Thursday, December 27, 2007

Everest Schedule

As things shape up, an itinerary for Mt. Everest is beginning to form. Training ongoing, here are some of the major events:

January 05-06: Mt Rainier West Side Highway to Gobbler's Knob fire station lookout.

January 19-20: Mt Rainier summit climb up Gibraltar Ledges with Seattle Mountain Rescue teammates Scott Staton and Gordy Smith, both highly experienced mountaineers in their own right and technically competent on Rainier. Gib Ledges follows the same line as the DC route up to Camp Muir, but then ascends straight up the spine out of Muir rather than follow the DC route across to Cathedral Gap. Gib Ledges can only be climbed in winter when snow accumulates on the ledges allowing passage to the summit.

February 20-26: Mt Fuji summit climb up the Yoshigaduchi Route. Typically climbed in the summer months, Mt Fuji transforms itself into a technically challenging mountain in the winter when it is rarely climbed. Last winter I attempted this climb with Dana Demer but was turned back when the day grew late and we recognized we didn't have adequate gear for an overnight. Flying to Japan with me will be teammates Scott Staton (SMR), Sgt Brent Huntington, HM2 Pat Peterson, and LCpls Peter Leonard & Scott Schactler (A Co, 4th LSB). Staying at the New Sanno in downtown Tokyo, we will transit to the mountain via Kawakujiko Station and depart from the base of the mountain, rather than 2/3 of the way up as is possible in the summer months. Based on weather conditions, we will be overnighting on the mountain and returning to Tokyo the following day.

~March 20: Travel to SE Asia (Singapore, Shanghai or Bangkok) for stepping off point on journey. While there, meet up with old friends and enjoy familiar cities not seen in several years.

March 24 – 27: Arrive Kathmandu and check into the Yak & Yeti Hotel (, located in the Durbar Marg district. Meet up with Henny, one of my friends who lives in Kathmandu for some shopping and touring through places like Swayambunanth Stupa, a Buddhist temple with prayer flags descending from the highly ornate steeple and situated on a small hill that offers outstanding views of the city. Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site is also a wonderful place to visit with its surrounding temples and markets. Henny and I will be grabbing dinner at one of the local restaurants and catching up while I force myself onto local time. We will also be wrapping up last minute paperwork & the prohibitively expensive Nepal Government climbing permits at this time. More on Kathmandu later- it's a wonderful city and deserves further description for sure.

March 28: The team will fly to the Himalayan foothills where we will begin our trek into the Khumbu region. After landing in the village of Lukla (9,350'), the team will meet our porters and continue on ~2 1/2 hours to Phakding (8,700').

March 29: Continue trekking along the banks of the Dudh Kosi, crossing this majestic river many times on wild suspension bridges laden with prayer flags. After entering Sagamartha National Park at Jorsale, the trail climbs steeply with breathtaking views up to Namche Bazaar. The gateway to the Khumbu region at 11,300', Namche Bazaar is a colorful village with dozens of shops and vendors, fabulous food and views of the surrounding mountains and where we will rest for a few days. If of interest, this is where we can take an early hike above town before the clouds move in to reward us with a reportedly spectacular Himalayan sunrise and views of Everest, Lhotse, and Aba Dablam. On the way down, we can visit the Sherpa Museum that displays an exhibit on traditional Sherpa lifestyle as well as a fabulous photography collection that concentrates on Sherpa traditions and Sherpa high altitude climbers.

March 31: The trek continues along the Dudh Kosi with rushing clear blue rivers and magnificent views of the mountains. We will stay the night at Thyangboche monastery at 12,887' where we will receive our Bhuddist monk blessings and find what is reportedly one of the best views in the world. Inside the monastery are incredibly ornate wall hangings, a 20-foot sculpture of Buddha, and the musical instruments and robes of the Lamas. If our group is lucky, we will get to see the Lama perform a ceremony and listen to the mystical chanting and music.

April 1: From Thyangboche, the trail drops to Debuche, crosses a wild bridge on the Imja Khola River, and then climbs to the village of Pangboche where incredible mani stones line the path. The uphill trek continues, taking us to the quaint traditional Sherpa village of Dingboche (14,250') with its exquisite views of Lhotse, Island Peak, and Aba Dablam. We will rest in Dingboche with the opportunity to take additional acclimatization hikes for valley and mountain shots if of interest.

April 3: From Dingbouche, the trail traverses along farmlands and meadows before continuing up the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. Our path skirts along the glacier’s edge to the Italian Research Station where we will dine on great Italian food and get into showers and real beds. Ahh, the Italians..

April 4: After an early morning start, we ascend Kala Pattar (18,450') and enjoy famous views of the Himalayas; then descend from this viewpoint and continue on to Base Camp on Khumbu Glacier, at the foot of the icefall.

April 5 - May 4: Doug celebrates his 38th birthday by arriving at Everest Base Camp (17,500') on the jumbled moraine below the infamous Khumbu Icefall. There we spend some time acclimatizing. The next several weeks are spent negotiating the Khumbu Icefall, entering the Western Cwm, and climbing to Camp III (23,500'). Our objective for the next 3 to 4 weeks is to establish and stock three camps above base camp and to acclimatize for the climb to the summit. We sleep at Camp III for a night or two before heading down to base camp to rest before our summit bid.

May 5 - 9: With everybody fit and acclimatized, we head back to base camp. For the next 5 days rest is top priority. We visit with trekkers, eat, rest, eat, rest, and prepare for the summit bid.

May 10 - 31: Somewhere in here, our team will climb to Camp II, then to Camp III and finally to the South Col where we place our final camp at 26,000 feet. Our summit target date is between May 15 through the 25. We will stay at base camp to wait for good weather or until the monsoon arrives at the end of May. After summiting, we will spend 3-5 days moving back down to Kathmandu, flying out of Lukla.

May 31: Return home and rejoin the working world.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Everest Beginnings

In 1996 I was in the process of leaving active duty and looking on to the next chapter in my life- Business School at William and Mary. Things were relatively quiet in the world at the time, so a 20-something single life in 29 Palms wasn't exactly something to be excited about. One of my roommates from those days- a guy named Jim Etten- was big into mountaineering and had also left active duty, heading back to his family in Chicago. The two of us were close, and over the course of several dozen telephone calls we decided to go take a shot at Mt McKinley in the Alaska Range. We planned and planned, but because of school prerequisites and other transitional issues there really wasn't any way I could have joined him for the climb. So in June 1997 I picked up the phone, and learned from Talkeetna that he had succeeded in his dream of making the top of 20,320' Mt McKinley. I was definitely jealous. But I was also very proud of my friend, who I met up with a few weeks later to hear story after story from his experiences driving the Trans-Alaska Highway and taking on the West Buttress Route. In return, I supplied him with gripping stories of Accounting and Stats class.

Two summers later, the McGilvray-Freeman IMAX movie on Everest was released, which represented the first time an IMAX camera had ever been taken to the top to bring stunning images from the top of the world on a beautiful, windless day. While watching that movie, I thought that the traditional route- the South Col Route via Nepal, would be the eventual route that I would most like to take if and when I was ever given an opportunity to climb to 29,035 feet. Of course, when living in the ranks of starving college students surviving on ramen noodles, it didn't make that sort of goal realistic. So to seriously consider Everest remained for years just an elusive dream, something that seemed attainable but not with much serious thought or effort attached.

But in October 2000 that all changed. I took a trip from Japan to Kathmandu for a week long vacation with the girl I was with at the time, and while in Nepal we took a mountain flight where you actually see Mt Everest up close and in person. What a strange experience. After breakfast at the downtown Hotel Yak & Yeti, a car arrived and whisked us off to the domestic terminal of Kathmandu Int'l Airport, dropping us off at the security line. Here's hoping "security" at Kathmandu Int'l has upgraded since 2000: You walk into a room, where you find a door with a metal detector that just so happens to be turned off. You have two lines- one for men, and a curtained one for women. What women did behind the curtain is a mystery of the ages but it seemed like they would always go in together and I'm sure that nestled away back there was a couch, nice wallpaper and a place to discuss feelings. Anyway, I walked straight through the turned off metal detector, into a holding room and was shortly thereafter shuttled onto a smallish turboprop with assigned seating. Slipping skyward from the runway, it only took a few seconds before the plane had gained enough altitude to leave the lowland clouds behind and see giant Himalayan monsters unfold in front of us. As our tiny plane climbed higher and higher, the air thinned considerably and temperature dropped in a way where everyone could see their breath inside the cabin, the tiny windows frost over and feel adrenaline surge through veins. Climbing and banking right, a line of 8,000 meter mountains line up off the left wing for a plane load of awestruck passengers to peek out at, staring with unblinking dinner plate-sized eyes. One at a time, legendary peaks roll by until there before you is the tallest one of them all. Unquestionably Everest, the pilot offers for people to come up front where a small part of the frosted over cockpit window has been wiped away. Cramped and leaning to stare in wonder, the summit seems literally meters away from the plane and it is incredibly easy to make out fine details of snow, ice and rock contours. After a few lazy turns the plane noses southeast and drops quickly back toward the mists of Kathmandu Valley, where the air is heavy with oxygen and bathed in subtropical warmth. And then it's over. 1 1/2 hours after having breakfast, you are seated back in the same restaurant having tea, unsure of exactly how you could quite possibly communicate to everyone seated around you about what you just experienced. And seriously, how do you? Especially given all the stories of yesteryear where mammoth expeditions spent months slogging through leech infested forests with backbreaking loads of climbing equipment- just to reach a point on the mountain where they could position themselves within striking distance? Here we sat, taking 1 1/2 hours to have breakfast, fly to the summit, snap a few pictures, and then make it back to the safe confines of the hotel. Surreal. But definitely tantalizing and in that brief encounter, a serious long range goal was born.

In 2001, IBM assigned me to a project in the Pacific Northwest- what turned out to be about 19 months, actually. Living in Silverdale, WA isn't exactly Seattle by any stretch. It's another 29 Palms, only this time much wetter and without 120 degree summers. About an hour away from Seattle, Silverdale is way out on the Olympic Peninsula, across Puget Sound via either a long drive across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge of Galloping Gertie fame, or via one of the charming yet antiquated and amazingly expensive Washington State Ferries. Silverdale is perfectly positioned for work at SUBASE Bangor, home to Pacific Fleet-based Trident Nuclear subs. But if you aren't married or have several kids it has zero social life. As a result, in my free time I focused on getting out into the mountains and over the two summers I was in Silverdale knocked out almost all of the major Pacific Northwest peaks in one fashion or another, meeting climbing buddies and gaining valuable experience along the way.

One day in 2004, I descended from a summit climb of Mt Rainier and when I finally had cell coverage, turned on my phone and found six voicemails from my then Battalion Commander. I called him back and heard the good news: "Pack your bags, you are heading to Iraq". After I returned, I was casually talking with Christine Boskoff, the outgoing, personable and high octane owner of Mountain Madness climbing guide service. While we were catching up, I expressed frustration at once again seeing another season slide by without the chance to pull together a viable team to go for McKinley, which I still had in my sights. She mentioned that Mountain Madness had scheduled trips, and actually had slots available if I was interested. It took me a few days to deliberate (a guide service?! Come on) but then recognized the opportunity before me and seized on it. What a great trip. I had found myself with a highly professional, extremely strong team that were focused and well prepared. Typical summit assaults of McKinley take up to 21 days round trip. We made the summit in 9, and were back off the mountain in 11 days with 6 of the original 10 making the top.

After returning from my second deployment to Iraq in 2006, I caught up again with Chris and asked her about the flag that I mailed her from Al Taqaddum, then talked about her upcoming climb in China. It was great to hear from her and she had just returned from more exciting adventures that she was excited to share. Chris is one of those people who amazes. A woman from Wisconsin who worked in a typical corporate job, she had caught the climbing bug and wanted to do something with her life. Convincing her husband that there was much more than the day-to-day grind, they approached Mountain Madness with an offer to purchase the climbing company- then in the throes of upheaval in the wake of Scott Fischer's passing made famous in the 1996 storm captured in Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air". After a few attempts, the owners agreed to sell to the Boskoffs, and Chris became happy owner of a mountaineering firm. Her husband passed away, and as a result Chris dedicated herself to finding herself and putting 100% into her company. In the process, she transformed herself into a world class female high altitude climber, successfully scaling more 8,000 meter peaks than any other female in recorded climbing history. She summited Everest, too. But in iron lady fashion, she had to climb to Camp 4 four times before conditions were acceptable for a summit attempt. Her partner Peter Haebler commented that "Christine takes pain very well". Her personable nature, ease at approaching total strangers and ability to communicate her experiences in a manner that inspired others made Mountain Madness a financial success and globally one of the top guide firms focusing on mountaineering adventures.

On 1 November, 2006 I returned to IBM, and was eventually placed on a US Coast Guard job working in Elizabeth City, NC. As I flew back and forth across the country from Seattle to NC, I happened to glance at the front page of USA Today somewhere in December and my gaze stopped at a quick one sentence quip at the top: "Hope withers for climbers lost in China". As soon as I returned home I did an Internet search, and learned that the same day I had traded emails with her in China was the last day she had been heard from. Over the next few weeks I learned that she and Charlie had pushed into unclimbed territory in China and were swept away in an avalanche on unclimbed Genyen Peak. She lived as she passed, in unique settings living her dream with people celebrating her and leaving behind one hell of a legacy.

In the wake of that tragedy, Mark Gunlogson, the President of Mountain Madness and no slouch in his mountaineering experiences himself, continued to talk with me about climbing opportunities as time wore on. Inevitably, Everest came up. We spoke about it and then spoke about it some more. Other climbs and opportunities arose, and when we talked about a USMC climb to Aconcagua, he kindly offered to assist with logistics support for that trip and even offered to assist with Seattle Mountain Rescue however he could. He mentioned that the 2008 Everest climb would include another hard-charging team of strong climbers led by Willie Benegas, an Everest veteran with 6 summits under his belt and a tremendous amount of experience. The story goes that last year, he climbed to the top with his team, safely returning and then turned around with another teammate and made the summit a second time. After working with Mark and ensuring that everything was going to work out timing wise, I committed to joining the Mountain Madness team and take on the Nepal-side South Col Route.

The South Col Route is the one made famous in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary who along with Tezing Norgay were the first people to step on the summit. Steeped in history and one of the more popular routes to the top, our team will move from Kathmandu via air to a landing pad ~30 miles from base camp, hiking up through Namche Bazaar and Thyangboche monastery to Everest Base Camp at 17,500'. After spending several weeks of training and climbing to develop acclimatization to Himalayan high altitudes, the team will ascend through the Khumbu Icefall into the Western Cwm, up the Lhotse Face to the South Col, across the Hillary Step and onward to the summit. All things considered, we will be targeting a summit somewhere in mid May timeframe.

So now the difficult part begins. Preparation, training, and coordination. Long hours in the gym, trips to REI and Feathered Friends and calls dealing with sponsorships. Three months may seem like a long time depending on where you are (3 months in Iraq was not a right around the corner timeline), but in planning and preparing for this event, it will be over in the blink of an eye and then I'll find myself on a plane crossing the International Dateline enroute to Nepal. I'm extremely pleased with all the support and encouragement I have received from friends and family, and haven't even bothered to think about know-it-alls who think that the South Col route isn't that tough, or pish-posh the use of Mountain Madness to get to the top. In response to those people, go slay your own dragons and grow a set so you can speak from experience. As for me, I'm pretty damn psyched to take on my next adventure and am truly amazed at how the stars came into alignment for this, in the manner that they did. To me, this is more about me climbing for those who can't; seeing things that others may never have the chance to; and in a small manner, this is an adventure for all of us to celebrate and experience together.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- Teddy Roosevelt "The Man In The Arena" Speech at the Sorbonne Paris, France April 23, 1910

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

London in an afternoon

A few nights ago, I had one of those blue moon moments come along where you truly relish being alive. One so memorable that even while you are experiencing it, you know that 30 years into the future you will look back and feel like it happened yesterday- where you can still see and feel the details, remember specific sounds and in some cases, smells. I have had that feeling before, but the difference was that this time I was actually moved and overwhelmed by the environment to the point where I felt the true and intended spirituality.

On Sunday I boarded a plane for London, and was honestly not that interested in this trip. I have always used a simple litmus test as travel barometer to let me know if I just need a break: If I step off a plane and someone were to hand me a ticket for Paris, would I turn around and get back on? If the answer is yes, then I'm still ok. If the answer is no, then I need to stop to recharge. On Sunday, I was still unpacking from a previous business trip and trying to look toward December 17th, my sister's birthday and last day with IBM. Given that this trip was for an IBM conference, I was definitely having difficulty getting motivated. I still have several thousand chores to take care of before my last day- my email alone looks like what you might encounter if you decided to go clean out the attic of a home that has been in the family for 100 years. I decided that the opportunity cost of not going would far outweigh the benefits in the long run, so after 15 travel hours jammed into a window seat and San Francisco layovers, I arrived at London Heathrow 14:00 local time. There were a considerable backlog of planes waiting to land and our flight swerved this way and that to coordinate a slow downward spiral towards Heathrow’s runways on slot availability. Light, puffy clouds dotted the landscape below and one quick glance out the window in any direction revealed no fewer than seven heavies carving contrails through the sky with 747s zinging by barely four hundred feet above us.

Making my way from Heathrow to the hotel, I decided that the entire afternoon was still open for exploration. Slamming a Red Bull and grounding my gear, I hopped onto a Heathrow shuttle bus and then armed only with a map, camera and a few random Pounds boarded the next Heathrow Express train heading to Paddington Station. The London rail network is efficiency at its purest definition with each station maintaining it’s own unique charm. Paddington Station is an 1800s Victorian Era rail station that looks similar to many European open air train centers- most reminiscent to me of Gare du Nord in Paris with the major difference being in the prolific abundance of shops and bistros that have popped up.

Walking directly off the Heathrow Express platform it is possible to immediately descend down into the Underground Bakerloo Line where you can pick up a day pass ticket for roughly 5 Pounds. The Underground warrants a story all to itself given the culture that surrounds it, but that’s for another day. I moved quickly along the jammed corridors in between the Bakerloo and Central Lines marveling at the unique paintings, friezes and mosaics specific to each stop and enjoying the musicians playing away on different instruments and to different tunes. It’s so great to hear them down there, happy notes bouncing off the concrete walls 200 meters before you stumble across them. Quickly and efficiently, I made it to my target stop located within blocks of the British Museum- a top pick based on the wealth of material inside and free entrance- quite appealing in the age of a weak US Dollar.

London is nowhere near as organized as Paris or New York well squared blocks and wide thoroughfares. In many ways, London still reflects its medieval beginnings with a tight nest of streets that interlock with no particular organization. Main areas, like Piccadilly Circus are open and easy to find. But at the height of rush hour with a crush of hurried locals the streets can become intimidating and it is ridiculously easy to find yourself turned around barely 50 meters from your hotel.

The British Museum is a treasure trove of unique items that are proudly on display for the cultural advancement of society at large. However, many items in the museum are direct descendants of the Great Britain days of imperial worldwide rule. Even today, you can do the who’s who of governments that have an issue with some items here which are in dispute. “Hey, how about returning those _____ that you stole in 17xx?” For example, in 2004 Athens was deep in conversation with England to return priceless marble carvings that had been pulled directly off the Acropolis. The British response? Nope, they stay in the UK. Sorry, Charlie.

Walking into a giant atrium that welcomes visitors to the Museum, I tried unsuccessfully to gain entrance to the current exhibition “The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army” that runs through April 2008 and features a selection of 120 objects as well as 20 prized Terracotta warriors on display, part of the 8,000+ soldiers created to adorn the Emperor of Qin’s mausoleum in 210 BC. Discovered in 1974, these larger than life statues are located in X’ian Province and is widely considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Since the exhibit was sold out, I took this pic of some clay figure takeoff on the warriors and then moved on to some of my other favorites in the British Museum which no matter how many times I see them am still moved by their uniqueness, beauty and cultural significance.

Topping that list is the Rosetta Stone, which is displayed right off the main gallery. The Rosetta Stone was originally discovered by French explorers in 1799 in the port town of Rosetta, Egypt and resulted in How the stone ended up in English hands remains subject to debate but all rumors point to some shady dealings in a back alley. Regardless, here it stands in all it’s splendor- the first useable tool capable of laying out a path to translate between two forms of hieroglyphic and ancient Greek thereby unlocking the secrets of the Pharaohs.

Across the museum is “Hoa Hakananai’a”, a smaller Moai which in native tongue means “Stolen or Hidden Friend” that the Brits essentially swiped off Easter Island in 1868 when the HMS Topaze arrived. The story I heard from locals on Rapa Nui were that Hoa Hakananai’a was on a long boat enroute to the Topaze before locals understood that it had been moved although given it’s 4 ton weight I have a tough time imagining the crew was able to throw the statue onto their shoulders, making off with it under the noses of the locals. Furthermore, at the time the Topaze was at anchor Easter Island natives were still actively practicing cannibals and appear to have developed a taste for the occasional shipwrecked sailor. So if I were on the Topaze crew I doubt I’d do much to press any issue, let alone outright theft of a spiritual icon knowing full well that I might end up a main ingredient in the evening’s stew. More likely, Hakananai’a followed the more common British model of moving items home from their origin: They paid off a Chief with some random item like a musket or nails who then approved of the transaction. By a strange twist of fate, outright taking this Moai from the island likely saved it from the fate of its brothers still on Easter Island. When Captain Cook first visited Rapa Nui on Easter of 1774, Moai were all upright with their ahu topknots firmly in place. But by 1868 and thanks to internecine conflict, the Moai had been intentionally toppled with many breaking in two pieces when they hit the ground. Finding such a transportable and exquisitely carved Moai likely seemed like a prize opportunity and the potential to save a piece of cultural history to the crew. Indirectly, they also kept it from eroding away thanks to lashing by the elements and sea air. With the exception of a select few that I saw on island, Hoa Hakananai’a continues to be the best conditioned of all Moai that I have seen and its intricate carving designs are stunning. You can read more about Easter Island here.

At 16:30, I stepped off again and headed quickly via the Central Line to St Pauls Cathedral, where I had a plan to finally pick up Light of the World Christmas Cards for mom. Light of the World is a painting by William Holman Hunt, completed around 1900 which shows a figure of Jesus standing by an overgrown and long closed door, prepared to knock for entry. The symbolism of the painting is that the closed door with no outside handle stands for human conscience, which can only be opened from the inside and represents that only we can let God into our lives. The St Paul’s painting is the 3rd iteration of Hunt’s masterpiece created toward the end of his life and the large painting takes up a dominating position in the well lit North Transept as part of the chapel located there. Last year when I was travelling through London I had arrived too late in the day to hit the St Paul’s Gift Store and pick up a stack of Light of the World cards for mom, who I know would love them for sending out her annual Christmas notes to family and friends.

Now determined to get to the store with adequate time, I moved quickly through the Underground corridors, emerging streetside about a block away from the cathedral. Transiting the iron gates at the back of the building, I quickly just as I heard the bells toll 17:00. “Uh oh”.. I put on a charming smile and approached a woman manning a side door that leads directly to the cathedral shop. Despite her polite, clippy dialogue, she couldn’t have cared less that I had just flown in, wasn’t getting downtown again, and knew exactly what I wanted. In typical British regimented because-that’s-the-way-it-is methodology, she proceeded to tell me that it really was pretty much tough crap that I had missed the opening hours by one minute, and I guess I’d just have to wait until my next trip to London. Asking for alternatives, she then sent me on a wild goose chase across the greater St Paul’s area to several card stores that she insisted housed many St Paul’s cards and items. After walking 10 minutes down Fleet Street past 50 Starbucks stores that have popped up like crab grass to one of her “suggestion” stores, I finally realized that she was more interested in just solving her problem by making me scarce long enough to shut her door and never then dealing with me again. Why not just send this gullible tourist on a 10 minute walking tour to a store less likely of carrying St Paul’s Light of the World cards than a Hallmark in Des Moines would. But, it worked and I left her alone to walk the streets, getting more and more pissed off at her ruse with every step.

So this is how I finally led back up to St Paul’s. Redeye tired and bloodshot, poor from the US Dollar weakness, a little sweaty from my speed walking and greatly irritated from the helpful ha-ha-on-you suggestion Easter egg hunt. I was concerned that I hadn’t looked carefully at the evening schedule for Evensong, the nightly service held at St Paul’s that I had been able to sit in on last year and which won me over as one of the most unique services I had ever experienced. To me, Evensong is up there with Good Friday at West Side Presbyterian, Christmas Eve at National Presbyterian, Cao Dai services in Vietnam and Buddhist prayers at temple in Rangoon. Last year I literally stumbled on Evensong and wasn’t even sure I was allowed to sit in until asking one of the ushers, who happily invited me to take a seat and observe. Since it was my first time at a St Paul's service, I naturally thought that I would have to sit well in the back of the church but then saw a bunch of people walking straight up front and into the center dome area. So I followed, and found a seat smack in the center of the domed area where you aren’t just sitting in a service, you are quite literally absorbed into your surroundings and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of setting. In an event that closely follows my trend of always screwing up communion no matter where I happen to be, I managed to do that in St Paul’s by walking to the front of the communion line, taking the wafer directly out of the hand of the priest, keeping it in my hand, stepping right, then taking the goblet out of the hand of another priest for a drink and then realizing that at this church, they place the wafer on your tongue and then guide the chalice. Great. Walking away, I looked down and still had the wafer in my hand. Chalk up one more church that I need to brush up on Communion For Dummies.

I was looking forward to all of this, and figured that at the very least, I’d be able to sit in on Evensong and then afterwards grab some quick food before heading back to the hotel for sleep to line up on London local time. Little did I know that I would soon experience a service so moving that I literally wanted to quickly freeze time, call home, have the family hop onto planes and then have everyone join in to experience such a memorable occasion. There are too many times that I have looked out across a mountain to a sunrise, seen a painting so moving, or laid witness to something so beautiful that the first thoughts are “I wish someone were here to experience this with me”, and that was what went through my mind within minutes of the 18:00 Advent Procession starting. Fortunately for me, I had arrived at 17:30, literally not knowing what to expect but definitely noticing that something was different this night. As I had arrived 30 minutes early, I walked with experience straight past all those people who did the same thing I did initially on my first service- sit in the outlying rows well down the corridor and away from the rotunda. Within minutes though, the entire cathedral filled to the gills and you could tell it was going to be special- the Nave, North and South Alleys and both Transepts began to fill, ultimately leaving standing room only with easily over 5,000 people in attendance.

From my central Dome seat facing southwest I slowly drank in my surroundings, relishing in how much I detail and labor had gone into the tremendous history behind this building. Gazing to the Golden Gallery 280 feet upwards from the Cathedral floor, the St Paul’s dome is one of the largest in the world supported by eight pillars and weighing over 65,000 tons. Sir Christopher Wren, chief architect of the Wren Building at William and Mary is the individual most responsible for the success of St Paul’s and it’s greatness as a structure. Working for over thirty years on the building and through tremendous challenges, he finally saw his son place the final stone block at the top of the dome in 1708 when he was 76 years old. Even at an advanced age, he still insisted on being lifted in a basket to the top of the dome at least once a week to inspect construction progress. He was that interested in the absolute perfection of his building. But here’s a man who despite the massive undertaking, obstacles and his personal status still ended up being humble enough in his beliefs that his final resting place located deep in the southeast corner of the crypt with a simple stone marker.

Between the arches spanning the main hall and continuing around the inner dome are mosaics of prophets and saints, installed between 1715 and 1888 in an area known as the Stone Gallery. Today, these paintings and murals depicting the life of St. Paul look down on you with silent approval and add to the magnitude of the event. Light sparkles off the gold and down onto the standing congregation while priests begin the service and a chill goes up your spine, thinking about how you had somehow managed to quite literally stumble upon this event after forcing yourself to gin up the energy to make the trip into town.

As the service began, the pipe organ gently played out several tunes composed by Bach, Wagner and others, the notes bouncing and echoing off the white-grey limestone walls in a manner where you feel the music, not just listen to it. The lights slowly dimmed as the priests and choir assembled at the front of the cross-shaped church, ambient light streams in through colorful stained glass windows and reflecting off gilded gold statues, paintings and ornaments. Candles lit along the aisles and within the choir lofts assume a softer flickering glow when sequenced with mahogany pulpits. In this manner, with 5,000 hushed souls captivated by the sequence of events about to unfold, a muted spectrum of colors create a uniquely warm environment in dim splendor.

Identified by St Paul’s as one of the years most dramatic services, the procession then slowly moves from darkness into the light with service aspects focusing on Advent themes of life and death, heaven and hell, time and eternity, judgment and healing. Speakers alternate between priests, choir members and selected members. All have profound pieces and articulate through thick British accents to make their words carry even more weight. Over the next hour, the congregation alternates between captivated interest in speaking roles, singing hymns and looking on with silent awe as the cathedral comes to life through lighting additions.

And then it was over and the time had arrived to leave the confines of the church. I walked with the crowd out into the evening air and made my way via the Underground back to the hotel, looking on at mildly bored riders across from me and feeling energized with new found excitement for a new day, a new experience and a new adventure that down the road I would love the opportunity to repeat. The unique aspect of this memory though is that unlike a one of a kind sunrise, this one can be repeated.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Easter Island / Rapa Nui / Isla de Pascua

After my 2nd deployment to Iraq in 2006, I spent several weeks decompressing in Tahiti and decided that Easter Island was one of those storied places that needed a visit. I didn't want to run the risk of deciding several years down the road that it was an I-need-to-go place... shelling out several thousand dollars in the process to get back to the South Pacific. Easter Island is a place you will occasionally see a picture of- as a grainy black & white shot from some explorer of yesteryear or a random archaeologist on a quest to find the real answers behind why island natives cut down all their trees, or how they ultimately reached this incredibly remote part of the globe.

In planning the trip, I learned a critical thing about Easter Island: There are only two ways of getting there. By boat or by plane.  The tiny and spectacular Easter Island finds itself located roughly halfway between French Polynesia and Chile, until only recently accessible to modern civilization. Hosting three names: Easter Island (western), Isla de Pascua (Chilean) and Rapa Nui (native), this volcanic speck among a vast ocean was first discovered by Polynesians around 700~1000 AD, traveling several thousand miles across open ocean by catamaran. Establishing a thriving community and losing interest in further settlement, these new owners of Rapa Nui did not see another set of foreigners until April 5, 1722 (Easter), hence the western name. 

The western coast of South America lies 3,600 km away and tiny and remote Pitcairn Island of Mutiny on the Bounty/ Fletcher Christian fame is the closest land mass, a distant 2,000 km to the west. Taking a boat- while unique and expeditionary, and originally the only way to reach this place- would also require either blind luck in stumbling across a container ship that just so happened to be transiting the island, or by chartering a yacht. Given the weeks of sailing involved, bad luck in the lottery, lack of a last name that ends in Hyerdahl and no desire to end up with really sore rowing arms, a plane seemed to be the best travel option.

Not surprising by any stretch, there is only one airline that flies to Easter Island: LAN... and even that is a relatively new experience. In 1966, the Mataveri (Rapa Nui International Airport) expansion was funded by the US military, who built a runway and Air Force base, thereby supporting limited charter flights to the island. Commercial traffic didn't begin until after 1986 however; the US again funded a runway expansion to prepare the airport as an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. As bizarre as this seems, it was logical in a bygone era when NASA wanted to prepare for re-entry contingencies that might arise where a shuttle came down outside of it's window and needed to find one of the established Transoceanic Abort Landing Sites. While flying in to that airport on a pinhead-sized island nothing larger than a speck in the vast Pacific, steep, jagged cliffs rising up from a rough coast with water depth close to 2,000' just a few hundred feet out to sea seems like a difficult landing for any pilot, not to mention a 75 ton, bultibillion dollar glider. Truly? No pilot flying a Space Shuttle would really want to make a long shot choice on this place if they could avoid it, and once the Vandenberg shuttle launch plans were scuttled, the Easter Island TAL contingency became a long shot for any use.

Either way, the runway expansion led to larger aircraft and greater options. Soon after, tourist flights began and even the Concorde visited Easter Island in the late 1980s. Today, LAN offers two flights weekly with one more in the austral summer season to cater to tourist demand from Chile. The usual routing is for a Tahiti-bound flight from Santiago to stop over, refuel, and then continue on to before turning around and repeating the layover on return. I ended up departing Tahiti at 01:00 on a Monday morning, arriving at 11:35 thanks to time zones and a 6 1/2 hour flight. When the map showed we were right over Pitcairn, I looked out into the inky blackness for what must have been 20 minutes. Not a thing, no matter how hard I scanned the horizon for even the faintest of twinkling lights from one of it's 50 residents. It's just that small and that remote. There's a reason that the island hasn't caught on as a tourist destination in the years since John Adams was found there, the lone English survivor of the Bounty mutiny 18 years after the rag-tag group of Tahitians and English burned the Bounty along the craggy shoals in an attempt to hide from the Royal Man-o-War that were out hunting for them. Pitcairn is truly unique and about as far-off as one can get save Antarctica.

Before long, the sun rose, airline breakfast was served, and we were preparing to land. I filled out my entry visa and then the plane started its descent. I hadn't locked on a hotel room yet, although I had read in my trusty Lonely Planet guide that there were a few reasonably priced hotels in Hanga Roa, the main town on Easter Island. I decided to roll the dice and plunk down a hotel name from the guide book knowing full-well that I still hadn't quite made up my mind as to whether or not I was just going to hoof it around the island for the 2 1/2 days I was there (my return flight that I HAD to make was Wednesday night at 22:30. If I missed that flight, I was stuck until the following Sunday). But as the plane made it's final descent toward the airport, I saw that the island is definitely larger than I originally believed and made the call to hit a hotel. I had read somewhere that you can rent a 4x4 to drive to the sites and figured that I'd have much better luck doing that in order to see as many sights as I could given limited time.

When a plane lands, everyone on Rapa Nui knows it. Almost all of the island's cab drivers are waiting to transport the 6,800 annual tourists (yep, that's it) to their hotel rooms, and processing through customs with only a carry-on bag, I hooked a $4 cab for the quick drive to my hopeful hotel, even though I later learned that I could have walked the same ground in 10 minutes. The airport is quite literally at the edge of this sleepy little town. Even at that, calling Hanga Roa a town is a bit of a stretch. The entire community is about 3/4 of a mile long and 90% of the island's ~3,700 permanent population lives there. Barely paved, the two main roads are dotted with little restaurants, no international brand named anything (this was quite refreshing), a few Internet cafes, and one ATM that is quite possibly the most confusing bank machine I have ever failed at using.

However, there are no shortage of tourist targeted local artisan craft stores that sell an unending variety of Moai miniatures, carvings and paintings. The only movie theater that I could find played one movie twice a week: Rapa Nui, starring Kevin Costner. In all, it's a great little place when in the off season but I hear it gets crowded once the tourists from South America arrive. It constantly reminded me of 1999 Siem Reap with no industrial background noise, motor scooters, friendly yet isolated locals and an almost outpost and laid back type feel. Even though this is technically a Polynesian island, the early spring air night coupled with distant noises quite literally made me feel like it was Halloween in a northeastern town. I don't really know how or why that was, but perhaps it was 50 degree temps, a gentle wind rustling the leaves and distant dogs barking occasionally. And these weird, almost spooky statues looking down on you or out to the endless horizon.

At the Tahiti airport and on the flight in I did a bit of research on the hotels and there are only about 7 (~36 B&Bs) ranging from one room to multi-room annexes. Prices vary, but for mid-October they were very price reasonable. During off season, there is a bit of flexibility in picking and choosing the hotel once in town although from November thru February I would think it's very difficult without advance reservations. I ended up scoring a room at the Hotel O'Tai and absolutely loved it for the price (~$80/night). The hotel staff were also extremely helpful in making dinner reservations and locking on my rental 4x4 for the trip, a rickety little number but did the trick in allowing flexibility in getting around the island with ease. The other place I would recommend is called Villa Manavai- those places are centrally located in the town proper, are reasonably priced, and are well maintained by proud and caring owners.

Villa Manavai plays the Kevin Costner B-grade flick called "Rapa Nui" in their hotel lobby although I can't remember when they have show times. I think if I go back I'll probably go there and see it for the novelty of it if anything. Apparently there was some resistance to the movie when Costner & Co showed up but they essentially employed 1/2 the island for the movie, conducted a thorough cleanup, and made a sizable donation to the preservation society upon their departure so people there like the movie in a campy, fun sort of way. From what I hear the movie isn't entirely accurate, as in several hundred years of events are featured as happening in a relatively narrow span of time and there is undue focus on cannibalism, but it apparently does give you a good idea of what life was like several hundred years ago. I have to admit that I was extremely happy to once again have found a place where no McDonald's, Sheraton's or other International chains had invaded and where locals were competing more with themselves than with a multi billion dollar Starwood or Sol Melia corporation. But, some of the hotels can use some work and others are pretty basic. If you aren't ready to consider the bare basics, then there might be some culture shock but on the whole it wasn't that bad.

Speaking of which, the Hotel Iorana, I think the one hotel that targets itself to tourists and which spends money advertising to the outside world is a dump! It might be rated high for some reason, but if you look at it firsthand it's amazing how much of a state of disrepair it is in compared to other hotels that are much less in price. I drove through there for sheer morbid curiosity and was shocked at how small and crappy the rooms were. Think of a King Oscar highway motel that was built in the 60s and hasn't been renovated since, but has been battered by sea air and the elements.

At the hotel, I immediately asked about renting a car and had read in the guidebook that most places have extra cars that they'll rent out to hotel guests. No worries on an Int'l Driver's License, not needed- just a little charm and Q&A session chat with the hotel front desk. Having wheels provides the ability to explore the island tenfold over guides or bike, neither of which I wanted to try out to be honest. If you bring your tour book and a road map (it's not like the place is interlaced with roads.. as long as you keep the ocean on one side of the car you'll be back downtown in an hour) you don't need to take the tours that'll overcharge. You can then wake up at the crack of dawn to get to places like Tongariki for sunrise or kill several hours at Rano Raraku w/o being on a timeline. I paid $30/day for a rental 4x4 that was a beater, but very effective and definitely wasn't a gas guzzler (gas was like $4/ gallon).

The location is so remote that on several occasions it's entirely possible to find oneself spending all day without seeing a soul.. but still touristy enough to see a tour bus fly up to Tongariki and 20 tourists pile out, take a whirlwind of pictures and then take off like a shot and a cloud of dust to the next site. After waiting for these sorts to head out, turn to the gentle sounds of surf, wind in the grass and don't be surprised to find a band of wild horses wandering past moai, grazing while light rays beam down through the breaking cloud cover. Seriously! This place is crazy with scenes like that, and even now, back in the States and the day-to-day craziness of shopping, bills and everything else, it's nice to think of a place like Rapa Nui where time slows down and simple scenes roll over and over in the mind's eye.

The road that borders the island turns gravel right after you pass the airport, and by touring in counterclockwise fashion, the sites start to pop up one at a time as the road slowly winds along a cadmium blue ocean coastline. Fallen moai after fallen moai lead to the standing moai of Tongariki, remnants of old "Long Ear" houses, funeral platforms, etc. It's sort of like an Easter Egg hunt when you kick off because you stop and stare, and then all of a sudden you realize that a stand of rubble are the ruins of a Polynesian village. It's truly amazing and you feel how remote you are, staring out at the horizon and just picturing how far away you are from just about everything.

Taking the coast road route, the first major archaeological stop is Rano Raraku where the islanders carved the moai- a sort of moai quarry with 400 still remaining in varied states, from those still imbedded directly in the rock to those that were in the process of being moved to their future homes. The largest of the moai are here, all 21 meters of it still locked into the volcanic tuff when it's artisans stopped working on it. As you approach the front side of Rano Raraku, it's amazing to see all of the moai that you have seen in textbooks over the years. This is truly the Easter Island of imagination. Literally hundreds of moai stare out at the horizon, at you, and out from their rocky prison. Following a path up and around, you quickly realize that this quarry is the site of an ancient volcano as you stare down into the eroded crater now turned into a quiet and tranquil pond. Pushing through brush, reeds and brambles along the rim, the trail takes you past several hundred more moai in the same state. It becomes clear quite quickly that at one time in a bygone era, this was the site of a tremendous work effort with workers tirelessly chiseling away at the rock to free their creations one at a time.

Moving along the coast, the next site is Tongariki restored in the 90s by the Japanese after interisland conflict toppled the statues and then a tsunami hit the site in the 60s, leaving the area in a state of disrepair. There are 15 giant moai here- some small, some fat, some tall. Each one of the 15 is unique in its own way and only one of the moai have had their pukao top knots reattached by the Japanese team although several can be seen scattered around their base. Like almost all moai on Rapa Nui, these statues are facing away from the sea. I learned that moai were typically erected in order to look down onto a village area, and were carved to look like tribal elders. So these 15 giants were likely caractures of elders from the village at this site, and given from how funny some of them looked it must have been a hilarious looking crew. On a ridge overlooking Tongariki, there is a small, 5' tall moai separated from the collective. As it turns out, this is the "Travelling Moai", who was traveled further than any other moai, including the ones that are now gracing museums across the globe. After first moving from Rano Raraku, this little guy was used by Thor Heyerdahl in "walking" experiments to determine how the islanders originally moved the statues. It was then sent off to the Worlds Fair in Osaka, Japan in 1960.

Anakena is a site where Thor Heyredahl re erected a moai back in 1956 via traditional means and learned that it took 9 men close to 48 hours to erect just one statue. The remainder of these moai are in one of the most pictueresque sites across Rapa Nui- right on a sun-drenched beach with swaying palm trees and wild flowers.

A remote site with the only sea-facing moai is Ahu Akivi, located at the center of the island and on high ground. Despite being several miles inland, this site looks out across fields and hidden settlements that are only visible to the trained eye in the form of building cornerstones and ancient foundations.

Heading back to town is Punapao, where the islanders carved the top hats from a different variant of lava that is much lighter and redder in color. Despite being on the opposite end of Rapa Nui from Rano Raraku, the polynesian settlers would roll these top hats across the island to marry up with their moai.

For sunset: the best location are the moai right on the ocean at Hanga Roa at a few varying sites. There are several moai within walking distance and if you hustle, you can hit several as you move along the coastline. The farthest site is roughly 3/4 mile away from the town center and the closest site is quite literally next to the dive shop boat marina.

For sunrise: Getting up early and making the trek to Tongariki and Rano Raraku are best for first light and if you wait a few moments beyond when the sun crests the horizon, you can score some dramatic images. While the last thing you want to do in the morning is wake up in the pitch darkness to drive 30 minutes down a dirt road, it is well worth the effort. I bitched about it all the way up until the sun came up, knowing full well that it was a complete crap shoot. And then I felt like I had just won the lottery.


I decided to go scuba diving while there and in retrospect would recommend Orca Dive Shop. They aren't as pushy as their neighbors and cost a few bucks more but their gear is better and they are a little more professional. Besides, they have this ridiculously cool logo, and as a complete sucker for a slick marketing campaign, I'm sold. If you can, do two dives to knock the price down a little bit but more than that isn't necessary b/c they take you to basically the same place- just a little further down the shoreline. While there I saw massive sea turtles, rays, and unique and very large reef fish but nowhere near the abundance or vibrant colors of what you'll experience in French Polynesia. I'm assuming that the relative size of the marine life is due to the colder water and also the fact that half a million miles from anything out here, there's plenty of room to grow.. and grow.. and grow. As for the diving, you end up hopping into this little pontoon boat for a quick and extremely fun ride straight through the high surf located at the harbor entrance. There is a bit of a current and coupled with the thick wetsuit that keeps you bobbing like a cork for a few minutes in cold water until you become waterlogged it's fairly busy trying to get down to depth. But once you are there! The dives are in uber clear water that you can see forever in and it is almost deceptive. I looked down into the water and assumed I had a 40' deep bottom that turned into 110' before I hit sand.

Mercado Artesenal is the best place I saw for buying moai statues- you'll see then everywhere but they have the best variety for price. The building is literally row upon row of necklaces, moai, wood carvings, paintings and various other chotchkies that you can pick up. As with everything else here you need to work in cash because of that ridiculous surcharge that everyone throws on, claiming "processing fees". I understand that there may be a lag in payment, but is it really going to kill them if that $20 doesn't come through for 30 days? Maybe I'm being nieve about it and it will in-fact take food off the table. But given even hotels and the dive shop pulled that story line I'm thinking it's more due to a cultural mistrust of plastic payments that I encountered all over Vietnam the 1st time I went there.. and then 2 years later everyone accepted Visa/ AMEX without a second glance. Even with the volume and price competitiveness of Mercado Artesenal, I found the best quality wooden moai were being sold by a overweight and dreadlocked islander who sold his statues by the sunset at one of the larger Hanga Roa sites. Both times I wandered down to see sunset he was there with a couple of his braddahs smokin da ganja mon. Maybe that made him easier to negotiate with (he was very easy on the pricing) but his location, quality and unique appearance landed him a picture and quotes in a USA Today article so he's doing something right.

You can grab cheap food in any one of the streetside cafes in downtown Hanga Roa and it will only set you back a few dollars. Interestingly, I noticed that a Coke cost the same as a side order of fries, which seemed a bit odd to me that both would be inflated. I understood Coke given import costs, etc but fries? Maybe potatos are scarce in South America or they are imported direct from France. Who knows but I can only imagine what that would do to the Big Mac Index if it were ever applied to this place.. which I doubt it ever will. Lunches are a bit cheaper than dinner under some strange Rapa Nui algorithm that makes food more expensive when the sun goes down. Via Lonely Planet I learned that Aloha Restaurant was considered to be the top end joint in town, complete with night life once the kitchen closed so of course I had to go and see what this place was all about. Monday night it was closed so I settled for another place that served quality food from the exact same style of menu I had eaten from during lunch.. for a few bucks more. Then finally on Tuesday night I made it into Aloha and while the fish was good, I found it to be a bit overpriced if you look at the amount of food you get. No night life on Tuesdays, either. I resigned myself to having a beer and then head back to my hotel room to read and chill out for my last day on the island. Oh, here's a fun thing to do- if you get the chance, swing by the post office and for about a buck they'll put some cool stamps in your passport. They are campy and at the time I thought they looked a bit odd to be thrown into my official passport rather than into a scrap book. But in retrospect when I now flip through my passport I stop on the page that has three "Isla de Pascua" stamps that some Chilean Post Office lady stamped in there.

Before I knew it, I had one last sunset and then a long flight back to Tahiti. Just like the Grand Canyon, I must have taken 50 pictures but it was worth it- this was by-far the most impressive sunset I had on the island of the 3 that I saw. Interestingly, just like sunrise the geographic location of the island coupled with odd time zone placement made sunset occur at an abnormally late time- like 21:00. In Easter Island bizarro world the sun rises late like Iceland in the winter and sets late like Seattle in the summer. I was a bit worried that I was pressing it in making my way to the airport for that final flight out before I'd be stranded, but after seeing the sunset and burning the last of my Chilean pesos on those last few moai carvings from Rasta islander guy I thought it was well worth it. Thanks to the small nature of the town and airport, I had more than enough time to get back to the hotel, turn in the rental 4x4, grab another $4 cab to the check-in counter and land my boarding pass with plenty of time to spare.


Once back at the airport and loaded heavy with moai souvenirs, carvings and a bottle of local Pisco decked out in an ultra-fabulous moai-shaped decanter, I found that I had to actually hand carry some souvenirs and check through my carry-on bag which I had packed carefully with the more fragile items. Wandering around the airport, I found the local cafe' and headed inside to grab a soon to be scarce seat while the now-landing LAN 767 was being offloaded and fueled. As 300 Chileans heading to Tahiti milled about the trinket shops in the quarantine area I noticed something about the bar that truly explained this place: while we were seated in the secured part of the airport, the bartenders had a bar that literally serviced our side and by walking around a little tabletop island could then service customers who were there waiting for people in the "main" part of the airport. No security, no cameras, no effective barriers, really. It just seemed to sum up an idyllic place at one of the far corners of the planet where life is simpler and safer. After a little while I boarded, looked back one last time, and flew out. Easter Island was fun and unique, but this place is way to special to do alone.