Monday, November 28, 2016


With love in her eyes, a ball in her mouth, and a wag in her tail, Haley touched the hearts of everyone she met. Most of all mine.

On this thanksgiving weekend when she left us, I have so much to thank her for. Thank you, Haley, for your unwavering friendship, your kindness, your enthusiasm for life, and your never ending quest to catch a squirrel.

Thank you for helping me raise Imaan and helping develop her love for animals. Your legacy will live on in her actions.

Thank you most of all for always, always having my back.

Even in the face of a most deadly disease, Haley, you were stoic. Unflinching. Unwilling to reveal even the slightest pain. But I could hear it. It was time.

Thank you, Haley, for being you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hut to Hut Hanging Chamois – Mountain Biking Travails from Telluride to Moab

This isn’t just a clever title. More than two months on from this epic adventure with seven friends, and the first thing that comes to mind is the daily hanging chamois ritual. Each day of this seven day trip ended with eight chamois hanging in different parts of the cabin in various states of stink, some dripping on top of bunk beds (ahem -- Jason), while others accompanying us at the dinner table.

Chamois photo bomb
The daily end-of-ride routine

Immediately though, my thoughts shift to what an absolute stellar time we had riding our mountain bikes from Telluride to Moab this past August. This was truly an international gang – four Americans (Kenny, Jason, Adam, and I); two Brits living in the US (Tash and Laura); one Brit living in Britain (Helen); and one Aussie living in the US (Katie). The whole plan was concocted by our fearless leader, Laura, who rallied up Tash and I from DC, much of her MIT cycling team gang now living on the West Coast, and her sister from Britain. We all made our separate ways to Telluride and met up at a rented condo to assemble bikes and start our grand adventure. 

Downtown Telluride -- the whole town is maybe five blocks long
Bikes unboxed and ready to roll
Given the pedigree of the pack (MIT, LSE), there was no shortage of geekdom, with evening conversations ranging from space travel to deforestation and everything in between. This was of course till the lemon drops came out (purchased and consumed legally in CO except by those among us who couldn’t due to work restrictions). Then the conversations shifted to how long it would take a bear to tear down our cabin door or to other urgent concerns such as the mysterious and leaky gas stove.  

While the evenings were relaxing with laughs and good food for hungry cyclists especially with master chef Kenny at the helm, the real fun was the biking during the day. The San Juan hut-to-hut system is the real deal. Its legitimately good mountain biking on singletrack but each day also has easier dirt road and doubletrack options. The huts are filled to the gills with food and not just non-perishables – they have coolers filled with cheese, eggs, meat, and drinks that are restocked on a regular basis. Without the weight of sleeping bags or food and water for seven days, the riding is significantly more enjoyable. Most of us just carried one large handlebar or saddle bag and a camelback. Bikes ranged from hardtail to high end full suspension.

Typical hut exterior
And interior
Master Chef Kenny hard at work (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura resting after a long day of riding. Tash is asleep on top bunk (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The riding did not disappoint! Although I must admit the first day was tough. I recently discovered that I don’t deal that well with high altitude without proper acclimatization so I knew that starting out in Telluride (at 9,000 feet) and going up to Last Dollar Hut (11,000 feet) on the first day was going to be difficult. But the views were magnificent and the weather cooperated and we made it up to the hut with plenty of daylight still remaining.

Day 1 crew. Others were either ahead of behind
Views weren't bad

Stopping for pictures (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
MTB Camaraderie (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The fun part of riding all day is that at the end you can pretty much eat anything you want and not feel guilty about calories. We took full advantage of all the food available and got creative with pasta, potato, and meat dishes – all great with the clear exception of Kenny’s Spam charcuterie platter one day which wasn’t a hit. Not surprising as spam tastes like, well, spam.

Day 1 musings (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Planning out the next day's ride (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Sunsets were spectacular (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)

Given the international crowd it was fun to compare uncommon terms used in different countries. For example, what we call an outhouse in the US is called a longdrop in Britain. Quite literal, these Brits, as it is a fair bit down to the compost pile from where you sit. Note to self: never use an instadrop!

Day 2 brought rain and thunderstorms with plenty of lightening. Tash and I trailed off to put on rain gear and saw at least ten lightning strikes in the distance. Thankfully, weather in the mountains moves very quickly and soon the dark clouds were past us and sunshine returned. There wasn’t much singletrack along the way, however there were options available to ride after we reached the second hut.

Several of us went off without bags and had a blast. The trails in this part of Colorado are fast and flowy until they’re not and you quickly find yourself in the middle of rocks. The unfortunate truth about riding rock gardens is that you can clear them better if you ride with speed and power, but many newbies struggle with speed on technical terrain so it can be a double whammy. But fun was had by everyone. It was quite amusing to watch and wait while Laura dutifully pulled out and consulted her paper map at every trail intersection, highly suspicious of the GPS track loaded on my garmin. Needless to say the garmin was always right.

MTB selfies
Kenny showing off
There was also a bear encounter when an overenthusiastic cub ran across the trail in between Helen and the rest of us behind. Mamma bear couldn’t have been far so we decided to make loud noises to ward her off. Sadly our collective brain bank couldn’t come up with any songs that we all knew so we resorted to singing happy birthday loudly to the baby bear. Imagine coming across that scene in the woods!   

Day 3 was perhaps my favorite as Tash got to ride a lot of singletrack and enjoyed it quite a bit. There is a personal sense of accomplishment to see your partner become a better mountain biker. Or maybe its just serving my own interests as now we can go on more mountain biking vacations! Other interesting aspects of day 3 were Jason and Helen getting lost and almost freaking out but not quite, separating from Adam and Katie, re-finding them at a later intersection and eventually making it to the third hut where the rest of us had prepared a yummy meal for all.  

The train is on its way
Lunch stop on Day 3
Not a bad place to meditate
Just cruisin...
Day 4 was in many ways the opposite of Day 3 in terms of Tash’s enjoyment of singletrack. The trails were really narrow with lots of brush or exposure on both sides, plus some of them were pretty wet and muddy. Plenty of cow poop was also inadvertently consumed by both bikes and riders, which eventually resulted in a bleach-athon at the hut in the evening. The good news was that this hut offered hot showers, which were much needed – deodorant doesn’t do much after four days of sweat and muck. Helen managed to convince the others to ride every available singletrack option that day, even riding back up the road to tackle something they missed. Spirited one for sure!

Helen fueling up at lunch
"Me no likey this trail -- hiss!"
Day 5 had some super fun singletrack. Katie and Tash decided to take the dirt road option and the rest of us went for the singletrack. It did not disappoint. First we descended down some mega steep and technical shoots with lots of loose rock and sand. Thanks to my dropper post I rode this fast and with confidence. Soon the trail opened up in the valley to magnificent views all around.

But moments later, disaster! Or at least a few of us thought so. Adam and Jason had tailed off a bit on a descent and we waited for them a bit further ahead. And we waited, and waited. Then we got really worried. So Kenny and I started walking back to check on them. Thankfully, it was just a mechanical with Adam’s chain really jammed up behind his cassette. No amount of pulling or tugging got it loose.  

We had a cassette tool with us but no wrench so leave it to the MIT engineering nerds to figure out a solution. First they found a rock which had a sufficient crack in it to fit the chain tool. Then they used allen keys to file open the gap a bit more so the tool could fit deeper and more secure. The idea was to use this engineered rock wedge as a wrench and rotate the wheel around it to loosen the cassette. I’d love to tell you that it worked but sadly it didn’t, the rock was too brittle. Finally, a non-engineer in the group (i.e. me) suggested trying to yank out the chain with more leverage. And guess what, it worked! But we had to loop the chain around the crank backwards and then give the crank a big kick and out came the chain. Science: 0 – Brawn: 1.

Adam's got some serious arm strength!
Jason at it again with his camera (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
We weren’t done with our mechanicals for the day, though. The last part of the day was an insanely steep dirt road descent which pitched down 25%+ in places. I was happily descending like a banshee till my front wheel started squirreling violently. Somehow I managed to slow the bike down just in time for a turn away from the abyss and stopped the bike several feet later. That was a close call. After some flat repair we all made it to the next hut without further incident, thankfully.
The other memorable part of the day was when I decided to give Adam MTB tips on riding with confidence thinking he was a newbie, only to discover later that he is a Cat 1 road racer! He then proceeded to lay the hammer down at every single hill that followed – doh!

Mountain Panorama
What contrast! (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura dropping into the 25+ percentage grade (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Katie and Tash having some fun
Multi-tasking: recuperation and next day planning
I wasn't the only one tired!
We were now close to Moab. Two more days to go. Day 6 was tough. We started down in the valley and had to go over an entire mountain range in order to descend down into Moab on day 7. The climb was entirely on a dirt road but man it was steep. 25%+ in places, only this time going up! It was great fun to watch the time-trial matchup between Adam and Katie as they rocketed up the slopes. Obviously two collegiate national champions going at it was fun to watch. We all met up at a lake at the top to take some well-deserved, though thoroughly freezing dips.

Looking down on the climb
Katie putting down some watts
The lake was SOO cold!
Laura making friends with a friendly ranger

The whole crew
 This was our last night sleeping in a hut and it was bittersweet. While we were all pretty tired, none of us wanted this trip to end. One memorable highlight from the evening was me losing Tash’s sock in the river much to her chagrin. She later claimed it wasn’t too bad, though the widowed sock still occasionally shows up in our bedroom strategically placed as a reminder that I owe her a new pair!

The final day was mostly downhill and promised to be exciting. We were going to ride the Porcupine Rim trail down into Moab. For those who don’t know this is quite a spectacular trail that drops you down amidst steep and bouldery slickrock. Some of the crew opted for the full experience while others rode for a bit and then traversed across to the dirt road. Some even managed to ride the slickrock trail which is a mountain biking rite of passage.

Porcupine rim trail (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Approaching Moab
Resting on a cliff
Feeling on top of the world
Finally, we rolled into Moab tired but extremely satisfied. After well deserved (and needed) showers and a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant, everyone disbanded to make their separate ways back home. Tash and I stayed an extra day to go visit Arches National Park, which ended up being a nice way to unwind and relax off the bike.

Delicate Arch
 This was such a fun trip! We’re already plotting to get the gang back together for next summer.

(Photo Credit: Jason Sears)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Perdidos en Colombia

The family that saved us
"Are you sure we're on the right path because we've been climbing for hours? Where the #@$& is the turnoff?!" exclaimed the habitually non-profane Natasha as she ground the pedals on her rental mountain bike. We'd been riding up an unforgiving steep dirt road for some time, maybe even hours, and were both feeling the effects of exertion and the increasingly thin air. 

"Don't worry," responded I with breathless and meek confidence, "we haven't seen any turnoff so far so it must be up ahead. Lets keep going." 

Yet there would be no turnoff. We would soon find ourselves lost in the Andes wilderness with only an hour and change of daylight left, miles away from the nearest habitation, and certainly hours and hours away from where we wanted to be. Indeed, we were lost. In very literal and profound terms, we were #@$&ed! 

But lets rewind... 

Colombia is one of those places that has long fascinated both of us -- the coastline, the volcanoes, the culture, its the total package for adventure seekers like us. So we carved out a 10 day block in late June/early July and excitedly headed there to start our vacation in Cartagena. Of course, our itinerary was jam packed with activities as it usually is. As a co-worker and friend commented, it wouldn't be normal for the two of us to have a normal vacation plan. 

Four days in Cartagena were a bit mild on the adventure side but every bit as exciting on their educational merit. Apart from learning about the history of conquests and eventual independence, we thoroughly enjoyed the culture and bustle of the old city. Wandering through the streets, we'd suddenly come upon a kids football game in full flow in the middle of a city square, resplendent with a cheering crowd and street food vendors. Another block away would be row upon row of local artists selling their craft. We spent most of our time just soaking all this in, eating yummy food, and escaping the stifling heat by devouring an unthinkable quantity of local popsicles. Race weight be damned. 

Cooling off in Cartagena
Pretty spectacular wall art

I want popsicle!
But four days of non physical exertion was about enough. Soon we boarded a plane bound for Bogota, the high altitude capital. Here, against all unsolicited advice of nearly everyone, we rented a car and started our seemingly perilous drive west into the heart of the coffee region. The plan was to spend a day and half acclimating to the high altitude in the local towns of Filandia and Salento, followed by a 3-day ascent of the snow capped volcano of Tolima at 5200 meters (~17,000 feet). 

Oh this was so tasty

Andres Carne de tres -- look it up, its an institution well worth the visit. Your stomach will thank you.
The drive lived up to its billing, although the journey wasn't even close to as exciting as that of a helpless passenger in one of many inter-city kamikaze buses we saw along the way. Eventually we made it to Filandia and after a magical overnight stay at a local finca (farm), we jumped across to Salento the next day. It was here that we had a free day and decided to rent bikes so we could go for a spin up the local hill. 

Salento from our hotel terrace

Normally, I'm pretty anal about maps and directions with GPS routes pre-loaded on my garmin and backup paper maps. This bike trip, however, was totally unplanned and I didn't have my garmin on hand. Instead, we looked up the local roads on google maps and found a nice loop about 15 miles long that climbed a dirt road leading out of Salento and then looped back to a parallel road that would bring us back to town. 

Only problem was that it didn't. In fact, no such loop exists. Google maps is about as reliable abroad as a monkey on crack, as we would later discover much to our chagrin. We bought a pack of potato chips and two water bottles and headed on up the dirt road. About 4 hours later we were still climbing! Maybe the altitude muted our collective brain cells, but somehow we made the incomprehensible decision to keep on going. Eventually, we reasoned, the road would descend and loop around back to Salento. Besides, the views were absolutely magnificent if not majestic. 

Road panorama with Tash in the middle

Screw directions, just look at this view!
Still happy
After nearly 5 hours of climbing, we finally reached the top. We would later be told that this was the top of the top, i.e. the highest point of any road in the region at nearly 13,000 feet of elevation. To put things in perspective, thats just 1,000 feet shy of the Rainier summit. 

This was the point to turn back and cruise into town at high speeds. Of course that was the rational thing to do. But not us. We were chasing the imaginary google maps loop. With no cell signal we were simply going by intuition, and quite frankly the aforementioned monkey on crack would have made a wiser choice than us. Of course, we took the plunge on the other side of the road. And plunge it did indeed! For miles and miles we enjoyed a rapid descent, captivated by the scenery that was unfolding in front of us. 

By now it was about 4PM and sunset was a mere two hours away. There were no signs of any connecting road, in fact, there were no signs of any human life nearby apart from the three motorcycles we encountered the whole day. So we stopped to assess where we were. Out came the iphone and google maps. Finally the GPS kicked in and showed us a million miles away from Salento. Confusion and shock set in. How could we have come this far, yet be so far away? 

Cows were about all we saw. But farmers must be nearby, no?! No, not really

At this point my rational brain took over. The only logical choice was to turn around and climb back up to the summit of the road and descend down the other end. This would mean climbing for many many miles to the cold and rainy summit and then a long descent in the dark. But there was no other way. It was too risky to keep going forward. 

It was here that Natasha took stock of the situation, assessed the fatigue in her legs and the food we had left (a few potato chips), and promptly began to panic. Within a few seconds, it turned into a full-on panic attack. Luckily, I managed to keep it together, barely hanging onto a flicker of sanity and hope. I kept talking to her and eventually we started moving back up the road we had just descended. Hunger and hypothermia were most certainly on the cards, but I reasoned at least we wouldn't die. Regardless of the outcome, this was going to be a long night... 

But then miraculously a motorcycle appeared with a young couple on it. Having not seen any sign of humanity for hours, this was indeed a welcome sight. If we were believing folks, this would be the turning point for a life dedicated to worship. But you know, it could also just be a random occurrence. Just saying... 

We waved the couple down and frantically explained our situation. My Spanish had long vacated me but Natasha is fluent so I resorted to rapid hand waving and pointing to my mouth and stomach while she conversed in a medium they actually understood. I imagine secretly they were laughing. Quite evidently they were amused and couldn't believe we had biked that far; after all it had taken them 3 hours to get to here from Salento on a motor bike! 

Without much convincing, they offered to help. They explained that they lived in a little village called Toche a few miles further on and that we were welcome to stay with them. The wife offered us her lunch and drink, which were much needed sustenance. They could have waved goodbye there and gone their merry way but instead they carried our backpacks and stayed with us the whole way to their village, stopping at every ascent on the road and then shining their phone torch on the road so we could see when it turned pitch dark. 

Our saviors

This was nothing short of a miracle and these folks were nothing short of angels. We pulled into their village and went past it to a dinky little shed that was their home. These folks were not rich, in fact they were one of the poorest families in their poor village. Yet, they had hearts made of gold. We thanked them and hugged them and laughed with them and to this day continue to stay in touch. They left a lasting impression on us. In today's world where a misogynistic racist bigot might become our president, good people still exist. You can find them in Toche. 

Eventually we made it back to our hotel in Salento after calling for someone to come pick us up in the middle of the night. We didn't get in till 2AM and collapsed of physical and mental exhaustion. Our 6AM departure for Tolima was most certainly off the table. 

Awaking the next day, we devoured two breakfasts each and took stock of the situation. Surprisingly our legs didn't feel terrible so we decided to give volcano climbing a shot. However, given that it was already 10AM we had to revise our goal to the slightly lower summit of Paramo del Quindio at 4800 meters (~16,000 feet). 

Normally I am not one to rely on guides for such trips, but the fincas we were to stay in for our 3 day trek only did business with the guides and the trail system was not properly mapped. Besides, after the previous day's experience, I was a bit empty on my suitcase of courage. So I relented. 

If the road to Toche was gorgeous, the hike up into the Paramo region was simply stunning. The pictures below do little justice to what we saw and experienced first hand. 

The first day hike was up to around 13,000 feet, the same elevation we biked, and it took us a good 6 hours to hike there from the trail head. The finca was quite bare but the food was fresh and quite delicious. We slept well that night. The next day was going to be a long one. 

Starting our hike with Camilo
Thats where we're headed (a bit to the right though!)

At finca #1 on day 1

This puppy was so so friendly. He wanted to come with me!
Up at 5AM, we enjoyed a quick breakfast and made our way up the volcano. The views again were magnificent. Turns out getting a guide was the right call as trails barely exist up here. In fact, much of the last approach to the summit is completely unmarked. We kept a steady pace going and managed to reach the windswept summit in good time. 

Summit of Tolima in the distance. We were headed close to it
Making our way up

Still climbing, now in the alpine zone
Nearing the top
Nearing the top 2

Shot from the summit. It was too windy to take a proper picture
Here is where part 2 of our fateful adventure happened. Yes, the mountain biking saga was only part 1! Now 16,000 feet is quite high and there is something called altitude sickness that afflicts many folks who ascend too quickly. I've been at altitude before and am generally a fairly strong hiker but this was the highest I'd ever been (Rainier is only 14,000 feet). Little did I know that I am prone to altitude sickness!  

As soon as we turned around from the summit to descend, a massive headache took over and as if on cue my stomach decided to throw a tantrum as well. Very soon I went from being chirpy to being sad panda. Another clue was that I wasn't hungry and didn't feel like eating anything. Natasha noticed this and asked what was wrong. Perhaps this brought me to my senses, albeit momentarily, and I explained what was happening and that we needed to descend quickly. 

So we wrapped up our lunch break and started heading towards finca #2 where we were going to stay for the night. Our guide was fantastic but didn't quite convey to us that the way down was completely and utterly unmarked, that is we had to bushwhack the whole way down. Normal me would love this and have a grand time. But altitude sick me carrying memories of getting lost on bikes wasn't having any of this. I was pissed and wasn't shying away from letting Natasha know that this was not cool. 

Luckily for us, we take turns freaking out. This time, Natasha was the calm voice of reason who kept me from losing it completely. After a few hours of picking our way through tree branches and tall grass, we arrived at the finca. We had been hiking for 14 hours. By this time I had a raging headache and didn't have any energy, physical or mental, left spare. So I excused myself and collapsed in bed with a few vitamin I. 

The thing with altitude is that you start feeling better as soon as you descend, and my experience was no different. I awoke from my slumber and felt instantly better. The next day I was back to normal and happily trekked back out to the trail head where we had started the hike. 

After a nice dinner and quiet night in Salento, we drove back to Bogota and despite getting stuck in traffic there for hours, managed to catch our flight back home in time. 

With a few hard lessons in the bank, we can't wait for our next trip!  

We may lose our sanity but being silly comes naturally