A Solo Backpack through the Superstition Wilderness (Arizona)

It was a spontaneous idea which turned into an unplanned spirit quest.

Scheduled to attend a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I thought it might be a good idea to take my first vacation after starting a new job. What better idea than to head out for a 3 1/2 day solo backpack trip before the meeting in January 2008? I had backpacked a whopping three times before: a 2-nighter in Grand Canyon in 1997, a weeklong Yosemite trip with guide in 2005, and a 2007 Sierra National Outing in the Nankoweap area of Grand Canyon (which Backpacker Magazine a month later declared the most difficult trail in Grand Canyon, but that wasn’t in the brochure …). In any case, I identified the Superstition Wilderness 60 miles East of Phoenix as my destination. Solo. No spot.

I got a copy of “Hiker’s Guide to the Superstition Wilderness” By J Carlson and E Stewart, packed my stuff, and went to Phoenix. On the flight, I figured out my final route. I would start at the Peralta trailhead toward Whiskey Springs, where I planned to stay the first night. From there, I would head through Upper La Barge Canyon along the Hoolie Bacon Trail, touch the Tortilla trailhead (really, Tortilla and bacon?!), and spend the night at Kane Spring. The third day would lead me through Peter’s Canyon across Peter’s Mesa back into La Barge Canyon. I would hike out through Needle Canyon, passing the Weaver’s Needle.

So, I picked up some cooking fuel at the Phoenix REI, bought a map, drove to the trailhead and set off. I was very excited and also quite nervous. I remember it was quite an achievement when I started hiking in the very safe forests around my hometown in my early 20s. Here I was, in the middle of an unfamiliar environment, solo, no such thing as a SPOT yet, and on my own. As I hiked through the Coffeeground Flats, so called because of the look of the fragile cryptobiotic desert soil, ¬†I noticed how busy my mind was. Soon, I got distracted. Spotting a bright green-leafed Ocotillo. Noticing the grave of an early settler. Spotting the Miner’s Needle. Watching the strange vegetation. And later, as the sun got lower into the sky, judging the distance to Whiskey Springs before nightfall. Yes, there was an illegal distillery there during prohibition … When I arrived there, sunset illuminated the canyon walls, with a full moon shining a bright light down on me.

Sunset at Whiskey Spring

I was in for one cold night! Deep down in the canyon, next to a creek, early sunset with late sunrise, 45 degree sleeping bag, probably not the best choice of campsite for the night. Clearly a beginners mistake! I managed to fall asleep with all my clothes, hat and gloves on. I did not know the trick with the warm water bottle in your sleeping bag either. When I woke up in the morning, the water bottle inside my tent was frozen solid. I guess this would mean about 10 F/-12 C outside at night. I waited until 9 am when the sun came up to get out of my tent.

After breakfast, I headed down the trail and met two women who had camped fairly close to me. I also met three guys hiking a few minutes later. It was then that I started my tradition of engaging most people I meet on solo trips in a small talk. Why? Well, I guess if I ever disappear and there is a search going with my description, maybe one of those hikers I chatted with might remember that desert tortoise with a german accent. The chat turned out to be a good idea for yet another reason. The junction of the Whiskey Creek Trail to the Red Tanks Trail entering upper La Barge Canyon is a bit tricky to find. The hikers gave me a pretty good description how to locate the trail on the north side of the canyon. The shaded south canyon wall was covered with frozen seeps.

Ice in Upper La Barge Canyon

The Saguaros were fascinating for me. I had never seen a Saguaro “Forest”. Saguaros develop their first branch at age 60. There used to be a Saguaro with 40 branches somewhere in La Barge Canyon, but I recently heard this Methuselah was felled by a tornado. Even a cactus life has to end, but I hope it was a fulfilling one of several hundred years. And yes, sometimes the shape of the cactus caused me to chuckle – see upper right corner Saguaro in the picture below.

Saguaro in Upper La Barge

After coming out of the relatively short box canyon, I took the Hoolie Bacon Trail north (who came up with the names?) across Horse Ridge. The terrain changed dramatically, from deep canyons with steep canyon walls to rolling hills. The slightly higher elevation combined with a bit more available water created the right growing conditions for Juniper Trees. I had found my rhythm now, happily hiking along reflecting on my first 9 months living in California and other life events.

Junipers and Backpack

Some of the stream crossings proved to be a challenge. There just had been a period of heavy winter storms moving through the desert, causing flash floods to wash away all ducks and cairns. Especially when there were campsites adjacent to the river crossing, trail finding became a challenge. It was then that I learned how much I had relied on my hiking guides to do the trail finding for me so far. Now, I had no choice but get it done on my own. It was an exercise in paying attention to details. Openings in vegetations, footsteps. Paying attention to the map to find the general direction of the trail. And, lastly but most importantly, keeping a cool head instead of getting all flustered and stressed out about it! I eventually reached Tortilla trailhead, where some remains from cattle grazing days are still visible. With Whiskey, Bacon and Tortilla, this should make for a good dinner, no?

Tortilla Trailhead

I decided to hike on for about another hour, since I had the daylight left and figured I’d make good use of it. Smart idea, it turned out the next day. Wising up with campsite choice, I also had decided to look for a spot which would at least get early morning sun! Just before I found an ideal spot, I had the choice between crossing a stream or scrambling across a boulder with some brush. Given the temperatures, I chose the brush. At this spot was also the last time for the next 36 hours that I would encounter humans. Pretty remarkable for a place that is so close to Phoenix! Well, I found my spot, had a somewhat warmer night, and rested well.

Day 3 of my trip, I had my routine down. Only 6 miles to go on Peter’s Trail today, should be an easy hike. Or so I thought. The start of Peter’s trail was quite pleasant. I remember hiking slightly uphill, but I had forgotten about the huge boulder I found sitting next to the trail until I looked at my pictures again. Along this section of trail, I found a wide variety of smaller cacti growing, but almost no Saguaros.

Huge Boulder

To get into Peter’s Canyon, I had to hike over a small ridge. And got another lesson in desert hiking: Trails may disappear on ridges. I noticed when, hanging with my thoughts, I did not pay attention and ended up on what I first thought was trail, but turned out to be little washes crossing the trail. After a few times, I figured out that I really had to stay present and focused in this spot. Nevertheless, about 150 feet below the ridge I completely lost the trail. I spend another 20 minutes trying to find it, increasingly getting stressed and frustrated. Then, a breakthough. I looked at the map. I looked at the landscape. I noticed it was very clear where the trail had to cross the ridge. I could not possible get lost. So, off I trekked cross-country for the very first time in my life! I positively gloated when I found the trail right on the ridge where I expected it. Looking back where I came from, I got another remedial lesson in desert hiking: rails are much easier to spot from above than below. This would help me on future trips, when I lost trails, headed up the hill perpendicular to the trail, turned around, and could easily spot the trail below me.

Peter's Canyon

Peter’s Canyon was ethereal, stunning. It looks bland on the picture. But as soon as I stopped on the ridge to look down into the canyon, my ears were treated to a chorus of beautiful bird song. The cool desert air was filled with music! The mile hiking along the creek down-canyon was magical.

Finding the trail going up the wide gully you can see on the left in the photo above would have needed some magic. Again, cairns had been washed away. A campsite was on the other side of a 20-foot wide small stream. I Knew exactly that the trail had to be there. But alas, it took me a full 45 minutes to find it in the maze of deer trails, campsites, and washes. Cross-country was out of the question this time, because there was dense brush full of cat-claws. Even hiking on the trail, once I found it, left my arms looking rather bloody. Over all that trail-finding, I had lost a considerable amount of time and also forgot to eat and drink. Bad idea. I was pretty worn by the time I made it onto Peter’s Mesa. There is a photo of myself atop the Mesa I still laugh about. Another lesson learned. I took a long break before continuing the hike across the mesa. This section of the hike was not very interesting. At times, the trail came close to washes into Charlebois Canyon, but were way to steep to descent into. I was not used to canyon travel at this time and would not have dared to venture this far off trail in any case.

Nest of Cactus Wren

Towards the end of Peter’s Mesa, I had my first encounter with the famous Jumping Cholla. I saw several Cactus Wrens, the state bird of Arizona, and even found a nest. Now, how these birds can happily land on the Cholla and even live inside them without having to deal with the cactus spines remains a mystery to me.

I had contemplated camping on the mesa, but pressed on until I descended back into La Barge Canyon. I considered going all the way down, but then I spotted a wonderful campsite perched 200 feet above the canyon. It was a dry camp, meaning I would have to hike 15 minutes to water and back, but I still had enough with me for dinner and breakfast. I did not regret my choice. Being above the lowest point of the canyon, it was considerably warmer. The sun hit my tent earlier in the morning. The weather was warming up as well. Rewarded with a cozy night, I woke up to yet another remarkable view out of my tent. Take a look at the picture below. Why would anyone in their right mind trade this for a five star resort? ūüėČ

Good morning, world! La Barge Canyon from my cozy sleeping bag.

Have you noticed that on the last day of your trip, Mother Nature always shows her most glorious side? I almost cried (ok, I did) because I did not want to leave. Yet it had to be done. The trail along La Barge Canyon is pleasant, with Blacktop Mesa looming overhead. The fallen Saguaro below was very interesting to me, because up to that point I had no idea what holds a cactus up, and how the inside of it looks like. Well, here you go.

Saguaro Skeleton

I left the Durchman’s trail to head back to the Peralta trailhead via the Terrapin Trail. There, I discovered Saguaros can also serve as Nature’s high rise condominiums. Two birds build their nests inside the Saguaro: The Gila Woodpecker stays at mid-level to drill 2-inch holes between the ribs. The Gilded Flicker¬†builds higher up; therefore I assume these are Gilded Flicker nesting holes.

Shortly after I spotted this Saguaro, I heard voices and spotted two backpackers coming down over Black Top Mesa Pass. Those were the first people I encountered since the evening two nights before!

Natural high rise housing development

While hiking up Terrapin Canyon, I enjoyed the view of Weaver’s needle, which is a popular rock climbing spot. There are some wild stories from the mining days surrounding this place. If you, like me, enjoy the history of the American West, Superstition Wilderness will provide plenty of material.

Terrapin Trail toward Weaver's Needle

I made it back to the car, to the conference hotel with 10 minutes to spare for the rental car drop-off. One of the most funny memories in my life will be walking into this fancy Scottsdale resort dirty, dusty, sweaty, backpack in tow and the last shower 4 1/2 days ago. The front desk clerk managed to keep a straight face. However, there were some colleagues who walked right past by me without recognizing me (yes, you, Buddy!). I had a good laugh watching their face after saying hi. It obviously took them a few seconds to compute that the hobo in front of them was the same as the professor in business attire they had spend a few conferences and conference dinners with!

At the end of the conference, as I was leaving, I loaded my backpack into the airport shuttle and sat down next to someone on the bus. His first question to me: “Are you a backpacker?” And this is how I met my friend Anuj, who joined me for a backpack trip in Lassen National Park later the same year, helped entertain me the Christmas I was housebound with an allegedly broken ankle from a solo Death Valley trip the following year, and whose wedding I have the honor to attend tomorrow.

Where I am happy - Desert Tortoise ūüôā

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California County High Point #4: On Top of Wine Country

While others tasted Napa wines or relaxed in the spas of Calistoga, a group of friends decided to take New Years resolutions seriously and went for a hike up Mt Helena. At 4240 feet/1281 m, the East Peak is the highest point in Napa County.

Getting there is easy. Drive Route 29 east until you reach the crest of the road within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. There are parking spaces to both side of the road. Be very careful crossing the road, people drive fast there.

From the uphill parking lot, take the foot trail zig-zaffing up the mountain. After about 0.8 miles, you will encounter an obvious large, flat space in the forest. On the other side, you may be able to spot a use trail going up the steep hill. If you scramble up there, you will find an abandoned mercury mine. The bright scarlet or brick-red rock you find is cinnabar (mercury sulfide), the ore from which mercury is extracted. The walls to either side of the mine entrance are popular climbing spots in summer, because with the exception of an hour at midday it is well shaded. harrison Hood from Hood Mountain Aventures teaches a very good anchor class there. Please do not go inside the mine if you care about life! Mines are inherently dangerous even if they look harmless.

Back on the trail, you will reach the junction with the fire road a mile from the parking lot. Remember where this intersection is; there is a trail marker, but it can be easily overlooked when you are happily headed downhill later. From here on, you will have no shade. Unless you really enjoy direct sun and heat, I recommend to plan your hike for the cooler days of the year. Soon, though, the gentle grade of the fire road will lift you above the trees for expansive views over northern Napa Valley.

Lots of good wine to taste down there in Napa Valley.

Two miles into the hike, the road makes an obvious 180 degree bend marked by a rocky outcrop. This is another popular climbing spot. S convenient wooden guardrail secures the road, providing an excellent spot to sit, enjoy a snack, and watch some athletic girls and guys get their rock time in. If no one is there, see if you can identify the routes by the bolts and chalk marks. I found 4 obvious bolted routes that looked like good fun.

Inspecting the climbing routes on Mt Helena. Looks like good fun for winter days.

From here on, the fire road gradually winds upward, steadily expanding the views until they include Suisun Valley in Solano County. 4 miles into the hike, the road levels out onto the summit plateau, from which you can see the five summits of Mount Helena shaping the form of an “M”. The summit is obvious. It is not only the highest, but has the largest antennas as well. About half a mile from the summit you can take a road to your left to climb one of the subpeaks, but it is not really worth the effort in my opinion. One last push to the summit, where you will find a small rocky outcropping with good places to sit and enjoy the view.

Eating a delicious sandwich took priority over looking pretty in the picture ūüėČ

We had a sunny but hazy day. Mt Tamalpais was visible, but Lassen, the Sierra Nevada, and Mt Diablo eluded us. We saw Mt Diablo later on our way down, when it cleared up a bit. Because the sun was so low in the sky at this time of the year, larger sections of the trail were shaded. Overall, the hike took us 2.5 hours up and 1 hour 45 min down, plus time for lunch.

Fun, friends, county high point, and now headed to wine tasting. Happy New Year!

Posted in CA County high points, Hike, Napa County | 2 Comments

St. Bernard of Montjoux, Patron Saint of Mountaineers and Skiers

I’m not catholic, what do I need a patron saint for? For not falling off a mountain or into a crevasse? A good climbing partner and solid technical skills should take care of that!¬†Neither do I believe that a prayer will cause some higher entity to change the course of the world for me, other than providing a good discussion topic on the meaning of prayer for a drive across Sonora Pass to a climbing destination. So, why am I not writing about my last mountain excursion instead?

It must be the time of the year; short days, long nights, meh outdoor conditions, all of which create plenty of time to reflect on ¬†adventures last year and setting climbing goals for next year. I talked about my physical fitness goals in a previous post. In today’s post, I want to focus on some mental/spiritual aspects of the peak climbing way of life.

What motivates you to make time in your busy life to trek to the mountains and climb? What helps you to overcome a scary crux, a frustrating day, face the inevitable setbacks, accept your limits while pushing to expand your skills? I believe we all have our inner drive, the passion for the mountains, to motivate us. Otherwise, we would not be doing this. Still, we will get to a point where our own inner strength needs a belay. Some mental walls we cannot ascent as a lead, but which are within reach if we can follow someone. So how do we identify our spiritual lead climber(s) to help us push beyond our boundaries?

Gretchen Rubin (Happiness Project)¬†¬†wrote a blog entry on self-knowledge¬†about finding the way to who you want to be through people who have become who you want to be.¬†The Catholic Church happens to call them saints.¬†Facebook calls¬†them “People who inspire you”.¬†

Mountains inspire me. The desert does. Mountains in the desert: bliss. I did not discover the way to the mountains and deserts all by myself, though. The longing to be outdoors, to be with and in nature, has always been part of me. How this longing found its expression in my passion for high peaks, deep canyons and remote places is a story of people who inspired me to go find these places.

Good morning, canyon walls! I feel inspired by thinking about wilderness mornings.

In the country I live in, John Muir, Ansel Adams and Theodore Roosevelt should be the trinity of patron saints for all outdoor folks. Without them, the National Park system, the many wild places left wild, would not exist. John Muir’s writings about the places he visited educated city folks about the value to preserve them. Ansel Adam’s pictures provided images of places the East Coast population could not have imagined to exist in their wildest dreams. Theodore Roosevelt laid the legal groundwork for our National Park System.

Other inspirations are found in my family. While standing on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park a few years ago, I was enthusiastically telling my Aunt Regina about all the trips and climbs we could see. She was amused by this, and concluded my mountain madness wasn’t really my fault, given the genes I inherited: Opa Wilhelm, the adventurer, parachuter, curious explorer. Opa Georg, the mountaineer and hiker.¬†Oma Marie with her strong frame and endurance. My mother, with her love for the Swiss Alps. ¬†All have long returned home to Mother Earth, but I feel their heritage in me when I put on my pack and go.

Tante Regina in Sequoia National Park.

Lastly, nine years of Catholic Girl’s School left their mark: I decided to google the patron saint of mountaineers: St. Bernard of Montjoux. Quite a character! Sneaking away the day before his wedding to become a priest (I should have done that – ditched the wedding, not the priest/nun part!). Next, he found his calling in missionary work to convert the mountain-dwelling pagans of Lombardy to Christianity (I disagree with him there as well). What I absolutely admire him for, though, is his work in aiding and protecting travelers who had to negotiate the dangerous trans-alpine route, now called the Great and Little St Bernard pass in the Pennine Alps, on their way from Germany to Rome. In short, he founded and ran the first mountain rescue unit in recorded history, aided by the Valais herding dogs which later were developed into the St Bernard breed. His monastery and hospice also served as as much needed resource for locals who did not have access to healthcare before.

The story resonates with me because it reflects a deeper relationship to the mountain environment and its people than just going there to enjoy, relax, and be physically active. Rather than only taking in what the wilderness gives us, Bernard found a way to give back. Taking the big question of “What can you give the World?” down to a smaller level, in 2012 I want to ask myself the question: “What, in the spirit of St Bernard, can I do to give back to the mountains and its people?”.

I do have a few ideas. First, I would like to become more active in leading trips for the Peak Climbing Section or private trips to inspire others to explore. After five years of learning so much from the trip leaders, it is time for me to grow up and start passing on the expertise taught to me so generously. Right now, I do not have the time to actively join organizations such as the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit, but I will keep it in my mind whenever the opportunity may present itself. ¬†I am still dreaming of training search and rescue dogs some day … or rescue a St Bernard? ¬†I also want to pay better attention to financially support local businesses in the mountain communities I travel through. If I can afford to stay in a locally owned motel, I should. Or plan to buy food supplies at local markets. If I can wait to buy climbing equipment, do it in a local store in places such as Bishop, CA. Lobbying for protection of our national resources and wild places are other opportunities.

While I am still not 100% clear about who I want to be as a mountaineer and climber, I am finding my way by thinking about my patron saints, paying attention to where my inspiration is coming from. I hope my post encourages you to think about who inspires you on your path to become the mountaineer/climber you want to be.

Posted in Climbing, Generosity, Hike, peak climbing | Tagged | 3 Comments

Castle Peak (NorCal) and Tenaya Lake skating

“This is too easy. We are looking for Sierra 3rd Class, not Aconcagua 3rd Class” (Louise looking for the approach to Castle Peak)

Well, Tamarack was cancelled, but Louise and I decided we still wanted to have fun in the mountains anyway. We drove up to Tahoe to climb Castle Peak just off I-80. It had been icy when Louise was here two weeks ago, but snowfall had dumped a whole inch of new snow which provided some more traction. The first few hundred feet from the trailhead were probably the most dangerous part of this climb!

I do not know how long it took us for the 6.5 miles/10.5 km and 1900 feet/580 m to the summit. It was sunny, not too cold, but really windy. The true peak is the middle rock outcropping (turret?) above the castle walls. Most people only go up the false summit to the left, especially in winter when it is fun to ski down from there. Normally, there should be a few feet of snow on the ground, but we have had an extremely dry winter so far as you can see.

Castle Peak near Tahoe

Louise had to poke around a bit to find the 3rd class access to the true summit, but while doing that we found a small chute with some really nice rime ice on plants and rocks. The strong wind blew the ice off the rocks, making it seem like snow falling out of the sky. 

Rime ice on plants

Rime ice "snowing" out of clear skies

I should maybe say something about Louise’s comment ¬†lead this post with, and difficulty ratings while climbing. The most popular system used in California is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). There are many descriptions of it available, but my favorite one is found¬†here. The reason why I like this site is because it demonstrates so well how subjective the ratings are. For example, in my home mountain range, the Sierra Nevada of California, climbing has a long tradition, and many of the technical tools were developed here. Consequently, there is a tendency to show off by rating climbs differently than applications of the YDS applied in other mountain ranges. I recently found a climbing guide on the Colorado Rockies that explicitly states that “climbs rated Class 4 here would be rated Class 3 in the Sierra Nevada”.

Anyway, the top 40-50 feet of Castle Peak are rated 3rd class according to YDS, and below is a picture of Louise demonstrating what that looks like. The hand and foot holds are really solid, which is unusual for volcanic rock. Just below the 8 ft summit block, there is a ledge where two or three people could stand while one at a time goes up to the summit. I felt a bit clunky at first climbing with hiking boots. I had not done a climb like that since August, and the long break showed. Definitely need to get out more often!

Louise demonstrating a Class 3 climb on Castle Rock.

For lunch break, we found a protected spot people had used as a camp site. We looked at the barren slopes of the mountains. Even most ski slopes were rocky, except where hard artificial snow was made. On our way down, we managed to find a grand total of 30 feet ski-able snowfield with a foot of wind-loaded powder. We were glad to get back down in the forest and out of the wind. Of course, I lost my focus on the last stretch, slipped on the ice, and found myself on the ground. Luckily, I only bruised my wrist. There is a definite advantage to having strong and nicely cushioned glutes!

View over the Sierra Nevada near Tahoe. Sugarbowl and Northstar ski resorts are visible from here.

The next morning found us checking out the ice on Prosser Dam Reservoir. We had a fun time skating. There were some people playing hockey, including a German Shepard. I could not figure out which team the dog was playing on. While skating (<- link to video), the sun came up higher and warmed the ice. That’s when the noise appeared, sounding like someone was plucking the strings of a giant slack key guitar. We could not figure out at first what that sound was, until a crack in the ice right next to where I was skating twanged. I almost jumped out of my skates! It was freaky. The ice was easily 8-10 inches (30 cm) deep and the lake very shallow, but my human subconscious is smart enough to be a bit unsettled about standing on top of cracking ice! Thinking about it with my physics mind, I figured the ice must be expanding. With no open areas nor inflow or outflow to expand into, all that was left for it was cracks to release tension.

Local & Organic firewood

We then drove over to the Nevada side to drive back through Yosemite National Park to check out the ice skating. We stopped in the village of Lee Vining, where the local shop obviously has caught on to the locavore movement. We laughed heartily at their humor!

Yosemite did not disappoint. We got a good look at the ice climbing conditions in Ellery Canyon. There was a rope on one of the falls, but we did not see anyone climbing. Skating on Ellery Lake was ok, but bumpy. My skate caught on a crack in the ice, and I did a hard fall on my knees. Two bruises are starting to show today.¬†We soon moved on to Tenaya Lake, and what fun we had! The ice was exceptional, smooth and clear of any snow. There were some open spots near the inlet, outlet, a smaller inlet and in the middle. Otherwise, the ice was thick and solid. The cracks did not catch. 30 mile per hour winds blew us all the way down the lake without effort. It felt like downhill skiing on skates! Or channeling Apolo Anton Ono … Getting upwind to the starting point was a good workout. Here is a link to the YouTube video of me practicing my inside and outside edges.

Skating on Tenaya Lake, with Tenaya Peak in the background. I would really like to climb Tenaya in 2012, and of course do Tenaya Canyon.

Shortly before sunset, we tired out as well and drove home. On the way down to the Central Valley, we caught a good view of the two sentinels of Yosemite Valley: Cloud’s Rest and Halfdome. We wondered if anybody had ever climbed the long granite slope from Tenaya Canyon up to Cloud’s Rest. It looked like a hard climb to us: no obvious crack system, and probably not too many places to place protection. Besides, most climbers would probably balk at the approach “hike” ūüėČ

Cloud's Rest and Halfdome

It was a lot of driving for two days, but I enjoyed spending the time with Louise. She has a lot of good stories to tell. As we were driving by peaks and places, she gave me a lot of advice on good places to climb, ski, eat, and sleep. I tried to memorize all, but it improved impossible. The drive home found ourselves talking about work, life, family, and men. It’s not easy to find the right guy when one spends many weekends roughing it on rock and ice, being more impressed with Black Diamond than the de Beer’s diamonds. I should turn that thought into another blog post titled “Want to date a mountaineer? 10 Steps to win her heart and a space in her tent.”.

(Side note: I really like gemstones EXCEPT colorless diamonds, which remind me of the scary fairy tale of the Snow Queen¬†by Hans Christian Andersen. Try explain that to a guy who wants to propose to you with a very traditional ring … we divorced. I should have seen it coming right then and there.¬†)

Update on Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer:

Doing well so far. The climb and ice skating days were good exercise and good nutrition. Parts of the drive were spend on conversation about what good nutrition is. Overall, I have been doing pretty well in the artificial/junk food category compared to the average american. If I eat cookies or sweet breads, they are mostly baked in my own oven with good ingredients and 2/3 of the sugar content, european-style sweetness.

Today, I gave my body a break, although I am still working on my pushups. I should get a pull-up bar for my home as well. I pulled a muscle while sleeping, probably trying to position myself around the two cats, so swimming is out of the question. Bikram Yoga tomorrow morning sounds like a good idea. My muscles need a good stretch, and the heat might help the tension in my injured rhomboid.

Overall, I was really happy about my hiking speed and endurance going up Castle Peak. The tortoise is getting her groove back ūüôā

Posted in peak climbing, Sierra Nevada | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Ski Touring Ascent of Tamarack Peak (not)

You’ll get Entwives, Golden Eagles, President Hoover and plenty of mistletoe instead.

My intent today was to write about my first backcountry ski touring peak climb of Tamarack Peak near Tahoe. Crappy to nonexistent snow, at this time 1-2 inches of snow/ice covered by 1.5 inches of new snow total, caused all but the trip leader and myself to cancel on the trip. Nobody wanted to pull out their rock skis? Come on, folks!Louise and I are passionate enough about getting into the mountains that we will still go, but Monday/Tuesday instead to avoid traffic. We still have not quite figured out what we plan to do, but between ice skating, nordic, peak climbing with the help of Yaktrax, we should have plenty of fun at altitude.

Admittedly, this time of year is probably the most difficult season to be in the Sierra Nevada. Snow cover strongly depends on the number and strength of early winter storms in combination with whatever melt cycle happens in between. Passes open and close somewhat unpredictabl. The cold is not too bad given our southern latitude, but somehow sub-freezing temperatures are a lot more fun to hang out in if there is lots of snow coming with it. Nights are long, and unless you are a comfortable introvert capable of entertaining yourself for 14 hours a night stuck in a single-person tent, it can be boring. There is only so much sleep to catch up on. Personally, this all does not bother me too much. I am passionate (or nutty?) enough about the outdoors to enjoy it anyway. Besides, adversity does not only cause very intimate knowledge of your outdoor buddy’s personalities, but also create a good library of stories to tell later.

All was not lost, though. Now blessed with a wide open Saturday, I chose to go for a long training hike with the Loma Prieta Day Hiking Section. They are a fun, diverse group, suckers for hiking up steep hills, and rarely bother with hikes less than 16 miles and >3500 feet. I think a 3C is the lowest rated hike I have ever spotted on the schedule. There may be some, but they are definitely fewer than the occasional 5Es showing up! I really like their hike rating system, and recommend adoption for meetup groups or other outings with friends so folks know what to expect.

The hike rating system is as follows:

1 = Less than 5 miles of total distance
2 = 5 to 10 miles
3 = 10 to 15 miles
4 = 15 to 20 miles
5 = 20 to 25 miles

A = Less than 1000 feet of total elevation gain
B = 1000 to 2000 feet
C = 2000 to 3000 feet
D = 3000 to 4000 feet
E = 4000 to 5000 feet

Yesterday’s trip was my first to Grant Ranch County Park on the foothills of Mt Hamilton in Santa Clara County. We started hiking at 8:30, with the ground still frozen. Soon enough though, the fleeces, hats and mittens came off, and most of us where in T-Shirts. We saw some California Buckeye trees, looking dead and barren since August. I collected some, but not enough, seeds for home decoration. ¬†The first two hours we were accompanied by ¬†cattle, some of them running along at impressive speeds and agility. One black cow decided to be the hike leader for about 10 minutes, setting up a good trot about 50 feet ahead of the group. She faithfully led us to a watering hole, but we declined. Cow-patty hopping was challenging enough ūüôā

Watering hole

We crossed one lower ridge to discover a grove of ancient Valley Oaks. Some of them must be 500 years old, with trunks of 6 feet in diameter. Lisa, our biggest tree fan in the group, was in 7th heaven. It is impossible to capture the presence of those trees in a picture, although several of us still are optimistic enough to try. Sassan’s pictures will probably come out best; he is an excellent photographer. The trees spurred us to talk about Lisa’s and Brian’s wedding. They have found the oak to get married under, but are still looking for a suitable officiant. From here, the conversation meandered into paganism. To my surprise, I learned one of the hikers knew Starhawk personally. But then, given where I live and the diversity of folks I hang out with, it shouldn’t have. I just leave you with my best 2D attempt of a magnificent oak growing out of a rock. Or maybe we did find the missing Entwives after all.

Valley Oak

After we left the Valley Oak Grove, we spotted three Golden Eagles circling on the ridge above us. They must have found some carcass or prey. Big raptors are always fun to watch, especially if I am smart enough to bring along my binoculars like I did on this trip! Soon after we watched the Eagles, Brian went of trail to climb a small knoll with a rocky outcropping. He very convincingly told us that this was the very spot where President Hoover retreated to re-build his life after having been voted out of office. My face must have been a mighty question mark, because people now started filling me in on local history. Joseph Grant, owner of this huge ranch which is now the State Park, was not only a rich political supporter, but also close friend of Hoover. After leaving Washington DC, Hoover spend large stretches of time on the Grant Ranch, before resuming his new normal life.

Next, the hill! What a perfectly shaped Jeep trail up to the ridge it was. Jeep trails run in straight lines between high and low points, because they can deal better with steep terrain than sideways tilt. This particular road featured sections of steadily increasing steepness with short, flat stretches in between to catch your breath. The last hurray before the ridgeline seemed vertical looking at it head-on. If this was rocks not road, it would probably be rated Yosemite Class 2?

Day hikers: we love hills!

After lunch, we hiked further along the ridge with a nice view on Mt Hamilton with the Observatory on top. We spotted a kestrel, very few other humans, some bikers headed up the road to Hamilton. With easier terrain, warm sunshine, and a brisk pace, the conversation started flowing.  At some point, we asked ourselves two questions: (1) Do you kiss when you hike under mistletoe outdoors? (2) What controls mistletoe from spreading uncontrollably, i.e. is there a natural enemy? As hikers speed up and slow down, the conversation partners change. Sometimes, I found myself between groups, mulling over my own thoughts, enjoying to be in company while being in my own world at the same time.

Mt Hamilton with the observatory, visible for the 2nd half of our hike

As we reached our 16th mile, the sun started to go down, temperatures dropping. Around 17 miles as usual, my feet decided they would be perfectly happy to bring this hike to a close. They did not have to wait long: 18 miles, 3875 feet and 7 1/2 hours after take-off, we had our customary beer, chips and salsa in the parking lot.

PS: Update on Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer

Two weeks in, so far so good. The day hike felt very good. Waking up the day after, I was neither stiff nor sore, just felt the exercise in my legs. Hiking speed was good, hills need a bit of speed-work though. I went running twice, the second time back to an easy cruise speed of 10 minutes per mile. I have had one really strong Bikram Yoga practice. My office chair went out the office to be replaced by an exercise ball. It definitely cheers up people who come into my office to see me happily bouncing on my big purple ball while I do my work. Sitting on a ball makes me feel better, I feel like someone released the chains to let me flow more freely. Mornings have a renewed push-up routine before showering now, crunches to be added in the next days. Given that it is Christmas season with plenty of junk food and sweets around, I have been doing very well in portion control and steering toward healthier choices. There have been setbacks: Sundays in general and workdays around 4 pm are the challenge times. The musical winter solstice celebration at my church helped as well, reminding me to appreciate and welcome the darkness. My newfound kindness toward winter makes winter treat me more kindly as well. Namaste!

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My year of climbing volcanoes: Grand Finale in Ecuador

Lassen, Shasta, Mt Rainier, and finally, Mexican Volcanoes in October. Until I noticed Rick kept mentioning how the safety of traveling in Mexico did cause him some concerns, especially considering he has family responsibilities. So, after a few phone calls we decided to switch to a Mountain Madness trip to Ecuador during Thanksgiving week with the ultimate goal to climb Cotopaxi.


I should give you some background information why this trip was so remarkable. I used to go hiking in the Austrian Alps with my mother until a malignant brain tumor in her right motor strip first took her ability to move, and then her life. This was followed by 12 turbulent years in my life which left no time to take off to the mountains. Early in 2003, I attended a conference in Napa. During one session, I ended up sitting next to a Radiation Oncologist from the Cleveland Clinic. He was in the process of organizing a benefit trip for the Cleveland Clinic to climb Aconcagua. I was clueless about big mountains at the time, but listened with fascination and awe. This short conversation re-ignited my love for the mountains, inspiring me to first go backpacking, then peak-climbing, and finally learning about glacier travel. Well, Rick never organized that trip to Aconcagua, but we kept loosely in touch over the years.

Somehow in the beginning of this year, I don’t know how or why, the idea of a joint climbing trip took shape. Almost 9 years after the Aconcagua chat, we met in the airport in Houston to continue on to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.¬†Half of Rick’s luggage never made it to Quito. He creatively made do with what he had for the first three days, until it became clear all hope was lost and new gear had to be bought.¬†The first two days were spend sightseeing in the Old Town of Quito, acclimatizing to 9,200 feet/2100 m at the same time. The churches, city museum, lively streets, good food make for a very enjoyable experience.

The floor in the City Museum of Quito shows the map of the Old City.

Monday we did our first training hike to Guagua Pichincha, which last erupted in 1999. Our guide, Ossy (Oswaldo Freire) told us about hot springs he used to climb to with his father before the last lava flow covered them. The most fascinating part of this hike for me was to see the layer over the Pacific Ocean and the thunderstorms building over the Amazon at the same time.

The caldera of Guagua Pichincha. A sulphur steam vent is a reminder the mountain is still active.

After the hike, Ossy dropped Katherine and me at the Hacienda La Estacion, a former train station turned B&B. Rick went back to Quito with Ossy for a shopping excursion to Andes 6000, a local climbing store. We saw Rick again on Tuesday morning, his wallet much slimmer, wearing new mountaineering clothing, and mentally much more relaxed. I still admire his equanimity in face of dealing with the lost luggage; I would have been way more stressed while teaching the group a choice selection of German words they really should not know.

Hacienda La Estacion

Illiniza Norte¬†(5,126 m/ 16,818 ft) was our next goal. ¬†The horses were already waiting to carry up our packs, so we could just enjoy the hike to the Refugio with a daypack. What luxury compared to the 35-45 pounds I am used to have on my back! The hike itself was easy, although incoming weather made the air moist and chilly. We were much amused that our snack break halfway up to the Refugio found us sitting at higher altitude than the summit of Mt Rainier.The Refugio was small but cozy. I secured a spot on the 3rd level bunk, high up and therefore warmest space in the hut, and also the most private corner. A gap in the slats allowed me to nestle in and sleep with slightly elevated upper body, making the breathing easier. Rick joined me on my perch despite concerns of safely navigating the ladder at night to find the restroom. Waking up in the morning, I found Rick alive and with no broken limbs ūüôā

The Refugio on Illiniza.

Sleeping at 15,500 feet feels very strange because of the effects of low blood oxygenation. Ossy’s pulse ox reported resting heart rates of 80 and oxygenation levels of 80% for the three of us. The two physicians jokingly admitted each other on oxygen and antibiotics. I did not wake up gasping for air, which was nice. Instead of my usual good nights sleep though, I seem to drift in and out of consciousness, the line between dreams and lucidity blurred to be indistinguishable. As Ossy had told us before, I did wake up well rested nonetheless.

Steepest section on Illiniza Norte.

On Thursday morning, the weather was clear. We quickly gained the beautiful ridge line leading up to the peak. The two climbers on the glacier of Illiniza Sur made good progress as well. The traverse to the other side of the mountain was way less exposed and steep than I had expected, although I can see how this could be a nasty bit of work in icy conditions. There are 4 bolts to put in a fixed rope if needed. After this spot, the rest of the hike to the summit was a steep scramble, but easy to find and not very exposed. I frankly was very surprised that Illiniza Norte is rated class 3. It was way easier than even the easy Sierra Class 3 peaks, e.g. Whorl Mountain. We took a slightly different route down, boot-skiing down the ash. It felt like we were back at the car in no time.

Summit of Illiniza Norte.

One more night at Hacienda La Estacion, and then we were finally off to Cotopaxi National Park. Lunch was at a restaurant/hacienda which lies enclosed in the National Park. We enjoyed very well prepared trout, and while the others had a lively lunch conversation I found myself fascinated by watching the hummingbirds feed outside the window. I have always imagined hummingbirds as very tropical species, so to see them at high altitude in cold, drizzly weather was enchanting.

Over dessert, we had a short discussion on summit attempts. The weather the night before had been bad on Cotopaxi, with snowfall and whiteout. About 40 people had to abort summit attempts, 2 people made it and got lost on the way down (they managed to find themselves after a few hours). The weather forecast for the following two nights was mixed. We decided after a short discussion that we would go up to the Refugio anyway, stick our heads out and midnight and see what the sky looks like. Worst case, we would spend two nights in the Refugio. The only drawback of a Friday night attempt would be no availability of a second guide, because everybody was still busy with the other groups 2nd summit attempts. Which was ok given the size and strength of the group, but left no margin for the unexpected.

Hiking up to the Refugio was indeed an easy 45 minutes. I took it extra slow, because I still felt a bit off due to a unilateral sinus infection from the dusty days before. I was also once again really sad thinking about how much fun it would have been to have my Mom on this trip with me. She loved the mountains and took me mountaineering as a 4-year-old. Being slow, though, proved an invaluable asset that afternoon. While I was hiking up by myself, an Andean wolf trotted by, making a little noise at me like my German Shepherd used to.

Andean Wolf

Dinner, then bed, in our own little cabin in the Refugio. At midnight, Ossy woke us up to a clear, starry night. Katherine’s favorite, Orion, was right above us. Breakfast at midnight, and up the snowfield we went starting a 1:15 am. I felt really good despite the issues with sinusitis the day before, and had another really good nights rest even at this altitude. We were the very last group leaving the hut, more than an hour later than I personally would have preferred.¬†The snowfall from the recent days had not had time to settle yet. Therefore, the walking was a lot more slippery and soft than I would have expected; in stretches, it felt to me like walking on packed sand at the beach. The corollary to these snow conditions was that in some of the stepper sections, the intermediate steps were not available, forcing me to consistently take very high steps compared to my moderate height.

Cotopaxi from the Refugio

About an hour into the hike, we had reached the upper edge of the snowfield, where it was time to put on crampons and rope up. We also ate some snacks and drank. I had hot electrolyte solution in my water bottles; snacks were stacked into the many internal pockets of my hardshell, making me feel like a giant hamster. Another hour went by, with yet another 5 minute snack break. Still feeling good. Third hour, and the first major crevasses started to appear. One I liked in particular: It was preceded by a walk over a 3-foot wide wall of ice, a very short downhill stretch, and then a jump 2 feet across and 3 feet down. Rick asked how we would get back up the crevasse on the way down. Well, I kind of wondered that too but did not want to spend energy to think about it. Oxygen was more important in the legs than the brain ūüôā Otherwise, the climb is very pleasant with great views into the surrounding mountains. I found the glacier to be moderately steep, similar to the Disappointment Cleaver route on Mt Rainier. There were much fewer crevasses than on the Ingraham glacier, but they were much larger.

Soon after, a blood-red sun started to rise above the horizon. The landscape got more dramatic, with glacial ice formations softened by the recent new snow providing always new sights to marveled at. We were just about at 18,000 feet and not far below the headwall, when I hit the wall. Until then, I had no idea what marathon runners talk about when they speak of the wall at around 20 miles. Within 10-15 minutes, that changed drastically. Now I do, and I do not like it! It felt like someone had sucked out all energy out of my body. Oxygen did not seem to be the problem, just energy. And then something else new happened: I got REALLY cold. Mind you, I am usually not the icicle of the group. I never get cold. I sleep hot. I am the first one to pull off the thick gloves, scarves, and layers. Our guide, Ossy, must have been very attuned to this as well, because as soon as I spoke the words “I am cold” he got us to the next wind-protected spot to have the group huddle around me to warm me up.

So, it became quite clear at 6:30 am at 18,300 feet that there was no sense for us to go on, given how I had slowed down and being slightly hypothermic. There were other groups still moving up, but there was no group coming down our guide could have send me down with. Now we could have really needed the second guide to give the other two at least a chance at the summit attempt.

I was so bummed, primarily because it was me who cost the other two the summit. Also very disappointed because unlike Memorial Day, this really came out of nowhere for me. I felt strong, I was comfortable, I knew from the last two hikes that my speed matched the group pretty well, especially when it came to rock scrambles. I had slept well, was on the lower range of expected altitude symptoms, ate and drank much better than I had on Rainier, and even used the same brand electrolyte and favorite flavors of GU. Argh. You can imagine my mood was subdued on the way down, in addition to the physical recovery of simply warming up.

At this point, I really have to thank Katherine and Rick about being so kind and gracious. They had all the right to be upset about what happened. Good bedside manners they have as physicians (and just being the wonderful people they are), both even found words to make me feel a bit better. Ossy did as well, telling me the more you climb, the more you will run into situations like these. And he was the first person ever to help me take crampons off my boots, because I simply had no energy left in me to release the buckles!

Of course, I have spend a few hours since to think about what I could have done better. Speaking up for an earlier start is the only variable I can think of that was under my control. The soft snow was unexpected. Fitness – maybe? The high steps at the beginning might have cost me more energy at altitude than I thought at the time. My friend Emilie actually had spoken about this in preparation for the Shasta trip. I wonder if that contributed, but the only way to know is to work even harder at getting fitter and stronger. It will take me a bit (and maybe not working at a hyper-competitive academic medical center) to improve this aspect of my fitness.

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm (Churchill)

Less than one week later, I found another piece of the puzzle: Vertigo caused me to fall of my bike while riding to work. It had started Sunday evening after my return from Ecuador. At first, I attributed it to a day of air travel and the high partial oxygen pressure. Over the work week, the dizziness grew increasingly worse though until said bike accident scared me enough to pay a visit to my physician. There, I learned there is such a thing as labyrinthitis: an inflammation fo the inner ear caused by viral or bacterial infection, sometimes aggravated by stress. Got the stress part, my work stress was beyond range for the last two years. The virus? I came to learn there was a flu going around in the schools in my area that caused many instances of vertigo in the schoolkids. Given that the symptoms appeared within 48 hours of the Cotopaxi summit attempt, my immune system must have already been in combat without me knowing. It took 4 days of bedrest to recover enough to not be a fall risk any more! Now, a week after bed rest, I am ok enough to make it through a workday and even one Bikram Yoga practice, but my hearing and balance is still on the mend. I sure hope I never have to go through that again!

Back to Ecuador. For the last two nights, we stayed at the B&B with restaurant our guide Ossy owns, the fabuluous Hacienda Rumiloma. The rooms are decorated in colonial spanish-ecuadorian style. While you have dinner, the friendly staff will light the fireplace in your room and tuck a hot water bottle in your bed. Cuddly. Ossy’s wife, Amber, is the life of the place, even bringing parts of her truly Irish Pub from the Emerald Isle all the way to the basement of Rumiloma. If you get to stay there, which I highly recommend, ask them the story of how they met! Quite remarkable. There¬†even¬†is a resident herd of llamas which have adopted a black horse as one of their own.

Llamas at Hacienda Rumiloma. Notice the two-week old youngster?

Saturday, we spend some time at the airport to continue the hunt for Rick’s luggage, once again unsuccessfully. We then spend some time in several markets to buy some souvenirs, and also to pick up some locally made¬†climbing equipment at lower cost than the USA. I managed to find two brands of Ecuadorian chocolate my friend Sunita from The Chocolate Garage has not tasted yet! A hailstorm turned the streets white for half an hour, which we used to have a tasty Japanese lunch.

Time to say good-bye with a dinner and good wine at Rumiloma. Rising at 3:30 am after two truly special nights at Rumiloma was hard. I will long remember the wonderful time I had there, and wherever we stayed in the week before, with my roommates and climbing companions. I hope sometime in the future we will meet again, and climb together again.

Breakfast at Rumiloma.

I will definitely go back. Not only do I have to still settle with Cotopaxi, but I fell in love with Ecuador, the culture, the beautiful mountains. Already, I have talked to some of my climbing friends to think about possible future trips. Going with a guide company was a new experience for me. Ossy was an exceptional guide, going above and beyond what I expected. I am still a bit puzzled to place this experience, because from local trips in the South and West of the USA I am so used to roughing it and sleeping in a bivy that I can’t quite make sense of Refugios and Haciendas yet. Even climbing itself was different. With the PCS, I am quite used to be the least experienced, and often positively challenged to grow my skills almost every day I am out with them. Even approach hikes are tough. On this trip, I encountered no technical challenges, and except for hitting the wall on the last day I very honestly found the hikes to be moderately challenging (with exception of breathing, of course). By now, I also usually know at least a few people on local trips. Travelling and climbing with people I had either never met, or just met a few times before, was a social stretch for me. I am better at doing activities with others than being an entertaining dinner conversationalist. The PCS folks have trained me so well in preparedness and efficient packing that I occasionally found myself being mentally focused on getting my backpack ready, rather than enjoying my time being with people. I am really glad my companions were Ossy, Katherine, and Rick, because all of them were truly wonderful, enjoyable, supportive, and lots of fun to be with. Thank you for sharing this week of your life with me!



Ossy (yes, it's legal action)

Snow Turtle

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Kaizen: Becoming a Stronger Mountaineer

Today, I was attending a Webinar on “Keeping the Continuous in Continuous Improvement”, which focused on how to sustain Kaizen in the Healthcare setting through constant small improvements. Work is defined as equally¬†doing work and improving the work. Suddenly, it dawned on me that here might be a way to tackle one of my persistent challenges in mountaineering.

What is that challenge? I have only been peak climbing and mountaineering for three years. Living on the¬†somewhat¬†shorter spectrum of humanity at 5’5″ (165 cm), I found to keep up with more experienced peak climbers¬†I have to compensate¬†by being stronger & fitter on top of the endurance I have to build anyway. Due to my often crazy work demands and intermittent health issues, both of which impact my energy level, I have been struggling with sticking to a consistent workout routine beyond 6 months at a time. It is very frustrating to feel on top of my game and then, suddenly, work or health derails me and I find myself completely off track, with great difficulties to get back in the groove. Clearly, a better approach is needed.

I found a door into a different way of thinking a few months ago, when someone spoke of turning a goal into a quest. Goals have a pass/fail association with it, whereas one of the characteristics of a quest is the setbacks that will inevitably occur and have to be overcome. Making temporary, short-term failures an expected, indeed necessary, part of the process is already taking the edge off my internal habit of being very judgmental and harsh with myself, offering me kindness and acceptance instead. Which, ultimately, enables me to get back on track more easily after a temporary failure, increasing the chance for long-term success.

Now, combine this with Kaizen, continuous improvement. Kaizen means to accept that a process is never perfect, never will be, but the path of improving the process to adapt to the needs of the present work is what ultimately counts. To apply this concept to my goal of becoming a stronger mountaineer speaks to me. Yes, I will still set goals. For 2012, they are:

  1. Climb 10 Class 3 mountains
  2. Train for a 10k swim race at the beginning of June
  3. Lean archery with the goal of being able to shoot the King Mountain Archer’s outdoor course

Yes, these goals are ambitious, and if I get an 80% completion rate I will consider myself successful (100% would mean I did not reach high enough in setting goals). But now the important part, how to get there. This is where I am bringing in the Kaizen approach. In addition to the big picture, I commit myself everyday to not only do the work, but improve the work. I will strive to make little decisions, as many as I can, that each bring me a tiny step closer to my ultimate goal. Those baby steps can be as small as challenging myself to have lunch outside to get some sunshine in winter, or as large as participating in the 1-hour postal swim in January. As long as I make at least one decision resulting in a better choice of action towards my goal each day, I will count my day as success. I trust the cumulative interest will make the difference for me to become a stronger mountaineer.

My commitment to you, reader, will be to report regularly in this forum how my “Kaizen to Become a Stronger Mountaineer” approach is working.

Finally, some inspirational reading from a recently discovered blog that initiated me sitting down tonight to write this post:


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