Getting back to the trail while trying to avoid as much contact with other people is the goal. Because of the pandemic I am uncomfortable flying so I have elected to take Amtrak (Sunset Limited) from Houston to Tucson and then taxi/uber it to Patagonia (where I stopped last year). I am getting a sleeper compartment so I won’t be around other people but it does take 25 hours to go from Houston to Tucson.
So, slower and more expensive but… it’s a train! And train travel is infinitely more civilized than flying.
As late as a month ago there were two fairy sizeable trail closures because of fires last year. In late February the Bush Fire trail closure (AZT 354 to 387) was lifted. On March 2 the Bighorn Fire trail closure (from AZT 125 to 144) was also lifted. This means the only portion of the trail that is off limits is the 2 miles or so at the southern terminus (thanks to Trump’s wall) but I did that part last year so….. not a problem for me.
Arizona, and indeed most of the southwest, is in a major drought. So, the normally very dry AZT is even drier.
Change of Plans
I had intended to return and spend 6-7 weeks finishing the trail but, because of Covid, I have compromised and will only be doing 250 miles in two long sections (from Patagonia to Superior, just east of Phoenix).
Well, the plan was to spend 4 days hiking in Guadalupe Mountain National Park, culminating in a climb to the highest point in Texas (Guadalupe Peak) on the last day. So much for plans….
We arrived at the visitor center late in the afternoon of Dec 3 and it was cold… and getting colder. The Ranger who gave us our backcountry permits reminded us that the backcountry campsites were several thousand feet higher than the visitor center (5,800′). Using the old rule of 5 0F per 1,000′, that would be 10 degrees colder than Pine Springs CG (where we were spending our first night).
We quickly set up our tent as the temperature plummeted from the balmy 45 degrees when we arrived. We ate a quick dinner in the car and were in our sleeping bags by 6:00 PM to try to get warm.
By morning our plans had changed. After a night of trying to sleep (wearing everything we had inside our bags) we realized that camping even higher would be a disaster.
We decided to do the ~8.5 mile (round trip), 3,700′ Guadalupe Peak climb and then skedaddle into town and a warm motel.
We started up around 7:30 (temperature had warmed up to 30 degrees or so). It is basically a 4 mile, 3,700′ climb that is pretty steep in parts. But the weather was great for hiking and the sun was out!
You can’t actually see the peak as you climb – it is always over another ridge. The trail is rocky but in good condition. At one spot there is even a bridge over a small chasm.
In the visitor center they say to “plan on 8 hours” to climb Guadalupe Peak. We reached the top in 2:45 after passing two couples. Much younger couples. Very satisfying.
There were only a couple of people on the top but more started to arrive so we only stayed for 15 minutes or so before heading down.
We were back down around 1:00. Thinking of a warm bed and a hot shower.
A short post about the accommodations on our EBC trek. 20 years ago accomodations on the trail were “tea houses”. These still exist. They are basically two room buildings, a kitchen and a bigger main room. Food and tea are served in the main room which is heated by a yak dung stove. Come time to sleep you would lay out your sleeping bag on benches in the same room. If the stove was not well ventilated the room would fill with smoke and was not always pleasant.
These tea houses still exist (we have stopped at several for lunch and tea) but now there are inns. They vary in quality but share some common features.
The main room is the restaurant which is still heated by a yak-dung stove (which always has a large pot of water boiling). This is the only heated room in the inn. The rooms are usually private (for one or two people) and are never heated. The toilet is usually a shared affair down the hall – sometimes squat, sometimes seated. In a few of the nicer inns there are private toilets in the rooms but this is rare.
The quality of the bedding and beds varies so most people use sleeping bags on the mattresses. You don’t spend a lot of time in the room when you are not sleeping because it is so cold. Everyone hangs out in the main room. At night to run to the bathroom we kept our parkas handy.
Not sure how much the inns cost (our tour price included this) but the food is pretty reasonable – 400-800 rupees for a meal.
The trek with Alpine Ascents is billed as a 3 week trek but some of that is travel and acclimation. There are 14 actual hiking days and the route is a south-to-north out-and-back course that mostly follows river valleys. The northern terminus of the hike is Everest Base Camp (EBC) at 17,600′. The entire distance is less than 100 miles but there is a lot of elevation gain.
We fly into Katmandu (4590′) on Oct 21 after spending a few days sightseeing in New Delhi. From Katmandu we will be taking a short flight (or possibly helicopter) to Lukla (9400′) on Oct 23. This is also our first day of hiking and it will be an easy one as we begin the acclimation process. The next day we head up Namche Bazaar (11,300′) where we spend the next few days doing easy hikes to get further acclimated.
After a few days in Namche Bazaar we head west to the village of Thame (12,400′) where Alpine Ascents has several cultural events planned, including a visit to a Buddhist Monastery.
From Thame (Oct 27) we spend the next four days heading East and North, visiting villages and getting further acclimated, reaching the village of Pheriche (13,900′) on October 30.
The next two days we really begin to ascend arriving at Gorak Shep (16,900′) on November 1. Weather permitting, we ascend a small peak, Kala Pattar (18,500′) which is high point of the trek and is supposed to have great views of Everest. Gorak Shep is the last village on the way to EBC.
The following day (Nov 2) we trek to Everest Base Camp and the furthest point north on our trek. We do not spend the night, descending to Lobuche (16,200′) for the evening.
From Labuche we basically retrace our path, taking four days, and arriving back in Lukla on November 6.
Alpine Ascents gives very detailed instructions about the gear that is required on their climbs/treks. We have learned that, if it’s on the list, you should have it. This, of course, blows up our “only carry-on” travel philosophy. We were able to get everything into two carry-ons and two checked bags.
Below is the AA equipment list (on the left) with pictures of my matching equipment. Big thanks to my buddy Jim Thornton for lending us a lot of this!
We’ve nailed down most of our travel plans for the rest of 2019. There are three more big trips this year:
Oregon Coast Trail
Starting in mid-June we plan to hike the ~450 mile Oregon Coast Trail. The plan (my next post will discuss the plan) has us hiking for roughly 26 days followed by visits to family in the Northwest, returning to Houston the fourth week of July.
We will be flying to France to spend a week on a boat that we plan to buy. The boat is currently in rental with Locaboat. It is nearly identical to the boat we rented for the summer of 2017. If all goes well we will take possession of the boat in October with plans to spend next summer on her.
After we leave the boat we will travel to Edinburgh (by train – always wanted to take the “Chunnel”!) to Edinburgh to, hopefully, catch some the Fringe Festival. After a few days we will head to Aberdeen to visit old friends before returning to Edinburgh to join the Houston Looking At Art group for a week looking at local art.
Finally, in mid-October we head to New Dehli where we will spend a few days sight-seeing before flying to Kathmandu for a three week trek with friends in the Himalaya, reaching Everst Base Camp near the end of the third week.
After a brief hike (about 5 miles round trip) to a spot with a view of the town we began three days of hiking in Los Glaciares National Park, returning each night to our hotel in El Chatlen.
Had to modify my boots – the high tops were bugging me. Thank god for duct tape!
Up for our first big hike to Laguna Torre – ~11 miles round trip (out and back) but pretty flat – 1200 foot of climbing. It was a beautiful day, sunny and not too windy (which is saying something!). Left about 9:00 and back to the hotel by 4:30. Laguna Torre is a glacier terminus lake.
Up earlier – catching a van to take us to the trail head then we hike back. Earlier start – on the van at 8:00 and hiking by 8:30. Long hard day. Two of our group did not to the climb to Laguna de Los Tres. The climb was brutal – well over 1000 feet in less than a mile. 14.5 miles total and well over 3,000 feet. The weather was not great. We ended up putting on all of our rain gear in a shelter just before the climb to the Los Tres. It was rainy and cloudy pretty much all day. Snowing at the top – which was pretty cool.
Another early start (8:00). Cold (31 degrees!) but looks to be clearing when we start. Fortunately it cleared and we had sunny and clear weather almost all day but it was very windy at the top. Kept us from doing the final climb to Pliegue Tombado which knocked off about 800 of climbing. Still a long day. At the lookout before the final climb it was blowing 30 mph and cold. So Jose and Rodrigo (our guides) decided we would not go.
3,000 foot day (1200 to 4200 feet) even without the final climb and 15 miles round trip. Left at 8:00 and back by 3:30. Very short lunch at the viewpoint because of the wind
We had stunning views of the Fitz Roy massive throughout the day (the first time we have been able to see it).
After four days wandering around Buenos Aires we caught our local flight to El Calafate (Monday, Mar 5) and the start of our Alpine Ascents trek. After a brief mixup at the airport (we grabbed a cab to the wrong hotel) we finally hooked up with our guide (Jose Luis) and met the rest of our hiking team.
The drive to El Chalten the next morning (Tuesday) was our first taste of Patagonia. And, unlike all the pictures, most of Patagonia is not snow-capped mountains but rolling plains. And wind. Lots and lots of wind.
And, by the way, those are guanocos in the foreground, our first taste of Patagonian wildlife. They are pretty much ubiquitous. They are related to llamas.
And on to our first hike… a short afternoon hike from our hotel in El Chalten
After a 10 hour flight from Houston (thank God it wasn’t 13 hours! There is a 3 hour time difference) we arrived into the blazing sun of a beautiful Argentinian “autumn” day. Have no real plans – just sightseeing for a few days before we had to Patagonia for our trek.
We started the day early – packed up and hiking by 7:30. It is not light enough to hike much before 7:00 or so. We immediately started the day with a steep climb. The plan for today was 16.6 miles but we quickly realized it might not be possible.
The problem was that we have to at our destination by 3:30 or 4:00 to get our camp set up, water filtered and dinner made before it starts getting cold. Decided to go 15 miles today and modified the schedule to keep it around 15 miles. We can still get to Mt Ida in 7 days at that pace.
We entered the National Forest early in today’s hike. The last 10 miles we skirted private lands between the state park and the national forest.
We decided to camp near a pond after 15 miles (44 miles todal). Set up camp around 3:30. Emerson rolled in about 30 minutes later. Started to get cold and the wind picked up.