Saturday, September 12, 2009

Labor Day Monsoon

The goal for Labor Day was to climb Rainier... until our small team reviewed a summit forecast of six degrees and fifty mile an hour winds. Not exactly what one dreams of for a relaxing Labor Day trip. Still, some of us wanted an adventure so we continued to watch the weather and keep our fingers crossed that conditions would change.

Saturday morning we woke to gloomy grey skies, wind and heavy rain moving sideways. A raincoated woman scrambled from her car to a nearby doorway as her umbrella turned upside down. Not exactly fun outdoor weather. We continued to discuss options while I watched a small river move past backed up storm sewers. Reid asked if this meant that sunscreen, sunglasses and a sunhat were now off the packing list. Got any moleskin?

Ever the optimists, we all agreed to meet up at Huntington's house to discuss a plan which for safety sake now seemed in jeopardy. Even Glacier Peak seemed unlikely- four thousand feet lower than Rainier, the forecasts still clearly indicated a purely miserable experience. Hiking fifteen miles with full packs through rain and strong winds, we would be completely drenched when passing through the snow line where everything would soon freeze. So awesome... not.

Over the years, I have had the fortune- or misfortune depending on how you look at it- of being cold many, many times. It can be fun, situation dependent. Most of the time it's not. But either way, misery can generate some great stories. Believe it or not, the coldest I have ever been was in Quantico, Virginia when I was at The Basic School- where Marine Second Lieutenants go to learn how to become baby alligators. One dark, cloudy January morning at 5am and with barely three hours of sleep, we packed up our gear, stumbled out of our warm barracks and sat in the cold grass to wait for a CH-53 ride to a training area across base. Then it started raining. Not hard, but just enough to get everything immediately wet. Over the course of the next three days it rained constantly, with the temps shifting hourly between 31 and 33 degrees. Everything was wet. Then it all froze. Then it got wet again. And then it froze again. Back then we had something then called a Shelterhalf- a World War II era throwback tent contraption that has fortunately since been replaced. My buddy and I would come back from day-long training, break the ice crust off the seal and crawl in. We would then shiver all night in our damp cotton sleeping bag, taking our mind off of how cold we were by talking about how cold other suckers must be.

Then we would go out and do it all again. Thursday, it rained so hard that even the 1/4" sheen of ice that had built up on all our gear melted away and left our platoon's bivouac area under a foot of water. Some genius had managed to scout out the low ground when planning and now we were all wading through a lake. One of my platoon mates laughed so hard he cried when I unbuttoned the Shelterhalf and watched my soggy sleeping bag float by in shin-deep water. Nathan Neblett, another platoon mate walked in circles in the water, shivering and repeating over and over "I will not be a casualty to the cold. I will not be a casualty to the cold". It truly sucked. They pulled us out of the field a day early because I think they were afraid we would become popsicles. Noone complained.

Saturday morning and I'm reminded of all that. Not one of us wanted to go out in that weather. All the Everett cops on our team bailed out. Our team shrank from 10, to 6, and then to 4. Huntington was deeply upset when we arrived at his house and broke the news. Reid and I had already discussed it offline and were in agreement- it was just too dangerous to press on. Leonard just wanted hardship and to be a part of the action. We all wanted stores. We needed to do something.

On Huntington's couches we tried to come up with a plan that would be fun for all of us given the weather. As the wind continued to howl outside, we settled on the Olympic Peninsula. If we were going to be wet and miserable, why not have it happen on the coast where at sea level we wouldn't have to worry about humping ten miles to find ourselves freezing?

It was agreed. Four hours later, we were off. Four hours?

- Huntington re-packed on his porch.
- I repacked on his sidewalk (why drag mountaineering gear to a beach, right?).
- Leonard told us how glad he was to just be there.
- We all drove to Reid's place where he repacked.
- Leonard ate a pound of sour patch kids and drank two Rock Star energy drinks.
- We drove Reid's St Bernard to his father-in-law's. Mistakenly thinking it was Reid's parents house, Leonard strolled in uninvited to check out his mom and had both Reid & his father in law stare him down.
- Long faced, Huntington mopily announced he wasn't joining us for the weekend. Yes, there is more to this story.
- Inhaling a fistfull of blackberries, I wondered aloud why they were crunchy. Once the taste hit me realized I had just eaten a stinkbug.
- Despite everyone having 3 pair each that he could have borrowed, we returned Reid's rental crampons to REI.
- I found Tums to settle whatever stinkbug weirdness was going on in my stomach.
- We grabbed a cooler from Reid's parents' house where we all got to meet his hot mom and play with his dad's power washer.
- Leonard & I downed two pounds of sour patch kids.

Somewhere during this melee, Reid re-recruited Randy Marrs. He had decided that despite the weather, he was willing to go to the beach to be wet & miserable. Reid also recruited a friend from High School named Dee Dee, a woman who had a second tent and who was given zero warning for what she was about to get herself into.

Five minutes after getting into Reid's truck, Marrs tells us that he is currently up to his eyeballs in Facebook drama. And what drama it was. He's totally freaking out. He had met some girl named "Sapphire" who had recently dropped the "L" word on him. Several weeks before, he had told this woman of three kids by three different men that he wasn't interested in anything serious. When she dropped the L Bomb, he responded with something like "Thanks".. and then beat feet. And she was now super pissed. Everything had eroded and now they were in a heavy war of words via Text Message. "God, I wish I hadn't friended her on Facebook.. she's threatening to friend all the girls I know. Hey do any of you have Internet access?" Marrs is in his 40s, is former Army Special Forces, Iraq vet and now Everett PD so the irony wasn't lost on us.

All this drama! It truly made our trip entertaining as the miles ticked by. Snarky text messages rolled. Reid and I laughed so hard we were crying. "Hey Randy, whatever you do, you had better hurry. Once we hit Hood Canal Bridge we go out of cell range and then you are F-ed." "Yeah yeah"...

-ring ring-

"Hey Joe! I wish you answered. I need you to do me a favor. Can you log onto my Facebook account and un-friend Sapphire Woodfield? My username is Hotcop_1 and my password is Pistola. I NEED YOU to unfriend her!! She's crazy. Like literally crazy! Thanks buddy. You need to do it now, don't wait. Do it now!"

Marrs finally lost cell range and wondered aloud what all of this would mean once we returned to civilization. Finally, we arrived in La Push, a remote town on the Pacific coast along the Olympic peninsula. This is the home of Second Beach, our intended home for the weekend. The skies had grown increasingly grey, rain and winds were now picking up to a frenzied tempo. Dee Dee looked at us like a crazy woman. Wearing jeans, sneakers and a cotton sweatshirt, it was very clear that Reid hadn't given her any advance warning on what she was getting into. She had a stuff sack thrown over her shoulder with string, a Coach purse and was clutching a pillow.

"Dee Dee, you look like a high school runaway."

We made our way down the 1.2 mile winding, tree-rooted forest trail through ever darkening skies and intermittent rain showers to finally emerge on the beach. In the windy darkness, we set up our tents in a protected stretch of trees that was high enough to avoid any random wave. As we set up under the faint glow of head lamps, Dee Dee's tent started waving wildly in the wind. Reid, Marrs and Dee Dee threw their gear into her tent while Leonard and I tossed our equipment into mine. Beef flavored beer started flowing as Reid plucked one after another out of the cooler, haphazarly packed under pallets of now-dripping steak and pork. Wind and rain picked up to fever pitch. We crawled into Dee Dee's tent and sat cross-legged as it shuddered with each gust. With a huge smile, Leonard pulled out a fifth of some random drink called American Honey.

It turned into a hilarious night. Marrs, who is 125 pounds when there's a 25 pound weight in his pack, was ready for bed within three hours. Dee Dee's tent stayed upright, although it appeared to be on the brink of collapse every time a gale pushed off the ocean and headed inland. Inside, the tent was illuminated with wildly bouncing head lamps suspended from the ceiling. We all feasted on Sour Patch Kids and slurped down another beer. A tarp we had tied between two trees to act as a rain shelter tore free. Any time one of us left the tent to go pee, we returned completely soaked. Dee Dee wondered for the hundredth time why she hadn't been told about what she was getting into. Marrs wondered what was going on with his Facebook page.

Reid showed us Crang.

Finally it was bedtime. Marrs passed out on 95% of Dee Dee's precious pillow and attempted to spoon her... which she loved. At one point Marrs woke up and saw that the only part of Dee Dee's head that was touching her beloved pillow was her nose because he had hijacked the rest. Lightening storms. Heavy waves crashing not far from the tent with high tide. Leonard woke from a dream imagining that the tent was under water. What must have been a rat chewed a large hole through the side of Dee Dee's tent to get at a bag of hot dog buns which were right by Reid's head as he slept. I went out to pee in the middle of a storm to returned a minute later completely drenched. Heavy rain. Wind.

The next morning, we emerged from our waterlogged tents and focused on breakfast. I think it took us close to 45 minutes to finally get a fire going, thanks in large part to Marrs' Boy Scout skills. We dug a pit and finally got something going, which Marrs lovingly coaxed into a blaze and tossed on metal grills, suspended with a wet log we dragged out of the woods.

Dee Dee kept talking about how much she wanted to leave and was willing to abandon her tent- especially after hearing two loud "CRACK" noises that turned out to be tent poles finally giving in.

"You guys can have it. I'm leaving."
"You can't leave it, Dee Dee. You can't abandon it."
"I'm outta here. I don't want it anymore. You can have it."
"It's not like a hermit is going to move into your tent. We have to bring it out."
"Fine, you do it. I'm leaving."

Marrs muddled away, making quesadillas until I stepped on a log suspended over the fire and acting as a wind break. As the whole thing came tumbling down and crashed into the blaze, Marrs reached into the fire and grabbed the metal grill as everyone looked on.

"Ahhhh!!! S&@t f*~k cr@p sh~t!!!"
"Dude, are you ok?"
"Hey it looks like your fingers are a pannini!"

Marrs continued to cook, making our steaks. We didn't have any utensils, so Marrs used tin foil to grab the scalding hot steaks and hand them to us. "Hey Marrs, you know that tin foil has zero heat dissipation characteristics, right?" After a bite I dropped my steak in the sand and chose a muddy brown stream to wash it off. It was either that, or the surf line where a flock of sea gulls were pooping into the waves. Mmmm. good eatin'.

We looked out to the darkened ocean sky and saw the Mother of All Squalls coming in- and fast. It was time to go. "Leonard! Throw everything outside! We have to get this tent packed up now!" We immediately started to pack up and break down the tents, jamming gear into packs as quickly as we could. Just as we finished, a turbulent sideways moving wall of grey air reached us with rain drops the size of water balloons. We were sopping wet within seconds. Smoke billowed everywhere as the fire began to fizzle out.

With the rain dumping gallons and gallons of water, we quickly made our way up and out along the winding path. After twenty minutes of slipping and sliding, we were at the cars, ready to head back to the relative warmth of civilization. Only 24 hours after we arrived, we were heading home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mad Cow Disease

Last Friday while on an R&R day at Munich working the Ciao! integration intitiative, a few members of our team decided to take advantage of a beautiful Bavarian day and see the countryside.

This was a bit pre-planned by design. We had built an extra day into the trip for touristy things as usual trips involve 18 hour work days. In talking through our plans, Laura, Michelle and I discussed re-visiting Neuchwanstein- a magical castle nestled among the Alps and used by Walt Disney as a model for his Cinderella fairy tale. Agreeing on this as our destination of choice, I brought up that in February, another co-worker and I had discovered a hidden rock gully that led to an overlook where one can take stunning pictures. Laura and Michelle were both game, so I threw a rope and harness in my bag to prep for steeper sections of the gully.

Friday arrived, and we were off to the castle. Michelle had rented a car for the three of us, so we were able to drive to Schweingau (the closest town to Neuchwanstein) in no time. After a quick tour through the castle, Michelle decided that she wasn't interested in going on the climb to what we had affectionately called "the Grassy Knoll"- a nub of meadow clinging to a steep and exposed 400 foot section of cliff immediately adjacent the front of the castle. This is where Jon and I had climbed in February, and our goal was to make this same section.

Setting off from the car, Laura and I followed a cross-country ski path that in the summer doubles as a walking path. Meandering through meadow after meadow, we warmed our faces on a sun gently peeking through clouds and listened to cow bells clattering away in the distance. Wooden turnstyles, designed to keep cows from in their designated fields remind us of Old Country living while a casually strung, low intensity electric cloth tape keeps us firmly planted in the 21st century. Finally, we found the trail- much different in winter when no undergrowth exists. In summer, a spree of waist deep brambles, raspberry bushes and nettles intermixed with mountain flowers constantly pull on our legs.

It took about an hour for Laura and I to scramble, climb, and shimmy our way up to the Grassy Knoll. Along the way, we found no fewer than four areas involving vertical rock that were made more complicated by wet mud and slick moss. The gully that Jon and I had some difficulty with was actually protected now by a fixed line someone had placed- my guess being a local who knew of the hard-to-find route and wanted to set a fast path for himself to the Grassy Knoll. It was good fortune for us in that it quickened our journey and allowed fast entry/egress through one of the tougher sections of the route. Emerging through the trees, a beautiful setting was made even more picturesque by dramatic clouds, sun rays streaming to the ground in pools of electric green, and an ethereal Alps mountain backdrop.

After twenty minutes, the distant clouds heavy with rain made me decide to look up. Uh oh.. The storm clouds were brewing- and had slipped in quietly behind us as they drifted in from the opposite direction of where we were staring off toward Neuchwanstein. "Hey Laura we need to GO...NOW. We're going to get really, really wet."


"Well, as long as we can make it down through the last vertical pitch before it starts raining, we'll be ok."

As usual, the downhike proved much quicker than the way up. But still not without the regular pull of brambles and sting of nettles digging into skin. These sucked, too. These are the plants that have the super-fine needles that you can't see sting like crazy when you accidentally have one run up against your skin. Even as I write this- three days, an ocean and continent away, I'm still digging those little punks out of my skin.

We used the ropes to rappel or hand-over-hand down through vertical sections, slip-sliding on the mud and skittering down to the last pitch. From there, we still could see through trees and across the valley laced with red-roofed farmer cottages, white washed churches and neatly manicured farmland. One more pitch to go and we would have descended back down into the valley itself and away from the technical pitches. Almost there. As I prepared our rope for the last rappel, Laura stated flatly and with zero amusement:

"It's raining."

And rain it did. Within seconds, it was like someone had dumped a giant bucket upside down. The skies opened. Looking across the valley you could see rain falling heavily, illuminated by a far-off sun contrasting with an incredibly dark sky. Great. Within minutes we were both drenched and the last pitch became an incredible pain in the ass. Everything was wet- much to our chagrin, but I'm sure thrilling to the local peeper frogs that littered the ground and hid among the nettles that continued to scratch us everywhere. Finally, we made it down, quickly jammed our gear into packs and headed down to the pasture.

As the rain started to abate, I looked at my sweat, dirt and water covered watch, noting aloud that we were ~1 1/2 hours behind. Michelle would be back at the car waiting. The last thing I wanted was for her to call out Hofbrauhaus Moutain Rescue, so when we reached what I thought was a good shortcut down an old jeep trail, I suggested we take it and Laura quickly agreed.

The trail left the forest quickly and traveled over a slight hill, opening up into a meadow leading directly to where we needed to go 400 meters distant. Almost there! Except.. at 200 meters, standing directly in the path and all staring right at us were 50 billion cows. These things were massive- easily three thousand pounds each. One of them, a bull, was staring us down and walking towards us.

"Holy cow"

"That's right..."

At this point it's important to note that Laura is from Wisconsin and used to travelling through, underneath, alongside, on top of, and around cows. All Things Cows. I'm originally from New York City. There are no cows in NYC other than on a dinner plate. So knowing how to act around one usually comes with a steak knife and side of mashed potatos.

"Just act like a cow. Walk slowly through them and whatever you do, don't walk directly behind one."

Act like a cow? How the hell does a cow act? "MMmmoooooo!" Laura the Cow Whisperer isn't doing me much help in figuring this out. As we draw closer, more cows come out of the forest and block our path. The bull won't take his lazer eyes off of me and starts flaring his nostrils. Then, as we passed the first of hudreds of cow patty mines set to let intruders know that they were treading on hallowed ground, we realized that we were squarely in the Danger Zone. We pass the first of them and one says to me "Moooo", which in cow speak means "Screwed, buddy."

The bull starts shaking his head and gets ready to charge. So I tell Laura "I'm going for the treeline and go that way". "Fine", she says, and keeps walking straight on to her impending death. As I dodge the bull, I realize that I haven't really done much to help myself because two smaller cows start chasing me up the hill and through the trees. Freaking chasing me! WTF, ya know? I look left and see that I'm right by their watering hole, which explains why they are hot on my trail.

Wet, muddy, sweaty and being chased, a regular dose of pine needles and ticks drop down my neck. I finally end up in a clearing, where I run straight into the largest bull on the planet. Ten thousand pounds, easy. It had 4' horns and prison tattoos on it's flank. On it's front leg it had 15 notch scars to represent each of the people it had run down through the years. Smoke came out of it's flared nostrils. Glowing red eyes immediately shot in my direction. I look down to the path, and watch Laura casually saunter on, past 3 or 4 cows that don't even pay attention.

Crap. What to do? Encircled by cows vowing my death, I took the opportunity to slip through a small opening where I could double back to finally gain the jeep path. Take that, cows! You aren't so smart after all, huh? I'll show you. I look left again- and watch Laura take a second to pat one on the head. This situation is bullsh*t. Literally.

While I'm getting attacked from all sides and barely surviving, Laura is trading stories with the cows in one giant bonding moment. I look ahead: 50 more meters before the electric tape and only 500 more Mad Cows to get by. I'm still alive, barely. One more bull stares directly at us, and stands immediately next to the trail. Ahead, lie safety and life. I see my big break.

"I told you, just act like a cow."

"I have no idea what that means."

"Just don't act like a predator. Don't look them in the eye, and don't make any fast movements."
"Thanks so much, that would have been helpful to know about ten minutes ago."

While a wet behind the ears Marine 2nd Lieutenant, I sat through a class and had an instructor explain the difference between meat eaters and leaf eaters. "Are you a meat eater, Lieutenant!?? Or are you a leaf eater?" "Errr... meat eater...?" "Damn straight you are! A leaf eater is passive! He has eyes out on the side of his head, and is slow and timid like a cow! He never makes decisions! A meat eater has his eyes face forward. He's aggressive! He's decisive! He's like a wolf, or a tiger! So if you ever feel your eyes drifting out to the side of your head and you are becoming a passive leaf eater, get them focused again! Drag them eyes back to the front! Get back to being a meat eater! You're a carnivore, Lieutenant!" Ahh, the good old days.

So. All this did me absolutely no good when actually surrounded by a sea of leaf eaters. I'm not a leaf eater, I'm a meat eater, its in my DNA. I can't play cow, no matter how hard I try. But then again, I sure did try and it clearly didn't work out for me.

Somehow, we survived. Reaching the end of the pasture, Michelle appears over a rise in the pathway. Smiling and waving, she walks straight through a dozen cows who promptly and casually move out of her way. As if she is parting the Red Sea to come save us (*me*) from cows. COWS.

Laura and Michelle didn't seem to notice how we had barely escaped with our lives. But I noticed. I know how close we came to seeing the Other Side. Somehow, we were able to convince these people haters that we weren't going to turn them into steaks, just yet.

I had lived to see another day.