more difficult Mountaineers Route, and we had our reservations in with RMI to tackle Mt Rainier in August. This would just be a training climb.

Saturdays were not difficult days for delivering newspapers. The Saturday Contra Costa Times was usually small, and as long as they arrived at the Distribution Center on time, I could finish my route pretty quickly. Luckily, the papers were on time and I finished ahead of schedule, arriving back home around 4 am. I had already phoned Gina to get up and get ready, and most of our things were packed from the night before. We said goodbye to our two dogs, Ziggy and Maximus. Ziggy was about 9 years old at this time and was a gentle soul and quintessential “Good Dog”. Maximus on the other hand, was just barely a year old. Seeing the love that Gina had for Ziggy, a dog who had moved with Gina from Florida to Costa Rica to California, and what a great canine companion he was, had inspired us (particularly me) to adopt a collie that would be mine – really the first dog I have ever owned who was not the “family” dog. I saw an ad in the newspaper for collie pups, and convinced Gina that we should just go and look at them. Well, nobody ever goes and just “looks” at puppies, especially collie pups. Hence Maximus Meridius Soto Buturla joined our family, named after the Gladiator movie character who shared the same middle name “Meridius” as our favorite trail on Mt Diablo. We soon learned that Max was no Ziggy. One of the biggest things about Max as a puppy, he had a rather severe case of separation anxiety. Once, left alone in a makeshift pen inside our tiny house, he escaped – popped open several sodas with his teeth, ripped up a couple of sofa pillows, and chewed beyond recognition a book on the coffee table titled “How to Train Your Puppy”. Maximus was the devilish combination of pup who was both destructive and smart – he knew what things to destroy that would bother us the most. Now just over a year, he had calmed down a little – and fooled us into thinking we were okay to leave him and Ziggy outside for the day while we were gone.

Since climbing in Lassen was new to us, we also made one other gigantic mistake, one of many we would make that day. Being inhabitants of the area these days, we know that Lassen Park receives enormous amounts of snowfall each year, and the road to the base of Lassen Peak sometimes does not open until July in a good snow year. We were blissfully unaware of this as we made the drive up, arriving at the closed South Gate entrance around 8:30am. After examination of the park materials handed to us by the Park Ranger, will realized that Lassen Peak was 8 miles away still, and the road was not yet opened to vehicular traffic. We were stunned. But, we really wanted to climb – we were desperate to climb as a matter of fact. Had I known then what I know now, I would have checked the NPS website and made an alternate plan. We even could have climbed Brokeoff Mountain, another Lassen Park peak that is also a worthwhile snow climb and is accessible from the South Gate Parking Lot area, in its place. Instead, we embarked on an eight mile odyssey to even begin our day of climbing. Since I did know that the actual climb of Lassen was not that many miles, I foolishly made the decision that we could hike it, climb it, descend it, and hike out all before the darkness moved in. Learning by your mistakes is not the best adage for the mountains, as I would soon find.

The road up was not really in that bad of shape, actually. The snowplows had already been working on it, and we walked on it a bit miffed that it was actually closed. Were it not for a mini-avalanche here or there, we would have been right about it too. We only had leather boots at this time, not until our Rainier trip would we purchase our first pairs of Koflach plastic boots. Still somewhat climbing newbies, we had not yet learned about packing light backpacks for speed. Our packs were loaded up with all we thought were essential at the time, just in case the unexpected occurred. Each of our packs probably weighed in about 35 pounds or so. Not exactly packed for just a dayhike. The road as I said, was mostly clear, so we walked on asphalt the majority of time. It was not too long before the hot spots and pre-blisters started to make themselves known on our feet. The eight miles we needed to cover started to seem like, well, EIGHT MILES.

Finally, at about 1pm we reached the end of the road – the snowplows sat idle in front of us, and the fact that they were clearing out snow that was 20’ deep in places was evident to us. Lassen was obviously just right in front of us, so we had arrived – or at least almost arrived. From comparing our surroundings to photos I had seen of Lassen, I realized we must be just above Lake Helen, which sits at the foot of Lassen.. We ate our lunch of Subway sandwiches that we had packed in with us and surveyed our situation. If the climb took us 2 hours, we would still be able to descend in the daylight. Even if it took us 3 hours, we could top out, and surely descend faster than the ascent – getting us back to the road and relative safety before nightfall. (It was the end of May, remember) We made a decision to go for it, and try to at least see how high we could get. We stepped out into the trail-less snow….

“Whoomp! Whooomp! Whooomp!” Each step we took, we sank farther and farther down into the snowpack. Unfamiliar with the term “post-holing” at the time, I could not define it, but knew it was making us miserable. Suddenly, instead of a challenging summit climb, we were barely making way through depths of snow I had not seen since my childhood in Wyoming. A couple of times I would think we were a little out of it, that the snow was harder as we moved up and therefore able to hold our weight. Each time I thought that, though, soon one of us would be letting out an exasperated cry as we sank down once again. A thought occurred to my Rookie mountain climber’s mind, “Oh, this is what snowshoes are for.” Yet still we headed up, we really, really wanted to climb something.

In the end, after finally reaching the lowermost slopes of the main mountain itself, the weather grayed up and clouds moved in. Gina and I sadly looked at each other, and then made the first wise move of the day. Having never climbed Lassen before, and not exactly knowing how long the climb would take, plus with the cold wind now biting at us a little harder, we decided we could not reach our goal for the day and would have to turn around. I looked back to the area where the snowplows were parked. In about an hour of postholing we had traveled maybe a half a mile. The “climb” was nothing but a failure. We made our way back down to the asphalt, and continued aggravating our blisters as we high-tailed back the 8 miles to the South Gate and our truck. On the 4 hour drive home we made a pit stop to buy a 12-pack of our favorite beer at the time, Steinlager, to help us soothe our psyche back home and contemplate our escapade. Or so we thought.

We arrived home around 8:30pm and walked through the gate. All seemed well, the dogs were predictably happy to see us, and Max did not have the guilty look on his face that he got when he did bad things. Everything was okay, we thought. We went inside, prepared to change our clothes and shower, and surveyed the refrigerator for our evening dinner. That’s when Gina turned on the TV. Snow. Only not the kind of snow we had been up to our waists in just 4 short hours before. The TV kind of snow. “Honey, something’s wrong with the TV.” I was summoned to the living room. “Probably just the receiver needs to be reset.” We had DirecTV at the time, and sometimes those things happened. I reset the receiver, but still nothing. “Maybe something with the connection, I guess.” I reached behind the TV and grabbed the cord cable that connected the receiver to the Dish on top of the house. Everything looked okay. I pulled on the cable a little, thinking it would come taught.
I started pulling… and pulling… and finally, pulled up the frayed end of chewed cable. Grabbing a flashlight and heading outside, I ran out to where the cable exited the house and made its way up to the satellite dish. About six feet above the ground was the other frayed end of cable dangling helplessly in the air. Maximus had hit us with the one thing we could not ever live without – television. Upset that he had been left behind, Max had grabbed a hold of the exposed cable within his reach and done his work. “Maximus!” I yelled and saw him slink back into the shadows of the far corner of the yard. There was no time for punishment, however. Quick action was necessary.

We certainly did not want to go a Saturday night without television, although we could probably make it. The problem was that it was Saturday night, with Sunday upcoming and the Memorial Day. I had to think quickly and efficiently, how to rectify the television situation. What I needed was a new coaxial cable, and Radio Shack surely would sell that. Our local Radio Shack though didn’t open until 11am Sunday. I phoned them up to see if they were still open that night. They were open until 9pm, and it was now 8:45. I rushed down to the store and spent somewhere like $50 getting the right cable. That was actually the easy part.

To re-install the cable, I would have to venture into the crawlspace underneath our very modest 1,000 ft rental house. When the original installer of the DirecTV had gone underneath there, he had to go back to his truck to get his “spider suit”. It was a dark, never-ever land down there. Armed with 2 flashlights and wearing my oldest clothes that I wouldn’t mind throwing away, I entered the under-the-house-world. It was just as bad as the installer had described. The whole space was about 24” high, and every 4’ or so where the floor beams. The entrance to the hell below was back in the guest bedroom, meaning I had to travel about 30’ under the house to reach where the TV connections where. I shimmied along the muddy ground ducking the beams, spider webs, and god knows what else. At last I found the splitter for the TV cable and made the switch. When I emerged from the whole, I was completely covered in muck. After making the final connections outside, we were finally backed with television. It was about 10:30pm. The next day I would have to have Gina keep a sharp eye on Max, until I could get to Home Depot and buy some ½” conduit and straps, so that the cable exposed to the outside could be sufficiently Max-proofed. Being that the next day was Sunday, the biggest newspaper day of the week, I caught myself a good two hours of sleep that night. I arrived at the DC at 2am, only to find that the presses had broken and the papers were late. I wouldn’t make it home that morning until 9am, which worked out OK since I could just take care of the Home Depot business directly.

Nowadays, we’ve reached the top of Lassen so many times we’ve lost count. It’s a great summertime hike, a great place to hike that makes everyone from pre-teens to senior citizens to feel like mountain climbers for a day. During the winter, however, we don’t spend much time there. The drive to Mt Shasta is about equidistant for us, if not shorter, and weighing the two options against each other we always choose Shasta. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m sure, the memory of our first Lassen adventure also plays a role in that decision as well. Maximus has since grown out of his separation anxiety, and has become pretty much a “Good Dog” himself, his only remaining bad habits being deep dislikes of the lawnmower and bicycles. Occasionally, we get his boots out and he joins us on our snowshoe outings. He doesn’t much like the snow though. If we do decide to drive up to Lassen, even in the hottest middle of the summer, I always, always, always check to see how far the road is open.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Beginning

Every story has to begin somewhere. On November 12, 1997, in a Starbucks in Danville, California, fate was so kind to me to introduce me to my future wife Gineth (I call her Gina for short). She had the house coffee and I had a double mocha. We talked until the place closed down, and then kept talking while the workers stacked the tables on the outside patio. Gina was already living a life of adventure, being a young woman from Costa Rica who had come to the United States studying English. At the time I was working a dreary dead-end job in a machine shop in Concord, and her tales of her life's journey to that point fascinated me. I grew up in Wyoming, which embedded in me a great love of the outdoors. She grew up in Costa Rica, but had the same love of outside spaces and the freedom to explore unknown places. I fell in love with her quickly, and by May of 1998 asked her to marry me, a proposal she graciously accepted.

Even before we were engaged, we had set up a camping trip together to Lake Tahoe. This worked out greatly to our advantage, as we just added an extra day and night to first take in Reno, Nevada, and the Silver Bells Wedding Chapel. We did not tell our parents we were getting married. I was making only $9/hour at my job, and was worried they would think we weren't ready for the big step of matrimony. On the drive to Reno, we stopped at the first sign of snow and made time to walk around. Gina had seen snow once before, on a ski trip the previous year, but it was still very new to her. Coming from Wyoming, snow was like an old friend to me, and I relished the opportunity to show Gina how to start a snowball fight! As we continued up into the Sierra's, Gina could not stop herself from exclaiming how beautiful the scenery was, the huge forests of evergreens, rushing Truckee River, and of course, the fantastic snow-capped peaks. I knew I had found the right girl for me.

Upon arrival at our hotel, The Hilton, in Reno we had a little time to kill before our reserved nuptial time. We wandered through the casinos, playing mostly just the nickel and dime slot machines. On one of her first pulls at a machine, Gina struck paydirt and we soon had a whole cup full of nickels and dimes, which we steadily lost over the next hour or so. We returned to the hotel and I phoned the chapel to send the limo to pick us up. I had bought a suit jacket from a thrift store, and Gina had a simple, but very pretty, white dress. She had a simple bouquet that was made of plastic flowers, that we had also bought at the thrift store. We went down to the front of the hotel and waited for the limo. And waited..... and waited...... and waited. No one was showing up! My bride-to-be was quickly losing patience. After about 30 minutes of waiting around (in our wedding clothes, remember) I hastily suggested we go back to the room and call the Chapel (this was before the advent of cell-phones). "If I go back to that room, then the wedding is off!" a frustrated Gineth announced to me. I found a nearby pay-phone instead, and explained the situation to the Chapel people. It seems the original driver had become "lost" or at least that was their explanation, and a new driver was sent immediately. Finally, after another 15 minutes or so of pensive waiting, our limo showed up and we were on our way to begin our life together as man and wife.

The day after the wedding we headed up to Tahoe City and the National Forest campground to begin our honeymoon. We had bought all the gear for the adventure new, and it had certainly strained our tiny budget at the time. Still, we were able to book ourselves onto a tour of the Lake, and spent a wonderful first few days in the mountains together. On our last night, I had purchased my favorite barbeque cut of meat at the time, a large tri-tip, for our dining enjoyment. We had no portable barbeque though, but the campsite grill would suffice. Not knowing how much we would eat, I of course bought too much meat, but we gladly stowed this away in our cooler, for this would make great sandwiches when we returned home the next day. We stayed up with the fire late, then retired to our tent. Everything was fine until about 3 am. That's when Gina woke me up from my peaceful slumber. "Honey, whats that noise?" I could hear a gentle scraping sort of sound coming from outside. Gina started to sound a little alarmed, "I think there's an animal out there." Slowly, I came awake. "It's probably just a raccoon or something, sweetie. I'm sure we can just scare it off." But then we heard something that was surely NOT a raccoon. Large, grunting noises and more sliding sounds as if a heavy object was being pushed across the ground. Since I wear contacts, and was still searching the tent for my glasses, I suggested to Gina to peer out of the tent and see what the clamor was all about. Her next words were what really woke me up in a hurry though, and sent my mind scrambling for the next action to take. 'HONEY, IT'S A BEAR!" she told me, although her voice had now shrunk to barely above a whisper.

My mind reach far for a solution to our new rather desperate situation. A bear was in our campsite, and was rummaging through our cooler, in search of the tri-tip that he had no doubt smelled from miles away earlier in the evening. We agreed we should try to scare him off, maybe with some loud noises or something. Our tent was maybe about 25 feet away from the picnic table where the cooler, and now the bear, was. We were afraid too, to draw too much attention to ourselves, it's better that the bear eat the contents of the cooler, rather than turn his attention to us. I then remembered that my car, a 1990 Firebird (my pride and joy before I had met Gina) had an alarm on it. Not a good alarm with a panic button, like the one I have now has, but an alarm nonetheless. When activated it made a chirping sound and the emergency lights flashed. It was our only hope, we decided. I activated then de-activated the alarm, and the chirping noise and light show was enough to just startle the bear for a minute. Gina and I raced from the tent over the Firebird and jumped in. The bear, seeing now the ruse that had momentarily interrupted his meal, had run halfway up a small hill adjacent to our site. Seeing the danger was passed, he now started to saunter his way back to our picnic table. "He's coming back!" Gina alerted me. So I started up the engine and hit the horn a couple of times. Not the most heroic of rescues, but it was enough to scare him off for the night. Too worked up to sleep, Gina and I spent the next couple of hours in the car, until there was enough daylight for us to feel safe enough to get out.

Our cooler had been completely emptied of all its contents, save one Coca-Cola. "I guess bear's don't like Coke." There were bite marks in the top of cooler too. "I guess he didn't like the taste of the cooler, either" Gina joked, as the good humor and optimism that always serves our relationship well was already a part of us. We laughed about our experience - how I had been too blind to see the bear, and didn't speak of how close a call we had just had. The night before, the cooler had spent the night right next to our tent. Had we not moved it out to underneath the picnic table that night, we might have had much more of a close encounter with our bear friend. We packed up our site, and went out for breakfast that morning before heading home. I should have known right then, our marriage was not going to be the dull ordinary kind. Our exciting and eventful life together had begun.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Adventures of Mike and Gina

My name is Michael Buturla and this will be my blog to tell everyone about the adventures that my wife, Gineth Soto, and I have together. My wife is a well-known mountain climber in her home country of Costa Rica and attempted Mt Everest last spring. We live in Northern California and enjoy the outdoor opportunities that exist here. The purpose of this blog will be to chronicle our adventures as they happen, and also to reflect upon adventures past and great times that we have had. I'll also write about our life and other things, and hey, its a blog so I guess I'll just write about whatever I want to. Please enjoy and check in once in awhile for new adventure posts.