Not Dying on Death Road

Our final day in La Paz was a full one. We were picked up at 6:00 am for transport to the Death Road for a downhill mountain biking experience.

Although a modern freeway was built between 1986 to 2006, the Camino de la Muerte or “Death Road” is still in use, primarily for residents and farmers who live near the road, and tour companies.

The road is dangerous because it is literally carved out of a mountainside that forms a deep valley that begins at roughly 4,600 meters (over 15,000’) and drops dramatically by over 11,000’ in a distance of 64 km (40 mi). It features steep slopes, and a narrow single track that lacks guardrails (except when added at locations where accidents have occurred). On top of that, it is often shrouded in rain and fog, and the steep hillsides have a high risk of landslides and falling rocks.

Scary road… still in use by residents and tour companies

With vertical cliffs at the edge of the narrow road (less than 3 meters wide in some places), vehicles drive on the left (unlike the rest of the country) to allow the outer edge driver to assess the distance of their wheels from the abrupt edge of the road. Additionally, vehicles traveling downhill are required to pull close to the edge and stop to allow uphill traffic enough room to pass on the inside.

Passing on a narrow section where a previous accident resulted in a guardrail.

Part of this road was built by Paraguayan prisoners who were captured during the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay in the 1930’s. Up until the modern freeway was built, it was of one of the few routes that connected the Amazon region in the north with the capital city of La Paz.

Of course our group of twelve riders and three Altitude Travel guides (Nelson, Gandalf, and Israel), were here to experience a thrilling morning of downhill mountain biking and taking in the natural grandeur of this deep valley.

After a warm up ride… (actually a very cold, wet ride) on the paved national highway to get acquainted with the bikes and gear, we hopped back into the vans for the short ride to the top of the Death Road. Due to a significant landslide that made the road impassable further down the valley, we would only be able to ride to the site of the landslide. Although unable to ride the entire distance, we had plenty of thrills on the steep 6,000’ descent of the part we were able to ride.

During each section, our head guide Nelson, told stories about the history of the area, how the biking adventure touring industry was born, and other interesting tales. He would always end his talk with the same three safety points: 1) Always keep both hands on the handlebars, 2) Control your speed by braking before corners, and 3) Focus only on yourself while riding… later in the day during lunch after the riding was over, Nelson shared vivid stories that underscored why each of the rules were constantly reinforced.

A bit wet!

Riding down the road was a thrilling experience, full of speed, adrenaline, and the jarring sensation of vibrations from the rough road translated through the full suspension bike frame to our bodies. The equipment was top notch, adding to our confidence that the bike could absorb the most punishing parts of the very rough road, and we could easily control our speed with the well-maintained disc brakes.

Along the way during each section, the Altitude Travel staff was pre-positioned to take pictures of each rider, allowing our entire focus to remain solely on the road ahead.

The end of the road… literally! Behind us is the result of a recent landslide.

All said it was a fantastic way to end this trip. Bolivia is a richly varied country that ranges from high mountains, dense rain forest, vast salt flats, and rugged, mineral rich terrain. Everywhere we went, the people were kind, helpful and open. I hope you enjoyed following this Bolivian experience. Special thanks to mi hermano, Ron for inspiring this adventure. ¡Adios y gracias Bolivia!

Ambitious Attempt

Part I: Base Camp to High Camp

Today, after a reasonably comfortable night at base camp, we had a leisurely morning before our scheduled departure to high camp. We spent the morning preparing our gear and packing our rented 80L backpacks so we could carry everything we needed for a brief stay at high camp and the ultimate summit attempt.

Unfortunately our friend Mike from England woke up feeling quite sick and made the smart decision to end his quest. Shortly before leaving we were joined by three others, Merijn and Pleun from Holland, and Tom from England. Around noon our group loaded up our packs and headed out into the sleet and snow for our climb to high camp.

I was immediately aware of the extra weight I was carrying, estimated to be 50 lbs. Quite a heavy load to carry up the steep, snow covered trail to high camp sitting at 5,200 meters (17,160)! I can honestly say that the two hour ascent was one of the most physically challenging tthings I’ve done. At about the halfway point we came upon the welcome site of a small shelter at 4,965 meters (16,385’). Once inside we enjoyed a very needed rest and paid the 50 boliviano fee ($7.50) for the summit. Once cleared to proceed we reluctantly shouldered our packs for another hour up the steepest section of the trail.

Toll station to climb Juayna Potosí

The final hour to high camp was crushing, so when we finally stumbled into the shelter, we were physically exhausted (Author’s note: the pevious sentence does not apply to Ronan, our young Scot friend, or Merijin, Pleun, and Tom who all left after us).

We will have a brief stay at high camp, so the rest of the day is intended to rest as much as possible before our scheduled 1:00 am departure for the summit. The refugio, named Rock Camp is quite comfortable for our group of six, and once again we can spread out a bit among the 18 bunks provided. One challenge is the bathroom… it is located in a small hut that is a bit treacherous to reach in the rugged terrain covered by about a foot of new snow. After dinner at 5 pm we all try to get a few hours of sleep for the planned 5 hr climb to the summit in the dark. We are all hoping for the expected break in the weather and maybe an opportunity to see what we are trying to attain.

Part II: Summit Attempt

After 5-6 hours of fitful sleep (at best), or just lying there with eyes closed trying unsuccessfully to sleep (most probable), interrupted by one or more trips to the bathroom outside, we got up at 12:00 am and began our final preps for the summit attempt.

Our six climbers were assigned to their guides. Ronan and Tom had their own guides (Victor and Ovidéo respectively); Merijin and Pleun were guided by Juan; and Ron and I were assigned to William. All of the guides are very professional and highly experienced mountain guides with professional certifications, so we were all in very good hands.

From left: Don, Pleun, Merijin, Ronan, Tom, and Ron

Although the previous evening had cleared up, by the time we left high camp there was a heavy mist in the air. The temperature was mild, but definitely a few degree below freezing. These facts contributed to our first surprise and challenge of the day; a steep rock wall with a narrow rock and snow covered path all covered with a thick coat of rime ice! This section spanning about 200 meters was quite challenging; fortunately there were fixed ropes attached to the wall to aid in our stability,

Imagine this section in the dark with even more ice!

After successfully navigating that treacherous section, we stopped to put on our crampons and get tethered together with our guides for the remainder of the climb on steep snow fields with the occasional crevasse to cross. In several places the route also featured steep drops to the left or right, or both. Hence being harnessed and roped together is an essential mountaineering protocol.

Ron and I are experienced trekkers, but we quickly realized that mountaineering is a whole other ballgame. There are no trails, especially when several feet of new snow had fallen in the days prior to our climb. Additionally the climbing boots are very heavy (I’d estimate 4-5 lbs each, not including crampons!). This made the climbing especially challenging (at least for the two old guys)! Fortunately our group didn’t have trailblazing duty, that fell to some other group that had left before us. Of course everyone who followed helped to further pack down the narrow trail.

The plan was to climb from high camp to the summit, a 958 meter (3,143’) climb at high altitude over a short 3.5 kilometers in 5 hours, then descend back to high camp in 2 hours. For the the casual reader that is a very challenging climbing scenario.

Ron and I quickly realized our trekking experience did not prepare us for true mountaineering. Although we were okay with the elevation, the extra work required to step forward due to the weight and ridgidness of the climbing boot/crampon combination quickly fatigued our legs. We continued to push forward though, but any step out of the narrow compacted trail required even a greater use of our already depleted energy reserves. I found myself focused on the climbing rope that connected me to Ron and William. As we slowly ascended, the slack or tautness of the line dictated the pace to be maintained. If it remained taut for too long it was time to request a short break. Ultimately we made it to the base of the final steep summit push to an elevation of 5,915 meters (19,406’).

Above us, high on the summit ridge Ovidéo, who was climbing had assumed trailblazing duties on the toughest section of the climb, the final 175 meters to the summit on a 45-50 degree slope. He plowed through knee-deep snow all the way to the summit, a truly Herculean effort.

Picture from Ronan’s descent from the summit… scary steep!!

At that point, we could see the summit in the light of the full moon. It loomed high above on the steepest part of the climb. I mentioned to Ron that I didn’t think I could make the summit and still have the energy needed to descend all the way back to high camp, and later base camp. We were both exhausted, and agreed that the right decision was to turn around and begin the descent. Ultimately 3 of our six climbers made it to the summit, Tom (with his guide Ovidéo), followed shortly by Ronan (and his guide Victor), and later Merijin (and his guide Juan). Pluen went a bit farther than Ron and I, then joined up with Victor and Ronan as they descended from the summit).

On the way down the importance of being roped and harnessed together was underscored. While ascending, our guide William was in the lead, Ron center and me at the rear. While descending we went in reverse order. When crossing a 3’ crevasse, William would put tension on the line to assist our momentum while we jumped across.

On the way down, I was in the lead position while William was the anchor. As we were descending the narrow track at a point where the track turned sharply to the right, my left foot sunk into deep snow and I lost my balance. Almost immediately I felt my momentum stop as Ron fell backward so he could dig his crampons into the snow and William provided a strong base to stabilize the situation. Their quick reaction instilled the importance of the rope team working together to protect each other.

William (not pictured) and Ron arresting my fall

Although we were slightly disappointed about not making the summit, we made the right/safe decision for us. The descent was challenging, using up every bit of the little energy we had remaining, but the sun had risen and the views all around us were absolutely stunning! Even though the summit eluded us, it was a phenomenal experience, seeing incredible sights, experiencing new challenges, and sharing it all with incredible and interesting people. All in all a big win!

Technical Training

Today we had our first up close and personal encounter with Huayna Potosí. Our day began with a meet up at the Jiwaki office in La Paz with our guides for the next couple of days. There we met two other adventure seekers who would be joining us, Mike a 29 year old structral engineer from Liverpool, England, and Ronan an 18 year old semi-pro downhill mountain bike racer who has been traveling solo thru South America.

After getting some gear, we signed waivers, then our group of 4 climbers and 3 guides clamored into a van for the 2 hour drive to base camp, sitting at 4,755 meters (15,692’).

In the drive up, we stopped on the outskirts of La Paz and were measured for and issued our climbing kit, which included an ice-axe, crampons, harness, helmet, and snow boots.

Upon arrival at base camp it was overcast with a slight rain, so we went directly inside our lodging for the night, the Happy Day Refugio. I was pleasantly surprised! It wasn’t the rustic, bare-bones lodge I was expecting; instead it had electricity and plumbing! The four of us will sleep in a bunk room designed to hold 20, so it is nice to have some extra room.

After a lunch of beef, vegetables and rice we began the day’s hike to the glacier to practice with the climbing gear. This is a day for acclimatization and technical training, so William our guide, demonstrated the proper ice-axe and crampon technique for ascending and descending steep snow fields. Then we climbed the final distance to the glacier to begin the highlight of the day, climbing the 40’ vertical face of the glacier.

Now the fun begins! By this point in the story you may be wondering why we are spending our first day practicing ice climbing techniques. I suspect the real answer to that lies somewhere high on the mountain where we may need the acquired skill to navigate a particularly steep, icy section of the route. I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it in the days to come!

Although I have climbed with crampons and an ice-axe, I have never scaled a vertical wall of ice. Today we got to do just that. After William ascended and set the climbing rope, each of us got a chance to climb the 40’ vertical jwall of ice. Harnessed in, we used two ice-axes to get solid holds before kicking our crampon’s into the ice. After testing the hold, we slowly used the technique to ascend the wall. Between the elevation, exertion, and nerves, this was hard work. Ultimately we all reached the top then enjoyed a short rappel back down. This was definitely an experience to remember!

Once complete, we headed back down to the refugio for a well earned rest, hot meal, an evening of cards and sharing stories before bundling into our sleeping bags and wool blankets to ward off the cold night.

Don high on the wall… yikes!
Ron on the left, apparently racing the guy on the right!

Today we accomplished a lot, and most importantly, learned a critical climbing skill while allowing our bodies another day to acclimatize by hiking high and sleeping low! Tomorrow we have a short 3 hour climb to high camp 5,130 meters (17,025’) from where we will begin our push to the summit at around midnight.

I hope you tune back in for the rest of the story…

Exploring La Paz

The flight to La Paz was refreshingly normal, but due to the 2am arrival at El Alto airport, I knew I was in for a long day. After deplaning, we headed straight to immigration control and I dutifully entered the long line for entry from North America. Standing in line for over an hour, tired, and getting used to the sudden altitude change (the airport is the highest international airport in the world sitting at an elevation of 4,062 meters (13,325’)) was a test of endurance. On top of that, there are still strict COVID-19 mask protocols in place, so I enjoyed the added pleasure of restricted airflow thru a KN95 mask!!

El Alto Airport with Cerro Mururata (19,262’) and Illimani (21,121’) in the distance

Prior to the trip I had completed the visa application and printed the required forms and documents. After an hour long wait in line, it was finally my turn to face the scrutiny of the Immigration Control Officer. I thought I would breeze through and be on my way, but alas my best laid plans were stymied and I was informed that he could not issue the actual visa, so I was redirected to another line and another hour-plus wait. When it was my turn, the visa was issued and I went back to the immigration line. By this point I was one of the last remaining passengers to be processed, so there was no wait. Finally, at 4:30 am I was officially in Bolivia, but I still had a 3 hour wait until my brother’s flight would arrive. After dutifully texting him the immigration sequence to spare him the same experience, I found a place to sleep.

Fortunately the info provided allowed him to breeze thru the immigration process and he found me slumped over my luggage in an uncomfortable sleep, looking a little worse for the wear. We quickly found a taxi got our first real on-ground experience with the La Paz-El Alto metropolis. One of the first things I noticed was that there is virtually no level ground. This is a densely populated city of over 2 million inhabitants built into steep cliffs and valleys. In fact in the short distance from the airport to our hotel, we descended nearly 1,800’!

After several hours of rest to re-energize, we were off to explore the city. We spent the day walking up and down the city streets and took the opportunity to visit the Jiwaki tour company (, the group that will be guiding us on the Huayana Potosí climb. We were fitted for some of the climbing gear they provide and got a lot of our questions answered. We left with a good feeling that their guides were highly experienced and they provide quality equipment.

With that business out of the way, we walked to the nearby El Mercado de las Brujas (The Witches’ Market) to do some shopping. We were told that you could purchase customized potions of different ingredients to help with any problem you may have… need more money?… apparently there is a potion for that! We must have missed that particular street in this sprawling market, but nonetheless we found some great stores to buy souvenirs and gifts.

In our explorations, we walked many miles up and down the steep streets. By the time we got back to the hotel we were both ready for a good meal and a comfortable night of rest. Waking up refreshed the next morning, we made our plans to see this vast city from the Mi Teleferico, a public transportation system of cable cars with nine interconnecting lines.

The Mi Teleférico cable car stations are sleek and modern, especially when juxtaposed against the predominantly adobe brick architecture.
Each gondola can hold up to eight passengers, but we often had the entire car to ourselves to enjoy the a bird’s eye view of the bustling city below… and above us! Pictures are inadequate to portray the scope and scale of this sprawling city.

Tomorrow we begin our climb of Huayna Potosí, so tune back in after a couple of days to hear how it went…

New Year… New Adventure

It is a new year and a challenging new adventure awaits… In a couple of days, I will be flying to La Paz, Bolivia to join my brother in an attempt to climb Huayna Potosi, a 6,088 meter (19,974′) mountain in the Cordillera Real mountain range of the Bolivian Andes.

If you had asked me a month ago what I’d be doing in early February, a trip to Bolivia wouldn’t have even been considered. So, how did this all come about?… Well, it turns out that my brother, who had already planned a cruise to Antarctica in January, decided to extend his trip and explore a couple South American countries. You see, he is well-traveled and has a goal to visit 100 countries in his lifetime. For a country to be added to his already impressive list of 71 countries, two criteria must be met: 1) He has to spend at least one night in the country, and 2) He must visit a place of cultural or geographic significance.

So when he told me that he would be visiting both Paraguay and Bolivia during the trip, I was naturally curious about his plans. In our discussion, he casually mentioned that he was going to climb a mountain in Bolivia. Immediately I began pressing him for details to get a sense of what he was getting himself into. His response, which was a perfunctory list of facts about the climb, did little to satisfy the questions I had about what it would take to succeed. At the same time, he just happened to mention that he had to reserve a minimum of two spots with the climbing company (… a ploy I am sure he used to bait me into joining him!).

Although I didn’t immediately take the bait, my interest was piqued and I began to do some research about the mountain, the climbing route, and what preparation would be required to ensure the best chance of success. I discovered that this is a technical climb, with about two-thirds of the route on glaciers and steep snow fields that require the use of crampons, ice-axes, harnesses, rope and helmets. The climbing route begins just above 15,500 feet, already a very high elevation, so whatever we can do to adjust to altitude is critical and acclimatizing will be essential.

Huayna Potosi is located approximately 15 miles north of La Paz, the highest city in the world (see graphic to the left). Given the short duration of this trip, every hour spent at elevation will be crucial to acclimatizing. Since La Paz sits at an average elevation of 3,869 meters (12,693′), the two days spent there prior to the climb will definitely aid in our adjustment to thin air and less oxygen. The only other acclimatization we will get is on the mountain where we will begin the climb at approximately 4,750 meters (15,585′). From there, we will see what lies ahead.

I am hopeful that some of the past experiences of high altitude (Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro) and technical climbing (Mt. Shasta), coupled with an aggressive hiking and fitness regime over the past month, will be ample for the challenge ahead. I should even get a chance to try out some of my growing familiarity with the Spanish language!

Stay tuned for the adventure to come…

Graphic from Visual Capitalist

Nail Biter in the Clouds

The past week has been one of excitement, exhaustion, struggle, achievement, and awe inspiring natural beauty. It has also been uniquely human experience where people of different backgrounds and places came together to enjoy the beauty of this part of the world. During the long days on the trails or moments shared in Chamonix and beyond, bonds were developed and friendships were forged.

Since the weather wasn’t great for our 4th of 5 hikes, a small group elected to visit the Mer de Glace. This glacier, whose name means “Sea of Ice,” descends from the northern face of the Mont Blanc Massif and is accessible to tourists, researchers, and students. The journey begins by taking the Montenvers Railway, a cogwheel train that ascends nearly 3000 ft during a brief 20 min ride from Chamonix to Montenvers. From there, a short gondola ride descends into the glacial moraine, the mass of rock and sediment that is pushed aside by an advancing glacier.

Due to global warming, this glacier has been melting at a rapid rate over the past decades. This is made dramatically clear as you descend over 500 metal steps just to get to the surface of the glacier that has thinned and retreated at an increasing rate over the years. Along the way down, there are signs that mark where the surface of the glacier had been beginning in 1985 with every 5 year increment up to today. The further the group descended, the 5 year increments were farther apart clearly showing the increasing rate at which melting has occurred.

When you finally get to the glacier, a tunnel has been bored thru the ice to allow visitors to experience the beauty of the ice from within… a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

Our fifth and final hike took us to the Aiguillette des Houches, a steep climb of nearly 1000m to an elevation of over 7,500 ft, above the town of Les Houches and directly across the Chamonix Valley from Mont Blanc. Although the day started with some heavy downpours and low clouds, once we hit the trail, the sky lightened and the sun appeared in the sky. The trail started steeply, but it was a pleasant climb thru lush green forest. As we climbed higher, we began to get some glimpses across the valley of Mont Blanc, fully covered in fresh snow from the past two days. The view of the bright white peak with wind blown cirrus clouds above and beyond, made the mountain appear massive.

Mont Blanc enveloped in swirling clouds

As we exited the forest, we began to hear voices even though there was no one else on the trail. Suddenly, we noticed a large group of paragliders right by us as they rode the thermals rising up from the valley below the ridge we were crossing. A short time later, another paragliding enthusiast passed us on the trail, packing all of his equipment up the hill to a suitable launch point. On a small grassy knoll with a steep dropoff to the left, he took about 10 minutes to lay out his wing, arrange the control lines, and rig his harness. One he was ready, we got a front row view as he used an updraft to fill his wing, then began a short run to fully inflate the wing, followed by a half turn to orient correctly and lift off into the sky. He quickly disappeared into the mist, followed by another paraglider that suddenly appeared from behind us. For those of us who missed the opportunity to paraglide on our day off, it gave us a little taste of what the experience would have been.

Once the excitement was over, it was time to make our final push up the narrow summit ridge just as the clouds began to build and the wind picked up. By the time we got to the small patch of grass and rock that defined the peak of the Aiguillette de Houches, we were enveloped by a cold mist and strong wind. Needless to say, we didn’t remain there for too long. Instead, we put on some additional layers and prepared our trekking poles for the steep, narrow descent down the other side. With low visibility, a very narrow and steep trail, and a sharp dropoff to the right, we were all a bit nervous as we carefully placed each foot. After about 10 minutes the trail became a little less steep and a bit wider, making the remainder of the descent more bearable. Needless to say, we would all remember those moments when, as a group, we prevailed and got thru a difficult section together.

A few hours later we were off the mountain, back at the chalet to enjoy another delicious homemade cake, some refreshing drinks, and a nice hot shower. The hikes were over, but the memories will remain. For now, it is time to say “au revoir” until the next adventure.

Into “Thinnish” Air

Today was a rest day from hiking, so we got out to explore all that Chamonix had to offer. The town is a bucolic French mountain town that is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Located in the Chamonix Valley directly below Mont Blanc, the town bustles with the energy of adventure seekers from around the world. The mountain trails offer challenging grades and stunning views for hiking enthusiasts. The numerous gondola lifts and ski areas double as an easy ascent for mountain bikers who want to experience the thrill of high country biking and sustained downhill rides. As you would expect, the sheer granite walls and high mountains have much to offer climbers of all different skill and style.

Another highly popular activity is paragliding. In the past few days we have seen over 50 paragliders gently riding the thermals for hours at a time. Although some of us had planned to experience a tandem flight with a licensed instructor, the weather on our day off didn’t cooperate and flights were grounded… oh well, it’ll have to be an adventure for another time.

Despite the overcast conditions down in the valley, some of us decided to roll the dice during a brief weather window to ascend the Aiguille du Midi on a breathtaking cable car ride from Chamonix. Rising from the valley floor at 1,040m (3,412 ft), the lift ascends to a granite pinnacle whose name means “noon needle” at 3,842 (12,605 ft).

At this high elevation the weather contrast was immediately apparent and the air was noticeably thinner. Even before our gondola settled into the station at the top, our car was buffeted by high winds causing us to sway back and forth and occasionally bang into the metal rails used to guide the car into the station. Fortunately, our operator payed close attention to the wind readings while we patiently waited for a calm moment to nestle into the upper station.

The cable car station is a multi-level structure built onto and into the sheer rock spire at that defines the Aiguille du Midi peak. Truly and engineering marvel, it houses viewing platforms, tunnels, walkways, restaurants and even a small museum and theater. Those employed to maintain the structure must also be experienced climbers given the work environment.

Glass floor over sheer drop!

Yesterday’s post mentioned the Mont Blanc Tunnel that goes from France to Italy. For the adventurous, an alternate route includes three different cable cars, that combined, form a continuous route up, over the top of the Mont Blanc Massif, then down into Italy.

From the top of Aiguille du Midi another cable car spans a distance of 5 km across the saddle of Mont Blanc, including the Vallée Blanche and the Géant glaciers to another peak called Pointe Heelbronner. From there, a third cable car called the Funivie Monte Bianco connects the peak of Pointe Helbronner to the village of La Palud, just north of Courmayeur, Italy.

Cable route across the glaciers

Bundled up in extra layers, the strong cold wind did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm as we explored all the Aiguille du Midi had to offer, until the clouds closed in and it was time to descend into the white void below.

Cables disappear into the void!

France vs. Italy

Our hikes during the past two days have allowed us to see Mont Blanc from two completely different perspectives. On Monday we started the day on the local bus to catch the gondola at Les Praz to La Flégère ski resort for a hike to Lac Blanc (White Lake) a small glacial lake high in the mountains above the ski resort.

The trail up to the lake was high up on the side of the valley wall called the Grand Balcon Sud. Far below was a small village on the valley floor, with towering granite spires rising high above. At the lake we enjoyed views of the Mont Blanc massif looking from north to south toward Italy (where we will be hiking tomorrow). After a long descent, it was nice to enjoy a cold beer and the expansive views while lounging in a deck chair and waiting for the gondola ride back down the Les Praz. The local bus ride back to the chalet was quite crowded since these transit buses are also used by local students as schools release for the day.

A nice way to relax at the end of a long day!

Today, Neil and Marta drove our group from Chamonix to Courmayeur, Italy by way an 11.2 km tunnel under Mont Blanc. The tunnel is an amazing feat of engineering and traffic is controlled by a timed gate and a strict speed limit to avoid congestion in the tunnel. The entire trip was only 40 minutes!

Part of our group spent a wonderful and relaxing day exploring Courmayeur and enjoying delicious Italian cuisine. This quaint Italian village is a popular resort destination for hiking and skiiing enthusiasts.

Courmayeur, Italy

The hike started with a bit of a climb from the Val Ferret (the valley that flanks the southern side of the Mont Blanc Massif) up to the Bonatti Refuge. The trail then meandered thru rolling pastoral fields, a stark contrast from the rugged, rocky trails we had experienced so far. Since we were now in Italy, the standard trail greeting changed from “Bon Jour” to “Buon Giorno!”

The views of Mont Blanc from the south were spectacular, rising vertically and dramatically. It was easy to see how the Alps are formed from the African tectonic Plate “crashing” onto the Eurasian Plate to form the mountains to our north. It is also remarkable to see so many glaciers from such a close vantage point. Although receding, it is impressive to see how thru pressure and motion the glaciers have carved their paths.

Mont Blanc view from Italy

Once again we ended our day with a refreshing soak of our tired feet in a cold glacial river. I can’t think of a more effective way to rapidly recover from the hours of hiking… of course some good wine, limoncello, and cold beer are pretty good for relaxing at the end of another spectacular day!

Chamonix… Gateway to Mont Blanc

The next adventure has begun! Over the next week, our group of intrepid adventures will be exploring the absolutely stunning vistas of Mont Blanc. Located on the border of France and Italy, this iconic mountain is the highest point in the Alps at 15,777 ft, and the second highest mountain in Europe (after Mt. Elbrus).

Our home for the next week is a traditional mountain chalet, named Chalet Chocolate, located in the beautiful town of Chamonix, France in a narrow valley at the base of the mountain. The chalet hosts, Neil and Marta, warmly welcomed us after a long, tiring journey to get here. True to the chalet name, Neil presented a delicious homemade rich dark chocolate cake, making us feel right at home.

Our group of 13 includes 10 Americans representing Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois, and 3 Brits hailing from Plymouth and London. Our guide, Aglia, will lead us on 5 different hikes in the days to come. She hails from a mountain valley a little further south.

After a good night’s rest and a nutritious breakfast, we all made our lunches for the day ahead. Marta set out baguettes, a variety of meats and cheeses, some pasta salad and fruit. Needless to say, we had a tasty variety to choose from for our trail lunches. We took a local bus to the next town to begin our first hike for the week. After a short 30 min ride, we hit the trail for our 10 km hike that featured a rugged 850m ascent to the top of Aguillette des Poisettes (2201m). Our effort was rewarded by the clear blue sky and unobscured views of the Alps all around us.

After enjoying our lunch at the peak, we headed down… which always seems longer and harder than the uphill part. Luckily there was a small mountain stream at the end to soak our tired feet… what a refreshing feeling! Our trip back to Chamonix was on the Mont Blanc Express train, a nice way to wind down and begin our recovery for tomorrow’s hike.

The Finish Line

It’s been over two months since the last time I shared an update on our home construction project. While I was off enjoying the experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and in the weeks since my return, a tremendous about of work has been completed on the house. We are clearly in the final weeks before occupancy and there is significant progress to report, so let’s get to it…

While in Tanzania, I got frequent updates that showed a lot of progress on some of the major exterior work and interior installations. The most visible changes to the outside were the installation of the vinyl siding, shakes and shutters, plus the addition of the decorative stone accent on the front of the house. Additionally, the stone floor for the screened porch was laid, adding a nice, finished look to this outside space that we expect to use quite frequently. Finally, excavation was completed to set and bury the septic tank, distribution box, and perforated pipes for the drain field; while a 500 gallon propane tank to fuel the furnace, fireplace and stovetop, was buried and the gas lines were connected.

Inside, the wide-plank engineered-wood flooring was installed, followed by delivery and installation of the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, and countertops. Work also continued on some of the interior trim, particularly the fireplace mantle and the built-in bookshelves and cabinets in the living room. All in all, there was a lot accomplished during the time I was away.

In the five weeks since my return from Kilimanjaro, many of the last major pieces have been completed and it is clear that we need to begin focusing on packing and moving. We opted to add blue porch ceilings to both the front and screened porches. This distinctive feature, popular in the south but widely seen throughout the mid-Atlantic, originated with the Gullah/Geechee people (descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to Charleston, South Carolina in the 1500s). The Gullah believe in wandering spirits, called “haints” that are lost souls that might wish evil on the living. According to lore, a blue porch ceiling, meant to resemble water, brings luck and protection to a home by warding off the lost souls since they are unable to cross water. The soft blue often used on porch ceilings is commonly called “haint blue,” which really isn’t a color. Since only one blue option, called “Savannah blue” was available for the vinyl soffit, we went with it and are really happy with the subtle hue it adds to the porches. Now we have our own “haint blue” ceiling to protect the house… I figure we’ll take all the help we can get!

Upon completion of the porch ceilings and siding, the electricians returned to install all the interior and exterior lighting. The era of energy efficient LED lighting means that we needed to think about the “color temperature” (measured in units of Kelvin) of the LED light bulbs used throughout the house. Generally, LED lights can range from color temperatures of 2700K to over 6000K. The higher the number, the brighter and whiter the light. We opted to keep all of the lighting in the 2700K to 3000K range to ensure adequate brightness, while avoiding an overly stark and bright illumination.

After the lights had been installed, the plumber returned to install all of the faucets, fixtures and toilets; while the trim carpenters measured, cut and installed the quarter-round trim on the baseboard molding, along with all of the door handles. Outside the gutters were installed and our excavator returned to dig the trench and lay the piping on the long run from the water meter up to the house. Once this was buried, all that was needed was the final connection to the water supply lines inside the house, which occurred a couple weeks later. With the completion of the water line, all the major excavation work was complete. Subsequently, several loads of gravel were delivered and spread to smooth the driveway, and the final grading and seeding of the yard was done. Now we are truly hoping that April showers will result in May flowers (grass) on Hope Rise!

With the addition of insulation on the bare-concrete basement walls, and the anticipated installation of appliances this week, the construction team has begun to focus on punch list items to take care of the final details prior to the occupancy inspection. We hope to have the occupancy permit near the end of the month and are excited about our pending move!

Welcome to “Hope Rise”