Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When The Aspens Begin To Turn

The storm was moving in fast. The crazy Colorado weather of the summer of 2009 was continuing, and snapped me out of the blissful summit trance I was in. Perched on top of Mt. Harvard – all 14,420’ of it – I had been gazing down on the magnificent Missouri Gulch. The Gulch was in its full Fall glory, the Aspens ranging in color from summer green, to fall gold and yellow, flanked by an army of evergreens and their stronger tones. Rising up through the valley, giving way to the high grasses and then the gray granite mantle of the Sawatch range, a mountain lake or three thrown in for good mix. As I broke my mind out of this moment of paradise, I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to do anything else, climb anywhere else, climb any THING else. Where but in Colorado can one reach such a lofty altitude, and yet gaze down upon such a heaven on earth? I scrambled down the summit pinnacle, and tightened up my pack straps. The plan had been to climb Mt. Columbia today as well, in an epic traverse, but the weather was telling us no, Columbia will have to wait for another day. At only 10:45 am, the thunderstorms that usual years only roll in about 2 pm, were already upon us. Rush Limbaugh may tell you that Global Warming isn’t real, but I guarantee you the weather is messed up. We were going to have to make a run for it if we didn’t want to get wet, or worse struck by lightning. Tree-line was 3500’ and 2.5 miles away.

Just seven weeks before I had been entrapped in a miserable, disastrous, debacle in Bolivia. Drawn by the 6000 meter (20,000’ roughly) mountains, we had decided to support the people of the country by hiring a Bolivian company for logistics and support. But instead of being driven about the substandard highways in a 4X4, as promised by their website, we were being carted around the unsafe place in our guide’s own meager personal vehicle, an early 90’s Toyota Corrolla. The clunker had bald tires, no brakes and the shocks were worn out, besides being fantastically too small to hold 3 climbers and all our gear. There was no personal driver, or personal cook as assured, instead only the guide himself to do all 3 occupations. Our guide, an ex-Bolivian military officer who could barely contain his contempt for Americans and all things white people, was a surly, abrupt man in his 30’s. The owner of the company had told us he would be English-speaking, as my Spanish skills are somewhat deficient, particularly when it comes to all-important technical terms while climbing mountains. Instead, either he didn’t know English, understood English but pretended not to understand me, or simply had so much built inside hate for people from the United States that he just ignored me. It was pretty common around all Bolivia, this not-invisible malignancy the people show towards foreigners, particularly those fair in skin and light on the español-tongue. Whichever the case, it made for very frustrating and confusing communication encounters with him.

Our 4Runner rumbled over the four-wheel drive road. When I had turned on to it, it didn’t even strike me as being a “road” more like a trail, really. We slowly inched our way up the mountainside, hitting tree root after dipsy-doodle after washout, moving ever closer to the trailhead of Mt. Antero. It made me think about my Grandpa and Grandma, and their glory days in the Mile-High Four Wheel Club. Grandma and Grandpa have probably been on top and around every 14er in the state, back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s before the environmentalists worked to close off so many of the bumpy backroads in order to preserve the wilderness from the ever exploding Colorado population. We stopped and spent time with my Grandpa at his house in Grand Junction on the way out. Two months from his 100th birthday, Grandpa is still living independent, still reading his science magazines and watching his Broncos, his mind still sharp as a tack. Always with a touch of melancholy, he misses my Grandma, the greatest and only love of his life, now 8 years passed. I look to my love, my beautiful wife, and see them in us. Grandpa was almost exactly the same age I am now, when he picked up his young family and moved them to Denver, thus beginning his 60 year love affair with this great state. I can’t imagine visiting Colorado and not seeing Grandpa, he is as much a part of the state to me as the rolling monster mountains and snake-like canyons that I-70 winds its way through. I hope to have many more years of visiting him.

The car bumps its way along the makeshift street. I’m not sure if its going to get stuck, and I really hope it doesn’t. I’m not sure I want to get outside here, in the middle of El Alto, the poorest section of La Paz. Above me, the people have hung politicians in effigy, as dummies dangle from the streetlights, holding signs with the names of the enemies and traitors who they are supposed to represent. This is a scary place. I had seen poverty before in Africa, when we got firsthand looks at the unfortunate populace and their desperate circumstances. This poverty, however, this bleakness was different. It’s a mean poor. In Africa, no matter how bad off the people were, I could always see the hope in their spirits, the goodness in their souls. I left there wishing I could do something more for them, and chastise myself to this day for falling short on that promise. In Bolivia, all I see on their faces is jealousy, greed and hate. If I were to exit this car, I would immediately be worried that some onlooker might approach me and cut my throat, just to get the handful of US dollars I had in my wallet. I’m not a Christian, so I don’t have to sugarcoat my feelings for them – I hope they choke on the stench of the shithole they live in. Fuck them.

We end the day back at our timeshare condo exchange place, sitting at the Lodgepole Bar eating chicken wings and drinking Avalanche. Sitting next to one of the 6 swimming pools the resort offers, we discuss the day’s climb, a new adventure every day we spend here. Staring at the hundreds of daisies lined up around the pretty rustic architecture of the Grand Timber Lodge, we relish in the success of the day as the waitress brings us another pitcher of hoppy goodness. It will be so hard to leave this place, nestled at the bottom of Peak 9 in Breckenridge, and return home to normal life next week. Waking up early, driving to the trailheads, climbing all day, fine-living at night - I seriously wish this week would never have to end.
The tent is going to break, its creaking and moaning almost as noisy as the high winds that have kept us awake all night. Instead of a new Mountain Hardware or North Face tent, we’re stuck in an old MSR job with bad zippers, perched at 18,500’ on Mt. Sajama. The tormenta rages outside, winds that have to be topping 120 mph at least, and we have no space in the little tent to even sit up. The guide pokes his head in through the door, and lets us know there is no way to climb today. I looked at his face and see clearly that not only are we not able to climb, but that he doesn’t even want to climb this mountain. Not with us. We ask about a weather day – we built in an extra day to our itinerary for just such an occasion. Negative, he indicates to us. He has a “program” to keep with. We press him some more. He says the porters are coming up today to carry our stuff down, and he will have to pay them whether we stay or go. We offer to pay them ourselves. Hard working indigenous folks, we had tipped the porters 40 Bolivianos each the day before for hauling 60+ pounds a piece up to this elevation. They had at first balked at carrying so much weight, but acquiesced when our guide – with all his people skills – had told them they HAD to carry our stuff and then threw his own 40 lb backpack down at their feet and said they had to carry his things too. We tried to empty our bags a little at that scene, each of us carrying as much as we thought we could without jeopardizing our climb. The guide carried a knapsack. We now learned he had paid them 20 Bolivianos, about $3, for all this work carrying our extra equipment up. I felt sick to my stomach, not from the Ramen noodles and spam he was feeding us, nor from the altitude. It was the attitude of this place. When we told him we would pay for the porters, the guide then said we had to go down because there was not enough gas for another day. He had not planned for a weather day, even though when heading up we could see the lenticular cloud forming on the upper slopes. Without gas, one cannot melt snow for water, so we must descend. Our climb was over before it ever started. We had paid the logistic company $1100 to go camping in a windstorm, just for this mountain alone.

What is this obsession with altitude over all else? Rock climbers don’t care how high the face is, they care about the difficultly involved and find happiness in solving the puzzle of the rock. Why does a mountaineer have to feel that if crampons, ice axe, and a generous dose of suffering are not in the equation, then it was not really a climb at all? In the quest for altitude, life had brought me to Bolivia. People say to me, “Sure the country is fucked up. Portraits, bumper-stickers, and t-shirts of their “hero” Che Guevera for sale, Visa, MasterCard, American Express all accepted. Yes, they have no sense of how to fix their joke of an economy and resent with the most vigor the one country that could probably help them. Ah, but the mountains – the mountains are beautiful aren’t they?” You know what I say? Fuck that. You know what those mountains look like to me? Giant piles of shit rising out of lesser piles of shit. It’s not just the culture-less, negative demeanor of the people there. The countryside itself is bleak, drab, depressing and devoid of color. The Altiplano makes eastern Wyoming look like a garden paradise. Get a little closer to the Bolivian mountains and you will smell the stink of a failed country and society so pungent that it overcomes and diminishes any natural beauty that might be found there. Come and climb our mountains and bring us your dollars, all the South American Andes countries declare. You can get so much higher than in your own country.

The hike almost over, we walk slowly down through the forest. Colorado forests are rich with life all around, not tinderbox dry like the California mountains. The rain pelts lightly on the top of my Raiders cap, the smell of fresh air wafting all around me. We cross a bridge over a small stream and see a beaver slap his tail before he dives away to his den. A little later a fox scampers in front of us and slips off into the bushes. Finally, a few hundred feet from our truck and the end, we come across an Aspen grove in full Fall glory. My wife makes me take a picture of her against them, her eyes filled with the innocent wonder of nature, the same look that I fell in love with when I first met her. She wants to bring an Aspen home with us, something to remember this place, this feeling. I promised her I will get some to plant when we get back home – scratch that – when we get back to California. There is no way I can get any higher than this. This is happiness.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Attacked by Dinosaurs!

It was truly an adventure of Mike and Gina. We woke up early Sunday morning, packed our stuff and headed off through the Trinity Highway 299 over the North coast of California. Although only 130 miles as the crow flies, the road follows the Trinity River on its zigzag course to the Pacific Ocean, and generally takes about 3 hours driving. But that was okay, we knew that. I wasn't quite prepared when we topped out over the last mountain pass - and into a sea of fog, but one has to kind of expect that when traveling to coastal regions. Thirty minutes later up the coast we arrived at our destination, Gold Bluffs State Park, situated on the northern boundary of Redwood National Park. After a quick lunch of coffee and soup, we were off to our adventure.

We followed the dirt road down to the beach. We had come to Fern Canyon because of a friend's recommendation, he had mentioned that it was where Jurassic Park 2 - The Lost World, and the Ewok scenes from Return of the Jedi were filmed. Really, we were there because of the The Lost World. This was the first movie Gina and I saw together when we were dating. So it's special to us. A giant Memorial Day weekend crowd met us, and we had to park a couple of hundred yards away from the main parking lot (which by that time had more than a few spaces open - those lying Rangers.)

Passing by dozens of grazing Roosevelt Elk, we started our hike up the canyon. Immediately, we knew we were in The Lost World. It's quite recognizable without hesitation. Upon choosing this destination, I was under the impression that there were bridges and whatnot, for crossing these faux-Costa Rica like jungle creeks. Um... no, there wasn't. Most of the time you are just crossing on stray logs stacked together, most of them covered in mud, wet and slippery. We paid no mind though, we were having fun after the long drive and snapping photos. We walked up the canyon a few hundred feet - it was slow going - and that was when he got me.

Remember the scene from The Lost World when the little dinosaurs attack the guy who has the tazer? He's down by the creek, one of the little dinosaurs comes up to him - too close - and then he hits him with the tazer? Then the little dinosaur brings back more of his little buddies, they attack the guy and eat him. Well, one of those little dinosaurs must have got left behind. There was a large fallen tree. I went left to go around it on the bank, Gina ducked under it going right. I ran into a deadend and had to turn back. Instead of going back the way I came, over a mud-soaked log with pointy branch stubs sticking out ready to impale me, I spied another log in the middle of the river. Looked good enough to me, so I gave it a shot. Two steps out on that log, the little dinosaur ran up behind me and took a nip out of my ankle. Whoooosh! The log rolled over and dumped me into the creek, soaking the entire front of my body, my camera, my face, and wetting my hair a little. Luckily, the creek was a little deeper right there, so I was able to stop my fall and not hit any rocks on the bottom. Only damage was a slightly sprained hand and a smashed fingernail (from the tripod I was carrying). Probably not the safest activity to do, just a week before we head to San Diego to run a marathon. Thankfully, my legs, ankles and knees are all okay, so no marathon plans were ruined.

Good thing for me I was wearing my Banff Canada jacket. Its much easier to save face when everyone around thinks you are a tourist. Now all the witnesses will say, "Remember that Canadian guy who fell in the creek?" See? Its much easier to remember things when it was a Canadian guy getting attacked by a tiny dinosaur, instead of "I slipped on a log and fell into the creek."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

First Climb of the Season

The weather on Shasta is very unpredictable this time of year. Traditionally, the months of April and May are considered the best, but in recent years this has been sort of hit and miss. From my experience late May tends to have very unstable conditions, and I have no recollection of a single Memorial Day in the five years we’ve been here as having nice weather. I can remember many spectacular weekends in early May where I always thought to myself, “This is a perfect day for climbing.” April has always seemed to me a little too cold. That sounds weak, a mountaineer complaining about the cold. I really don’t mind the cold, when I’m on a climbing trip specifically to climb some far away mountain, but when my warm bed at home is only one hour away, I just have some problems with it. It’s for this reason that the past couple of summits of Shasta we’ve had we’ve done the route all in one day. This year is different, however, as it’s all part of the Master Plan of Training for Bolivia.

The cross-training is going really well so far, if I do say so myself. We’re up to the max, 18 miles, on our training runs for the marathon. The theory of the training regimen we are doing is basically if you can run 18 miles, you can run 26.2, so that’s the longest training run we will do. I’m feeling really good, my repaired knee is not giving me any trouble at all. I’ve also notice a great side-effect, and that’s my mountain-shape is following along quite nicely. I carried a 32 lbs weight vest up to 9500’ on Green Butte a couple of weeks ago, and felt strong doing so. Every time I climb Shasta, I feel like I’ve forgotten how tough it can be, but this year I’m feeling especially good about my physical conditioning and very positive about climbing soon.

The first plan that came to me was to make an attempt this coming weekend, May 2-3. Gina and I really want to do a 2-day climb again this year, it’s really so much of a nicer way to climb Shasta and enjoy it more. Also a new co-worker and friend of mine, Brodie, is really interested in climbing. Therefore we have a great opportunity to introduce someone to our favorite mountain and there is no better way than by ascending the mountain in 2 days. The All in One Day option is too much suffering to be pleasant.

After glancing at this week’s forecast however, Gina and I thought better of it and have decided that the following weekend, May 9-10, is a much better choice for our first summit climb of the season. This week the weather has been bad as predicted. Next week is supposed to be much nicer. I didn’t even realize, Brodie told me after I let him know of our revised plan, that May 9th is the Full Moon. So that should make for really cool climbing conditions, as long as we can actually see the sky and it’s not cloudy or stormy. We’re feeling fit and ready. This weekend we will do work around the house that needs to get done and run our last 18-miler. (Our regimen has us wind down now before the marathon, running shorter distances to avoid injury.) Hard for me to believe, but it’s been almost two years since I’ve been on Shasta’s summit. (With Gina’s Everest trip last year I ended up never going.) Thus it will be really good to be back on top again soon. Fingers crossed for calm winds and clear skies the weekend of the 9th!

Saturday, April 25, 2009


My first memory of Johnny was of when he was a little kitty. He was not our kitty at the time, but belonged to one of Gina’s customers. Gina used to clean a lot of houses in Orinda, an upscale Bay Area neighborhood. This particular house had a separate Mother-in-law unit, probably 50 feet down a hill from the main house. The daughter of the family lived there, and so it was part of the cleaning detail. It was just a bedroom and a bathroom, basically. Gina had told me about this really cute kitten who lived there, one she always felt sorry for because he was locked in this room all by himself all day long. She would go to clean there and he would follow her around the whole time, looking for attention. When I started helping Gina he was just as lovable towards me, often darting in and out between vacuuming sweeps. The room/apartment had 2 big windows across the front of it, looking out. When we would leave, Johnny would run the length of both windows following us as we walked away, meowing the whole time asking us to stay a little longer. He was always so heartbreaking to leave.

After I finished CAD school I got a job and Gina returned to cleaning houses by herself. All the time Gina would tell me about her day, and always when she cleaned that house she would talk about seeing Johnny, and what a cute and lovable kitty he was. I remember her telling me one day that the family who owned Johnny was getting a divorce and was going to move, meaning that Gina would have to find a new customer. I really didn’t think much else about it, though. Gina would do a move out cleaning, a lot harder work but more money, for them and that would be it. It was late spring and I was looking forward to going home soon when Gina gave me a call. She was really upset. Apparently the family was moving to a new apartment that didn’t allow cats. She had told her customer (unbeknownst to me) that she would take Johnny. However, Johnny had disappeared, the moving company people had made a lot of noise packing everything up and probably spooked him. Gina had returned to the house and looked for him, but the house was locked up and empty with Johnny nowhere to be seen. The house had in fact already been sold to new buyers. “You need to come to Orinda and help me find Johnny.” She explained to me with a good amount of worry in her voice.

So I drove to Orinda and arrived at the house where Gina was waiting. She explained to me the family had moved – they weren’t coming back – and she was really worried what would happen to Johnny. I walked down to the daughter’s old room/apartment and looked inside. There were no signs of life. I found though that one of the windows had not been fully locked, and was able to slide it over enough to get to the screen. I jimmied the screen loose and was able to get myself inside. “Johhhhnnnyyy” We were calling, wondering if he would show up. There was a small closet on the wall – like a closet for a fire hose or something, maybe two feet by two feet and two feet deep, that I noticed was slightly open. I checked inside and there was Johnny, complete with his signature “lost and confused” look that we would get to know so well through the rest of his life. And with that Johnny came home with us and became a part of our family.
First of all, Johnny was a confirmed indoor cat. He was overweight, having never been able to exercise in that tiny room they kept him in. Living with us, however, he would have to get used to spending the majority of his time outside, and only coming in when weather conditions called for it, or at night to sleep. (We didn’t allow him on our bed or the furniture either, instead he had his own bed and later a cat condo.) It was really a rough transition for him at first too. The funniest moments of that first summer came watching Johnny try to walk on top of the wooden fence - this fat cat nervously taking one step at a time, trying to keep his balance.

Later that same year, in November, Gina’s sister Graciela came to visit us for a few weeks. We didn’t have an extra room, so she slept on our couch for that time. Johnny took advantage, and Graciela didn’t mind having Johnny snuggle up to her. After Graciela returned to Costa Rica, Gina was talking to her on the phone and mentioned how Johnny was missing her. Graciela replied, “Oh yes, I miss having Johnny keeping me warm at night” to which Luis, Graciela’s husband, reacted with shock, “Who’s Johnny???”

At our first house we rented in Walnut Creek we had a fairly large apartment building located directly behind our house. We had the aforementioned wood fence, then about six feet of unused brush, then there was the back fences to the apartment units small outdoor patios. One day we got a call from some good Samaritans, “We found your cat” they told us. We were a little confused because Johnny wasn’t lost to our knowledge. Of course, we had given Johnny a nametag though, with our address and phone number. “You live on Walnut Blvd right?” Our address was Walnut Blvd, but the apartment building was on street called Sharene Ln. – I guess that’s why they figured he had run off from somewhere. “We found your cat, Johnny. He was on our patio looking lost and confused.” I opened the screen door to take a look in our backyard to see if he was, indeed, not around. I was like “Really? Where do you live?” They answered back “On Sharene Lane, the Such-and-such apartments.” That’s when I heard kind of a strange echo in the phone. I climbed halfway up the fence and looked over towards the apartments. Through the slats I could see a man on the patio of the apartment directly behind us holding a phone in one hand and Johnny in the other. Laughing, I told him “Just throw him on top of your fence, we live right behind you!” Johnny just sort of always had that look on his face. The look that made people just want to pick him up and see if there was anything they could do for this poor, innocent, helpless, wayward kitty cat.
Sometimes when we go away for a couple of days, we would save the kenneling costs on Johnny and let him stay at home by himself. Can’t do that with the dogs, but Johnny just needed a litter box, some food and some water, and he could be left alone. The only problem would be when we returned. We’d open up the doors and expect Johnny to go flying out, eager to explore the outdoors he’d been kept away from for the last couple of days. Instead he would hang out by the door, asking to be let back in, and constantly meow. Not just an occasional meow, mind you. He was like “meow, meow, meow, meow” etc in quick succession and nonstop. If I let him in he would not stop meowing, either. He would follow us around the house, “meow, meow, meow, meow.” We could pick him up and that might stop him, but as soon as you put him back down again he started right back up, “meow, meow, meow, meow” Like he was chewing us out for leaving him alone all weekend.

As Johnny grew older the fat melted away and he became a lean, stout, muscular little guy. Unfortunately he never got rid of all the excess skin from when he was a fat cat, so it would just kind of hang down. This always gave him the appearance that he was underfed, another quality he used to his advantage on our unsuspecting neighbors. Everywhere we lived we are pretty sure Johnny had alternative families who gave him food and attention. Whenever Johnny wasn’t around for awhile, we didn’t worry. We knew he was just spending time with his “other” family.

Johnny never ran away like some cats do. He would always show up every night, and he definitely knew his name when called. We could just step outside and call him, and in a few minutes we would hear the jing-a-ling of his bell. We put a bell on his collar just because, not because he was going to catch a bird or anything. There was no danger of that – Johnny was the worst hunting cat ever. Ever. I mean it was comical to watch him try and hunt, he was so bad at it. We could always count on Johnny to be home at night though. One night he didn’t return though, and we got a little worried, even to the point that we wondered if we had any pictures of Johnny to put on a flyer if he didn’t come home. It was then we realized the only pictures we had of Johnny were of him sleeping when he was fat, pictures were you could not see his legs either. Johnny finally showed up that morning, but we wondered how we would be able to describe on a flyer a cat with no legs running away. During one vacation we decided to get a pet sitter to watch our animals and our house while we were gone. Johnny, ever the Casanova, was quite a hit with the young lady we hired to watch them. She fell in love with him over the two weeks we were gone. After we returned she let us know if we ever needed to find a new home for Johnny, she was more than willing to take him. That was just the effect Johnny had on people, there was no way not to fall in love with him.

Johnny would stand in front of the door when he wanted out, just like a lot of other cats do. What was funny about Johnny though, is sometimes it seemed like he fell asleep waiting. You would walk over and look at him, he would be sitting there, but his eyes would be closed. It was like he was just catching a nap while he waited for you to open the door.

Our lives really changed when we moved up north. We bought our first home, in a brand-new subdivision still under construction. At first, we worried with all the cement trucks and contractor vehicles constantly going up and down the street that Johnny might have a hard time to the new neighborhood. We soon found that he made himself right at home, getting “adopted” by neighbors and taking the neighborhood for his own. Whenever I come home from work, Johnny would be sitting right there out front, watching the yard and front garden like a cat gargoyle, surveying his domain. Johnny even had himself a girlfriend for awhile, a little calico from up the street. She would be waiting for him to come outside in the mornings and some nights would try to follow him in to the garage. During the evenings, a lot of times we left the bottom of the garage door open so Johnny could come and eat as he pleased. More than once we found him and his girlfriend inside, Johnny the gentleman letting her eat from his dish. She also left “presents” for him by our doorstep – mostly birds, but one morning even a rabbit.

Our friend Tony visited us once from Australia to climb Shasta with us. Since we were taking 2 days to do the climb we put the dogs in the kennel, but of course Johnny would be ok on his own. We left him in the garage during our climb with enough food and water. When we got back, however, instead of the usual meow serenade Johnny just took off. We set up a nice breakfast outside. That’s when we noticed Johnny over on the roof of our neighbor’s house. This was the house whose yard we shared the back fence with. Johnny was up on the roof and the meow serenade started. We were calling him and calling him, trying to get him to come down. He wouldn’t move though, and made us believe that he was trapped on top of the house. Hours went by. Johnny just stayed there and waited for us to come and get him. Eventually, I walked around the block to the neighbor’s front door. Johnny ran around the roof to the front of the neighbor’s house and watched me approach. “My cat is stuck on your roof” I explained. “Can we take a look in your backyard and see if we can get him down?” “Why sure” the friendly old man let us in his backyard to retrieve our cat. But before we could walk out into the back, Johnny leaped down from the roof and ran across the man’s backyard, leaping back over to our side of the fence in a single jump. Johnny had accomplished his mission; he had made himself the most important and the center of attention.
Then this past December I noticed something wrong with Johnny. He wasn’t eating, he didn’t ever seem hungry. At first we thought his “other” family might be going too far, actually adopting our cat away from us. But I could tell there was something really not right with him. I took him to the vet and they found he had a urinary tract infection. It would clear up with antibiotics, though. Johnny was at the vet for about a 3 day period. Then, on the last day – the day I was supposed to pick him up – the doctor discovered something else. Johnny had a lump on his neck. It was something they would have to check back up on. Over the next couple of weeks the lump grew and we knew the tumor was something that was getting worse. It was also on his thyroid gland area, and Johnny’s calcium levels were unnaturally high. Finally Johnny went into surgery to remove the tumor and we waited for the results of the biopsy. They came back with the scariest word – malignant. The tumor was out but there was no way to know if the cancer had spread to any other areas of his body. Over the next 3 months our fears were confirmed – Johnny was not getting better and in fact he got worse and worse all the time.

I can’t go on with how much it hurt to watch him deteriorate. Just know that every day it made us so sad to see. Johnny’s outdoor days were over, and I’m sure it must have been depressing to him to have to stay inside all the time. We would set him in the dog kennel, a big cage we bought for Denali, and let him sit out in the sun on nice days. Trying to make him happy so he could do the things he used to do and love best. Finally we could take no more of watching him suffer and I had to take him in. I’ve never had to do that for an animal before. I know Johnny is in a happier place now. A couple of days ago I got a note from our vet. The autopsy confirmed that Johnny indeed had another tumor growing under his breastplate. The cancer had spread microscopically throughout his body and it’s questionable anything could have been done to save him.

For me, I’ve had other cats, though none quite like Johnny. For Gina it was even harder. Johnny was her first and only cat she ever had. He was more hers than mine, she was the one who had saved him and brought him into our family. Gina is what you would call a “dog person” but she made an exception for Johnny. My memories of Johnny’s last days will always be this – as I would leave for work in the mornings, Gina would be working away on her laptop and Johnny would snuggle right up beside her. Johnny always wanted to be near Gina in his last months, as if to thank her for the wonderful life she had given him which he knew he would be soon departing.

In the end one of the most satisfying things to see happen was to see our Siberian, Denali, finally accept Johnny in his last months as one of his pack. All our animals are our family, but Denali as a puppy could never overcome his natural instincts to be predatory towards Johnny. Until those final months, that is. Denali would come inside and find Johnny, lick his stitches and the wounds where Johnny’s intravenous drips had been placed from his frequent visits to the vet. Johnny would sit on the floor just inches away from where Denali would be laying, sleeping inside, and the two would even just sit there looking at each other for entire evenings. The whole week after Johnny died, Denali would rush inside, searching all of Johnny’s usual hiding spots. Unable to find him anywhere, Denali would just lie down and sniff the carpet – wondering where the smallest member of his pack had gone to. If Denali could understand I would tell him, “Johnny has gone away to Cat Heaven. But it’s Ok, I’m sure in Cat Heaven Johnny has finally caught himself a bird.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Recession-proof Adventures

It was only $5. That’s all it would have cost me. Every year at work they do a special deal where you can get a flu shot for just a five spot. Even though I had a couple of weeks notice, however, when the day came I typically had $0 in my wallet, and so missed out on the flu shot. So now I’m paying for it. At least this weekend it has rained continually, so I really haven’t missed much outside, but definitely I would have liked to spend my 3-days off in a little better way than running to the bathroom every half hour or so. Since I’m tethered to within 15 steps of the toilet, I guess that gives me the chance to update this space where I haven't written anything for awhile.

The economy is on everyone’s minds these days and Gina and I are no exceptions. Every year we plan out our vacations, what adventures we’d like to do and specifically mountains we wish to climb. With Gina’s Everest ambitions put on hold until 2010, we needed to come up with something worthy. Early on, a great ambitious plan was hatched. A trip to Bolivia was what we came up with, to climb some of the most beautiful peaks in the world, four of them over 6000 meters. We began crunching the numbers, and totaling up the costs. Funny thing about Bolivia – when you are actually there, the amount of money you spend is very little, but getting there – that’s the expensive part. The trip was going to extend over a 3 week period, and since Gina is self-employed, that means lost wages. Then add in the cost of kenneling the dogs over all that time…. All the expenses started climbing up even higher than the peaks whose summits we hoped to reach. Not that this has ever stopped us before. In the past we would look at the figures and devise a plan to make it work. Regrettably, things are different this year. Or maybe we are just a little more cautious for 2009. So some new, less costly plans needed to be formulated for our adventures of the year. In true Mike and Gina fashion, they are still pretty ambitious. Only this year, they are perhaps a little less hard on our pocketbooks.

The first thing we came up with was something that has been on our mind’s for awhile. Back in 2007, we both had begun training to run the San Francisco Marathon together. That didn’t quite work out. Around five weeks into the training, the pain in my left knee became too severe and I wound up bailing out. (2 months later I found out I had a meniscus tear and would undergo surgery) Gina continued training for the marathon and wound up running it without me. A fantastic accomplishment for her, no doubt, but we always felt like we missed out on an experience we intended to go through together. Since my surgery, I had always followed my doctors advice and not done any running. Then back in November, Gina convinced me to run our local 10K race, the Redding Turkey Trot, which I did. Back up on that horse. Filled with new confidence, the marathon goal has been reborn. So now we find ourselves entering the sixth week of marathon training, which we plan to culminate by running the Rock N Roll Marathon in San Diego on May 31st. I’m quite pleased to report the training is going great (with the exception of this rain and flu-filled weekend) and I have no pain in my knees (fingers crossed). San Diego is just a quick, cheap, Southwest flight away, and a couple of nights hotel plus the marathon fees won’t kill us.

Ah, but what can we do with the big, remaining vacation time. This time must include climbing, because we simply cannot stand to go through a year without climbing something. The last two summers we’ve spent time in Colorado, trying to bag all of the 54 14,000’ peaks that are found there. So far we’ve managed 20 of them, and at the rate of only spending a week or so a year in Colorado, it will still take us some time to get them all. It’s been one of our favorite places to spend time, though, and when we some space to get into our preferred time-share, The Grand Timber Lodge in Breckenridge, we snapped up the opportunity to go and finish the last six peaks we have to do in the Sawatch range. Still this year it will be an out of the ordinary trip, as we plan to drive, rather than fly as we usual do to Colorado. Even with gas at $3 a gallon it will be cheaper than jet travel, more importantly we will not have to rent-a-car, and therefore this one week holiday fits nicely into the budget. We definitely are looking forward to being almost halfway done with the Colorado 14’ers and can focus on another part of the state next time we go.

That left us with 2 weeks of time off left though, and that’s a long time. What could we do in two weeks, that wouldn’t cost a tremendous amount of money? When you are vacationing somewhere, invariably you spend money, even if you aren’t doing anything. Then it came to me. Last spring I had planned a grand backpacking trip, a trip I have desired to do ever since I had heard about it. I even had reserved the hard to get permits last year. Nonetheless, when I started hearing about Gina’s time at Everest Basecamp, I realized I had to do the husbandly thing to do and change those plans, give her a little more comfort when she got home. (We ended up going to Breckenridge, instead) I was under no such obligation this year, however, so I immediately suggested it up and Gina agreed. So this summer we will hike the John Muir Trail, trekking over 200 miles from Yosemite to Mt Whitney over just a little more than two weeks. In addition to our 3rd ascent of Whitney, we hope to add Split Mountain, Mt. Tyndall, and Mt. Muir to our list of California 14’ers – a list we’ve been negligent on the past couple of years while we concentrated on Colorado. If we can summit all those, that will make 6 of the 15 California 14ers, a much smaller and it seems more attainable list than Colorado’s. (Ah, if they were only that easy)

So even in these times, adventure lives on. We had to stay a little closer to home, had to keep things more reasonable. It’s not as exotic, but the journey is still there. We will take this year and tone it down a little, pay off some bills. Running a marathon, climbing 6 peaks in 7 days, and a 2-week crossing of the Sierras, this is how we “tone it down”.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Frequently Asked Questions

“Are you going too?” That’s not such a presumptuous one. The one I hate is “Aren’t you going too?” That one really bugs me, I guess. When my wife leaves on a climbing trip, the questions always seem to come up. As if the idea that a husband can let his wife go on such an escapade is still completely foreign to our 2009 minds. I’m sure if it were me leaving and her staying behind to take care of the household, all those questions would be asked of her, right? Yeah, right. I think only one Everest climber per average middle class family is really acceptable. Those couples that can afford to climb everywhere together are either professional climbers, corporate executives, or probably owe their firstborn children to American Express. No, I’m man enough to admit that my wife is simply better at climbing than I am. To make her drag me along on every adventure is not only selfish, but would be counter-productive to accomplishing the husband’s ultimate goal – making his wife happy. Still, I always have to field these queries.

In July 2004, Gineth left for Russia for what we thought would be the first summit in her quest to climb the Seven Summits – the highest peak on each of the seven continents. We didn’t know it then, but it would grow to become the ultimate focus of our life even to this day. A pursuit of a dream - her dream, which in turn became my dream as well – the desire to see her dream come true. Through our climbing experiences to that time, plus the exorbitant costs involved with it, I knew the right thing to do was to set my own climbing aspirations on the back burner.

The Seven Summits project was developed to benefit in a few different ways. Even then, Gina’s ultimate goal was to get to Mt. Everest. Thinking practically though, we knew this wasn’t a possibility at the time. Aside from the clearest hurdle – money – there was the other obvious obstacle, experience. My wife may dream big, but she is very realistic when it comes to making them happen. The dues had not been paid yet, and we had read numerous accounts, Krakauer’s book for example, of the dangerous results of when mountain inexperience combines with the highest mountain in the world. No, Gina would not be one of those. Climbing the other 7 (there are actually 8 mountains in the Seven Summits, but I’ll cover that in a later blog) mountains, particularly Aconcagua in South America and Denali in North America, seemed a proven and reliable training ground to get done while on the way to an Everest attempt.

Another factor in the equation came about by reading how others had come to finance their expeditions to the planet’s highest point. Gina had a great advantage working in her favor it was revealed to us. If you are the first person in your country in pursuit of this particular achievement, you are supposed to be in a much better position to gain sponsorship, etc in order to make it happen. While we have since learned this is not as easy as it would seem, it was a big enough encouragement to us to give us hope that we were not just wishing upon a star that this lofty goal may someday become a reality. No person from Costa Rica, man or woman, has ever climbed Mt. Everest. Indeed, we found only a small handful of people from Costa Rica were even climbers of any note. Through our research we learned even that no Central American (not included in definition of Central America, generally, is Mexico) woman had ever climbed the Seven Summits or Mt Everest. Another first she could be. The only Central American to reach this, Jamie Viñals, a Guatemalan climber, had notoriously been rescued from certain death on the North side of Everest in the 2001 documentary “Found on Everest” – at the time the 2nd highest rescue ever. So the quest was begun with much optimism for its chances at success.

The story of Jamie Viñals is worthy of note. Viñals would today be nothing but another frozen monument high up on Everest were it not for the super-heroic efforts of 3 American guides. Yet the guy seems completely oblivious to the fashion or style with which he climbed Everest, and has moved on to capitalize mightily on his fame in Central America. He gets numerous speaking and motivational engagements where he earns upwards of $3,000 a pop. Heck, I remember being in the small town of Miramar, Costa Rica, a few years ago and seeing Jamie Viñals climbing sneakers for sale. Not bad for a guy who was so slow getting to the top that he risked the lives of his Russell Bryce employed guide plus the 3 rescuing guides, and miraculously survived a bivouac at 28,500’. They never mention that part when they interview him on Central American media though. Every time Gina does an interview there, his name invariably comes up, because of course he was first. For him, I guess the fashion in which he climbed is not important, only the end result. For my wife, this way of climbing would not do. Gina is a climber who will climb things the right way – the proper way.

It hasn’t always been easy watching her go on these expeditions. That first trip to Russia was one of the hardest. We really hadn’t expected communication from a “developed” country like Russia could be so problematic. We missed each other terribly, and the result of the expedition – the expedition failed to reach the summit of Mt Elbrus due to inclement weather – made the disappointment taste even worse. We also had the misfortune of choosing for a guide service a company we now know to be substandard, and she was basically on her own for most of the trip. As the husband, hearing about my love’s troubles over a sketchy bad connection halfway around the globe, it was really hard to hear stories of her and the hard times she was having. If I was there, of course I reasoned, things would have gone different. Yet in the end, I had no more experience than she did, and I probably would have been in the same boat. We might have been able to be there together, but we would have twice the misery when the trip was over and it was time to pay the bills. When she went to Everest last year, that was like the first trip to Elbrus times 10. Make that times 20.

There have been good times too. The “challenge” I gave to Gina to ensure she summitted Mt. McKinley, which I’ll go into more detail in a future blog. The guiding company was excellent for that trip (Mountain Trips) and I was able to follow along over the internet with their every move up the mountain. When Gina called me to tell me that she summitted, I spoiled her moment slightly when I told her that I already knew. Oh yeah, she got mad at me because I had already made arrangements to change her plane ticket to get her home sooner! I may be patient waiting for her to come off the mountain, but I’m always anxious to get her back home.

We’ve been fortunate enough that for a couple of expeditions, I have been able to accompany her. When she returned to Russia in 2005, this time I went with her and was able to share the joy of summitting with her. A few months later, in January 2006, we shared a great adventure traveling to Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro together. We broke the bank, having 2 “once in a lifetime” trips within 6 months of each other, but they are voyages we will never forget being able to spend together. Our Colorado 14’ers project, to climb all of Colorado’s 14,000’ mountains, is a project we enjoy together as well. I’m not always the one left behind. We might have a project coming up in 2009 together as well, we shall see. Sometimes, although my climbing is on the backburner, the burner can still get turned up a little.

It doesn’t bother me. When Gina finally completes the 7 summits, we will have the rest of our lives to climb together. It has never been a dream of mine to personally climb some of the mountains my wife must climb. Is that weird? Not to me it isn’t. Seeing her climb what she wants and succeeding through her is good enough for me. The questions will always come, and I will always answer the same. This is what makes me happy.