Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mount Pisco 5752m, Peru

When I started this blog, I had already been travelling for a year, so occasionally I will look back into the past and recall a few of the highlights from Latin America. This is one such occasion.

In 2005, I climbed Mont Blanc in the French Alps and got a taste for mountaineering. In the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, described as the greatest range outside of the Himalayas, I was presented with the perfect opportunity to climb a 5000m plus peak. As always with our budget in mind, I decided against $200 guided option and opted for the $50 unguided instead. I was joined by Vince, a New Yorker with aspirations of climbing Everest. I'd just finished a 4day trek with Vince, and despite his appearance ( he was a big lad ) he was mentally and physically weak, so I questioned his ability but I was glad of the company.

It was a 3hour uphill slog to our base camp, a mountain refuge at 4800m, Vince opted to hire a local guide to carry his backpack, a typical Vince move, and he still arrived at the hut exhausted. I was buzzing with adreneline and starred at my goal which stood majestically amongst its giant neighbours. It would be a 1am start, so despite my alert state of mind, it was bed by 7pm. It was the longest 6hours of my life, just waiting for the alarm, then it was time. By 4am, we were lost on a ridge above the refuge and we had no chance of making the summit. Dots of light showed climbers and the route we should have been on, and I watched in horror as a trail of 4 lights slid down the mountain, struggled up it and slid down it again. To the left a group of climbers were making better progress, I so wished I was among them. The black night sky was fading to the east and as we retraced our steps, we could see the refuge below in the distance. It was at this point Vince informed me that he wasn't sure I was capable of getting us to the summit. I was baffled and really had to bite my tongue, this guy just expected me to hold his hand and guide him to the summit. What a joke, I couldn't stand his presence any longer, he wanted his bed and so returned to base, whilst I figured out where we had gone wrong. The face of the mountain was now clearly visible and I could see the exact route avoiding the longer, steeper right side. I also identified where I'd gone wrong, it was an easy mistake, the descent onto the boulder field was steep and unmarked, easy to miss in the wee small hours.

Back at the refuge I decided to stay awake as long as possible, when I went to bed at about 5pm Vince and I had barely spoke and he was unsure about the morning. When the morning arrived, Vince stayed in bed with a 'cold', however nothing was going to stop me and so I set off, alone. I climbed and descended the ridge into the maze like boulder field. I looked around for the comforting sight of dots of lights, nothing, it was just me. The silence was deafening and I talked, sang and whistled my way to the snowline. Before I knew it, I was fixing my crampons to my boots. A light twinkled on the ridge I'd long ago left behind, there were no other climbers to team up with, I took my first steps on snow and ice for nearly 3years, this time it was just me. It was a steep start, around 50degrees, and I nervously made slow progress until the gradient eased. I was making my way up a crevassed face to a saddle some 300m above. I zig-zagged between open crevasses, being alone and unroped made this quite a scary ascent and more than once I asked myself 'what am I doing here?'. The answer is a complicated one, of course part of the reason would be a love of the outdoors and the mountains in particular. Also a love of photography meant getting to places as remote as this offers rewarding views and great photographs, but it was more than that, it had to be or else why would I be here alone risking my life.

It took me about 45minutes to reach the saddle, beyond, the mountain fell away and views of the mountain range were simply stunning. At this point I realised that had Vince been with me, I probably would not even be on the snow, he had two gears, slow and reverse. I felt brilliant, it was tiring but I was doing good now at about 5100m, three dots of light followed in my footsteps, I would push on, determined not to be caught. The next two hours were just a snow plod, steadily I pushed on up the mountain, my breathing was heavy in the oxygen starved environment. This was the easiest section of the route but also the toughest, the wind blew hard on my right side and my face was numb. The many millions of stars were reducing in numbers as the sky ahead lightened, the dawn of a new day was close, I longed for the sun to warm my frozen face but I also wanted to be on the summit for sunrise. I often thought I was close to the summit only to peak over a ridge and see the mountain continue to rise. Casually I walked across a snow bridge, if it gave way, the mountain would swallow me, I was too tired to care, it held, this time. The sun had risen behind my summit, its rays illuminated the highest peaks the area was more beautiful than you could imagine, I was too tired to care. Ahead lay the summit and one final obstacle, it was within touching distance now but I still did not know if I would succeed in climbing it. A steepening face was the problem, I gathered my strength and told myself 'nothing is stopping me now', off I went. Reaching upwards I smashed my axe into the icey face, kicked my crampons in and pulled myself up, as I neared the top, the face was just inches away from my face, it was steep but I was just metres from the top. One final push and I rolled and collapsed on the summit, gasping for breath, I was exhausted but I'd made it. The summit was basking in the morning sun, it had too tiers, I was on the sheltered lower tier. I was so thirsty but my water had frozen, I ate some chocolate but had no appetite. I had terrible pains in my stomach from trapped wind and was breathing heavily, unable to satisfy my bodies need for oxygen. My mind was already thinking about getting down, it would be difficult and dangerous, but I was happy. I didnt need to ask myself why, not now. The feelings I had answered that question, I had made it, I climbed to the true summit and raised my hands, I couldn't have felt more alive, I was on top of the world and had the summit all to myself. I took a few pics and sat back down to enjoy the sun, it was 7.30am. Kerry would still be sleeping, back home I would have been sorting mail at this time, millions of people on buses going to work, stuck in traffic and I was here, 19,000 ft in the sky, I was loving it. My solitude ended as three Slovakian climbers, one by one hauled themselves onto the summit. They congratulated me and I did likewise, I peaked over the edge of my descent route, at the bottom two crevasses lay either side of the route, I didn't like what I saw but I couldn't stay here all day. I readied myself, knelt down and dangled a leg as far as possible, kicked hard hoping for some bite. Slowly, step by step, I backed off the mountain, the adrenelin pumped around my body, I was terrified but totally focused. I think this is another draw for me, the feeling of nothing else matters in the world except my next step. Will it hold, will I hold or will I fall, I was so alive but so close to death. I was terrified but still enjoying myself. I made it off the face safely and speedily headed off the mountain. As the hours pass away and temperature rises, snow bridges melt and weaken, so it 's important not to hang around, alone and unroped, I was at greater risk. I litterally ran down the mountain in no time. In the light of day I noticed alot more cracks in the snow some as wide as three inches cutting deep into the mountain, hiding a crevasse, possibly! Was it foolish of me to tackle this alone? Yes, it probably was but the rewards were greater. The summit was all mine and the acheivement wasn't shared, it has now become a memory I can cherish and be proud off. Of course now I feel the need to go one better, I now my body can handle high altitudes and so my next mountain will be a 6000'er or possibly a 7000'er. Next stop the Himalayas. To be continued...

New York by night

If walking was our number one activity in New York, drinking was a close second. I quickly realised that the standard beers like Bud, Coors etc were worse than bad, and so reluctantly had to part with an extra dollar or two for a decent pint, with my favourite being Brooklyn Beer. Of course the huge Irish population in NYC meant that you could get a decent pint of the black stuff, but it weren't cheap, nevertheless I did indulge in my first pint of Guiness for a year, ahh cheers.

Roberto, a thirty something physcologist, spent his money like a student would, which made him a legend in my eyes, and saved us many dollars. For every night of the week he knew where the best happy hours were to be found. From $2 pints, $3 spirits, half price food, free chicken wings, free Bud with your meal and even free white wine at a chinese resraurant, yes Roberto saw to it that we had a merry old Christmas in the 'Big Apple'. One night, we met up with Roberto in Brooklyn and went to this little bar, it was $6 dollars a pint, but they had a special which included a shot of whiskey for the same price, yes please I said. So, 4quid a pint with a shot, its still a bit pricey for us backpackers but it's xmas in NYC, anyway they then bring out a huge portion of chicken wings and a massive serving of chow mein and guess what ...its free, we tucked in, and then some more, best 4quid we've spent. Anyway, later on Kerry goes to request a song, a cheesy xmas hit, and then later still another, well on the second time, a black women sat at the bar, takes the mic off the DJ and bursts out into a rap about Brooklyn, the bar and this girl from England who keeps requesting songs, it was brilliant and Kerry was delighted. A few nights later, on Christmas eve infact, Roberto took us to Indian restaurant called Royal Bangladesh. Every inch of the ceiling was covered with chilli lights, it was also a bring your own booze, so far so good. The final ingredient, the food, was superb, we had the works and it was incredibly cheap. After popping into a nearby bar on the way home, we arrived back at Roberto's place well oiled and so I changed into my party shirt, popped on my hat and danced around Roberto's until 4am. The photo above was taken at some point during that night.

Xmas was a quiet one but very nice, we both missed home so it was kind of good to get it out of the way. New Year was spent in Times Square of course, we arrived at 5pm when it was minus 4degrees and despite smuggling a hip flask in to numb the pain, it was overall a pretty painful experience. So its 11.59 in Times Square and minus 12degrees, they just played Imagine by John Lennon, then...
"10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 Happy New Year"
Auld Lang Syne played followed by New York, New York.
12.05 we're quickly leaving Times Sq and heading to the curry house...
Was it worth it? NO, dont do it ever!!!
To top it off the curry house was closed and we had to settle for a slice of pizza, but after that with Roberto we got settled in a bar and had a good old sesh.
Before we left New York, Roberto took us to a Chinese restaurant which included all you can drink white wine, between us, we drank 5 and half litres and the bill was about 25pounds, if you go to New York, please go there, thats my advice.

Anyway, cheers Roberto for showing us New York by night.
Below, Kerry and I in Times Square for New Year

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New York, New York!!!

Sunday 21st December

I felt a huge sense of relief as we hit the tarmac on JFK airport, it had been a turbulent last twenty minutes, but we were finally in New York. Winter storms had gripped most of the northern states of America for the week we'd been in sunny Florida, but now as we taxied to our gate, we were greeted with twenty foot piles of snow. It was just what we'd hoped for, a white Christmas...

Travelling has various highs and lows, for many different reasons, but there are places you plan to visit which stand out above others and New York is certainly one of those places. I hadn't exactly been wishing my time away, but this was a moment I'd been eagerly waiting for. We were soon on New York's subway system, a quick change onto line six uptown and off we got at 77th St, Upper East Manhatten. We climbed the steps onto Lexington Ave and just stopped and starred, wow, New York was just how I'd imagined. Tall brick buildings with iron fire escapes zig zagging down each building, hustle and bustle, yellow cabs, long avenues with tall bulidings and snow everywhere, it felt like a film set. We headed to our friends apartment a few blocks away, passing bars and restaurants buzzing with festive cheer.

We first met our friend, Roberto, in Colombia in August and then again in October in Costa Rica. He'd kindly invited us to stay with him for a couple of days until we got ourselves sorted with a hostel. His apartment was great, very New York, and the best part was it was only a ten minute walk to Central Park. It was great to see him again, we had a few beers and filled him in on the past few months of our travels and then headed out for some chicken wings and a third pound burger, mmm...

After an early night we woke up refreshed and ready to see some sights. So we jumped on the subway to Brooklyn and walked back to Manhatten over the Brooklyn Bridge, a digital thermometer displayed -6 celcius so it was fresh to say the least but what a walk. The Manhatten skyline for me is a man made wonder of the world. As a scouser, I love the Pier Head area of Liverpool, as an Englishman, I love strolling along the South Bank of the Thames and as a traveller, its hard to find a better city walk than that of The Brooklyn Bridge into Manhatten. Although that same day we did find an equally impressive walk in the famous Central Park, they say the best things in life are free, well, they were right.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Welcome to the USA

On the 14th December 2008, having spent nearly a year in Latin America, Kerry and I boarded our budget airline and said 'adios'. It was the end of an amazing first part of our journey around the world. A couple of hours later we touched down in Orlando, Florida, welcome to America, a new chapter. Although, I heard more Spanish being spoken here and throughout our time in Orlando, than I did I Cancun, and infact we spoke only in Spanish as we passed through immigration and entered the USA. "Great, we're in!" we thought, "now what...". As is the norm whilst travelling we hadn't booked our nights accomodation but things are much more spread out in Orlando compared to Latin American towns. Anyway three hours later, mostly spent on buses, we checked into a fairly luxurious motel central to the regions attractions. Yes, you guessed it, Disney World.
Ever since Kerry missed a family trip to see Mickey, Donald, Goofy and co. she has wanted to come and play, and be a kid again. As for me, well before hand I thought, this really isn't for me but I was happy to be there with Kerry, however she was so excited about the whole thing, I was worried she might wet herself when she saw Mickey, Donald, Goofy and co.
So, everyone knows what Disney World is all about, I wont bore you with the details. I'll just say that my opinion of it being totally for kids and a big rip off was pretty wrong. There is no hard sell at all, everything was competitively priced and the place is as much for adults as it is children. The bottom line is we both had an amazing time and it was a great experience to be there so close to Christmas, it just added to that magaical vibe in the air. Cheers Walter.