Thursday, January 11, 2018

New Zealand Adventures, Part I: The Shorelines of North Island

Having finally settled into our new home this year – with free-time able to be devoted to traveling rather than building projects – Michael and I considered how we would make use of his Christmas vacation days. We’ve long been interested in the country of New Zealand – famous for its extensive mountain scenery, so varied and vast that it was chosen to host the iconic Lord of the Rings movies. It also happens to be in the southern hemisphere, which makes it a perfect get-away-from-winter-for-a-few-weeks destination. So after several months' planning, we headed for the airport on Dec 9th.

Flying first to San Fran, we then had our longest-yet 13hr flight down to Auckland. (Despite the long plane ride, though, there wasn’t much jet lag, as the time difference from Seattle is only 3hrs.) After the previous night of late-night packing, followed by a night filled with the less-than-wonderful joys of sleeping on an airplane, we nonetheless woke up refreshed and excited, curiously peering out the airplane’s windows to see what the renowned New Zealand scenery would look like. Our first glimpses were not of alpine mountains, but rather vast stretches of rolling green hills merging into winding coastlines and many small island-hills. After picking up our rental car, we had our first experience of driving on the left-hand side of the road (surprisingly less difficult than expected, though the turn signal controls being switched with the wind-shield wiper controls often led to an unneeded swipe of the windshield wipers when approaching a turn. Presumably the local kiwis – as the New Zealanders call themselves – enjoy a nice laugh when seeing the unnecessary swiping blades in pristine sunny weather near the tourist areas, as visitors get accustomed to the reversed location of the controls J)

Driving northwards towards our evening destination of the town of Ngunguru (gotta love the native names!), I was surprised by the many palm trees and very non-LOTR, almost sub-tropical flora, we saw.  Especially prominent was the just-beginning-to-flower Pohutukawa, known as the native NZ “Christmas tree”, as it flowers red around the end of December all along the islands.

The NZ Christmas tree – just starting to have red blooms – as seen by us a few days later on our Bay of Islands trip.

(By the way, as we later learned, during filming, much of the native vegetation was specifically uprooted and temporarily replaced with more “English-countryside” flora to create the Middle Earth atmosphere seen in the films.)

On the way to our airbnb, we stopped by the Marine Reserve of Goat Island for a quick swim, and then set out early the following day to the neighboring town of Tutukaka. This was a day we had long been looking forward to, as we had booked a scuba-diving trip to the renowned Poor Knights Islands, rated by renowned diver Jacques Cousteau as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. It was indeed a great experience, with lots of colorful fish, swimming above and among the swaying kelp forests. Some fish were so well camouflaged that they were hard to tell apart from the rocks they were hiding among; others were swimming in large clouds made up of hundreds of identical-looking fish. We also spotted two moray eels, and several nudibranchs: the underwater world is a very special place! While one couple talked about this being their first “cold-water” dive – requiring thick 7-millimeter wetsuits with hoods – for us it seemed like a relatively warm-water experience, unlike our last dive 5 years ago in the cold waters of the Pacific NW, where bulky dry suits have to be worn and extra training courses taken. 

Our scuba instructor had an underwater camera, so we have a few photos taken during our actual two dives!
We think this is Michael (a little hard to tell with all the masks and gear!).  Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka.
And we think this is Katrina J.  Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka.
Probably Katrina again.  Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka.
Moray eel.  Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka

Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka

Several nudibranchs.  Photo courtesy of Dive Tutukaka

Owing to their unique topography and location, the islands have a very interesting background story, which we were told during our boat ride from Tutukaka.  But first, by way of introduction, a picture:

A scenic hole along the steep shores of the islands
In the late 1700s, the islands were inhabited by a Maori tribe with a wealthy chieftain. Thanks to the islands’ tall, rocky shores, they were easily protected against invaders.  The cheiftain was a successful raider of other tribes, and – because of the islands’ strong defensive position – he was then able to stock up and hoard his growing collection of goods. Befriending (or being befriended by) Captain Cook, the chieftain received a gift of live pigs, which he then began to breed. The other Maori tribes would travel long distances and trade large sums for the rare delicacy of pork. Around 1806, one visiting chieftain sailed from such a large distance that he asked to trade for a live pig, instead. Tatua – the chieftain of the islands’ tribe – was furious at this request (if pigs could be bred, and pork bought, elsewhere on the mainland, why would anyone trouble to travel to his island and trade so extravagantly with his own tribe?). So Tatua sent the visiting Waikato away empty-handed, refusing even to sell him any pork. Waikato, in turn, was so enraged by the refusal and wasted voyage, that he seized his chance a decade later to get his revenge. As it happened, an escaped slave made his way to this other tribe and informed them that Tatua and all his fighting men were currently off raiding, and that they had left the islands undefended. Waikato attacked the islands and slaughtered those remaining, including women and children. When Tatua’s warriors returned and discovered the massacre, they were so devastated that they declared the islands “tapu” – a sacred place that must be left alone (this Maori custom is the origin of the word “taboo”). The whole tribe moved to live on the mainland, leaving the islands uninhabited from the 1820s on. Even today, no one is allowed to set foot on the islands unless they have received a special blessing.

What we found so fascinating in this story is the strange twist of fate:  that it's the bloody history of the islands that have kept it as such an unperturbed and beautiful natural reserve. Once the pigs were exterminated in the early 1900s, the native life has been allowed to grow without any invasive species, and the previous devastation has led to such blessedly-flourishing native flora and fauna.

By the way, the meaning of the islands’ name is less clear, and it’s unknown why Captain Cook decided to call them Poor Knights Islands on his sighting of the islands in 1769. One theory suggests that the islands resemble the shape of a person lying down, and that poor knights used to be buried not in deep graves (which were more expensive to dig), but rather with stones laid on top of their bodies, and with their feet pointing in a particular direction. As such, the islands might resemble the masses of stones, covering the body of a poor knight.

From a distance: feet, stomach, and head of the poor knight.

The day after our scuba diving adventure, we drove up to the scenic Bay of Islands, taking a ferry ride from Pahia to one of the more remote – and also the largest – island of Urupukapuka. Along the way, the captain slowed down to point out a small creature: a little blue penguin, which happens to be native to New Zealand, and also the world's smallest penguin.

Approaching the island.  Again, gotta love the "Urupukapuka" name.
Once on Urupukapuka, we spent the day hiking along the perimeter of the island – viewing some spectacular coastal scenes, and then snorkeling in one of the small bays.

Spectacular coastal views!

The bay where we went snorkeling

We found several underwater pockets of calm waters protected by large rock formations filled with a variety of fish.  And though the underwater life was less spectacular than what we’d seen the previous day during scuba diving, it was nice to be able to swim freely, rather than feeling like an alien species in the underwater world.

The following day we drove back to Auckland to catch a flight down to the south island, where the second stage of our trip would begin – our first week-long hiking traverse. Stay tuned for the next installment of the blog, about our hike in Mt. Aspiring!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Climbing Mount Kazbek, in the country of Georgia

In celebration of the near-completion of the construction phase of our home, Katrina and I took a two-and-a-half week trip to the country of Georgia:  An eastern-European country on the Black Sea, and formerly a part of the Soviet Union.  And within Georgia, to the towering peak of Mt. Kazbek.

Georgia held many appeals:  it would be a completely new country and culture, in a region I’ve read and heard lots about in Russian books and songs.  It’s a land of proud people  – even if proud to a fault (think family feuds in thankfully-bygone days born in the mountains, daring, horse-riding, and independentIt’s a land where even the marriage ceremony involved kidnapping (generally with consent of) the bride, and a place known for its hospitality to strangers. It would also be [somewhat] Russian-speaking country, at least with the older generations, brought up under Soviet rule (the younger generation has pivoted towards English instead). 

But the main reason for going to Georgia was that my sister and her husband Boris – along with their two children – would be there, as part of their nearly-yearly pilgrimage to Georgia each summer, away from the Israeli heat.  And moreover, Boris, a professional mountain climber & guide, would be taking a group up to Mount Kazbek, an imposing mountain 16,512 ft tall (about 2,000 feet taller than Rainier, Washington’s tallest peak).  Neither Katrina nor I had ever done anything of that scale, but we were ready to try out an experience we would be unlikely to come by otherwise (and where the mountain was still something a mountaineering beginner could do, provided there was an experienced guide).  We spent the preceding two months going on hikes every weekend in Washington, training up to carry 40-50lb backpacks for 10+ miles a day (and with Katrina, ever the preparer for a worst-case scenario, grabbing a 50+lb backpack to the gym and running with it for an hour).  We also spent a couple solid days shopping at REI and online, for truly waterproof pants and coat and gloves (“water-resistant”, it turns out, is effectively nothing if you’re going to spend day upon day in the rain or snow).  We also bought mountaineering boots (hiking boots on steroids), a couple climbing harnesses, a helmet, two ice axes, and Lord knows what else.  All of those, except the harnesses and helmet, would be useful for us for everyday winter hiking in Washington as well, so we equipped ourselves as thoroughly as we trained up physically.  And now it was time to see that glorious mountain. 

Making good use of my shiny new gear

We arrived to Tbilisi, an old city known for its famous Turkish baths.  Legend has it that many centuries ago, a king was hunting with his falcon.  The falcon dove down into the water to capture the wounded bird, and when they re-emerged to the surface of the water, both were cooked in the boiling water that comes from the natural hot springs.  And so the city was born. 

The hunter-king... and the modern city that emerged from his legacy

Tbilisi was interesting to see for a day, but it was also hot and crowded.  It also was only slightly hilly, a far cry from the dramatic mountains I expected to see so close to The Mountain.  It was quite a surprise, then, when our group drove out on a mini-bus from the city, and within a couple hours was passing through tall mountains and deep valleys.  There was also a variety of natural springs, with mineral water – often with an interesting carbonated-like taste – coming out of hillsides.  One hill was entirely pink and red with some mineral deposits, looking more like a coral-crusted rock underwater rock, than part of normal land scenery. 

On the way out of Tbilisi, and towards the mountains.

Mineral deposits, extraordinaire!

Both on this drive, and on all future ones, we passed by a number of churches along the way, all built in the same Georgian style:  mostly-rectangular main building with a central half-dome; hanging paintings, and occasionally frescoes, on interior walls, depicting Jesus or Virgin Mary (and typically drawn against a golden or silver background); crosses hanging on walls or standing on beautifully-carved stone o wood pedestals, with candles lit in front of them… and the same smell of an old stone building mixed with incense Many of the churches were once-fortified, with a watch tower either inside or nearby the now-crumbled perimeter walls.  All arches were perfectly round arches, not the tall gothic arches that were so familiar to us in England and France. They were pretty churches, but they also looked rather alike amongst themselves, all seeming to be scaled copies of the one grand church of Georgia, the Svetitskhoveli, which we visited on our way back from the mountain.  The churches, as Katrina rightly observed, also seemed less grand and detailed than their English and French counterparts; perhaps a culture of proud horsemen engaged in war and family feuds doesn’t lead to stable wealth and a cultural renaissance 

The grand church of Georgia, Svetitskhoveli
We arrived to Gergeti, a small village at the base of Mt. Kazbek.  My sister, her two daughters, and my mom would all stay in that village for a week, while the rest of us – Boris, myself, Katrina, two fellow Washingtonians named Corinna and Aram, and Vanya from Israel – would go on our quest.  We had a celebratory dinner en route to Gergeti, the table overfilling with Georgian cuisine.  It was very tasty, though we later found that our dinner effectively comprised of the entirety of Georgian cuisine some twelve traditional dishes that we continued to eat day in and day out on our return from the mountain, each dinner as similar to the next as the Georgian churches were amongst each other. 

On a hill above Gergeti is a church. We started out from it the following day in the mid-afternoon, only small day packs on our back.  Two village horse would deliver our gear – tents, sleeping bags, extra clothes, food, ropes, etc. – to a campsite some three miles away.  It seemed a bit silly to have them carry all this for a mere three miles, but it turned out that the terrain was steep, the sun hot, and the altitude already quite high (where the lessened oxygen does become noticeable, until your body adjusts to it).  In short, it turned out that the horses’ help was quite appreciated, esp. when we did carry all that gear up on our own backs the following day to base camp, on the longest and slowest 2.2 miles of my life. 

The Gergeti Trinity Church, at the base of the Kazbek route

See the red backpack on the second horse?  Yep, that's my pack...

A mind-boggling invasion of sheep, at the start of the climb

The terrain was a little reminiscent of south-central Alaska, tundra growing on steep but walkable slopes, and rivers and creeks cutting through the landscape.  But it also was more rugged and jagged towards the tops of the mountains, and taller. Wildflowers were in full bloom, contrasted beautifully by the brown-reddish rocks and cliffs further up the valley.  And above it all towered Mt. Kazbek, our goal and destination. 

I carried my phone, with the Gaia GPS app, to track our progress along the route.  Here is a Google Earth rendition of the terrain and our path, all the way to the summit.  (VIDEO)

Right before reaching base camp, we walked for half a mile up a flattened glacial slope.  It was no different than the previous trail, except that it was slightly more slippery, and it had water channels carved into the ice, creating enticing-looking slip-and-slides (minus the water temperature, and the fact that they all were headed in the direction of a several-hundred-foot-tall drop…)

Our base camp was a weather-station building created during early soviet times, and now transformed into dormitory-style accommodations for climbers.  It was convenient to have a room where the six of us could store our belongings and sleep on bunk beds,, and with a common room – with flags hanging on all walls and ceilings, from previous successful expeditions – to cook and eat meals at.  But, for anyone planning to climb Kazbek, or for the base camp management if they ever come across this blog, let me do a short aside/tirade:  it was also the single least hygienic place that I've seen in my entire life (and one that caused multiple people, including Katrina, to catch some cold that was going around).  In my analysis of the situation, at root of the problem was the bathroom situation, which would undoubtedly constitute a health-department and national-forest crime in the States: a single (for 50+ people?) primitive plywood box, with an ever-soaked (or worse) floorwith a hole punched out at the bottom… and, horrifyingly, emptying out simply onto a cliff.  No hole to hold the waste in, to prevent running off into the river below; not even so much as netting, to prevent pieces of toilet paper from blowing and circling  in the wind.  “The base camp is a beautiful place, if you ignore the piles of shit around itBoris had told us.  Having experienced it, I understand exactly what he meant.  And with folks walking with the same boots or sandals down to that pure excuse for a bathroom (or bypassing the bathroom altogether, and instead choosing any bit of gravel within a 100-yard radius of the building), and then up to their rooms or up the bunk-bed ladders; and with backpacks and camping equipment and canisters of gas and pots touching that very same floor, and then going into peoples’ hands or onto the common dining table, it's no surprise that sickness is prevalent in that base camp.  Cool as the Kazbek experience was, I would not go back again (or if I didI would camp in my own tent a mile away far away from that biohazard of a building).  It truly feels like a crime against the environmentand all the more sosince it turns out that it's a private for-profit company that runs this operation, on public land. 

Whew. Now that the rant is off my shoulders, let me get back to the otherwise awesome trip, with no further mention of that Godforsaken building.  On the first day after our arrival to base camp, Boris led us to a tiny chapel – a former tram-car, brought in by helicopter and decorated with crosses and icons – some 700 ft above base-camp.  The goal was both to acclimate us to slightly higher altitude, and to do some rope training while we sat there, teaching us to do a figure-eight knot, an alpine butterfly, and to use a short “prussik” rope for safety.  We then descended down to a snow field, and spent an hour or two practicing snow-walking and using an ice axe to catch yourself if you are suddenly sliding uncontrollably down a slope.  Practicing, of course, involved putting ourselves into that very situation, but in a controlled environment (i.e.,  not into an abyss) – intentionally falling down and sliding, picking up speed, and then drawing out the ice axe and jamming it hard into the snow.  To make it more fun, Boris had us play “King of the Hill (played identically in Russian, as “Царь Горы), pushing each-other down the hill.  I emerged as king… 

VIDEO: Michael victorious

The next (second full day at base-camp), we practiced ice climbing on a nearby glacier.  It was somewhat unlikely that we would need to ice-climb for the mountain, but Boris wanted us to be prepared; and it also was a fun skill to practice, as we waited to get fully acclimated.

VIDEO (timelapse):  Michael ice climbing

Originally, we had planned to set out on the third day to camp halfway up the route; but as we came back from ice climbing, we learned that the weather forecast had changed.  It now appeared that we had only one day of good weather ahead, and so our best bet would be to summit all in one day.  We made preparations that night, and went to bed around 10pm, waking up to an alarm clock just four hours later.  We had breakfast and were geared up and on the trail at 3:30am, marching along by headlamp until sunrise broke the monotony a couple hours later. 

Ah, but what a sunrise!  I don't get to see sunrises that often to begin with, but here the views of the neighboring mountains – with jagged peaks, and the rich texture of glaciers on their slopes, all reflecting a gentle pink hue --  were incredible.  It may have been some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery I've ever seen.  I remember a thought that crossed my mind as I stared at the immensity and majesty of the scenery: “this is why we need to preserve our planet for future generations!  Much as I questioned Boris’ wisdom a couple hours before, waking up to an heartless alarm clock in the depth of the night, could think of no better place for me to be now. 

A small musical aside, from “A Proper Place”, available here: 

Nothing tops the thrill 
Of running up a rugged hill 
To touch the sky! 
When a gentle breeze 
Comes rustling through the might trees 
I want to fly! 
Some enchanted spirit here, has breathed life in me 
And all of my senses can thrive; 
I'm becoming part of all I feel here, I'm real here 
It never felt so good to be alive! 

Truly, it was phenomenal, seeing the different peaks come aglow, snow and ice sparkling in the morning light.  And it felt wonderful to be out, all the more since our backpacks – which Katrina and I had trained for to be in the 40+ pounds, minimum – were light as a feather, carrying merely a water bottle, a few snacks, an ice axe (which is way lighter than it sounds, weighing in at less than a pound)a helmet (also lighter than you'd think), and a bit of extra clothing.  The rain pants, gaiters, boots, and harness were already on us.  I’m pretty sure that the entire contents of my daypack (which is the same backpack that I use for work) weighed no more than the laptop and AC adapter that typically travel within it. 

Only Boris had a pack of any significant size... and even so, it was quite light.

By the way, while the thought is still fresh in my mind:  when we came back, i asked Boris why we needed to get up so blessedly early in the morning, if we were back so amply early (~4pm, if I recall correctly).  Why not balance out the day more symmetrically? Was it for the views, or maybe snow conditions?  Boris’s answer surprised me in its simplicity:  no, it was merely to have a larger time buffer if things do go wrong, while daylight (for visibility, and warmth) is still on our side.  Old man Kazbek is rather severe at nighttime 

For the first mile and a half, the trail was solid rocky ground.  As we gained elevation, the rocks gave way to snow.  We roped up for safety -- to ensure that if someone stumbled into a crack or crevasse beneath the snow, the others could pull him/her out – though in reality there weren't any truly dicey spots.  We passed the imaginary 14,411 ft mark (Mt. Rainier elevation, for us Washingtonians), which I tried to make more tangible for us by drawing out a line in the snow with my hiking pole.  Not long thereafter, we crossed the imaginary line that serves as the border between Russia and Georgia (for the uninitiated: the Kazbek summit itself, and the majority of the common route, is in Georgia; but a short mile of the trail towards the very top is in Russia, so I can now say that I've finally been back to my homeland, after 24+ years of being away). 

The snow had an interesting texture: it was composed not of snowflakes, but of bunches of hail.  At one point, we came across enormous animal footprints, which in Washington I would have assumed to be a cougar or lynx.  But an hour later we came across the animal that laid them, a giant white dog with slightly sinister brown-reddish eyes, which came from down in the village, and had decided to accompany the group that summited before us.  I tried to befriend the giant white beast with beef jerky (the mountain felt more conquerable if a four-paw-drive companion without ice axe or crampons could do it; and in figured it would make for one heck of a picture on the summit); but the dog kept his loyalties.  Ah well… 

This photo, taken accidentally as I was putting away the camera, none-the-less perfectly captures the texture of the snow.  It also captures the resiliency of Katrina's SanDisk MP3 player.  I would send it to their marketing department, if the device pictured here wasn't a 5-year-old discontinued model...

The weather, clear in the morning, had rapidly begun to turn cloudy as we rounded a bend in the mountain.  I had figured that out was the mountain itself creating a microclimate around it, but as the clouds stretched on, it became clear that it was more than just our local geography.  Fog of varying density engulfed us for much of the last hour before we reached the summit.  We asked one passing group if they had seen anything from the top, but they shook their heads: fog as far as the eye could see (which is exactly the problem: the eye couldn’t see very far in these conditions!).  

Resting at the saddle, before the final push

Still, bit by imperceptible bit, it felt like the fog around us was thinning.  By the time we got to the saddle near the topclouds were just skimming the snow we were standing on, so thin and low that we could watch individual curling wisps, and catch glimpses of bluebird sky mere feet above us.  Periodically, we could see on or the other of Kazbek's two peaks:  the slightly lower western peak, and the true summit on the eastern peak.  The final bit of the climb, from the saddle to the summit, was the steepest, zigzagging alongside the face of the mountain, forcing us to keep switching the ice axe from one hand to the other (the ice axe is held on the higher-slope side of the path you're walking on; the other holds a normal hiking pole.  The clouds continued to taunt us, first obscuring everything from view, then momentarily revealing it, then covering up the landscape again.  And then, quite suddenly, we were at the very top, basking in sunlight as the clouds finally gave way.  In the direct sunlight, it was hot; ridiculously hot, given that we were standing on a 16,000ft peak, surrounded by glaciers and snow, and that we had prepared for bitterly cold winds.  Instead, we lay against the snow, gloves off, coats unbuttoned, absorbing the coolness of the snow beneath us, even as we continued to bake from above.  Visibility stretched far and wide, for maybe a hundred miles in any direction; but other than Kazbek's own second summit and the snowfield directly beneath us, there wasn't so much as a rock that could be seen.  All was engulfed in a multilayered sea of clouds. 

The mountain conquerors!  Left to right:  Boris, Aram, Corinna, Vanya, Katrina, and Michael
Boris, our trip leader, standing with the Israeli flag

VIDEO:  Foaming sea of clouds, as seen from Kazek's summit (and with the view of Kazbek's second peak in the background). 

It had taken us 8.5 hours to walk the 4.05 miles up (and 4,237ft of elevation) up to the summit. The pace seems quite remarkably slow, as I think about it from the comfort of my computer desk.  But at elevation, and up a slope as steep and continuous as Kazbek's, it isn't altogether surprising.  The way down was quicker, though it still took 4.5 hours (climbing down a steep slope can be even slower than walking up it, though for different reasons).  We signed a bandanna and hung it at the base camp. 

Fog was thick over the valley, though we were later told that the weather above was good, with excellent visibility of not just clouds but also the surrounding peaks, on this theoretically-bad-weather day.  Old Man Kazbek can play all sorts of tricks... 

We made it down to the village the following day, where we were greeted as heroes by my 5-year-old niece.  And with that, the Kazbek portion of our trip was complete (... to be continued, time permitting, in a follow-up post regarding the second half of our vacation).