I’m back, Baby!!

Its been a long winter… I’ve been busy at work, busy traveling, busy going home for the holiday and so many other excuses as to why my last post was October 10th! Three long months of silence on the airwaves is unacceptable! But here I am, putting words to screen and making a goal to be more determined to keep posting as I keep diving. Its my new New Year’s Resolution since my original one was accomplished already, and unexpectedly (but more on that in a couple of weeks).

It’s not that I did not dive at all over the past three months, on the contrary, I went to Florida for a week, and among other adventures had two very surge filled and not so great dives, then later I rescued a sea turtle (again… more later!) I’ve been teaching, and had an awesome class a few weeks ago. So while I haven’t been in the water with my camera much this winter sadly, I’ve been enjoying our unseasonably warm and calm weather this year. Starting next month I’ll be diving more, and really focusing on my photography, the fruits of which I’ll be sharing up here, along with my diving adventures!

For now though, I was given a Nikon D300 to practice my photography, with the assignment of shooting birds, as they are a topside animal that can help with my underwater photography, working on capturing them in the air, just like a swimming fish, and they are skitterish, so approaching can be difficult. Not to mention the main reason… it gives me a goal to just get out and shoot and shoot…to work on composition, exposure and all over photography skills.

Last weekend I went out to the Malibu lagoon, but unfortunately I got out a little late so missed the beautiful “golden hour” on the water (not really an hour… only a few minutes usually!) However, I really enjoyed just being out “hunting” birds. I came away with a few photographs I like, and more importantly I realized just how peaceful it is to head away from the hustle of the city and sit in the sand watching the pelicans for a few hours. In addition I got to see some bird behavior I’d never seen before… like the pelicans stretching as they settle in for the night, crazy!

So, a belated Happy New Year, and hope everyone’s year has been going well and that you are all out going diving!! The water has been great, the visibility clear and the weather warm! Keep an eye out, next weekend (Feb 5th) I’m hitting the oil rigs again… it’s been too long! I’m hoping the great visibility we’ve been seeing at the islands sticks around and I can have a couple of great dives, and more chance to practice photographing the rigs.

You are now entering the Whitney Zone.

This weekend was one that I will never forget. After months of anticipation and planning, I headed north with several of my friends for my first attempt to summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states with an elevation of 14,497 feet.

After driving up from Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon I turned off the 395 onto the Whitney Portal Road and had my first good glimpse of the ragged peaks rising into the sky. Truthfully my first thoughts as I drove up the winding road was that they looking menacing, and briefly a wave of unease for the upcoming trip rolled over me. Pushing that feeling aside, I focused on my excitement, and my hope to accomplish this daunting of a climb.

I reached the campground and met up with Jessica and Bryan, two of my group who were camping with me for the two days before the hike in hopes of gaining a bit of acclimatization since we all live at sea level. Those days were wonderful, peaceful and relaxing. Thursday morning we ate breakfast at the Portal Store, getting to experience the true wonder of the Portal Store Pancake…ours was so big it required two plates to hold, and was more than an inch thick, delicious, fluffy and tasty with a hint of cinnamon throughout. We walked around the portal, admiring the sheer beauty of the area, and enjoying everything but the mosquitos who wanted to make a meal of my neck (seriously.. at least 6 different bites on one area of my neck alone!). I wandered along the creekside trail through the campground, napped on a large log over the creek, read my book, played cards and just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of LA life.

We had been warned that the bear activity in the area had been very high lately, and so took every precaution to stay safe, keeping all food and other items in the bear locker, especially after sundown. I was very nervous about the bears. Wednesday night a bear wandered through the campsite just below us, reminding us that the signs and warnings are there for a reason. We had been keeping well hydrated in hopes of helping avoid any possible altitude sickness on the hike, and while this is all good and well it resulted in the problem of having to use the restroom frequently. Wednesday, I discovered how disconcerting the 100 yard walk up the hill from our campsite to the porta-potties could be in the dark of the night as you briskly walk, constantly scanning the area for any sign of movement. It wasn’t until Thursday night however until I got the scare of my life.

Although I stopped drinking earlier in hopes of being able to sleep through the night, 3:00am rolled around and I found myself awake and needing to pee. Cautiously I walked up the road, keeping my headlight scanning from side to side praying the way was clear. I was about ten feet from the bathrooms when my sweeping light crossed back across the road and to a large tree in front of the fire road about six feet ahead of me. I almost continued my sweep back when I realized there were two shining specks next to the tree about chest height. Freezing in my step I realized I was looking into the eyes of a bear right in front of me. We looked at each other for a second and then it began to move towards me with enough speed that I wanted to run. Though my mind was a blur of frenzied thoughts I remembered that running is the last thing you should to do, and before I even realized I had made a decision I roared with a scream as loud and low and menacing as I could make it. The bear took its second step and quickly changed directions padding off away from me though a neighboring campsite and into the darkness. A group of campers (probably getting ready for an early AM start to their hike) just above where I was looked down and asked if I was okay. I managed to say yes and that it had run off. I stood absolutely rooted the spot unsure of if it was truly gone, or just lurking in the dark out of my sight. After what felt like hours of indecision I bolted into the bathroom and locked the door. From there I fell to pieces. I sat on the toilet breathing hard, and shortly began to shake violently and uncontrollably, breaking down into sobs and tears. I couldn’t stop it, even knowing that I was safe, that I had reacted properly and that the bear had reacted exactly as I had been told it would when confronted with a loud noise. I just couldn’t believe it, and didn’t want to think about the fact that soon I would have to leave the shelter of the bathroom building and walk back down the dark hill to my campsite. I don’t know how long I stayed in the bathroom, but eventually I calmed down enough to do my business then started to try and wrap my brain around leaving the restroom. This sent me into another fit as I realized I didn’t have the courage to walk back down the hill. More time passed and I eventually pulled myself off the floor where I had crouched and moved outside scanning for any movement. I took several deep breaths and went for it. There was no issue and soon I was zipping myself up in my tent (amazed at the sense of security those thin walls of mesh and nylon can provide). I lost control again with the feeling of relief at having come to no harm, before eventually being able to settle down. However I discovered that I could not sleep. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw the bear looking at me, and my mind took the situation into all the “what could have beens”. I pulled out my ipod and listened to my audiobook hoping I would drift off. I eventually dozed for about 30 minutes from 4:45-5:15 before just laying in my sleeping bag until I heard movement from others in my group. Then I knew it would be okay to start getting up and packing up camp for the hike.

The next morning as we packed up camp I relayed my night to the others in my group. Carlos asked, “You made the bloodcurdling scream last night? I heard that!” Yep that was me. They had all heard it. Since the trauma of the event had truly been mental, it was easier to move past and focus on the up coming hike. We packed up camp, ate breakfast and headed to the trail. There is a scale at the trailhead and it reported that my pack weighed 42 lbs…heavier than I anticipated, however with the cold weather clothing, rain gear and bear canister it made sense that I would be carrying more weight than what I was used to from past Grand Canyon trips and weekend excursions around the Angeles Mountains. With the sun shining, and barely a cloud in the sky we set off along the Mt. Whitney trail. Our destination was Trail Camp, six miles up the trail at 12,040 ft elevation, just a little over halfway to the summit. From there we planned to summit as a day hike on Saturday, returning to trail camp for the night then hiking down Sunday morning. I knew that we were headed up on a weekend where a summit might not be possible, as the forecast included 30% chance of rain and thunderstorms for Friday and Saturday, meaning that if we were going to summit, it would have to be early. As it turned out, that forecast was quite an underestimation.

We started hiking at 7:45, with the sun at our backs. I was amazed at the beauty of the trail, there were a variety of wildflowers all along the trail, adding splashes of color to the otherwise grey and green scene painted by the granite rocks and pines. The trail starts off as a sandy dirt path snaking its way up to a granite cliff face before traveling along and across into a large valley. We crossed the Lone Pine creek by easily stepping from stone to stone, and continued along the trail, over streams and up and up the mountain. Switchbacks allowed constant views back down the valley, and up to the sheer cliffs above. The views were stunning and immediately I was in love with this trail. The later start meant that we had some warm weather in the beginning, but after an hour or so of hiking, the higher elevation came into play and the weather began to cool. All in all the morning started perfectly. Keeping us entertained was Amy with her knowledge of the many varieties of wildflowers we were passing, and Jessica with printouts from her Whitney book. She would read about each upcoming section of the trail as we hiked along. Some clouds started forming as we hiked up. Shortly we progressed through the lower scrub forest into lush water-fed vegetation then out into expanses of rock with scattered trees. Crossing over a stretch of river made passable by flat topped logs we hiked up and into the official Whitney Zone. This zone marks the area where a special Mt. Whitney permit is required for all hikers and backpackers. Continuing on, we rounded a bend in the trail then hiked up and over a small ridge that gave way to Bighorn Park. This meadow was a sea of green in an otherwise grey world. Bordered on all sides by the sweeping peaks of the mountains, the trail ran along the side of the meadow next to a small creek. From here it was just a short hike up into Outpost Camp, little more than the halfway mark for day 1 at 3.8 miles in and 10,300 ft elevation. Taking a short snack break we enjoyed the cooler weather before loading back up and continuing up the mountain.

A little ways above Mirror lake, right around 11:00am, we encountered the first sign of inclement weather. Looking back down at the lake I noticed that the calm surface from earlier had been replaced by hundreds of tiny circles…rain drops hitting the lake. We came to a granite outcropping and paused to admire the view as the rain reached us. Suddenly the rain started to sting and we quickly realized it was hailing! Sheltering against a side of the rocks we waited out the short hailstorm before continuing up the trail. The clouds provided nice cover, keeping the sun out of our eyes, but we knew that having them around was a bad sign and we kept gazing up to see if any more showers were coming. As we hiked up along the granite rocks, we noticed the sky at the tops of the mountain getting darker…not a good sign. We paused at one point on the trail when a rock slide on the far side of the valley caught our attention. We watched large boulders and rocks cascade down the mountain, then tumble across a snow field. Not long after that we reached Trailside Meadow (11,395 elevation and 1 mile before Trail camp). This meadow spreads on either side of a stream winding its way down the mountain. It was lush with plants and many wildflowers, their vibrant colors standing out against the grey rocks and sky surrounding us. After the meadow the trail turns up for a few switchbacks and continues into the canyon/valley towards trail camp. We made it another couple hundred feet up before the lightning started. Looking up into a saddle to the left of the direction we were heading I watched two crackling streaks of lightning fork down. The thunder that followed about four seconds later was incredible, echoing through the air like cannon fire. Pausing as another wave of rain and hail hit we sat for about 30 minutes watching the storm roll through, enjoying the lightning and thunder display and discussing our next move. Should we try to reach trail camp and hunker down for the night, hoping this would pass and we would still be able to attempt the summit the following morning, or did the current storm and completely grey sky look more lasting? Should we hike back down to Outpost Camp and stay the night there? As the hail stopped and the rain slackened we decided we would continue up the mountain a bit more since we were so close to trail camp, lunch and the end to our day. At this point we were less than 3/4 of a mile from trail camp, however after about 5 minutes of setting out from where we had paused to watch the lightning Jessica noticed her hair crackle. Reaching up she remarked that she thought there was static electricity in her hair. She looked up and told Bryan to look at me. Apparently all my little wisps of hair that won’t stay in my pony tail were standing on end. This could not be a good sign and we decided that it was time to leave.

We picked up Amy and Carlos who were still at the rocky overhang where we watched the lightning. After some discussion on whether to camp in the grassy area above the trailside meadow or return to Outpost Camp, we decided with the rain, hail and amount of thunder and lightning it would be safer to return to Outpost Camp and stay the night there. After about an hour of hiking we reached outpost camp. We were soaked (though happily my rain shell was doing its job and underneath my shirts were good and dry). Since we had decided to not try and eat lunch in the rain and lightning we were all very hungry, and plopped down in a dry patch of dirt under a large tree to eat lunch. It was around 2:40pm. While we ate, we talked about what we should do. At the time it seemed best to stay at outpost camp, get our tents set up and get dry and warm and stay in our sleeping bags. So we set up camp trying to find the best spots that would stay as dry as possible if the rain continued heavily. While we set up tents, the rain continued on in a steady flow, luckily no hail this time. We got our tents set up, were finishing eating and chatting as we noticed the temperature quickly dropping… all of the sudden I could see my breath. The rain got heavier for a while then slackened some, never stopping. As we sat there eating we realized that Outpost camp was starting to fill with water. Thin ribbons of water were spreading all around us, covering most of the ground as the water flowed down the slope towards the meadow below. With the cold temperatures and unceasing rain we changed our minds. It was time to get completely off the mountain. We packed up the tents hastily. Next we changed into whatever dry clothes we had (I was still dry underneath so just added my vest for warmth), gathered the rest of our gear and set out again, after an hour break at Outpost Camp.

Immediately we could see the effect that the few hours of rain had on the trails. The stepping stones in the river crossing immediately leaving camp were nearly all submerged, and as we hiked up out of that area there was a good two inches of water rushing down the trail we were hiking up. I said a little thank you to the universe that i was wearing waterproof hiking boots as we splashed through the new “trail rivers”. Once we started down the other side we had water streaming down all around us. At times the trail was nearly unusable as it was so flooded with the streaming water that we could not see where we were stepping. Turns on the switchbacks had become little waterfalls that required careful slow movements to navigate in order to maintain footing and not slip off the trail with a loose rock. So much for my joy of waterproof boots… one of those first switchback waterfalls had my boots fully submerged and my pants completely soaked which then soaked my socks which seeped water down inside my boots. Shortly after leaving Outpost Camp we came up on a group of day hikers also trying to escape the storm. This group ended up pretty much sticking with us the rest of the way down. I felt bad for them, as they were definitely not prepared for the intensity of the storm that hit us, with one guy in shorts a t-shirt, long sleeved sweater and ball cap and a woman in hiking pants, with a windbreaker that looked like it had completely soaked through as she was shivering often. There were several times we had to scramble around sections of trail that were cascading water so strongly we were unsure if it would be safe. Thunder roared around us immediately after bolts of lightning would flash across the sky. At times the thunder was so loud it sounded like the earth was breaking open right around us.

On the far side of the canyon we saw rock slide after rock slide, as the torrents of rain water dislodged large boulders that crashed down the cliff faces, nearly as loud as the thunder. We were lucky, whether its because the side that has the trail is more wooded, or less steep, I don’t know, but we only encountered one small rock slide across the trail. As we rounded a turn in the trail we came across a section that had water rushing down the side of the mountain, splashing onto the trail and then rushing along it. Bryan and Carlos and our day-hiking friends were up ahead past it, warning us to be careful as there were loose rocks in the river that used to be our trail. Amy was crossing slowly we she heard a noise and looked up to see a rush of small rocks, dirt and debris being carried down with the flow of the water. Yelling out she ran forward and Jessica and I ran back, and the rocks bounced across the trail in between us. Waiting and watching as the debris flow ebbed and we started cautiously across. About half way I looked up to see more rocks coming down and told Jessica to just go and go fast. I glanced back up to see a baseball sized rock bouncing right towards me. Turning quickly and ducking I avoided potential disaster as the rock struck my pack. After that I hauled ass through the rushing section, safely clearing it and continuing down the trail.

Just after exiting the “Whitney Zone” we came across a stream crossing that had merely required cautiously stepping from stone to stone this morning. Now it gave us pause as it looked like a raging river. There was a large snow patch with boulders on the upper edge of this stream that we could climb over to reach a section of the stream lower down that looked narrower. However the thought of all the rock slides gave us pause. It would be safer to try and cross where the trail was supposed to be and get out of that open area rather than spend the additional time scrambling over rocks and risking a slide coming down on us. Slowly our group edged into the water. It was mid-calf to knee deep the majority of the way with one section that came up to my mid thigh. The flow was not as bad as we had feared and shortly everyone was safely across and moving down the trail. Next we came to the log crossing. Again, this morning it had merely been a balancing act to walk along the logs like you would a balance beam. The stream here had several points that were a good three-four feet deep, so poles were somewhat useless. As we came up to this crossing now, I was thankful to see that all the logs were still there. This crossing, luckily, was not as swollen as many of the others. The first log had actually rolled over, so we had to carefully step along the rounded bottom, but at least it was there. Two of the six logs were floating on the water and teetered as we put weight on them sinking them back down onto their supports just below the waterline. Again we all made it across safely.

From here we started moving out of that main canyon and the trail dried up some. The rain had slackened, and while I could see the debris littered across the trail from earlier rain, there was very little water now and it was quicker going. Many of the switchback areas still had some streaming water along the turns, but for the most part it was feeling lighter and easier than what we had experienced higher up. I paused to remove a large rock from my shoe, then continued down, passing Lone Pine Lake and the John Muir Wilderness sign. I was feeling good knowing that we now had one mile to go before returning to the Portal and being off the mountain. Unfortunately, I had forgotten one key aspect of the trail. Lone Pine Creek (North Fork? Not sure), that first main water crossing that we had so easily stepped across this morning. As I rounded a corner of the trail I came across a group of people, much more than the 5 of us and our 3 day hikers. Everyone was watching the torrents of water that were gushing across the trail. I saw Jessica and Bryan about a quarter of the way across, slowly picking a path through the water. The water was almost up to their knees, and they hadn’t reached the scary looking part, a section where a large boulder had been this morning that was now covered with a flood of water surging and spraying across the submerged trail and down the mountain. About halfway across and almost to this section they gave up. The water was moving to fast and the footing was not stable enough. With our large packs it was not safe to risk crossing. None of the day hikers felt comfortable attempting the crossing and we started figuring out other plans. Shortly thereafter a young man came pelting down the trail. He paused at the river, we warned him on crossing it, but in his frenzy all he said was that his dad was dying of hypothermia and he had to go. Hastily he dashed across the first half and plunged into the surging section at the end where it was easily hip deep. He slipped but managed to grab a boulder and regain his footing. After that he was up, out of the water and tearing down the mountain.

We were stuck. After watching him slip, with no pack or even backpack, that crossing was not something I was going to attempt. We came down to the decision of waiting to see if anyone came, or hiking back up the trail to find somewhere we might be able to set up out tents and just get through the night. It was around 5:30 now and the sun was sinking behind the mountain taking the light and leaving colder temperatures behind. We pulled out cell phones and surprisingly had service, managing to get ahold of the police to let them know there was a large group of people stuck, just above the portal. We were so close it was difficult to think about having to stay the night, and we could look down the slope and see where the portal area should be, however with no knowledge of the terrain off the trail we did not want to risk trying to find our own way down the steep slope. We were there about twenty minutes when I saw a guy in a yellow slicker picking his way below us off the trail. My first thought was, “well there goes someone braver or crazier than we are” and “I sure hope he saw us and lets the folks at the portal know we’re stuck here.” Then a few seconds later I realized he was coming up, not down. Elated we greeted him and he told us there was a trail right there. The ORIGINAL Mt. Whitney trail from 1909 met up with the new Mt. Whitney trail just feet above where we were grouped together (seriously…what are the odds). Jessica asked if he was a ranger, to which he replied, “no, I’m a fry cook!” He asked about the man with hypothermia, who we told him was not with our group of people. After quickly trotting down the main trail to see the swollen stream crossing, he brought the rest of the group that was still down there back up and started leading us down the old trail. After a switchback or two he explained that the trail, which was still well defined though very narrow, looked just like that the rest of the way down, there was very little water on it and we would be completely fine as long as we didn’t cut the switchbacks. He needed to get farther up the mountain to try and find the man with hypothermia. I said I felt comfortable continuing on, leading the way and he hopped back up the trail, then onto a large boulder, scrambling up it and back to the main trail. His name was Miles. From here on out it was easy, just trekking down the narrow trail, thinking how awesome it was that I got to hike on the original trail created in 1909. Within minutes we spilling out of the forest and onto the road just above the Portal Store. Chilled to the bone (though my core was still good and dry… (LOVE my REI Taku Jacket!) we checked with the store to make sure the road out was safe. We were told, yes, it should be clear, but there had been many rock falls so drive cautiously. I got back to my car and pulled open my pack. While the front two pockets were soaked through the main inner compartment had remained fairly dry. In addition, I pack all my clothes in ziplock bags (thanks for that tip Dad!) so that I can squeeze all the air out of them and pack them down smaller. This meant that all my spare clothes were still perfectly dry. I pulled off my soaking pants and damp long sleeved shirt (only the sleeves were wet), putting on a pair of nice warm thermal pants and long sleeved shirt. The dry clothes felt so wonderful. After that I piled all my gear in my car, and we took off down the mountain. As soon as we were in the clear we pulled off to the side of the road at a view point to marvel at the large double rainbow that was spread across the sky, a perfect ending to a very adventuresome day.

In total I estimate that we hiked around 11 miles, and up to an elevation of approximately 11,500 ft. We were actually hiking for about 7 hours, with a total trail time being about 10 hours, 15 minutes. It was a trip that I will never forget, and while nerve wrecking at times, and downright scary at others, one that was exciting and overall fun. I was hiking with a strong group of people that were not only prepared, but smart and all able to handle stress and pressure well allowing us to make good decisions and keep moving. We all had good spirits throughout the day, and while I hope to never encounter mountain conditions like that again, I would not trade my experience and the adventure we had for anything. I read online that the man with hypothermia was brought down safely and many people were walking out this morning having safely weathered the storm over night. I believe the trail re-opened this afternoon, though with more storms in the forecast for this weekend, people are warned to use caution about trying to hike it. I had my first taste of Whitney yesterday, and while she surely kicked my butt I know I’ll be back and one day I will stand on the top of that mountain.

Pictures:

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Dry Post: Heading North.

This weekend I ventured up north to visit my sister. Everything started great until I arrived at the airport, we boarded the plane and began to taxi to the runway. The captain’s voice sounded over the speaker of the small Q400 aircraft; there was “a power plant warning” on the screen and we’d be heading back to the terminal to have it checked. After about five minutes we were asked to de-plane while the maintenance folks worked their magic. Approximately two hours after our scheduled departure time the plane was good to go and we took off for the far north. The far north being Northern California, Humboldt County where my sister has been living for about a year. Knowing my passion for the ocean, the first thing she did was take me right to the beach. Despite the forecasted rain, the sky was bright blue with a few scattered clouds moving lazily along. We drove down to Luffenholtz Beach where she pulled out a box chock full with a baguette, goat cheese, apples, a chocolate bar, cherry tomatoes and a bottle of  red zin. I hadn’t eaten lunch due to the flight delay, and was pretty hungry so this looked perfect. As we pulled up to the beach and began to walk down the path I caught glimpses of the dark coarse sand, and aqua blue water turning white as it washed up on the shore.

Having noticed a few cars in the parking area, she also gave me a quick warning… “oh yeah, this is also sorta the local naked beach.” Exciting. However, unlike the fancy European naked beaches you may be picturing in your mind, this is the NorCal hippy version of mostly old bearded  men, enjoying the rare sunny day in their birthday suits. After passing several, we hoped that the next bend would take us to a bit of privacy, which it did. Neslted into our own little alcove we sat in the rocky sandy and began to enjoy our box of goodies.

The bread, from local cafe Brio was delicious, and the local Cypress Grove goat cheese chevre complimented it nicely. I sat in the warm sand munching away and admiring the astounding northern beauty. I had expected the lush green forests that greeted me immediately after getting off the plane, but the scenery of the beachfront I never dreamed of. The water was a deep aqua color, turning a lighter teal as the depth grew shallow. It was gently rolling into shore, splashing off the numerous rock pilings that were scattered along the coast; stubborn remnants from years of ocean waves pounding away at the waters edge. The air was crisp but the sun was warm, and all along the top of the cliffs were large green conifers, ferns and grasses.

As we slowly made our way through months of catching up and the bottle of wine, we walked around, and climbed along the smaller rocks peering into the clear water as it washed in and out. We dipped our feet into the fridge water as I imagined the life beneath the surface. We talked and talked, and slowly the sun started to move towards the horizon and our bottle of wine ran low. A younger man who had walked past earlier trying to make conversation despite us being completely uninterested in sharing our alcove had walked back over shirtless before being rebuffed again (sorry dude, you were a bit of a creeper). I glanced down the beach in the direction he had wandered to see him now only in a pair of red boxers. Deciding it was time to go before we received another visit I took the last swig of the bottle and we packed up camp. This turned out to be a smart decision because a final backward glance revealed white buttcheeks as he removed the final article of clothing. We made our way back along the waters edge to the path, gave the beach a big farewell look and climbed back up to the car. The sun’s rays danced off the water creating playful sparkles that reached all the way up into the wet sand. Luffenholtz is a beautiful beach, and while sad to leave, it was only the beginning of the trip and I was excited and eager to explore the rest of what Humboldt County had to offer.

Other hobbies.

I’ve been absent from the internets for awhile, not because I haven’t been diving, though I will admit, I’ve slowed down a bit from my earlier race to the finish. My planned date for taking the IE has been pushed back until November, mostly due to some financial issues on my part. I will get there, just not at light speed.

On top of this, I’ve been working on many other projects and things outside of my scuba world (including someday getting my actual website up and running). Two weekends ago was the culmination of a project that had been keeping me up late at night, toiling over boiling toilet paper, as I attempted to create mask for this years Labryinth of Jareth.

My goal was a recreation of Kida’s warrior mask from the Disney film Atlantis. I wanted the size (just about my full body) and the glowing eyes and mouth, all of which made it a very challenging interesting process. I decided to make the papier mache pulp myself, saving money from buying pre-made pulp.

This was time consuming, but rewarding as I boiled down roll after roll of toilet paper to fill out the large mask shape.

Finally once the mask was sculpted out, I was able to paint, add accessories and create the remaing pieces for my costume, a staff, arm guard and little hula skirts for my calves. Once the mask had fully dried I used hot glue to secure the live wire inside the eyes and mouths in order to recreate the glow effect from the cartoon.

The finished product, an awesome, but HUGE mask that I was proud garnered lots of attention and photo taking at the event on Saturday night. I quickly discovered that while fairly easy to move around in, and any chance of seeing down directly in front of me was gone. This was only ever an issue when trying to go down stairs which meant I was clinging to that banister for dear life as I imagined the one misstep that would send me crashing down into the main foyer below. I had a blast at the masquerade, enjoying the evening with 5 other friends who had also all made thier own costumes, and all who looked fantastic.

 

Megan and my tiki mask at night with our glowing faces!

 

Dry Weekend: The Big Apple!

Anticipation was high despite energy levels being low we we stumbled off our fairly sleepless, red-eye flight from Phoenix to New York at 6:00am on Saturday morning. My mother, sister and I had departed hot and dry Phoenix, Arizona after my brothers highschool graduation for a whirlwind trip of sight-seeing, shopping, museum hopping and more walking than you might think you could cram into four fast days.

I quickly fell into the roll of navigator as I began reading signs to lead us to the AirTrain that would connect us to the New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station in New York. From there we hopped on the E Line subway uptown to our hotel. New York was hot like Phoenix, with a minor difference of major humidity. We emerged from the subway onto Lexington where many vendors were setting up for a Saturday street fair. Apparently fairs like these rotate around the city throughout the summer allowing vendors from all over to bring their merchandise to different people in new areas of the city. After depositing our bags at the hotel (waaayyyy to early to check in, which was probably good or we would have gone up and not come out until that evening!) we decided to meander through the fair to see what all was being offered. After walking several blocks down and back up, we headed west towards Radio City, Rockefeller Plaza (where apparently they were filming a live action mixed with animation Smurfs movie… ugh). We wandered around with the final destination in mind being The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). This was Lauren’s pick, as a graphic designer and art major, she’s very interested in the modern art scene. I was just excited to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night which is currently at the MOMA. We passed by performance artist Marina Abromovic, who had been sitting still in a chair for a month at the museum (8-5) while volunteers from the crowd sat across from her for as long as they like. I don’t really get most performance art, and honestly to me it seemed pretty lame. As a side note however, we read an article on the train back to the airport a few days later that on her final day of the installation a man attempted to vomit on her and a woman stripped naked in front of her, yet she kept her stone composure and completed her final hours.

The MOMA had some interesting art, including a chandelier made of exploded dishes, one of my favorites. We wandered slowly up and up through the exhibits until the top where an exhibit for Ms. Abromovic was on display. It was a mix of pictures and video of past performances as well as live recreations of some performances by other artists. One such piece that I must mention was an exploration of space, where two naked people (a man and a woman) stood apart from each other in a small space leaving about a foot between them. The viewers were instructed to walk between the two people as a way to get to the next part of the exhibit. My mom, sis and I all looked doubtfully at each other and teased about going through, but no one took the first step until I just went for it. So yeah, I went to New York and walked between two naked folks. All I could think, was “gee, I wonder if her nipples and his penis get rubbed raw at all from the multitudes of people brushing past in clothes and with purses, etc.”

Around two in the afternoon we were definitely feeling the lack of sleep from the red eye flight, so we headed back to the hotel, got checked into our room, dropped our bags and crashed for about two hours before getting up, showering and dressing for dinner and a Broadway show. We walked down to Carmines in Times Square knowing it was unlikely that we would get a table as we were running late and the wait was upwards of an hour. However we lucked out with a spot at the bar, and enjoyed a glass of wine and a delicious Italian meal before heading off through Times Square to see Promises Promises starring Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hays. The show is based off the movie The Apartment, set in the 1960’s. The story surrounds a young employee of an insurance company who is in love with a girl who works in the cafeteria who happens to be in love with his boss. Hoping to move up the ladder he gets talked into allowing some of the higher ups use his apartment for their trysts with younger cute girls. Hilarity and drama are both to be found, and the best scene was the opener after intermission when Sean Hays character is drunk in a seedy bar on Christmas. I’d definitely recommend it!

We wandered a bit after the show, getting back to the hotel around midnight. Slept like a rock and we were up and going again the next morning. We went over to the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral for morning mass (no, we’re not Catholic, but my Mom really wanted to experience that church and it is famous after all). Sneaking out during communion (we couldn’t take it anyways… the Catholics and their rules…) we headed up towards Central Park. I loved Central Park. Its huge and green and feels so much cleaner than the rest of the city we had seen so far. While its still crowded, mostly with trees, it was far less poplulated than all the streets around town. We walked along, trying to follow the map in my hands, but mostly just wandering down different paths. We rested at the Bethesda Fountain (under construction…) before moving over to Strawberry Fields and the Imagine mosaic that memorializes John Lennon. After wards we popped out of the park for lunch, then walked up to the Museum of Natural History. It was already about 1:00pm, so we had to pick and choose what to see in the museum. The main attraction was the new special exhibit, “Race to the end of the Earth” which highlighted the daring challenge between Amundsen and Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole. I found it fascinating to see the different levels in preparation, the different choices each man made for his team and how those choice played out in the harsh environment.

We finished that up, then had to somewhat rush through the dinosaurs, ocean room and others as the museum closed. It was fantastic, and I probably could have spent three days exploring it all, but we had too much on our agenda to come back. We paused for a drink at the Plaza Hotel, feeling posh as we lounged in the opulence. After stopping back at the hotel to freshen up and change clothes, we hopped back on the subway down to Chelsea to meet one of Lauren’s friends, Liz, for dinner. After dinner we walked along the Highline; a new park attraction that was created out of an abandoned elevated train track in stead of tearing it down. The path is landscaped with native plants, and set with low lighting. Walking just above the city provided nice views and a cool breeze, it was calm and relaxing after a busy day rushing around. Following our stroll along that we headed to Magnolia Bakery, a famous cupcakery (its where Michelle Obama visited with her daughters, oh my!) We grabbed some sweets and walked down to the water where the four of us sat on a bench looking out across the Hudson and enjoyed dessert.

Once again, we were home after midnight, slept like the dead, and awoke Monday morning for another jam-packed day. We got up and went down to Canal Street, in search of the “designer purse.” As we walked along the street we were approached by person after person, mostly of Asian descent asking if we were looking for handbags, watches, sunglasses, all in whispered tones. We had a goal, a store just off Canal on Mulberry that was recommended by a friend of my Mom’s. We poked around, saw somethings we like but were hesitant to buy right away so on we went. We continued down Mulberry into Little Italy, which seemed like Italian restaurant after Italian restaurant after… you get the idea. Popped into a few more stores, even got “invited” into the back room of one, where the kept the good stuff… all real assured the man… no copy. (yeah right). Mom and Lou each got a purse, but I decided to go back to our first stop for a cute little teal bag, that the guy says is “Dolce and Gabbana”… whatever. We then walked further up Canal heading towards the ocean to make our 2:00pm boat tour. I thought we could walk, but upon realizing I had the wrong address in my phone, we hailed our first New York taxi and sped up to the right place.

Now we weren’t going for your typical three hour cruise. My mom had found THE BEAST. This was a 30 minute speedboat tour that whipped you along the Hudson, paused at the Statue of Liberty for pictures, then sped you back up to the dock. Let me tell you, it was AWESOME. The spray from the boat was getting everyone wet, and if you managed to stay dry, the tour guide helped you out with a super-soaker or water balloon. His commentary was hilarious, the music was pumping and the cool wind whipping around us felt great after the hot morning shopping. After our trip we walked down to the Chelsea Brewery for lunch followed by an exploration of the Chelsea area, including the famous Chelsea Market. We jumped on the train down to the Ground Zero area as the sun was starting set, then walked a little ways into Battery Park city, but never quite made it down to Battery Park. Our energy levels were dropping, so we grabbed a train back uptown, hoping to grab a small bite of dinner at the Serendipity 3 cafe and indulge ourselves with one of their famous Frozen Hot Chocolates. Again, another long wait, which we didn’t have the desire for, so I grabbed a pack to make at home, and we headed back towards a little pizza joint we had passed on the way. This was definitely the smart choice. Splitting a delicious pizza with a glass of wine made the perfect ending to our last full day in the city. We walked back to the hotel and were in bed before midnight this time.

Tuesday morning we packed, checked out of the hotel the hurried out to check a few more things off our list. The impressive Macy’s window displays (under going construction…the black cloth drapped in them read, bummer), followed by a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya (at about 10am, yup) before jumping on the subway down to Greenwich Village where we found the small letterpress store my sister wanted to visit. After that we found a wine store and picked up a bottle, followed by a grocer where we got a baguette, goat cheese, pesto spread, sliced turkey and grapes then walked over to Washington Square Park by NYU for a lovely and relaxed final lunch in New York. After this there was a bit more walking, then subway again, picking up our bags, more subway, train to New Jersey (where we almost missed our stop at the airport), then the flight back home.

All in all it was an exhausting vacation, which are usually the best kind. I had a blast and can’t thank my Mom enough for putting the whole thing together. It took me about a day and a half to recover and sift through the almost 500 pictures I took, but life is back to normal, diving and all, and our dance through The Big Apple seems a bit like a dream.

Dry Weekend: Grand Canyon Backpacking

This past weekend I took off from the crowded, loud and smoggy streets of LA for the spacious, quiet, clean air of the Grand Canyon. This is a yearly trip I’ve been taking with a small group of friends from college, and finally I feel like we’ve nailed our timing and planning down. Previously we headed out in March (too cold, with snow & ice on the rim!) and in May (blistering head made hiking miserable) but this year we planned and were able to get a permit for the  middle of April. Plagued by horrible blisters in previous years I also bought new, much better quality and properly fitting hiking boots. So early Friday we left the comfort of my Aunt and Uncles house just outside of Flagstaff and drove into the canyon. We arrived outside of Bright Angel Lodge, parked and walked to the shuttle stop just before 6:00AM anxious and excited.

Our plan for the weekend was fairly loose with certain camp points to hit…Cottonwood Campground on Day1, Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campgroup Day 2, and we were hiking out of the canyon Day 3. Originally our goal was to top the North Rim on Day 2 then hike back to Phantom making it a 20 mile total day, but after the exhaustion of Day 1’s 14 miles we decided that it would be more enjoyable to do a slightly shorter hike (about 12 miles) and see a few of the sights in the canyon instead.

Day 1: Friday – We left the South Kaibab trailhead a little after 7am. Making great time compared to past years we blew through Cedar Point in less than 45 minutes. The weather was fantastic, it started off chilly but soon we were stripping layers. I stayed in a long sleeve t-shirt most of the day not because it was cold, but mostly because the weather was cool enough that I could and it offered great sun protection. We continued on, hiking down switchback after switchback. Every now and then we’d stop for a little breather, but overall we kept up a solid pace. One nice little resting spot comes just before a huge set of switchbacks that bring you just about to the plateau.

This section had a neat little cave above the trail that offered a lovely view of the next section of switchbacks and the canyon itself. It also offered some nice shade and a spot to sit for a few minutes!

You can see the switchbacks just ahead, then the trail continues to wind down the canyon nearing the plateau before dropping into the inner canyon towards the river.

One important thing to note with the South Kaibab trail is that there is no water whatsoever. If you plan to hike down this way make sure to pack enough water to get you to the bottom safely. One nice thing with the trails we took this weekend is that they are some of the most traveled trails in the canyon which meant that there was very little chance of getting off trail or lost.

As we continued down the weather began to work even more in our favor by bringing in some clouds. The overcast sky cooled the temperatures and created stunning views and great picture taking opportunities! While some of the clouds looked a bit on the dark (ie: rain) side, we lucked out and had no wet weather.

Another great aspect of hiking the canyon in mid-April was the wildflowers. Every time i’ve been down the canyon before I haven’t seen so many bright and blooming flowers. Every color from reds and oranges, yellows, purple and blues. They were everywhere! Many of the cactus were in bloom as well, another beautiful sight.

Dropping into the inner canyon is always neat because immediately you get a sense of age. The rocks in this section just look and feel so much older than anything else. They are more jagged, and darker, and appear worn, almost tired. We finished the last round of switchbacks as we neared the river crossing. The hardest part I feel about this hike ends up being the switchbacks. Not because you’re going back and forth as you wind up or down the canyon, but because when they were built the trail makers spaced all the retaining logs so perfectly that you really only get 1 step in between each. This means that you always end up stepping down (or up) over the log with the same leg which tires quickly. Trying to hit the step with the other leg usually requires several shuffling steps and throws off your whole rhythm!

As always the black bridge across the river was a welcome sight, and we trekked across and down into the shade by Bright Angel Creek for lunch. 7 miles down, which put us at our halfway point for the day.

 

After lunch we barely managed to pull ourselves up to continue on. In previous years, this site had been our stopping point so at first it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that we still had another 7 miles to trek. As we left Phantom Ranch I was amazed at how GREEN everything was. Grass was blooming the trees were luch with leaves, and of course the wildflowers. It was all so gorgeous and different from my past canyon experiences.

Now on the North Kaibab trail we were heading towards and a little bit up the northern side of the canyon to Cottonwood campground. This section of trail is fairly easy, the elevation gain is not much and there are few switchbacks. Mostly you are just hiking back into the Bright Angel Canyon following the creek upstream. The hard aspect of this section of trail is usually the heat. The first part of the North Kaibab trail from Phantom is called “the Box” because the canyon is so narrow that its almost like you’re trapped in a box with steep walls on either side.

This also means that on bright sunny days the heat just radiates off the canyon walls creating almost an oven effect. Luckily for us, it was still over cast and with a slight breeze the intense oven like heat was not present.

What was still present of course were the wildflowers! Finally I came across some beautiful blue ones!

After a few more stream crossings and bridges we neared the campground. There is one stream crossing with no bridge that we were told is usually a trickling tiny stream that joins into the main creek we’ve been following. Well thanks to El Nino this year we ended up with a wide rushing creek that got to almost kneed deep. Feeling exhausted and wanting to be done some of use decided to not bother trying to take shoes off and crossed anyways which left a little less than a mile of hiking in squishy wet shoes. In retrospect it wasn’t the brightest idea, but my shoes dried out by the next morning so no harm, no foul. On the return trip though I would be sure to remove my shoes.

After just under a ten hour day on the trail with about seven hours of hardcore hiking we stumbled into camp.We had a few more hours of sunlight, so we shuffled around getting camp set then relaxing on a large flat rock nearby reading, chatting whatever. Shortly after was dinner (for Rob and I it was a delicious Orzo pasta with sundried tomatoes in olive oil and spinach with chicken for rob and albacore for me!). After dinner I had the boys keep the rest of the group busy on the rock while I snuck back over to the picnic tables to pull out the birthday cake and frosting I had lugged down the canyon in my pack. It survived better than I thought it would and I covered it with chocolate frosting and candles before slowly making my way to the group. We had two birthday’s this year, Steve’s the weekend before and Megan’s the weekend after our trip so I thought it would be fun, and completely unexpected to hike a full cake into the canyon. The only caveat was that everyone had to have a piece because I sure wasn’t going to carry it out! Luckily everyone was impressed and super excited to get to eat a big calorie filled, sugary piece of cake and it was gone in a matter of minutes!

It was decided that evening that we would forgo the attempt of Rim to Rim to Rim, and just hike a few miles up the trail to Roaring Springs before returning to camp, gathering our gear and heading back to Phantom Ranch and the second day’s campsite.

As we packed up for the short hike in the morning there was suddenly a loud thunderous noise that startled us all. Looking first at the cloudless sky I couldn’t figure out what it was until Steve pointed at a distance cliff where gigantic boulders were careening down the sides. Rock slides like this are not commonly seen in the canyon and it was pretty amazing to witness.

The hike up to Roaring Springs was nice, especially because other than my full bladder of water there was no weight in my pack. I felt light and free as we walked up the trail. The springs were beautiful, large waterfalls pouring out of the middle of the canyon wall into lush greenery as they formed a main vein of the creek system that supplies all the water inside the canyon. We hiked down to the top of the springs where a small creek starts down. There was lots of shade and several large pools. It was relaxing and cool, so we rested for a bit, explored the area (hoping to find a way to the top of the larger waterfalls, but no luck).

After a little while we decided to head back so we could pack up camp and get the hard part of the day done. We crossed back over the flooded creek crossing (no shoes this time) and rested while our feet dried. Then we continued on. The sun was out in full force today and it was starting to get hot. There is not much shade on this part of the trail as you walk along the river path, but overall the weather was fairly cool.

 

Another mile down the trail was the turn off for another sight, Ribbon Falls. We decided to make that our lunch spot, so we detoured from the main trail and hiked back into the falls.

Ribbon Falls is great because you are able to hike all the way up to the falls and even up behind it. Although five minutes ago every had been starving and talking about food, as soon as we got to the top of the falls the only thing on our mind was getting under that cold, refreshing water. Everyone began to strip away clothes and we all had nice refreshing waterfall showers!

After the shower, it was lunch time, then relaxation before we struck out on the trail again. The hike back to Phantom was fairly uneventful. Our morning hike and long lunch meant that we timed the section in “the Box” perfectly, arriving at that section of trail around 4pm. The sun had moved far enough west that most of the trail was shaded and it was much cooler. We got into Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground with a little sun light left. Total hiking for Day 2 was about 12 miles which had us up and about for around 10 hours again, only about 6 hours of that time was actual hiking.

After setting up camp, and making dinner we all headed up to the Phatom Ranch Canteen for some cards and nice COLD beer and some card games. Somehow we managed to last until a little after 9:00pm when we walked back to camp and promptly passed out. Worried about the uphill hike tomorrow we set our alarms for 5:45 wanting to be up and on the trail before 7:00am. We almost made it, heading out from the water pump just around 7:20.

The first part of the hike along the river trail and into the canyon was still shaded which helped us keep our speed up and get some miles under way before the blazing sun hit us. We came into the sun with the first real brutal set of switchbacks called the “Devil’s Corkscrew”. Our pace slowed a bit as we started baking in the sun, but the overall temperature was still pretty nice. That and the wildflowers and scenery could not be beat!

After a few more switchbacks then a long section that lead back into the canyon along the small creek again (intermittent shade!) we strode into Indian Gardens. Impressed that the first half of the hike had taken us just about two hours, we sat, relaxed, ate and filled up our water before moving on. While chilling in the shade at the Gardens, we noticed a small sign that we had not seen before.

 

This little pictogram warned vistors of a new threat to the canyon…

BEWARE

THE

VAMPIRE

SQUIRREL!

It wants your blood!

 

 

So after a good laugh with that we were off… only 4.5 miles left to go. The nice thing with this section is that every 1.5 miles there was a rest house, which really breaks up the hike. The last bit of the hike was fairly uneventful. We continued up and up, resting every now and then, but keeping a good pace. We stopped at both rest houses, taking a nice long break to cool our bodies, give our legs a rest and get some snacks in. The fatigue might have been starting to set in while resting at the 1.5 mile house (1.5 miles from the top) as we started to worry about the dangerous canyon predators…the squirlociraptors…dangerous tiny rodent predators…they hunt in packs and are always watching. Yeah… don’t ask, honestly I’m sorry I told you, but its true. The canyon is full of dangerous squirrel type fiends.

Finally we began to near the top. Leapfrogging with a boyscout troop for the last mile and a half we passed them for the last time, and after pausing for a quick picture under one of the cut outs on the trail, we climbed out of the canyon. Total hiking distance for day three was 9.6 miles and it took about seven hours including our breaks. We finished with tired muscles but big smiles, mostly to be done and that much closer to a long hot shower and good meal! I was pleased because my troublesome knees behaved admirably and my new well fitting boots protected my feet and did not cause any excruciating blisters like I had experienced in years past. All in all we hiked about 35 miles over the course of 3 days.