• Cozy in a Container

    I never thought I’d be sleeping in a shipping container. Yet here I am and I am grateful. We are at over 4,000 m (13,123 feet). The wind blows harder as the sun begins to set. It’s cold. One of our traveling companions is fixated on measuring the temperature. She reports it in Celsius. I am tired of doing the conversion. I ask her “What does that mean. Do you feel cold or warm?” 

    I’m feeling a little cold, but when I step into my container room I warm up. It is a small container, split in two. My half has enough room for two sleeping cots, one night stand, and a small crate that can hold one suitcase. There are eight hooks, which come in handy for hanging coats and day packs. There is a door and a small vent. The container doesn’t have any heat, but it has an LED light and a jug of water. That’s it. 

    As the wind picks up, I appreciate the windowless container even more. It is air tight and great protection from the wind. After a few hours, the heat exuded from two people noticeably warm the container. I am thankful we don’t have to stay in a tent. 

    This is really a small container “village.” Each of the two couples on this trip gets a container room for sleeping. A separate container contains the bathroom. Each couple gets their own bathroom with a flush toilet, sink, and shower. There is hot and cold running water. The bathroom has a gas lantern. It provides light as well as heat. I wonder why we don’t have one in our bedroom, but I know why. The altitude is so high that a gas lantern would use too much oxygen for living quarters. As no one stays in the bathroom too long, I assume having a bit less oxygen is okay. But I wouldn’t want to lose any oxygen in my sleeping area.

    There is a kitchen container that we gather in for meals. I really like the compactness of it. There is everything a chef needs to cook—pans, spices, gas stove, and sink. We sit at a table with bench seating. It is all quite civilized. I am amazed at the supplies they bring. This is far better than backpacking fare. We have hors d’ouvres of empañadas followed by homemade soup followed by an entree of quinoa and dried llama. Finally a fruit desert. Those who like to drink at high altitude can enjoy wine. I avoid the wine in favor of a better night’s sleep at altitude. Our French-Canadian travel companions opt for wine and end up complaining about a poor night’s sleep.

    After dinner, we were sent to our container bedrooms with a hot water bottle. It amazed me how long that bottle felt hot. It warmed the sleeping bag so much that I didn’t miss the lack of heat. I was quite cozy in the bag.  (All photos courtesy of Glen Gould.)

  • Crossing to Bolivia

    San Pedro de Atacama is about one hour driving time from the border with Bolivia. I wondered why our van had to stop in San Pedro to complete the exit paperwork for Chile. My guide said that someone who lived up the road, let’s say a half hour towards the border, would have to drive to San Pedro to complete the paperwork. Only then could that person turn back proceed to the border. How inconvenient for the traveller!  

    I wondered why border control wasn’t close to the border. But when I arrived at the Chilean-Bolivian border I understood completely. There is absolutely nothing there except a hut for the Bolivian border control personnel and a few modest one-story buildings which I assume are for the border people who drew the lot to be stationed at this outpost. 

    The altitude is high enough for me to feel, so I assume it is at least 3,657 m (12,000 ft). The wind is blowing, and the cold biting. The door to the border control office is wide open. Two men sit at a modest wooden table. I can’t imagine working in an unheated building in this cold, but they seem to manage. I present my paperwork for them to stamp. 

    Outside, our Chilean driver stays on the Chilean side of the border. He unloads our van and passes our luggage and supplies to our Bolivian driver. This exchange makes me feel as if I am a spy being passed from one country to another. But it is all for the good. From this point on, the road system is pretty much non-existent. Our Bolivian driver is supposed to be one of the best. I’ve been told he has memorized the entire countryside—every rut and every crevice—and he can navigate from point to point without GPS. Let’s hope this is true. 

    When all of our crew—Oscar our guide  and my three traveling companions—are finished with the border control paperwork we hop into the van with our new driver, Felix. 

    I see ten different vans at the border control. I assume we’ll leapfrog each other as we get farther and farther into Bolivia. But is turns out that we will never see these people again. From here on out, there isn't a road as I know it. (Try to find one in this image.) You have to wend your way through the altiplano. Felix seems to know routes that no one else takes. The Bolivian adventure begins!

  • A Tale of Two Salars

    Every great adventure starts with a flat tire. Or at least that what I hoped. We drove for an hour and a half south of San Pedro de Atacama to hike to two different salars—Salar de Talar and Salar de Capur. While I was gazing at a nearby volcano, the van stopped. The driver announced we had a flat tire.

    I find myself standing outside well above 4,000 m (13,100 ft) pummeled by a biting cold wind. It is sunny and I am surrounded by incredible beauty. Our group of five is anxious to get to the start of the hike. We know it is only a few miles away. But the tire must be fixed first. The roads are so rough around here, or at least the roads we take, that flats are common. It takes our guide and driver about 20 minutes to make the fix, and we are on our way.

    The wind seems to be a constant factor in Atacama, as are sunny, cloudless skies during the day. I put on my windbreaker and set out with my companions to the first salar—Salar de Talar. The cold wind tricks me into thinking I see snow in the distance. I remind myself this is salt.  As I descend towards the plain, I spy a lone vicuña. That’s unusual because they typically travel in groups. Maybe this one is antisocial. 

    The brown-and-white landscape is broken by pink dots. As I get closer, I realize I am looking at flamingos. There are a couple of species in Chile—James, Andean, Chilean. You need to get a good look at the feet and head markings to identify each. Our guide explains the difference, but I know I will not remember once I get home. So I appreciate gazing at the birds and appreciating their ability to exist in this environment. 

    When we’ve walked from one end to the other of Salar de Talar, we start an uphill walk to the crest of a distant hill. The altitude is noticeable, but it’s not too taxing. As we ascend, the wind becomes much stronger. As I fight the head wind, I wonder if the compression of the air results in getting more oxygen. Probably not, but I tell myself it does. That helps me appreciate the fierceness of the wind.

    As I come over the crest of the hill, I see an amazing sight—Salar de Capur. It’s pure white basin contrasts with delicately hued mountains. No one is here except us. It seems as if we are on another planet.

    We’ve been hiking for some time, and I’m hungry. Farther down the hill, our van and driver appear. He sets up a buffet lunch in the windshadow of the van. Spectacular view, wonderful food. A great adventure indeed!

  • The Valley of the Moon (or is it Mars?)

    I’ve never been to the moon, and I doubt whoever named this valley has been there either. In fact, I am certain that Valley of Mars would be a better name. Parts of this landscape are remarkably similar to the photos taken by the Mars rover and are in the book Mars 3D. 

    The Valley of the Moon is one of most popular sites in Atacama. It’s close to San Pedro de Atacama, so just about every tourist makes the drive to the most scenic viewpoint to snap a photo at sunset. My guide is determined that our group of seven will have a wilderness experience and not see anyone. 

    We leave from the hotel at 5:00 PM. As instructed, I have a windbreaker and a warm coat in my backpack. Oscar, our guide, says the temperature drops and wind increases at sunset. I also have a buff to wear around my mouth. It is already windy and the sand is blowing. I don’t want a mouthful of the desert.

    The van drives us into the park. We pass tour groups until we get to a stretch of the road where we don’t see anyone. We hop out of the van and start claiming up a dune. The van pulls away. 

    The sun is still illuminating this otherworldly landscape, creating sharp shadows as we hike up and down the ancient dunes and through the salt studded, cracked earth. When the sun starts to dip towards the horizon, we climb a dune and see the Licancabur volcano in the distance. But we don’t see any people.

    We perch ourselves on the edge of the dune, sun behind us, and watch the landscape change from brownish hues to bright red. The sun sets. The wind becomes gale force. The temperature starts to drop. That’s our cue to descend from the dune. It’s easy and fun to run down the dune. There is also a bit less wind below. In the distance, I see a van. It’s ours. 

    It takes the van about 45 minutes to wend its way in the dark over the rutted landscape and get to a real road. I begin to appreciate how important it is to have a skilled off-road driver and a solid vehicle in this part of the world.

  • Gateway to the Atacama Desert: San Pedro de Atacama

    Most trips to the Atacama Desert start in Calama, the closest airport and mining town. My trip was no different. And, like most tourists, my primary objective after collecting my luggage was to get out of Calama as fast as possible. Located at 2,280 m (7,400 ft) it’s dry, not particularly scenic, and rooted in mining. 

    A few minutes into the one-hour-and-twenty-minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama, it is apparent to me that Atacama is desolate. Desolate, but with a stark beauty that intrigues me. As we start gaining altitude, I notice what appears to be snow scattered on the ground and in the distant mountains. But it’s not snow. It is salt. It’s so dry here that the salt grows up from the ground. If the climate wasn’t so dry, rain would dissolve the salt and it would re-form into a smooth plain like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. It doesn’t do that here.

    As we drop down over the first mountain range, the straight road gets a few curves. Every curve seems to be littered with truck or car wrecks. Really nasty ones. The accident debris remains, perhaps as a reminder, but perhaps because of the remoteness. I see a load of five-gallon water jugs scattered next to the road. I imagine a water truck taking the curve too fast, its load going one way while the truck continues another. There is nothing out here. No houses, no businesses, no people. I wonder why they build a straight road. It is so straight most of the time that the curves seem a cruel joke.

    Out of the salt-peppered brown-and-pink landscape I finally see a swath of green. It’s San Pedro de Atacama—the destination of most tourists who visit the desert. The altitude is just a bit higher than Calama—2,400 m (7,900 ft). So far, I don’t feel any effects.

    We drive through town and arrive at Explora Atacama, a hotel just outside of town whose aim is to help visitors detach from their busy world and immerse themselves in nature. They have an army of guides who are prepared to take from one to eight visitors at a time on an “exploration.” I hope to do a lot of hiking in this area. After which I’ll head to Boliva. 

    Now it’s time to unpack and get settled. (The photo is the view from one of the windows in my room.)

  • Our Lady of Cell Service

    On a cloudy day in Santiago, there are no lines for the funicular in Parque Metropolitano. The park is one of the largest in the world—almost 1800 acres while Central Park in New York City is only 843. When it’s sunny, the  San Cristóbal summit affords spectacular views of Santiago. Although I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, I did find the cloudy view was pretty good.  

    Like many South American cities, hills always seem to have a huge statue at the top. San Cristóbal is no exception—Our Lady of Cell Service guards one of Santiago’s cell towers, ensuring text messages and selfies created on the summit are transmitted safely to their destination.

  • My Closet Looks Like A Mini REI Store

    I’ve taken so many trips and with so much variety, that I think I have everything any adventure traveller  could need. Cold weather? No problem. I have cold water boots for hopping out of a Zodiac at either pole, a red expedition jacket to protect me from the elements and make me stand out in case I get lost in a snow storm, inner and outer gloves, a balaclava hat, gaiters, and two weights of thermal underwear.  Desert? SPF 15 breathable shirts, sand-proof boots, a Tilley hat, SPF 100 sunscreen, and several water bottles.  Water sports? A SCUBA skin, fins, custom snorkel and prescription mask  board shorts, kayaking shirt, water sandals. I also have—trekking poles, day pack, head lamp, down booties, down jacket, down vest, and a wind/rain resistant outer coat. I even have a syringe/suture kit in case I am in a remote area where sterile syringes and needles are nonexistent and I am injured.

    I’ve used each of these items—except for the suture and syringe—a lot over the years. I’ve even replaced several things.  I am on my third set of hiking poles, fourth set of outer gloves, second Tilley hat, and second day pack. Some things wore out. Other items had such improvements in technology that I was compelled to upgrade. For example, the day pack. My latest one has a frame that is sized to my height and keeps the pack from resting entirely on my back, so it allows air to flow between me and it. The pack also has chest and hip straps to make the pack sit comfortably no matter how long the hike. 

    As I look at all this equipment, I wonder what to bring on my trip to the Atacama desert in a few days.  The average temperature should range between 33 °F and 79 °F, but it is possible for it to drop below zero and reach into the 80’s. There is no rain in sight for the parts of my trip in the Chilean and Bolivian desert, but I am making a two-day stop in Santiago first where the prediction is for rain. 

    I pull things off the shelf and out of the closet: Tilley hat, cold weather hat, thermal underwear, fleece jacket, Goretex jacket, down jacket, hiking shirts, hiking pants, liner gloves, socks, boots, daypack, head lamp, first aid kit, extra glasses, sunglasses, sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen, and a swim suit for the thermal hot springs. To this I add hiking boots, city shoes, something decent to wear in Santiago, jeans for horseback riding, and other assorted items.

    My goal is to fit all this in a roller bag—the same one I typically put in the overhead bin. I am dubious, but everything ends up fitting except for the hiking boots. The rollie is now too fat for the overhead, but I was planning to check it anyway. I’ll put the hiking boots in my day pack along with my camera and take the pack onboard with me. 

    Next stop, Santiago!

  • Greenwashing or a Commitment to Conservation?

    Greenwashing…is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.  Wikipedia

    Just about every hotel I’ve stayed in over the past several years has a visible statement in each room to tell their clients about the hotel’s commitment to conservation. This is a photo I took recently. I deleted the hotel’s name from the sign because I don’t want to single out any particular establishment. You can add any hotel’s logo and contact information to this sign.

    Each hotel's environmental statement is pretty much the same. They say:

    • We aren’t going to give you clean sheets every day.
    • We aren’t going to give you clean towels every day.
    • You can’t smoke in the room. But if you must, you can pay us a big fee for cleaning.
    • We are very committed to the environment.

    Then they promote bottled water, one of the most environmentally unfriendly consumer goods today. Take that Voss water in the photo. It’s $30.72 a gallon. The water is extracted from an Artesian spring in Norway and flown to, in this case, California. Think of the energy cost of making the bottle and the fuel necessary to fly it to locations around the world and then truck the water to a hotel. Environmental? No. 

    Most hotels have many other environmentally unfriendly practices, such as:

    • Supplying a refrigerator in every room. Contrary to what you’d think, mini-refrigerators can use as much or more energy than the large Energy-Star-efficient ones you use in your home. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, hotel room refrigerators are keeping, in most cases, absolutely nothing cold. An alternative would be to provide a mini-refrigerator only on request, and if reserved at the time the room is reserved.
    • Providing ice machines on every floor. An alternative would be to have only one centrally located ice machine in the hotel. Or, hotels could follow the practice of Hotel 41 in London.  Each day around 4:00 PM someone shows up with a bucket up ice and a small bowl of olives.

    • Illuminating the outside of the building at night. I’ve been in hotels where the uplighting was so bright it leaked through the curtains and kept my room lit all night. An alternative is to modestly light only the hotel sign and provide shielded lights to illuminate pathways.

    • Mounting televisions on every wall in every public space, and then keeping them on 24-7. Not only is this an energy waster, but it intrudes on the personal space of travelers. The alternative is to get rid of public televisions and assume hotel clients will watch television in their room. 

    By changing any one of the things I've mentioned, a hotel would not only save money, but help the environment.  If hotels also refused to carry bottled water, they would truly show a commitment to conservation. It's rare to find bad water in the USA. Hotels could filter their own local water and provide a centrally located bottling station for those who are convinced that water coming out of a tap is unpalatable. 

    Can you think of other ways that hotels can go beyond sheets, towels, and smoking?

  • The Three Faces of Everest

    For eons Mt. Everest presided over the landscape without humans setting foot on it. It was a sacred mountain, revered by those who lived in its shadow. All that changed when the British arrived in the area. With a penchant for measuring everything, the Great Trigonometrical Survey was the first to establish the height of Everest as 29,002 feet. That was in 1856, back when the mountain was referred to as Sagarmāthā by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans. Surveyor Andrew Waugh claimed there were even more local names than those two. Rather than choose one of the local names, which he reasoned might be confusing, he convinced the Royal Geographical Society to name the mountain after Sir George Everest. That gave the mountain yet another name, but it was one that the British could pronounce.

    When word got out of the magnificence of the mountain, a group of British—the Mount Everest Committee—hatched plans to climb the mountain. It would be the ultimate conquest. The committee formed in 1921 and the first attempt on Everest occurred in 1922. The climbing team approached from the north, through Tibet, starting at the Rongbuk Glacier. The 1922 attempt failed as did all other attempts prior to the time China invaded Tibet. When the Chinese took over Tibet in 1950, it closed foreign access to the mountain. It wouldn't be opened again until 1980.

    During the time Tibet was open to foreign climbers, Nepal was not. But when Tibet closed its borders in 1950, Nepal opened its borders. In 1953, the British team that included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit. Thus began the popularity of the southeast route to Everest. (The upper southwest face. Image by Pavel Novak, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

    In 1960, a Chinese team summited using the northern route.  (Routes up the north face. Image by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.itUser:Kassander der Minoer at de.wikipediam, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

    Kangshung, the most secluded face of Everest, remained unclimbed. Explorers had seen this side of Everest prior to the time China closed the borders, but those who saw it concluded the route would be too difficult. And so it is. The route is insanely steep. It requires lots of vertical climbing, technical skill, and sheer tenacity. There are perilously large overhanging blocks of ice, some house-sized, that are prone to breaking off. Those who climb need to be self sufficient, and that includes climbing without the aid of sherpas and into the death zone without oxygen. 

    Who would do this?  In 1988, a team of four succeeded—Stephen Venables (UK), Robert Anderson (USA), Ed Webster (USA), and Paul Teare (Canada). Mr. Venables' account of the expedition is riveting. Everest, Kangsung Face not only recounts the perils and joys of this adventure, but his book is full of photos of the climb that will make your heart race. Ed Webster, the photographer, lost several toes and fingers in his pursuit of capturing the climb. (Kangshung face from space. Image by Dan Bursch, NASA Astronaut. NASA Earth Observatory, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.)

    Unlike the more than 4,000 people who have seen the world from Everest’s summit, I have no desire to climb it. I’m content to stand at the base of a mountain and appreciate its greatness. In my research to get to Everest's base, I learned that most trekkers, like climbers, choose the southern route to Everest. There are more than 35,000 trekkers per season to the southern face. Kangshung remains the route barely traveled. That’s the side of Everest I want to gaze at.

    September 23 was to be the day I’d arrive in China to start a trek to the Kangshung face. After completing the trek, the group was to drive to the north face, near the Rongbuk glacier. The trip was to conclude with a drive from China to Kathnamdu, Nepal. The recent earthquake in Nepal caused enough damage, including closing the road on the border, that many of the people who signed up for the trek cancelled. That, in turn, caused the trip to be cancelled. 

    I’m keeping Everest on my bucket list. Perhaps next year, or the year after.

    If you are interested in trekking to Kangshung, see Kangshung Face of Everest Trek.

    To get an idea of what the area around Kangshung looks like, see Best of Kangshung Face Expedition, by Cathy O’Dowd. Cathy is the first woman to successfully climb the northern and southern routes. Her team did not succeed in its 2003 attempt of the Kangshung Face. She did, however, take some great photos as well as write an account of her team’s attempt.

    Her team might not have been successful, but they had solitude, which is something no longer possible when climbing from the south. Maxed Out on Everest describes the what it's like to climb "bumper to bumper at 27,000 feet." The photos show why it's possible to freeze to death waiting in line at the Hillary Step. 

    Everest's height? The Great Trigonometrical Survey value is a bit off. The current height is  29,029 feet (8,848 meters).

  • Trying to Get a Cup of Coffee in San Francisco

    I had been warned that a cup of siphon coffee would set me back seven dollars or so. If the line into Blue Bottle Coffee weren't so long, I don't think having a cup of siphon would have intrigued me. It's true that most people in the line weren't getting siphon. Blue Bottle is also famous for all the other kinds of coffee they serve—lattes, espresso, cold brewed coffee, and more.

    What’s a siphon? A true siphon causes liquid to move from one location to another using gravitational force. Let’s say you have a 5,000 gallon tank of water and you want to move it to a tank that’s located downhill. You can place one end of a tube in the top tank and the other in the bottom tank. The water will first go upwards through the tube to get over the edge of the upper tank, then travel down to lower tank. All due to gravity

    Siphon coffee doesn’t work that way, so it is not really a siphon. The water for siphon coffee starts in a lower chamber of a two-chamber device. When heated, the water flows upwards through a tube to the upper chamber. It’s not gravity that’s responsible. It’s vapor pressure. When the water in the lower chamber (which is closed) is heated, the vapor pressure increases. The upper chamber is open, so it’s at normal atmospheric pressure. When the difference is big enough, the water gets sucked to the upper chamber. That’s when you add coffee grounds, wait precisely one minute and ten seconds, remove from the heat, and then watch the coffee drain to the lower chamber as the vapor pressure decreases.

    Siphon coffee operates on the same principle of the percolated coffee of the past. Percolated coffee recirculates over the grounds while siphon soaks the grounds.

    Now that you know the science, here’s the ordeal of getting a cup of siphon joe.

    Day 1. I decide I’ll walk over to Blue Bottle, grab a siphon to go, and get back to hear a talk at a conference that I’m attending. I allot a half hour. After 20 minutes of waiting I haven't quite reached the front door so I bail in time to get back to the conference.

    Day 2. I realize I need to allot more time to stand in line. I figure I'll pop in early in the morning on the way to the conference, grab a siphon to go, and get to the conference on time. I leave 45 minutes. Within 20 minutes I get to the cash register, but I notice that the menu mentions that customers are expected to drink the siphon on the premises. It’s part of the ritual. 

    I was prepared to break protocol and ask for a siphon to go. When I arrived at the counter and requested a siphon, I was told it would be at least 20 minutes before the Siphonista would be able to start making the siphon. It was too long so I ordered a latte. It was the most beautiful latte I've ever had, and tasty too. The latte was worth the 10 minute wait. The artful design on the frothed milk was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to use a to-go lid. The design persisted even as I drank, a testament to the thick, foamy milk  Best ever! Now I really wanted to try the siphon.

    Day 3. I allocated 90 minutes in my schedule to wait in line, wait for the Siphonista to catch up with the orders, and to enjoy the complete ritual on the Blue Bottle premises. The line was not quite as long, so I was very hopeful. I reached the counter within 15 minutes. I had my siphon flavor picked out—the special Panama with hints of chocolate and berries. My mouth was watering. I ordered. The hostess said "I'm sorry but the Siphonista is not here now.” “Could anyone else make it?” I asked. Of course not. This method of boiling water is so special that it requires a barista with a specialization in siphon, hence the occupation of Siphonista. Disappointed, I settled for a latte to accompany a breakfast of eggs and cauliflower.

    Perhaps on my next trip to San Francisco.

    If you want to try making siphon coffee at home, Blue Bottle Coffee provides complete instructions.