Month: June 2011

The Annapurna Circuit: The Secret Alternative to the Classic Route

“Most recently, a dirt road passable by jeeps and motorbikes has been forged through the Kali Gandaki… this means that almost half the traditional Annapurna Circuit, the classic 18-odd-day looping hike in west-central Nepal from Besisahar to Naya Pul, is now along a highway.”

The majestic Annapurna Mountain range is a breathtakingly scenic subrange of the Himalayas and is comprised of the four districts of Lamjung, Mustang, Manang and Myagdi that allow visitors fantastic cultural immersion while trekking the region. Some of the tallest mountains in the world hold court here and although Mt. Everest takes the crown for being the highest, it is the Annapurna region that is more popular with trekkers due to its accessibility and dramatic geography.

And it is about to become a lot more accessible due to a new highway scheduled to be completed in Spring 2012. It is said that all good things must come to an end. In the case of the Annapurna Circuit some have reported that this new highway will forever change the area and the trek. Yes, it will change it, but will it be the demise of the Annapurna Circuit?

Martin Symington writes in detail of his good fortune of having experienced a new, alternate route to the classic trek that bypasses the new road. It is just as amazing as the original and offers trekkers not only a more remote experience, but also exposure to areas, like Upper Mustang, that were previously forbidden to foreigners. And to visit isolated villages that are unaccustomed to outsiders just adds to the sense of exploration and discovery.

“…each evening we dropped back to villages on the old Annapurna Circuit, trying hard not to feel smug about every astonishing day we were spending far from the madding dust and traffic.”

It is not clear just how this secret route will support the number of trekkers on the existing route, but it proves that as the world progresses and changes, it sometimes provides even better opportunities.  At this point, trekkers shouldn’t fret that the world’s greatest trek is going to be done in by a highway.


Trekking Tour Du Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains;
They crown’d him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow.
– Lord Byron

The regal Mont Blanc Massif straddles the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland and, at the heart of this enormous chain of 400 awe-inspiring peaks and 71 spectacular glistening glaciers, is the highest peak of Western Europe at 15,780 ft. Although mountaineers have been enticed by this region for two hundred years, Mont Blanc has been beckoning the less technically inclined, yet physically fit trekkers as well.

Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is the grueling 112-mile circuit around Mont Blanc that takes about two weeks to complete. TMB has its origins as centuries old trade routes and is considered one of the best trekking routes in Europe. This trail goes through 7 alpine valleys carpeted with wild flowers, over desolate mountain passes, into small hamlets and along ginormous glaciers… all while being under the gaze of the mighty Mont Blanc. The breathtaking, idyllic landscape, which is home to such wildlife as the ibex and chamois, competes only with the charming villages with their diverse cultural, culinary and architectural contributions from three different countries.

You can start this classic trek in the quaint French resort town of Chamonix and head in a counter clockwise direction.  The mountain paths are solid with some areas having rockier terrain littered with talus. Other parts of the route will have cables and ladders, some will have tracks and country lanes.

A typical day of trekking TMB includes ascending up cols, crossing high passes that reveal dramatic jaw-dropping panoramic views of the mountain ranges at every vantage point and then descending down valleys to old world storybook hamlets and villages. The landscape constantly changes from jagged peaks, glaciers and snow topped mountains to pristine wildflower meadows, beautiful lakes and dense forests.  The only constant in the scene is the ever-present Mont Blanc.

TMB crosses several high passes around 8,200 ft with the highest point being 8,478 ft. and the highest vertical gain of 35,000 ft. The highlights of the classic route are The Brévent at 8,284 ft, Bemada Testa at 8,313 ft. and Grand Col Ferret at 8,323 ft. There are variations to this route to make the adventure more challenging and rewarding. The variant’s highlights are The Col des Fours in France and the Fenetre d’Arpette in Switzerland, with both having an 8,743 ft altitude.

You will end each day physically taxed, yet visually fulfilled. Since the trail passes through such exquisite places like Les Contamines, Courmayeur and Champex there is the opportunity to experience the warmth of alpine hospitality. You refuel your energy while dining on unique local cuisine and retire for the evening in accommodations that run the gamut: first class hotels, delightful inns, simple hostels and mountain huts.

The region’s best trekking season is between July and September. Now is the time to pack your most comfortable hiking boots and brush up on your French and Italian. Treat yourself to Mont Blanc and the experience of the best hut-to-hut trek in Europe with its stunning alpine landscapes, charming people, postcard views and culinary delights of the French, Italians and Swiss.


Therm-a-Rest NeoAir All-Season: Ultra-light Warmth

Sleeping in a sleeping bag outdoors under the stars is great. Sleeping with a mattress pad between you and the cold, hard earth is even better. Very soon sleeping on the ground will almost feel like sleeping in your own bed or on a soft cloud with the new all-season mattress pad by Therm-a-Rest. At a weight of only 19 ounces the NeoAir rolled will take up the same amount of space in a pack as a 1-liter water bottle, yet keep you warm and comfy in the cold night air.

“Sleeping on the NeoAir All-Season isn’t only exceedingly comfortable, it’s crazy warm.”

Adventure Journal’s Michael Frank tested the NeoAir at temperatures below zero to see if he could travel light by day and stay warm by night. He did this quick review on how it performed.

Although its price tag of $140-$170 is a bit heavy, the NeoAir is ultra-light in your pack so you can travel fast and light on the trail.


The Zion Narrows- River Hiking and Kayaking

The Zion Narrows, the quintessential river-carved canyon for river hiking, is the place to be from June to September in Utah’s Zion National Park. The Virgin River is the 16-mile trail that is flanked on both sides with smooth, crimson red sandstone walls that reach a height of 1,300 feet and at times are only 10 to 20 feet apart.

The river winds curvaceous through this slot canyon passing stunning multi-colored rocks, rich vegetation, dense forests, hidden nooks and fresh water springs here and there. Greenish blue water hides the slippery, uneven rocks shrouded in moss below it challenges even the most advanced hiker, but sure footing is not as much of a concern as the ever present hazard of flash floods.

River hiking guarantees that the water will be swift, the footing will be slippery and you are going to get wet. 60% of the hike is done in the river. At some points there are sandy spots on the river’s edge to take breaks from hiking in water that is knee deep. But further down the canyon these spots give way to the river and it is a constant flow from wall to wall. Depending on the time of year this knee-deep level increases to waist deep due to the dark green pools that need to be traversed either by wading through or by swimming.

There are 3 ways to hike the Narrows depending on time and skill level:

  • Bottom and Back Day Hike: a 6-mile round trip hike that takes 4.5 hours and no permit is required. The turnaround point at Orderville Canyon is the narrowest and most dramatic part of the canyon.
  • Top to Bottom Day Hike: a strenuous 16-mile one way hike that takes 12 hours and requires a permit.
  • Top to Bottom Overnight Hike: a more relaxing option for the 16-mile one way hike that takes 2 days and requires a permit. There are 12 campsites to make camp and enjoy the sounds of the river at night under a blanket of stars.


If paddling floats your boat, then kayaking the Narrows during spring run-off might be just the thrill you seek. The Narrows have a Class V rating due to the expected difficult whitewater obstacles, but it could have Class VI repercussions because of the steepness of the canyon and the lack of additional escape routes.

Here is a recent video of paddling the Narrows via Adventure Junkie to entice you to take the plunge and kayak the Narrows for yourself.

The Zion Narrows is a quiet, mysterious place that beckons you to have a wet and wild adventure within its magnificent walls.


IMG Kili Team at 10,000ft

Eric Simonson relays:

IMG guide Eric Remza reports from Machame Camp at about 10,000 feet on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that the team is all tucked in after dinner, and a good first day of the climb.  The weather was good today and they took it nice and slow going up through the forest, and pulled into camp with everyone feeling good.

He also reports that these lucky folks were likely to catch the full lunar eclipse on the 15th.  How fortunate!  The clear skies at 10,000 ft are like front row seats.


Microadventure: Two-Wheeling On Mammoth Mountain

Summer weekends in San Francisco usually mean cold, foggy days. Ideas of escape to feel the warm sun on my face swirl around in my head. When I factor Friday into the escape plan that gives me 72 hours of serious playtime before I have to be back in the concrete jungle on Monday morning. That is plenty of time to have a microadventure.

The small town of Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierras was the destination. The 5-hour route to Mammoth consisted of a customary In-N-Out Burger stop and then on through the wilderness of picturesque Yosemite. There is nothing like a blast of fresh mountain air to the lungs and the sight of mature evergreen pine trees to get me excited about being in the Sierras. Mammoth Lakes is just a half hour beyond Yosemite’s backdoor. It is home to several beautiful lakes and amazing hiking trails so I made sure to set one day aside to explore the area by foot. But the main attraction for me was mountain biking Mammoth Mountain.

Mammoth Mountain covers more than 3,500 acres and boasts one of the longest ski seasons. But once the snow melts Mammoth Mountain becomes a mountain biker’s paradise. Very little is required in both areas of prepping and packing for a weekend here. I grabbed a couple of my outdoorsy friends, rented a condo there and the prep list was complete. Adding the standard bike clothes, shoes, helmet and hydration pack in with my basic weekend clothes and toiletries was a no-brainer. Less baggage on a microadventure is better. It leaves more room for fun.

I opted to leave my mountain bike at home so I could rent one at the Adventure Center on the mountain and experience the ride of a newer model. My friends and I cruised up the mountain via the gondola and exited at the summit. At 11,053 feet the 360˚ vista was breathtaking. From here I could see into Yosemite’s backyard. Mt. Ritter, Mt. Banner and the jagged peaks of the Minarets were also part of this picturesque backdrop.

There are over 85+ miles of single-track trails to choose from and although I am an avid cyclist it had been a long time since I had been on a mountain trail. I always have a sense of “keeping up with the guys” and this trip was no different. I wanted to ride every trail, intermediate or double diamond, they picked without hesitation. So what if one was an ex-triathelete and the other works out daily? I could keep up.

The first intermediate run started above the tree line in sandy dirt and had a gentle downward pitch to it. My leg muscles barely had time to warm up before I was upon the soft pumice dirt of tight switchbacks. I was a bit squirrely with the first one and coming out of its 180˚ turn I found myself brake too hard, went over the handlebars and landed on my back. Although I’m no stranger to bumps, scrapes and bruises in the pursuit of fun, my female pride forced me to regain my composure without hesitation. I dusted myself off and continued on to regroup with my friends. At the side of the trail I got a lesson on how to brake on this terrain and went on to tackle the next several switchbacks with more confidence and an occasional foot down for support.

Trails led us past Red Lake and through the thick pine tree forests as the terrain shifted from pumice to more sand and rock, which gave me more control of the bike. I stopped a fair amount of times, not because I could not keep up, but because I didn’t want to just blow through this beautiful area. I wanted to take it all in. This trail, like most on the mountain, eventually ended back at the Center where I dismounted my bike and rediscovered my John Wayne walk— the one I get after sitting on a bike for long periods of time.

After lunch, with bellies full and bladders empty, it was time to get back on the gondola and the afternoon run. I soon had my second pass at the switchbacks. Now anchored by the confidence of having navigated through this zigzag trail already I was determined to get through each one without fail. Taking up the rear relieved any peer pressure and I went through them with more ease and better agility.

Trails crisscrossed the face of the mountain and as we took one heading south it became clear that at some point I left the comfort of my intermediate trail for the challenge of an expert one. On thing is for certain- this mountain does not disappoint in testing my biking skills.

Having  successfully maneuvered off the expert trail I continued on a path that swerved in and out of pine trees, my tires crunching twigs beneath me while I sped along dodging imbedded rocks. I completely enjoyed hearing the birds, coming across squirrels and watching the sunlight dance between the trees while feeling the much-needed warmth of the sun on my face. At the end I took my tired, dirty self back to the condo content that I had just enjoyed a challenging, yet extremely fun day on the mountain.

Mammoth Lakes really exposes its scenic beauty in summer and a microadventure here that includes biking on Mammoth Mountain is a great way to experience it.