My introduction to tiny houses came by way of Outdoor Research. A couple of their sponsored athletes built a “tiny ski lodge” that they could live out of while traveling North America in search of the best skiing. Both the skiing and the tiny house appealed to me enough that I decided right then and there to build a tiny house. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4U7isvtCHA
After seeing the OR tiny house, I spent about 2+ years letting the idea percolate. Mostly, I knew that building a tiny house would be a large, expensive undertaking. Still, that didn’t stop me from fantasizing about tiny houses. During this period, I filled up a few notebooks with scrawly sketches of what floor plans could look like. I discovered Sketchup, too, and went crazy drawing 3d models of tiny houses.
ShopKo bought the mall in Whitefish and proceeded to remodel. The result? A large pile of free lumber and free nails. Unfortunately, the nails were in the lumber. I called on a friend (who also wants to build a tiny house) and we agreed to reclaim all the lumber together and each take half for our respective tiny houses. We each ended up with a tidy pile of usable lumber and a 5-gallon bucket of bent nails.
In the spring of 2015, Dane found a large goose neck trailer on craigslist. It seemed like a pretty good deal, so we went to Deer Lodge, MT to look at it. That night, he and I spent a long time trying to back the gigantic trailer I’d purchased up into a narrow space at the end of our serpentine driveway. Some time later, a friend asked me if I was going to build a tiny house. I very nearly replied, “No, it’s just something I dream about all the time.” And it was then that I realized that I was indeed building a 205 square foot house on six wheels.
But about a month after purchasing the trailer, I acted foolishly and broke my back after skiing off a large kicker jump in Glacier. The date was June 21.
By the end of the summer, my 3 compression fractured vertebrae (T7: 50%, T11: 20%, and L1: 20%, for those of you who are curious) had healed sufficiently to let me begin again.
I quickly discovered that my trailer housed many inconsistencies. It was not square. It was not level. Sealing up the under side of the trailer and getting a square, level building surface took way longer than I expected. Structure existed where I needed it not to exist. Structure was missing where I needed it to exist. Cutting, welding, painting, and a lot of wriggling around in the gravel underneath the trailer eventually yielded results, but by the time the beginning of the house was ready, summer was over.
After his first trips to the Himalayas in 1999 and 2003, my dad got some letters from climbing friends all around the world. Once he’d removed the contents from the foreign envelopes, I cut the stamps off the envelopes and saved them in a small match box. Over the course of a year or so, my collection grew to house a dozen or so stamps from places as exotic as Nepal, Italy, and Turkey.
While working in Turkey, I occasionally thought about a little beige and red stamp in a matchbox some 11,000 miles away. It was a 100,000 lira Turkish stamp from Ugr, a Turkish climber who’d invited my dad to climb Mt. Ararat a decade earlier. When I absconded with the discarded envelope holding that foreign stamp, I felt as if I’d scored a real treasure, a tiny fragment of a mysterious far away place too far away for me to ever visit. Now I’d not only come to Turkey, but also scaled Mt. Ararat, experiencing the rugged and tiring joys of mountaineering.
Once we finished our filming on Mt. Ararat, some of the crew started talking about stamp collecting. But instead of collecting stamps of the postal variety, they wanted to collect stamps in passports. Once again, it looked as though stamps would further broaden my horizons. When a spiffy Ford Transit minibus showed up in the parking lot at Camp M, I knew that hopes of additional travel were soon to become a reality.
The journey began with an overnight drive on crazy turkish roads populated with even crazier turkish drivers. I’ve heard many accounts of insane third world driving, but never really appreciated them until I’d experienced a bit of that driving firsthand. Road signs are treated like billboards, bothersome advertisements to be ignored. Dashed stripes denoting passing lanes were treated like cones in a slalom course. Cars whipped back and forth, attempting to change lanes without rolling a wheel over one of the stripes. When blaring, wailing turkish music wasn’t loud enough, the driver could simply veer toward oncoming traffic to prompt an angry symphony of horn honking. Lumbering bovines, who seemed to enjoy meandering down the road, also provided an excuse to practice horn honking. Somehow, though, cows in the road never warranted using brakes.
Thankfully, our drive extended late into the night and the inky blackness outside hid from our eyes the perils flying toward our minibus. Then suddenly, I pushed a pile of bedding from my eyes and descried a splendidly furnished modern hotel room. Perhaps I’d died in a traffic accident and this was the afterlife? This certainly wasn’t unlikely, but then memories of a safe arrival and check-in at a rather luxurious hotel in Yerevan, Armenia filled in the gaps in my sleepy brain.
Though the time spent in Armenia and Georgia was certainly vacation-like, it was still a business trip. The Armenian people have strong ties to Mt. Ararat, so we interviewed a variety of individuals there, from a high-ranking Armenian church official, probably similar to a Cardinal in the Catholic church, to artists and vendors at as flea market across the street from our lodgings. A tour guide took us to ancient monasteries, through a church museum with holy relics, and through a museum containing thousands of artifacts from every civilization which has inhabited Armenia for the past 6000 years. When the day’s work was over, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the city center, where lighted fountains attracted crowds. The proprietor of Camp M, who called himself the Black Bear, wanted us all to go downtown with him to find “beer and chickens.” We soon realized this meant finding female company at a bar. No one else was interested.
Following our stint in Armenia, we drove back to Georgia, where we spent a final night in Tbilisi before returning to Camp M. Our fourth story hotel room had large windows overlooking Georgia’s form of the National Mall. Government buildings enclosed a large square which housed a multi-lane round about with a giant column in its center. Atop the column, a golden St. George speared a golden dragon.
Before departing Tbilisi, we had just enough time to visit the remains of a stronghold perched on a hill above the city.
Georgia’s capital, the picturesque city of Tbilisi, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the impoverished former Soviet Bloc country. Large abandoned concrete structures dotted every stretch of every road we drove. Curious yellow pipes ran alongside all the roads, probably carrying water or natural gas. Everyone drove ancient, beat up Lada 1127s or monstrous soviet trucks powered by natural gas stored in giant red sausage-like containers on the roof.
While passing through a typically bleak Georgian village which exuded a dilapidated soviet bloc feel, red and blue lights lit up the rear view mirror of the minibus and our very concerned driver applied the brakes. Instead of the policeman coming to our window, the driver of our vehicle went back to talk with the policeman. A great deal of gesticulating conveyed the message that we’d been going 60km/h in a 30km/h zone and now needed to pay a 30,000 dram fine. The Black Bear found this very unsatisfactory and went to talk with the officer.
“Do not do this to us,” the turkish man said slowly and deliberately, “We are guests of your country.” The stoic policeman simply stood and scribbled on a thick packet of forms. Most of us expected the Black Bear to incur additional fines for arguing with the police. And then, just like the unlikely happy ending in an everything’s-too-good-to-be-true movie, the police officer decided to heed the Black Bear’s words and let his country’s guests go without any ticket or fine. A couple of our guys even had their pictures taken with the policeman, who appeared almost flattered by the media attention.
In retrospect, the police incident probably saved our lives. Eager to get his clients back to Camp M, our driver had been cutting corners, both literally and figuratively. Being pulled over reigned in his wild driving style and increasing our chances of making it home intact.
Home was a word I hadn’t thought much about for eight weeks, but as a customs official reached out to take my passport, I realized this final stamp signified the end of my great adventure, the end of The Kid being abroad. And with that heavy thought, I stepped aboard the Boeing 777 bound for Los Angeles International Airport.
There are a few things I need to set straight. For example, I spent my summer working, not touring abroad. There are these things called extenuating circumstances. I’ve been afflicted with them of late, so bear with me as I fill in gaps that I had to leave earlier.
It was eleven pm. There was no reason to suspect I might have another email, but I checked the mail app on my iPod one last time before turning in for the night. A message from my dad showed up.
Want to be a climbing cameraman?
Sure I wanted to be a climbing cameraman. I ran upstairs to get more detail. It was there that I saw a spam email to my dad stating that “17K ASL” was very pleased with his cinematography and would like to hire him to film at high altitude on top of a mountain. It was all way too rosy to be true. Money doesn’t grow on trees and people don’t just offer great jobs to random strangers. A few quick google searches yielded nothing about any organization called “17K ASL.” I warned my dad not to reply, since that would demonstrate to the spammer that he’d found an active email address. But a reply had already been sent. Bummer. He needed to be more careful in the future.
By morning we’d received a reply, still expressing interest, but not providing any details about what mountain was to be climbed or why the mysterious 17K ASL needed a cameraman. I pushed this from my mind and left for eastern Montana, where I spent two weeks with my dad and brother on a ranch 35 miles from the nearest outpost of civilization and out of range of the nearest cell tower. In short, we were very hard to contact. But the determined folks at 17K ASL somehow managed to find us there.
17K ASL, so named because their work would be taking place at 17K feet Above Sea Level, was making a documentary about Mt. Ararat and wanted my dad to be their head cameraman, or Director of Photography. Because of his mountain experience, they also wanted him to outfit and lead a 12 man team to the summit of Mt. Ararat, where they would live and work for an extended period.
Only four days later, my dad left on a scout trip to Turkey. In his absence, it fell to me to choose and order most of the outdoor gear for the expedition. Three or four days per week I’d drive down to Rocky Mountain Outfitter, a specialized mountain shop in town, and spend a few blissful hours poring over glossy catalogues of high end outdoor gear and clothing. It was gear junkie heaven. With advice from the staff at RMO, we were able to pick out all the tents, sleeping bags, coats, boots, socks and other items needed for the trip. Two weeks later, boxes started showing up. I felt as though Christmas had come in late June.
The prodigious quantity of gear made its way to an office in Los Angeles, where I worked with a group of production assistants organizing and packing duffel bags in which our gear would travel to the top of Mt. Ararat – The Painful Mountain. I really enjoyed preparing for the trip, but that all faded into obscurity as soon as a van dropped us at LAX with 41 large pieces of luggage. Much like a long and heavily loaded freight train, our group of seven strode through the door of the airport single file, each pushing a cart bulging with 50 pound duffel bags. The attendant at the ticket counter informed us we’d broken the record for the most bags ever checked by a single party. The previous record had been held by the Saudi royal family. A cheer rose up from our group.
Our first couple weeks abroad were spent acclimatizing to “Turkey Time,” a phenomenon where nothing happens until many hours or days after it is supposed to. Instead of living at Camp M a week or so before heading to Mt. Ararat, we spent over three weeks experiencing the joys of Camp M’s enthusiastically up-bubbling sewer and stuffy rooms. During that time, interviewees trickled in at random intervals. Each new arrival was taken to a pre-scouted location where we’d shoot an interview. Because of militant groups in the area and civil unrest, a couple Turkish people we interviewed objected strongly to all the “shooting” interviews, preferring we spoke in terms of “filming.”
I managed to get the overseas tummy bug two days before Turkish Time moved forward enough for us to depart for Mt. Ararat. While most climbers spent only four or five days climbing Ararat, our team took extra time acclimatizing, because getting the necessary footage required us to live on the mountain for an extended period of time.
Originally, the plan had been to spend about 45 days living on Ararat, but Turkey Time had eaten that almost in half. In retrospect, this wasn’t bad, because activity on Ararat’s summit was limited. Based on “information” from a mysterious “Mr. X,” an alleged expert on Mt. Ararat, we filmed a group of climbers living and working at Chuckmuck.
The Wild Bills and a few other individuals spent every day puttering about working on this or that. Inevitably, there were broken generators, slack guy-lines on tents, or snowed in items to maintain.
Though living atop a mountain might seem boring, we had plenty of filming to keep us busy. Every adventure turned into a filming opportunity. During a blizzard we filmed the Wild Bills packing up their operation so tools didn’t get buried or lost. We explored down the Ahora gorge, a 10,000 foot deep hole in Ararat’s side. Near our mess tent, we discovered and explored a crevasse, essentially getting a sneak peak inside a cross section of Mt. Ararat’s ice cap.
Working with and learning from experienced industry professionals was every bit as exciting as spending eight weeks traveling around Turkey. Officially, I was to work as a sound man with the second of the expedition’s two camera crews. The Old Chap, a quintessentially British sound man with 26 years experience working in over 100 countries, shared with me a wealth of information. I’m very grateful for his advice and demandingly high standards, which whipped me into shape and helped me learn quickly. In addition to doing sound, I got to manage gear logistics and even do some camera work. Though I enjoy most all aspects of production, working with a camera is definitely my favorite part of the job.
Compared with the six day effort required to get up Ararat, coming down took no time at all. Even so, we were a pretty sore bunch by the time we reached 2200 meters, the place where we were to catch our ride back to Camp M. While hiking down the seemingly endless scree-fields of Mt. Ararat, I contemplated the answer to a big question. Before heading to Turkey, I wondered why on earth I’d want to live and work on the Painful Mountain. As the center of ethnic conflicts, the maker of its own weather patterns, a semi-active volcano, and a very popular climbing destination for climbers all over Europe and Asia, the Painful Mountain is a most interesting character to get to know. But a couple weeks living on the mountain proved that maintaining a relationship with the painful mountain was… well, painful. Don’t get me wrong: the time spent on Ararat was an incredible adventure. However, its time was up and I needed to move on to the next adventure. When the much abused Land Rover Defender rattled around a corner in the road, a feeling of curiosity and excitement washed over my sore body. Where would the future take me?
Macaroni. Ah, the sound of the word: macaroni. Even mispronounced and garbled as it was, hearing those syllables positively made my mouth water. A hot meal of pasta and cheese: the thought was pretty exciting. I’d recently arrived at 5200 meters, but the altitude wasn’t bothering me; I had a rip-roaring appetite and Adam, our local cook, had suggested a meal of macaroni. After what seemed an eternity of hungry waiting, a small figure standing next to the orange dome tent on the horizon erupted in arm waving and shouting. Dinner time. Inside the tent a large pot of oily pasta noodles balanced precariously atop a pathetic propane stove frozen into the icy glacier. Instead of a cheese sauce, the occasional black fleck could be seen amongst the noodles in the pot. Clearly, our cooks weren’t too careful when washing the dishes and the burnt remains of yesterday’s dinner were now a part of lunch.
In the ensuing days, things got worse. The breakfast menu stayed the same day after day: flat bread that looked and tasted like a wooden cutting board, fake Nutella and “Joker” brand olives drowning in half-congealed oil. The day’s two remaining meals were macaroni, actually just pasta noodles, and soup. Soup was by far the worst meal. I believe I have reverse engineered the concoction. Add a handful of poppy seed-sized bread crumbs, a tablespoon of ketchup, the contents of yesterday’s chai tea bag and a squirt of lemon juice to a large pot of water. Congratulations, you now have soup.
Bad dinners had started six days earlier at 3200 meter camp. While taste certainly posed a problem, the main difficulty was that the cooks only served carbohydrates. Pasta noodles, potatoes, bread, rice and tea with lots of sugar made up the menu. Occasionally we’d be rewarded with a shred of chicken clinging tenaciously to a gnarly bone. Meal quality seemed inversely proportional to the altitude. The fried potatoes hadn’t been so bad at 3200, but didn’t cook properly at 4200. The porters wouldn’t even bring potatoes to high camp, because they took too long to cook. Considering that we were trying to climb a 5200 meter tall mountain and live on the top for weeks on end, the carbohydrate diet simply wouldn’t do. Meals were fine and dandy, but what we really needed was nutrition.
For this, I relied on my secret stash. A red rucksack lived in the corner of my tent, conveniently hidden beneath a down jacket. Forcing down 800 ml of nutrition free ketchup and breadcrumb soup proved harrowing day after day, and I’d come to my tent and try to recover from the meal, dipping into the secret goodies inside. Calculating how long we’d have to endure summit food, I rationed my limited supply of Hammer Nutrition’s Recovery Bars, the protein-rich cure for bad meals.
If bad food wasn’t problem enough, my previous mountaineering experience has taught me to stay away from solid food while I’m on the trail. On the first few mountaineering trips, this meant I either climbed hungry, which made me feel sick, or ate during the climb and consequently felt queasy. Fortunately, I discovered Hammer Nutrition’s products. When local cooks started serving us mediocre food at the 3200 camp, I’d realized my stash of Hammer would play an important role in getting up the next 2000 meters of mountain.
Each morning before tying the thin black laces of my dusty Mammut hiking boots and toiling further up the Painful Mountain, I’d grab an assortment of Hammer products from my stash. No matter what, every day started with a bottle of Perpetuem, a powdered meal replacement which was as important to me as manna was to the Israelites wandering in the desert. A sachet of powder emptied into a bottle of water provided the energy I needed to toil further up the Painful Mountain. A few minutes before climbing, I’d start hitting off the bottle. Provided I took a drink every fifteen minutes or so, Perpetuem provided a steady baseline energy. Despite the Perpetuem, climbing proved tiring. Occasionally,I’d pop a Hammer Gel from my pocket. Minutes after eating the sticky and slightly sweet gel, I’d start to feel full and energetic again. The only thing lacking then was proper hydration. Because a team member had broken our filter the second day out, we only had steri-pens, funky little ultraviolet probes that killed the tummy trouble-inducing pathogens in the glacial meltwater we collected. Though bacteria-free, the water tasted terrible until I added small coin-shaped electrolyte tablets, also from Hammer Nutrition.
Luckily, a few of the guys had different tastes, so I’d trade Hammer Bars and Heed for more of my favorites: Perpetuem, gels, and the fizzy tablets. The benefits of using Hammer were immediately apparent. I climbed from camp to camp in very little time. The thousand meters between 3200 and 4200 camps took me just over an hour.
One day the team needed me to hike down to 4200 meter camp from our summit camp at Chuckmuck. That evening, I made my second summit attempt. Since I was by myself and didn’t have to accommodate anyone else’s pace, I decided to push myself and see just how fast I could cover the thousand meter uphill trek. Two sachets of Perpetuem, four gels, and exactly two hours and fifty eight minutes later, a huge smile lit up my face, just like the huge sun just beginning to light the slopes of Chuckmuck around me. A trip to the summit usually took 5 hours. I’d cut 40% off that and still felt great. But at 17,000 feet, feeling great mostly means you don’t feel utterly tired out. I crawled in my tent to chaw on a frozen Hammer Recovery Bar before enjoying a few hour nap.
I must have slept hard, because I woke to a terrible sound: “Maaaaaaaaacaroni!” The wailing yell seemed to hang on the air, waiting for my sleepy brain to interpret it before its full weight crashed down on my mind. A wave of dread washed over me. Not only had I slept through half a day, but it was lunch time, and that meant gagging down terrible particles of pseudo-food. Fortunately, before I could get used to the daily rhythm of bad meals thrice per day, a miracle happened. One morning, no one called us to the tent for breakfast. Murmurings slowly began to circulate among the inhabitants of Chuckmuck that perhaps certain people were no longer with us. One of the Wild Bills soon confirmed the rumor: the cooks had left. Meals were now our responsibility. Oh the joy.
Each evening we’d all gather in the cooking area. The Wild Bills had a container of oil. The Old Chap contributed a bag of red pepper flakes which he’d brought expressly for the purpose of drowning out the signature flavors introduced by local cooks. Using the bags of leftover pasta noodles and bits of chicken which were delivered to the summit every few days, we’d put together meals of pasta and chicken seasoned with oil and red pepper flakes. For the occasions when raw ingredients didn’t show up, we had a large bag of Mountain House freeze dried meals which, though incredibly salty, contained meat and other substances known to be good for the human body. Without the burden of being served food, we enjoyed our evenings together, eating well and going to bed content. In blissful control of our diets, we lived out our days at Chuckmuck in peace and contentment.
Being outdoors is a way of life for me: I spent my first night in a snow cave at ten months old. I enjoyed backpacking and cross country skiing by the age of three. From my earliest years, my dad has inspired in me a love for the outdoors and taught me how to safely enjoy adventures there.
In 1999, my dad spent a summer at K2 Base Camp, living in the shadow of the world’s second highest mountain. During the 2000s, he was part of three expeditions to Mt. Everest. All total, he’s now spent nearly a year living at or above 17,000 feet. My dad had always done incredibly well up high. He summited everest when at age 49, the strongest fastest climber on a team of fifty people. Perhaps his high altitude aptitude was genetic; perhaps I’d inherited it: there was only one way to find out. But it’s not every day you have a spare month in which to acclimatize and live way up high on some plantless, airless mountain desert. When given the opportunity to spend a couple weeks living on the Painful Mountain’s summit, I realized my chance had come. What would it be like spending a fortnight at 5200 meters?
In short, breathless anticipation turned to plain old breathlessness. When sitting down, I felt fine. Standing up made me dizzy if I didn’t make a conscious effort to breathe deeply. The hundred meter walk from our camp on the rocks of Chuckmuck to the giant cook tent on the crooked northern horizon required one to stop and rest halfway. Tying boots became a big deal. Putting on pants proved tiring, especially when one got to the second or third layer of pants. Some pants were slippery, allowing one pair to slide right over the first, but certain fleece-lined pants stuck. That situation required a lot of squirming and wriggling before the wrinkles got worked out and made the pants feel halfway comfortable.
When you live on a rock pile surrounded by ice and cliffs, you find out that a day can be a long time. Sunlight illumined up our yellow tents like big cheery lanterns at five am each day. Somehow, the call of nature aligned itself with sunrise, making sleeping in difficult. In other words, the day started early. Having lots of hours to fill wasn’t such a bad deal, though. After all, getting dressed could take half an hour and walking to the mess tent seemed to take eons. We had plenty of mundane chores to see to each day: our team went through several gallons of water, all of which had to be collected from melting ice and then sterilized. Water took ages to boil; cooking took far longer.
The most important requirement each day was a four hour strategic planning exercise in the community tent, a huge Sierra Designs Mothership big enough to sleep eight people. We’d zip open the door, pull off our outer boots and get settled inside. A mere three of our twelve chairs had arrived at Chuckmuck, so three strategic planners occupied the chairs, leaving the fourth team member to sit on a pile of duffel bags containing food. No doubt this contributed significantly to the deplorable, busted up state of our granola bars. Time for 500, a card game to which all members of our team were hopelessly addicted. With four participants seated, a deck of cards was dealt into four hands of ten cards and a “cat” of three cards left on the table as a prize for whoever won the bid. Strategic planning involved using strategy to outbid determined opponents at this game. We’d played together enough to know how people liked to bid. We’d also developed serious competitiveness. Tensions were high, bidding outrageous. The Old Chap, a quintessentially british fellow, played shrewdly, fearing the shame of letting Queen and country down in the event he lost a bid or, heaven forbid, an entire game. I became known as the Nula Kid because of my fondness for Nula hands where the object was to avoid taking a single trick. This grew old for my partner, however, because in a Nula the player’s partner has to put down his cards and sit out the hand.
When not occupied in our special version of strategic planning, our summit team enjoyed short outings on top of the Painful Mountain. Three stand out as particularly noteworthy.
The first outing began in the center of the universe, the massive orange mess tent on the exposed slopes of Chuckmuck. A nasty bit of storm rolled in. Forty mile per hour winds blasted us with prickly snowflakes, stinging skin and filling beards with ice. Never one to turn down the opportunity to test my Gore-Tex outerwear, I traipsed around in the storm with the rest of our crew. I tried taking pictures, but mostly caught fuzzy white frames. After a couple minutes the viewfinder filled up with snow. Eventually, the weather event increased in severity, prompting our retreat to our cozy tents. Time to thaw and enjoy a good book in the comfort of my tent.
Our second outing took place on a sunny afternoon when my dad and I fancied having a look into the deep gorge below Chuckmuck. A rocky spur hung down from the top of the mountain, forming a divider between two spectacular canyons. Descending this spur gave an opportunity to play with our climbing gear. Since a fall down the steep icy incline would mean losing a couple thousand meters of elevation, not to mention our lives, we tied our rope off to an anchor consisting of six ice screws.
Looking up from the end of 280 meters of rope no thicker than my index finger, I felt like a tiny spider dangling at the end of a long spiderweb. The tenuous line stretched to the horizon and beyond, leaving me dangling between two of the most impressive chasms I’ve ever beheld. On one side, a respectable valley opened up beneath a rugged cliff decorated with ice falls. But this was an irrigation ditch compared with the chasm on my other side. I was tempted to describe the larger gorge as “so big it took my breath away.” But at 17,000 feet, I didn’t have any breath to take away, so a different expression was necessary.
A glacier spilled down a no man’s land of busted up ice, like the granola bars in the duffel we sat on to play 500, only infinitely bigger. Little cracks in the snowfield turned out to be crevasses wide enough to put a freeway in. Over the edge where the glacier disappeared from sight, the next visible object was the dusty tan valley floor some 3000 meters below. Clipped into our rope with an ascender, I felt quite secure. I twisted in my harness to get a better look down the canyon. Could I even comprehend the vastness of this hole, I wondered. My appreciation for the size of the painful mountain grew as I hauled myself back up the rope to the top. The fun part of the outing ended when we started going back up the shimmery carpet of ice. Step up, take a deep breath, push the ascender up. Repeat.
Our final memorable outing took place a stone’s throw in front of the big orange mess tent. While wandering around there one day one of our guys had fallen up to his waist in a snowed in crevasse. Ten paces uphill from where he fell in, my dad discovered a place to get into a lower part of the crevasse. The ropes and ice screws came out again, an ice axe was used to widen the entrance to the crevasse and two by two we slithered and squirmed through the tiny hole.
Like a cave, this unique environment was adorned with chandeliers of crystal formations and unique slow flowing stalactites. The floor of the cave was a slush pool, so we had to hang from climbing ropes during our exploration. Limited by the rope, we didn’t move far, but there really wasn’t far to go. Nevertheless, getting under the skin of the painful mountain and catching a glimpse of what lay beneath evoked admiration in all of us.
Occupied by these and similar adventures, the long days passed quickly. Suddenly, the sun would drop below the horizon, taking moderated daytime temperatures with it. Night descended like a big, cold black blanket over Chuckmuck.
I’d crawl in my tent burrowing into the depths of my massive Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag. With days flying by at this rate, our departure date drew near with alarming rapidity. Occasionally I’d remind myself that all too soon, that bittersweet day would come. We’d go back to the luxury of decent food, mattresses, showers and thick air. But we’d also leave behind the scintillating adventurous life atop the Painful Mountain.
Patchy clouds had vanished, leaving a beautiful starry sky above 4200 meter camp. Dark tents flapped languidly in the gentle wind. Light spilled from the mess tent, a giant white cone glowing dimly with the light of half a dozen head lamps. I’d been sleeping unusually well and did not feel like eating at 2am, but the porters insisted we have bread, cheese and chai tea before taking off for the summit. Darkness pressed around us, pushing at the edges of small light pools broadcast from the headlamps we all wore. Even though our days at 4200 meters had been cold enough to warrant wearing a light jacket or two, the night seemed impossibly warm. While absentmindedly musing about the temperature, the call for the advance team came. As one of the four who was being sent ahead to get camp set up, I took off to join my fellow climbers, shouldered my pack and noted of the time: 3:42 am.
An hour into the climb I developed a stomach cramp which made me want to fold in half. Though bothersome, the cramp didn’t warrant turning around, so I plodded onward, my giant La Sportiva Spantik boots crunching loudly on the dusty basalt gravel beneath my feet. Bright yellow leather at my feet contrasted nicely with black stones. Orion peeked over the shoulder of the Painful Mountain. Inspired by the little pool of color around my feet and the constellations spattered across the sky, I started composing poetry in my head.
First blue, then pale blue and finally pale grey, the sky lit up. The mountain’s ice cap, smooth and white from afar, appeared as we climbed to the top of a spur. The unsure footing of uneven rock gave way to the unsure footing of rough icy terrain. The same summer sun which prompted sweltering, sweaty days in the valley had melted the upper layer of the snow each day. The same frigid nights which coated all the rocks with sparkly frost crystals refroze whatever the sun thawed. Finally, near constant wind deposited moisture, covering the Painful Mountain’s ice cap in a forest of delicate frost crystals, about the shape and size of human hands reaching into the wind.
With crampons on our feet, we crashed through the surface hoar crystals, fancy glass chandeliers which seemed to hang uphill as if magically defying gravity. Even though I felt lousy, the trip to the summit of the Painful Mountain seemed rather brief. Once on the snow, a few short inclines and one steep stretch brought us to the highest point on the mountain. Like most summits I’ve been to, the place itself is pretty blah. Imagine heaping up a dump truck load of snow on your front lawn. Now let a hundred grade school age children trample the snow into a mashed down hump. The summit of the Painful Mountain looks very similar to this, but has 3000 meters of additional mountain below. Granted, the 3000 meters of mountain under the trampled snow lump make for a fantastic view. Hills and valleys stretch out from the edges, rumpling the ground like a wrinkly tree skirt around a Christmas tree. If you look closely or use binoculars, white specks appear all around, like a tiny sprinkling of fake snowflakes on the tree skirt. These are nomad villages.
While our group of four crowded around the dome of snow taking pictures, the sun rose steadily. Suddenly, clouds appeared and the ever present wind moved them onto the summit. Nomad village specks disappeared. The 3000 meters of mountain below us disappeared. Only the trampled snow lump remained. The fog woke us from our collective “I just summited!” reverie, reminding us that we had places to go and things to do. Chuckmuck, the highest camp on the Painful Mountain, awaited us and standing around would only see us get cold.
Once off the nicely smoothed out summit, we resumed crashing through the ice crystals which blanketed the ice cap on top of the Painful Mountain. Clouds once again cleared, providing us a view of a giant saddle. A faint trail led across the white expanse, disappearing at the base of what appeared to be an ice cliff. Closer inspection revealed that the cliff was but a steep ice incline, easily ascended when wearing crampons. A five minute downhill walk on the other side of the ice not-cliff brought us to McDonalds – a destroyed storage building surrounded by a massive trash heap left by highly irresponsible campers from 2009-11. Perhaps the camp’s name, Chuckmuck, was derived from the burnt mucky trash that had been chucked all around the area. Extreme mountaineers on remote and difficult peaks occasionally leave their camps behind, often escaping with just their lives. But that hadn’t been the case here. The Painful Mountain was a relatively easy climb – nearly 1000 people did it each year. Burning an entire camp just because you were too careless and lazy to pack your gear out was a despicable thing to do.
Adding insult to injury, naming the hut McDonald’s was pretty cruel, too. After six days of bad food and a long hungry climb to the summit of the Painful Mountain, thoughts of McDonald’s seemed pretty surreal. Even a cheap, greasy burger would be better than no burger at all. Thoughts of food reminded me that I was hungry, which only contributed to feelings of exhaustion. My legs flopped downhill in front of me, crunching through the flaky frost coating the icy ground. First tents, then people and finally our duffel bags appeared on the horizon. Chuckmuck. Camp. The end of our journey for the day.
Ten restless seconds sitting on a duffel constituted my power nap. I got a second wind and suggested we begin setting up camp immediately. The Old Chap wisely instructed me to rest, eat and lose some of my eagerness. Busy trying to break strings of cheese connecting my spoon to a bag of freeze dried lasagna, I mentally mapped what I could see of Chuckmuck. Handicapped by the oxygen-poor air at over 5000 meters, my directionally challenged mind couldn’t figure out where north south east and west might be. To be honest, though, I really didn’t care. The mess tent, a giant orange geodesic dome perched in the middle of a sloping ice plateau, became the center of the world.
Directions in this tent-centric world were given in terms of in front of, behind, uphill and downhill from the tent. An expanse of snow extended for a couple hundred meters directly outside the mess tent’s almond-shaped entrance before abruptly falling off into a massive gorge far larger than the Grand Canyon. The edge of the chasm arced uphill and to the left, eventually terminating on a second summit which overlooked what appeared to be a half-buried basketball of phenomenal size – our dining hall. Following the edge of the chasm downhill from the tent was cautioned against, since crevasses began to form as the slope angle increased. Since the edge overlooked an 3400 meter deep gash running the length of the Painful Mountain, we generally kept our distance.
The most important direction was “behind,” because we decided to put home a couple hundred yards behind the mess tent. The horizon was dominated by a spine-like rocky ridge. A saddle of snow lay below this ridge, cradling a rocky island. Presented the option to clear tent platforms on the rocks or hack platforms out of the ice and use our precious body heat to melt ice into waterbeds, our team decided to camp on the rocks.
Sightseeing and lasagna finished, we kicked into gear, preparing to make camp. Carrying our duffels downhill to our chosen camp site demonstrated the effects of altitude: the hundred meter walk downhill made me short of breath. I staggered, walked crookedly and gasped for more air. Life at Chuckmuck was going to be interesting. Within a few hours, a small tent city had grown up like a colony of vibrant yellow barnacles. A regular jungle of guy lines emanated from each tent to ensure that no one would fly away during a windy night. Legend had it that in previous years, tents pitched on this very rock island had been ripped to shreds by severe winds. A short walk around the island revealed shredded remains of a tent, perhaps confirming the story.
High winds didn’t worry me too much. Our tents were among the toughest mountaineering shelters money could buy. I untied and shed my outer boots, leaving them in my tent’s vestibule as I crawled in to unpack my backpack. I didn’t get much farther than pulling out a sleeping bag and pad, because a place to lie down and rest proved too tempting to refuse. In a semi conscious state, I hypothesized about what our team’s next move might be. While it was tempting to think we’d conquered the Painful Mountain, I recalled the wise words of a Polish climber, “The summit is in base camp.” 3400 meters of mountain now separated us from the bottom of the mountain. Though excited about the future, I didn’t bother forecasting what adventures might stand between our team and the safety of base camp.
My friends familiar with pop culture tell me that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and a few other things. When I realized that camp II on the Painful Mountain was at 4200 meters, I automatically began thinking of it as the answer-to-everything-a-hundred-times-over camp. Having such a camp was good news, because we’d accumulated a small mountain of questions inside our heads. It didn’t help that we’d heard horror stories from some of last year’s summiteers, an eclectic group we met at Camp M. Like old salts recounting voyages around cape horn, these old timers wove frightening yarns about the perils they’d lived to tell about. The fog could come in so quickly and thickly that climbers had no choice but to hunker down on the spot and wait until it cleared. Windstorms swooshed out of nowhere, accelerating to the point that they ripped and destroyed tents. Four feet of snow might fall overnight and drift all the tents in. In general, it sounded like an excruciating cold weather endurance course for superhumans. Naturally, the stories put questions in our minds, but the only way we could get answers would be to experience the Painful Mountain ourselves.
Getting to 4200 meter camp would be a big step toward conquering the Painful Mountain and answering the questions bouncing around the back of our heads. With this in mind and eager to claim quality tent sites before the hordes of other climbers reached 4200 meter camp, I accompanied the Old Chap, a witty Englishman on our team, up the mountain ahead of the rest of our party. As we left 3200 meter camp, vegetation promptly vanished, giving way to rocks and dust. Since I’d already been to 4200 meter camp, I let my mind go on autopilot. Suddenly, I realized the Old Chap and I had arrived.
Hiking directly to the upper portion of camp, we found an excited throng standing around an empty tent platform. In the center of the circle, a few people knelt around a large bundle of blankets. Getting closer, I realized the bundle of blankets was a medical emergency in the form of a badly injured climber.
Over the next hour, details leaked out. The injuries were a prime example of a mountaineer who was not a Mountain Ear. First, the man had been climbing solo. Even on a relatively easy climb, this is foolish at best. Next, he had completely ignored mountain conditions, taking a “shortcut” across an iced over snowfield, steep as a black diamond ski run, while wearing glorified tennis shoes with no crampons. Once on the slippery frozen surface, he had lost his footing, rolled a few hundred meters, bounced over some rocks and ended up lying in a creek far from camp. In the fall, he’d displaced the dirty top layer of corn snow, leaving a series of bright white blotches marking the path of his fall. Fortunately, he remained conscious, and his screams of pain alerted the Wild Bills, who rescued him. He now lay at the center of a circle of concerned climbers using their small personal first aid kits to bandage up his broken and lacerated left leg, dislocated shoulder and gashed forehead. Porters erected a floorless tent around the suffering climber while others made arrangements for a helicopter to come rescue him.
A typical day at the 4200 consists of dense cloud cover punctuated by brief snatches of sunshine. Occasionally one can watch massive cumulus clouds building, right in front of the camp. The rest of the time, ragged bits of cloud are driven across the camp’s rough rocks by a relentless wind. The rescue helicopter missed a 20 minute sunshine window and could be heard flying about in the dense fog until the fuel ran low. A search and rescue team that just happened to be climbing the Painful Mountain carried the sufferer down the scree field to the 3200 camp.
Though a sobering experience, witnessing the injured climber failed to worry me. His wounds were the direct result of inexperience and stupidity. My team was led by two experienced mountaineers and comprised of outdoor savvy people. Further reassurance showed up in the form of climbers returning from the summit. A collection of midweight hiking boots, cheap off brand jackets and discount store backpacks arrived at 4200 camp, worn by summiteers. Though ill equipped for proper mountaineering, a group of thirty such climbers had summited and returned safely. Our well equipped team had little to fear so long as we exercised caution and common sense.
Excitement evacuated our camp with the injured climber. As soon as he was gone, our minds and energies turned to setting up camp and examining our surroundings. The 4200 is a steep pile of loose basalt which is in the process of falling down. Nothing is firm. Even the largest rocks, big as a wheelbarrow, shift and slide at the slightest prodding. Up close all the rocks are featureless grey, tan and red solids. But from afar, the camp looks like a spilled pile of some exotic and slightly colored spice mix. Climbers have scraped out a great number of tent platforms, pushing larger rocks to the side and spreading gravel over the top. Little paths interconnect the whole camp while a main trail leads up to a toothlike rock outcropping featuring a shiny plaque commemorating a deceased climber. Like real teeth with plaque, this rock tooth appears rotten and unstable, covered in grime and loose fragments. In color, too, it is unhealthy like a giant cavity.
My dad and I chose the highest tent platform at 4200 meter camp. Though probably the largest flat space in all of the camp, it was still barely big enough for our Black Diamond bombshelter tent. One side of the tent was shoved against the stone retaining wall we’d built to keep uphill rocks off the platform, but the other side still hung off the edge of the tent space. At least our spot was very smooth, being surfaced with fine gravel.
After three days, living at the 4200 grew old. Occasionally, spectacular views appeared when clouds parted. I savored these moments, losing my self in a reverie, staring at the volcanic formations which had oozed from the mountain and formed long ranges of hills stretching miles out onto the valley floor. When clouds laid siege to the camp, I spent as much time as possible lounging in my tent.
One afternoon four of us decided to hike a couple hundred meters above camp so we could stretch our legs, acclimatize and hopefully enjoy a view. Serious clouds stayed at bay, allowing a short sunny outing. We passed the rotten tooth with its plaque. We passed a flag made from a trekking pole and an old shirt. Camp and the myriad of switchbacks in the trail above it grew small, a sprinkling of orange, white and green against the drab earth tones of the mountain. Trying to breathe and hike up the mountain at the same time seemed terribly hard. Each step required a few heaving breaths, tiring my chest and developing a dry cough deep in my throat. I began to have second thoughts about climbing to the summit. If a 150 meter climb proved so tiring, what would a thousand meters feel like? I soon forgot my concern as we sat down to rest and enjoy the view. Even the slight distance of a few hundred meters seemed enough to escape the unpleasantness of 4200 camp. But before long, we headed back to camp in a vain attempt to wrap up some logistics.
Answers were easy to get at the answer-a-hundred-times-over camp, but good answers were few and far between. Each evening, we argued with our porters. We had hired 15 load carriers, why were only nine going up? Porters had agreed to carry 35 pound bags, why were they now complaining that all our carefully weighed and packed bags were far too heavy? Tired of shouting over the noise of a rattly old generator and trying to cross a language barrier with nothing but the brute force of our words, we threw our hands up and went off to bed. The porters eagerly zipped open our bags, distributing the once organized and inventoried contents willy nilly across a variety of beat up backpacks. There was reason to believe we might not see some of our gear again. Needless to say, three nights of this madness wore us down.
The best answer at the camp of one hundred answers came on our third night there. All of us wanted to know when we could leave for the summit. That night we were told “at 2 am.” A pitiful dinner of pasta noodles with ketchup residue on them was the last thing I saw before making the trek to my tent at the top of camp. I had precious few hours to sleep before the 2AM departure for high camp. But I went to bed happy, knowing that 4200 would behind me soon.
The tummy bug had finally found me. Two weeks of successful evasion had tricked me into thinking I’d escaped the digestive abnormality which most travelers experience. But no. The day before we set off to climb what locals call “The Painful Mountain,” I came down with tummy pains and a mild fever.
My fever broke that night, and the next morning saw me chipper enough to squeeze myself into one of the airplane style seats in a Hani-Baba bus. In case I have not mentioned the Hani-Baba buses yet, I must provide a brief description. These two-wheel drive vehicles resemble giant versions of 1990s american minivans. Being very long, the Hani-Baba bus contains a great many rows of seats, arranged so that boarding the bus is only minimally inconvenient. Ostentatious decals reading “HANI-BABA YENI-MAH” adorn the rear windows. Velvety dash pads with long tassels conceal cigarettes, lighters, and other small items. All rear windows have curtains of a rather dull fabric, contrasting with the enthusiastically noisy patterns used on the seats and headliner. Finally a stereo blares the wailing sort of singing popular in these regions.
Our journey saw highway turn to mountain road and mountain road turn to rocky ruts up a steep hill. Occasionally, ancient fragments of asphalt could be seen amongst football-sized rocks which comprised the road surface. The bumps soon became so violent the driver made us exit the vehicle. Walking up the road, we watched our driver back the bus down the hill and take a run at the steep grade. Coaxing every last bit of power from the engine, he let the clutch out, spinning the wheels, kicking up rocks and moving the vehicle only minimally. I could almost watch tread wearing off the tires. The van fell into a deep rut. Dust clouds billowed out and the vehicle seemed to float sideways. With a sudden lurch, it exited the dust cloud, like a whale surfacing on the ocean. Things got worse when the driver’s helper decided to put rocks behind the wheels every few feet. Whenever the bus lurched forward, the assistant would stick his hand behind the rear wheel to deposit a rock. The van would roll back onto the rock and the assistant would whisk his hand out of danger. There is not space enough here to recount the myriad of dangerous driving techniques the Hani-Baba men have developed to get their vehicles up this road.
Miraculously, no crucial components of the Hani-Baba buses broke before reaching the road’s end. After our many bags were loaded onto horses, the buses tumbled and crashed back down the bumpy road, hopefully headed straight to the nearest service station. Meanwhile, we shouldered day packs and fell into line behind our local guide.
Volcanic rock, scrubby grass and thistles comprised the landscape. Eventually we came upon a collection of tents: a nomad village. Big fierce dogs roamed about. Little children with sticks tended sheep. Camp M had a satellite office of sorts here. A small forest of spindly poles supported a blue tarp and sheep hair canopy. In the shade of this nomad tent, a row of carpets and cushions had been laid out. We sat upon the mats, drinking murky chai tea populated with with floaty particles. The remainder of our day followed the same pattern. Hike through the volcanic rock and scrubby grass. Stop and have chai at a nomad village. Hike again. Stop for tea. Presently, we reached a wide grassy shelf occupied by yet another nomad summer camp. Wishful thinking brought us to believe this was our destination: the 3200 meter camp. No sooner had we thrown down our packs than our guide informed us that camp was yet ten minutes up the mountain.
Perseverance brought us to a second grassy bench. Unlike any of the mountaineering camps I’d been to before, 3200 meter camp was a regular mountain metropolis. Big cook tents and equipment tents occupied the lower regions of the camp. All the sleeping tents were further up the hill. In addition to our camp, there were two other 3200 camps of equal size, each a few hundred yards away. As I took in my surroundings, the sun set and temperatures fell. I felt desperately tired. Unfortunately, the horses carrying our luggage were about an hour behind us. I sat in the dust, cold and dismal but pretending to be warm and comfortable. The Painful Mountain was no joke.
The team spent three days at the 3200 camp, getting used to the higher altitude. Still recovering from my minor illness, I spent the first day alternately napping in the Black Diamond bombshelter mountaineering tent my dad and I shared and hanging out at the “Painful Mountain Cafe,” another nomad tent supported by poles. Inside, one could buy scarves, head bands, soda and beer. Yoda and I spent the afternoon there sipping on Fanta and discussing our plans for climbing the rest of the mountain.
The next day, I took an acclimatization hike up the mountain. The trail changed drastically after 3200 camp. Vegetation vanished, replaced by rocks of all sizes. Trails, comprised of marble sized stones and powdery dust, meandered through a scree field, winding back and forth across each other, much like the double helix of DNA. Far above, the pointy top of a white tent could be seen. Supposedly, that was the 4200 meter camp. Sixty minutes of a steady pace and hard breathing validated this assumption. For an hour, I sat and rested with two climbers nicknamed “The Wild Bills.” When a snowstorm moved in, I moved out; the hour at 4200 meters had been long enough to introduce my body to the higher altitude and thinner air. Upon arrival at 3200 camp, I was fed a meager meal of rice and chicken bones, washed down with a cup of chai tea.
An evening spent playing cards in an empty cook tent ruined my plan to retire early and rest up for the next day’s climb. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t have missed those hours of cards for anything. Eight of us, two groups of four, squatted on tiny stools, dealing cards onto slightly larger table-stools. While other campers spent long boring evenings in their tiny tents, we enjoyed outrageous bids; winning some hands, losing others. Finally, the card players grew tired and retreated to their tents to rest up for the next day’s climb. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, many questions about the climb swarmed in my head. But questions would have to wait.
When wishing to make a point, people often begin by citing a dictionary. Perhaps they feel that it adds a degree of legitimacy to the idea they wish to convey. In the interest of fitting in, I now do the same.
One dictionary defines a mountaineer as “a climber of mountains, especially for sport.” The dictionary also has one of those fancy deals where the word is spelled with upside down and backwards letters, broken into a number of parts, separated by dashes. A phonetic spelling, I believe it’s called.
But I have my own fancy spelling of the word: Mountain Ear. This is because the most important thing a mountaineer can do is listen. He must listen to the mountain, the weather and his body. Mountaineering requires more than just strength and style. Mountaineers have to pay close attention to many factors in a dangerous environment. When these determinants are ignored, tragedy often ensues. Consider just a few examples:
Jerzy Kukuczka, an incredibly strong and talented mountaineer summited thirteen of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks via new and difficult routes or first winter ascents. In the mountaineering world, this was the pinnacle of achievement, a feat never before equaled. But when trying a particularly difficult route on Lhotse, the mountain next to Everest and the only 8000m peak he had not climbed by an extra hard route, he underestimated the mountain and fell to his death.
In 1995, Alison Hargreaves joined Rob Slater and three spaniards on K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Ignoring a massive storm system moving into the area, the team left high camp and summited K2. Climbers on the slopes of nearby mountains watched incredulously at the obvious folly. During their descent, the storm swept in and blew all five climbers clean off the mountain.
The next year, Scott Fischer ignored the signals given by his sick body and made a push for Everest’s summit, trying to impress clients and media. When caught in a storm, his already weak body simply did not have the strength to survive, and he perished.
This list could go on almost endlessly. I could write of the Edward Whymper tragedy, Hermann Bulh, Rob Hall, Julie Tullis, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Peter Boardman, or Joe Tasker. But rather than write out the long and tragic history of mountaineering, much of which has been done by writers far more qualified than myself, I will explain the reason I chose to expound on the mountain ear.
While abroad, an opportunity presented itself to me. An opportunity to do a little mountaineering. It is time for me to become the mountain ear. I must listen to the mountain, the weather, my body, and the wisdom of the more experienced mountaineers I will join on this adventure. As “The Kid,” it is crucial for me to remember that I am inexperienced and relatively prone to the rashness and indiscretion of youth. Fortunately, I’ll be climbing with a more experienced mountaineer, one who can share much wisdom with me. I call this person “Dad.”
In all honesty, the mountaineering I’ll be doing while abroad is not particularly difficult. Though we’ll ascend to 17,000 feet over the course of a 6 day climb, there will be almost no technical climbing. Elevation aside, this would be but a long, steep hike up a rocky hill. But elevation adds a new level of potential danger and requires a new level of listening from the mountain ear.
Altitude sickness is our main concern. As we gain elevation, the oxygen content of the air will decrease. Going up to fast will cause sudden oxygen deprivation, and the body will respond with dizziness, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, and in extreme cases, edema of the lungs or brain. The best way to combat altitude is to go slowly, allowing the body time to adjust and tune up so that it uses oxygen more efficiently. Our plan is to stay at each of the two camps for three nights, and spend the days hiking up the mountain from those camps, giving our bodies short doses of higher elevation and more time to adjust.
Potential danger from minor injuries, tripping and falling, and intestinal bugs are also compounded by elevation. With less oxygen, the body is slower to respond, less resistant to pathogens, and slower to heal. It is important for all the members of our climbing team to be transparent about how they are feeling, so that the team can make wise decisions about how fast to climb, and not compromise the safety of any member.
All this makes it sound as though we are climbing a very dangerous mountain. But in reality, most of the danger is inexperience or human error To combat this, our team has two highly qualified and experienced leaders. Each year, nearly 1000 people summit this mountain, so it’s not as if we’re boldly going where no man has gone before. So long as we keep our mountain ears open, there is little cause for concern.
Other than that, we’re ready to go. A full set of mountaineering gear has been procured. Porters have been hired to carry some of our gear to the summit. Our backpacks sit in a corner, ready to go. When the weather permits, a bus will take us to the mountain, and the adventure will begin.
Suppose you could go for an afternoon drive and picnic at the location of your choice where would you go? In the past I’ve always loaded a hamper into the trunk on my beloved Volkswagen and headed for Glacier National Park. A smoky wood fire adds to the ambiance at a picnic table loaded with burgers or hot dogs, baked beans and perhaps a cole slaw or bucket of carrot and celery sticks.
Here at Camp M, our hosts seem to have pretty good ideas about where to picnic. Our first outing took place at a spring near a village where our host’s wife was born. Taking the Land Rover Defender off road we bumped through pastureland, passed sheep, shepherd boys and stopped atop a grassy knoll a few miles from the village. A vibrant spring bubbled and gushed into a stone pool. We sat down beside the flowing water and spread our food out on the ground. The picnic consisted of watermelon, goat cheese, peaches and round pieces of flatbread, big as a large pizza. I spread the soft butter-like cheese on a piece of bread, took a juicy peach and wandered about taking in the views.
After eating, we visited an ancient Armenian graveyard in the next village. Tombstones, many of which had fallen over littered a rough field. Stylized crosses, reminiscent of the cross on the Orange County Choppers logo, decorated many of the headstones. A local informed us that a giant Armenian church had been the focal point of the village until a recent earthquake had razed much of the small enclave, indeed, most of the village’s buildings looked surprisingly new and the number of fallen in structures did seem conspicuous.
The most interesting tombstone stood two heads taller than a man. Of course, like the other headstones, a collection of Armenian crosses of varying sizes decorated the marker. A small round hole, just big enough to put one’s fist through, graced the top of this stone. Excited or intrigued by the large group of tourists who had arrived in their remote and no doubt seldom visited settlement, a cadre of villagers came to meet us and fill us in on the history behind the graveyard and large tombstone with the hole in it. A mighty language barrier persisted and we learned very little, except that when looking through the hole, one could see the summit of a prominent mountain nearby.
This first picnic outing ended with a chilly wind and a cloudburst. Being the junior member of the outing, I found myself seated on a pretend seat in the back of the Land Rover. This meant a long and somewhat painful ride back to Camp M.
Only a few days after visiting the spring and the graveyard, our crew once again piled aboard the rugged Land Rover Defender. This time, we’d be going to Fish Lake. People swam there, we were told, so it would be wise to bring bathing suits; jackets were recommended in case we were out late, apparently this would be a very long drive.
My experience with motor vehicle transportation in other countries has been interesting, to say the least. While I still had my learner’s permit I spent a couple weeks in Bolivia. Apparently, speeding, driving in the wrong lane, and passing on blind corners influenced me, because as soon as we got back home, I daringly passed a slow vehicle, much to the concern of those riding with me and the truck driver whose lane I occupied. Fortunately, the bad influence wore off quickly; I once again conformed to American safe driving practices. On this outing I found myself getting a refresher course on crazy driving. Part of the course included passing moving roadblocks, such as herds of sheep, haystacks with a truck somewhere underneath, or self appointed watchdogs whose territory included a section of road. Next up, as the road changed from paved highway to pothole-riddled once-paved secondary road, I observed high speed pothole evasion techniques. A few short meters before hitting an uneven road surface, the driver would slam the clutch against the floor and give the steering wheel a hearty jerk. Naturally, this driving method had a limited success rate. Seeing Fish Lake ahead, I breathed a sigh of relief. The crazy driving primer would end momentarily.
Stepping from the Defender at Fish Lake, I took a deep breath. Chilly air jumped out and nipped at my surprised face. All along I’d been imagining a smallish lake with sandy beaches. It had been a hot day at Camp M, and a swim would have felt nice. But the huge cold body of water before me changed my mind about swimming. Blue-green water with large ripply waves stretched for miles in every direction. Rocks dotted the grass-covered rolling hills, like brown warts on golden toads. Rough volcanic boulders formed the small peninsula where we parked.
Hungry volunteers clambered atop the Land Rover to hand down picnic supplies. We dug into a large bag of newspaper-wrapped bread, cheese and tomato sandwiches. As always, a couple watermelons were on hand to supplement the meal.
Our time at Fish Lake was surprisingly short, as our host seemed anxious to get back on the road. But rather than turning back to Camp M, the driver followed the road further up into the mountains. All came to a screeching halt when clouds of steam suddenly poured from under the hood. A misaligned engine, resulting from a recent transmission rebuild, had caused the fan blades to jam against a shroud. Without the fan spinning, the engine could not cool itself. This hadn’t been problematic until we tried to haul nine people and a rack full of food up a steep mountain road. A knot of people, like excited ants swarming a dead beetle, gathered around the vehicle and worked together to jury rig a fix that would allow us to continue our journey.
Back on the road, I looked out the Defender’s rear window and imagined myself on the Oregon Trail. A slope stretched down behind us. Out the side windows one could see a dusty set of ruts winding amongst the rocks and scrubby vegetation, indicating that other vehicles had come this way. Even in compound low, the Land Rover struggled up the hill, puffing clouds of blue smoke from the tailpipe. I sincerely hoped a spare quart of oil was stashed somewhere in the vehicle.
Out of nowhere, giant dogs with razor sharp spiked collars descended on us. The driver instructed us to roll up the windows and stay in the vehicle until the dogs’ owners had them under control. Moments later, we broke into a wide valley dotted with nomad tents. Smoke drizzled from a handful of chimneys scattered around the camp. Two elderly men with a wide-eyed toddler in tow strolled over to our vehicle.
A shepherd boy walked briskly over the hill, driving four sheep. With extreme efficiency, a small group of nomads transformed the sheep into two giant woks of sheep nuggets. These butchers departed radically from traditional butchering practices, treating meat, gristle, and bone as equally edible. Using big butcher knives, they hacked both animals into even sized pieces. By this time, darkness had fallen and two cold groups of visitors huddled around the two fires where our sheep dinner cooked. Once proclaimed edible, dinner was eaten by the light of the Land Rover’s headlights. A yogurt sauce graced the first bowl of sheep parts. Using an expansive piece of flatbread as a plate and napkin, I picked piece after piece from the wok, hoping in vain to find meat. Even drizzled with the delicious yogurt sauce, gristle and bone didn’t taste very good. I had better luck with the second bowl of sheep, which turned out to be mostly kiwi-sized hunks of pure meat. Dogs, wandered around us, eying the meat and flicking their long, feline tails. Because of their tawny fur and catlike eyes, the animals looked almost like mountain lions.
Once sated, we broke out marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. Introducing the nomads to s’mores was a treat in of itself. By their reaction, I doubt any of them had ever seen a marshmallow. And of course, watching us try to roast marshmallows on plastic forks kept them well entertained.
The evening’s final event was chai tea in a nomad tent. The nomads set off, intending for us to follow, but four of our party fell behind. Walking alone through a pitch dark nomad camp didn’t seem so bad until three or four of the huge dogs realized that there were strangers lurking in the dark. Barks and growls from the Newfoundland-sized animals raised heart rates and caused us to stiffen, walking as quickly as we could without running. Thankfully, all reached the tea tent without incident.
We all removed our shoes and sat on mats around the perimeter of the circular tent. Our hosts appeared with two giant tea kettles, one filled with tea, the other containing hot water. small glasses of chai were passed around. Sugar cubes abounded, ready to improve the taste of the slightly bitter beverage. Thanks to a translator, we communicated with out hosts, learning about their history, ancestors and annual movements in and out of the mountainous regions. After my fourth cup of chai, I feared I might burst if we did not leave soon. Moments later, we all thanked our host, shaking hands with and kissing the cheeks of the eldest man present. A number of us paid a visit to a secluded hedge before piling back in the Land Rover for the two hour ride home to Camp M.
Between bumps, alternately banging my head on the ceiling and crashing down onto the pretend seat, I reflected on the picnic with the nomads. Picnicking in Glacier Park still seemed appealing, but this had been the most interesting and unique meal of my life.