Hiking: The Ups and Downs of It

My husband Ethan and I love to hike.  He posts snapshots of those hikes on social media, but I’ve always thought it might be nice to tell the story of the hikes behind the pictures.  So, thanks to the inspiration of another hiking friend who is also a far more prolific writer than I am (go to his blog here), I thought I might finally write a bit about some of our hikes and what it’s like to be an active person with a chronic illness (if you want to know more about that illness, here’s a link). And there is no better place to start than our hikes in Colorado.

Last Thursday night, Ethan and I flew into Denver, Colorado, ready for adventure.  We stayed the night in Denver, and drove to Breckenridge the next morning, stopping along the way for a hike to Mohawk Lake.  Although we didn’t know it, the altitude we started the hike at was 10,000 ft. That is significant because the science of altitude acclimatization is this: your body will acclimate to about 5,000 feet within the first 24 hours.  For each day thereafter, your body acclimates about 1000 feet.  All that to say, we were in no way—having arrived less than 24 hours ago—properly acclimatized.

The hike was said to be an easy 7 1/2 mile out and back jaunt to a series of beautiful mountain lakes.  It was also about a 2000 ft. gain from the trailhead.  That is when I learned the first and possibly only perk of having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: I didn’t get altitude sickness nearly as badly as Ethan because my body is used to running on a lower amount of blood oxygen.  Yay?

The hike itself was beautiful.  We took our time, both out of necessity and because we were enjoying the blue sky overhead and the shady evergreens surrounding us.  The air, although thin, was air was crisp and refreshing.  The first little lake that we arrived at (to stop and have snack) was MayFlower Lake.  The clear teal water reflected the looming mountains surrounding us.  We sat, basking in the warm sun, but in only a matter of minutes, the sun was blocked out by fast-moving grey snow clouds that had crossed the mountain range.  It began to snow, lightly at first, and with the snow, came the temperature drop.  Wearing only sweatshirts, we were not quite prepared, so we decided to get a move on to the upper lake.

Mayflower Lake

The last 800 ft. was comprised of steep rocks and involved some scrambling.  The hiking term “scrambling” means that you have to use your hands.  Along the way, we saw some old abandoned mining cabins and a large rusty metal pulley system.  As for the weather, the higher up we went, the harder the snow became.   I was a bit dizzy from the altitude, but Ethan was feeling nauseas and more out of breath from the altitude.  As we got to Mohawk Lake, we watched a man catch an orange fish, took a couple of pictures, and booked it back down.

Note the snow in my hair

Lower Mohawk Lake

The lower we descended, the more the snow turned to cold rain and made the rocks slippery.  Much of the way back down was not memorable because I was focused on staying warm in my soaked-through clothing.  Thankfully, we went straight to the hotel, checked-in, and took immediate advantage of the hot tubs.  Ahh.

The next day, Ethan wanted to climb Quandary Peak, which is a 14,000 ft. mountain and I refused because it was supposed to be snowing and raining the whole day and I wanted at least one more day to acclimate.  For the non-hiker, or east coast hiker such as myself, a 14,000 ft.  mountain is considered between high altitude and extremely high altitude—depending upon the body and acclimatization of the hiker.  Climbing at this elevation, especially if one is not properly acclimated, can be life-threatening.  That being said, Ethan acquiesced and we took a “rest” day, by attending a yoga class, walked around the picturesque Breckenridge, visited a few museums, and attended vigil mass.  We ended up walking about 8 miles…Oops.  So much for rest!

The Beautiful Breckenridge, CO

That night, I didn’t sleep much because I was dreading the next day’s hike.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking, but I don’t enjoy hiking not knowing how my body will react or how much I will have to pay for it later.  This would be my first 14er and I know from experience that CFS is not always predictable and sometimes does not hit until 2 weeks later, or other times, it slams me like a freight train right then and there, my body surging with pain and fatigue.  Mostly, I had a fear of passing out toward the top or having muscles seize up because my body was not producing enough oxygen (both are likely outcomes and they’ve happened before).  In a way, this would be a sort of test.  Since our hikes in Alaska, where we did several difficult hikes, and one brutal one, Ethan and I have figured out how my impaired mitochondrial DNA intake nutrition and how much or little it turns into usable energy.   We know that if I’m able to keep my heart rate below 140, I can remain in aerobic zone, thus burning fat instead of building up lactic acid and burning muscle (which happens immediately for me in anaerobic zone and quickly incapacitates me).  Knowing this has helped me to get much better than I was even 2 years ago.  We also have learned that I need to eat something every hour, otherwise, my body goes pretty far out of whack. It’s a delicate balancing act.

We also learned one extremely important lesson when hiking in Alaska that every hiker should know and which I will gladly pass along to you, in case you should ever consider hiking large mountains:

Native hikers always understate the trail difficulty as a way of humble-bragging.

Example: “Bird Ridge was a gorgeous hike! My friend and I used trekking poles that definitely helped going down. Be prepared for false peaks. Once you get on the Ridge it gets easier-ish. Peak 3 is where the survey monument.” —A native Alaskan reviewing Bird Ridge

Reality: Easy is not a word to be used regarding this hike.  There were 6 false peaks, the elevation was extremely steep, and there were no switch-backs.  If you stop to get your breath for a moment anywhere below the tree line, softball size mosquitos will swarm you in a black cloud and suck your blood through your clothing.  Towards the top, you must walk through 3 feet of snow, making sure that you don’t accidentally step off too far to either side because otherwise you will fall hundreds of feet down steep drop-offs. Yes, it was gorgeous and no, the review wasn’t accurate.

Knowing that, and looking up reviews for this hike that was said to be the “easiest of the 14ers,” I found this gem and wondered how inaccurate it would turn out to be.

“Only 3.3 miles from parking lot to summit; about 3 hrs to get up top. Makes this a great ‘first timer’ 14,000 ft summit.”—A Native Coloradan, reviewing Quandary Peak

The big morning arrived.  Ethan was annoyingly giddy with anticipation before I’d had my coffee.  I was dreading this hike far more than I was looking forward to it, but I was trying to have an optimistic attitude about it.  Our goal was to summit by noon when the weather would have the highest possibility of being good.  The forecast was 25 degrees, 30-40 mile an hour winds, with a windchill of 7.  We packed layers of clothing and hoped for the best.

Quandary Peak Trailhead

The hike up to the tree line was beautiful, green, relatively easy, and surrounded by vast, snow-covered mountains.  At the base of the mountains were two beautiful, iced-over lakes. Up ahead, blocking the view of most of the ridge, were dense snow clouds, but Ethan had estimated that by the time we got there, it would be passable as long as we dressed well.  He was right.  Thankfully, I married a man who knows his cold weather hiking, so we were prepared with the right gear and were perfectly toasty the whole time.

Most of the people that had passed us earlier in the hike (we were taking it slow) ventured to the ridge just beyond the tree line and were forced to turn around.  They were coming back down as we were headed up. We estimated that only around 25-30% of people who hiked that day actually summited.  The hike up the ridge was very windy, but also relatively easy.  We kept our heart rates low and the clouds cleared to reveal a crystal blue sky.

The snow clouds the we just missed climbing the ridge.

The challenge came at about 13, 700 ft.  The last false peaks were snowy, rocky, and extremely steep.  This was the part I was worried about.  As I had feared, my muscles started to react the lack of oxygen, so the climb up was extremely slow.  I couldn’t keep my heart rate low either, due to the extreme altitude. It was so painfully slow, and it didn’t help morale to see “those damn Colorado native twenty-somethings bounding up the mountain like mountain goats” *said in grumpy old man voice.*  So we slogged, Ethan feeling quite bad from the altitude, but being the amazing person he is,  he remained optimistic and cheerful.  He asked me at one point if I wanted to stop (because he knows that if I stop talking, it means that I am completely focused on finishing), and as he suspected, I told him something to the extent of, “we’ve come this far.  There’s no way I’m stopping now.”  It felt like a hellish eternity (an hour and a half) until we made it to the summit.  I had hoped to feel some sense of accomplishment or elation at the summit, but what I felt instead was the need to relieve myself because I’d been holding it for 2 hours.  So I did, and then had to quickly redress because a young, frustratingly not-breathless Coloradan guy came bounding out of nowhere.

The Summit

Ethan, my sweet, adrenaline-loving man, “Woohoo-ed” and “Yeah-ed” and took pictures, feeling completely elated.  I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view, but oddly, felt nothing but dread of the way back down.  We didn’t stay at the top very long because the wind was biting through our many layers.  As we headed back down, I realized that as I had feared, my small stabilizer muscles had lost their coordination.  I had none of the usual signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, but I was experiencing a sort of Ataxia (lack of muscle control) which is dangerous when you have to climb down a mountain, but thankfully, this is something I’ve experienced often and know how to maneuver.   I know I looked like one of those marathoners who has no muscle control left, but I didn’t care.  What I did care about was the terrible pain shooting through my neck from old injuries.  I kept praying that God would help me to have a better attitude about the whole thing, because yes, I was in a magnificently beautiful place, but I was so wrapped up in the pain in my own body and the effort to make it down, I could not enjoy it.  A great metaphor for life, eh?

On the way down though, God was kind.  In my path, was a butterfly lying in the snow, beautiful purple and vibrant orange standing out against the white.  It was unmoving, and probably brought up by the wind gusts.  Its beauty (even in death) made me grateful that I can even think of climbing mountains since most people with CFS can’t even get out of bed and I couldn’t even have imagined doing this even a few years ago.  A little time later, two shaggy mountain goats made their way up the steep rocky path.  They looked at us with an intermittent mix of disinterest and curiosity.  Their beards had chucks of ice hanging off, making them look like decorative beads.  It was another kindness from God.

C.C. Mountain Goat Massive
Author: Darklich14

By the time we made the tree line, I could barely keep my eyes open.   This used to happen often when my CFS would get really bad and I would nearly fall asleep while running.  The way down was slow and by the time we reached the bottom, the hike had drawn out to 7 hours and I just needed to sleep.  So we reached the rental Jeep, took off a few layers and Ethan drove to Colorado Springs while I closed my eyes for an hour or so.

Was it worth it?  I don’t know yet.  Was it smart?  That’s debatable.  I’ll know better in a couple of weeks.  But I’m glad I did it and I’m especially thankful for an encouraging husband who doesn’t mind hiking a little slower for his old lady 😉

To Russia with Love (and Really Thick Socks)

The Harbor and Prison

“Why are you going to Russia?  Why would you want to go to Russia?”  Those were the questions frequently put to me, and honestly, to give you a true answer, it might take a few minutes.

 

For most of my life, I didn’t know exactly why I’d always wanted to go to Russia.  Or why, since I was about 8 years old, I’ve prayed for orphans and street kids in Russia.  I just have.  I felt some sort of connection to them, but could never put it into words.  I saved up my money in my purple fish piggy bank in hopes that it would one day it would be enough to buy myself a plane ticket. Instead, a few years later, the opposite happened.  I bought a plane ticket for a Russian boy to be with his mother here in the US.  All that to say, I never knew if I would ever go.  And then, a few weeks ago, we went.  My dream of going to Russia was finally happening.

 

Let me back up for a moment.  Let me give you an idea of what motivated me to pursue this.  This is what I knew about street kids and orphans: “At the age of 17, Russian orphans are moved out of institutions. Forced to make a way for themselves, most orphans don’t succeed. More orphans and street children exist in Russia today than in the years after World War II. 10,000 ‘graduate’ from the Russian state orphanage system per year. 8,500 of these fall into drug dealing, prostitution, other crime, and homelessness. 500 commit suicide.”

 

In college, I searched for an organization that specifically worked giving vocational skills, housing, and schooling to street kids and orphans.  And if it could be a Christian organization, even better!  However, my search was fruitless. Then, a few years ago, I heard about an organization called “The Harbor.”  They operate out of St. Petersburg, RU and do exactly what God had placed on my heart for all of these years.  Thus, we got involved financially.  The co-founder, Alex Krutov, invited us to come to the Harbor and see what they do there.  So we did.

 

These are a few of the things that I learned about them and about myself.  First, here are some of the more extraneous observations:

 

  1. Russian people walk fast, very fast.  Finally: people who walk my speed!
  2. Russian women walk fast, on ice, in heeled boots.  This is where we differ.  I walk fast on ice, but never in heels.
  3. Russian people do not form lines.  It’s more of a funnel mentality.  You must push and shove your way to freedom.  The little old ladies are the worst too.  They’ve had 70 years or so of practice and apparently, elbows of wrought iron.
  4. B.O. is normal.  If you are on a very fancy date with a girl and you have really strong BO that can be smelled from 10 feet away, no problem.  Thankfully, this particular type of smell has never bothered me.
  5. The city water tastes like some sort of meat.
  6. The stereotype of Russian’s never smiling is only partially true.  Never on the Metro: it’s a sign of weakness, and never outside–too cold.  That leaves indoors and special occasions wide open.
  7. And yes, the big fur hats are still pretty common.

 

While we were there, we met many wonderful people who have big hearts for the orphans.  We were able to see some of the classes that are taught at the vocational center, and also able to teach a few too.  Ethan helped in computer classes, and I gave a few piano/voice lessons and taught a cooking class (yeah, me teaching anyone to cook is the epitome of ironic).  No one had to get his/her stomach pumped, so mission accomplished 😉  We also helped out in some English classes and I was able to sit in on a hair cutting class with a teacher who looked exactly like Meryl Streep.  We got to also see some of the works of art created by the students.  They were amazing and we were hoping to bring some home with us to sell for them, but unfortunately, that never happened.

 

We also were able to hang out with the residents (who are 17 and older) and had several birthday parties with them.  One of the girls, Ira, reminded me very much of my sister and on the whole, when all of the residents were there interacting, it felt just like when my siblings and I  get together.  The same kind of joking, the way that it’s every man for himself, but a the same time, a close sort of bond–an intentional familial closeness.  As if to make the most of the moment.  In fact, this struck Ethan and I both how much these kids and my siblings and I have in common.  That’s when I realized, and Ethan pointed out later, that this is the reason I felt such a burden for these kids I didn’t know for all of these years.

 

From the time I was 12, I had a part-time job, taught myself in school, taught my younger siblings and cared for them.  In many ways, I raised my siblings and many times, took care of my mother too.  Even in college, I would still get 3AM phone calls from my siblings or Mom asking what they should do about a situation.  Although the term, “Self-made woman” might apply, I was certainly not alone.  Many mentors took me and some of my siblings under their wings and helped us become the people we are today.  And that’s what struck me.  These people who are working at the Harbor are the family–they are the mentors who are investing into these kid’s lives.  They are making a great difference for these kids because they love and believe in them.  God is doing a great work there.

 

So even though it’s hard to explain why we went, I’m glad we did.

The Out West Trip

So, to begin this thing, we’re back from our two week trip out west. We went through about 7 states that were new to me, and found that all of them were pretty darn cool.

Some of the trip highlights would include:

1. Being chased by a very large, very brown Grizzly bear.
We were hiking to find some hot springs we had heard about and after crossing a very freezing river, we came upon said bear. We froze and he started coming toward us. So, we slowly started walking away and he decided that looked like a fun game, so he kept following. Finally, as we picked up our pace, we went around a bend and he couldn’t see us anymore, so we booked it back across the river at lightening pace.

2. Driving through a very large tornado reading Longfellow/Tennyson out loud.
I was driving through this amazing storm while Ethan was reading heroic poetry next to me. However, the rain/hail and wind became so loud, it was no longer read but shouted. It was awesome and random!

3. Seeing the gigantic sulfur springs and wondering what it looked like under the boiling waters.

4. Seeing two wonderful people get married after a Jane Austin sort of relationship.

Our Trip to Bandung, Indonesia

The Long Commute

In the beginning, I liked that bathroom.  Its marble floors cool to the touch, and well-placed miniature bars of soap, gave it such a shnazzy hotel”esque” feel.  Judging by the Jayakarta bathroom and room, one would never guess that this place was smack dab in the middle of third-world poverty.  Shacks surrounding the outer perimeter of its lagoon-like pool, it was a posh oasis in the middle of this tropical desert.

(The hotel pool)

Not until the end of the fourth day did I begin to change my opinion of the lovely bathroom.  Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you about those things of importance.

As many of you know, Ethan, Pop (Mr. Demme), and I, went to Indonesia to do some teaching.  However, our adventures did not really begin there.  They began at the Dulles airport in Washington.  Upon our arrival to the ticket counter, Pop discovered that he had accidentally grabbed his old passport.  Being two and a half hours away, and our flight leacing in only two, this created a bit of a problem.  Thus, we split up.  Mr. Demme decided to come a day later and meet us there in Indonesia.  So, with that, we headed off on our 14 hour flight, then our 7 hour flight to arrive to our first destination in Singapore.

Can you say clean and orderly?  I’ve never seen a city like it before.  It was the nicest city that I have ever been to.  On the second day of our stay there, we finally saw one homeless person and a few pieces of litter.  While there, we met some lovely people and had dinner with them and their two extremely bright children.
To skip ahead, we then headed out for Indonesia and due to a delay, we waited at the airport for 5 hours.  Needless to say, I got a lot of reading done.  For time sake, and because this is getting dull, I’m going to speed things up a bit…

Day 2 in Indonesia.
Each morning, we awoke to the beautiful calls of the nearby mosque.  The people that we worked with (from the company) are truly amazing.  They all love being there because they know that they have been called.  They are people who love to have fun and love people.  Ethan and I were honored to get to know them.  The locals are very friendly, laid-back people.

On day three, it was Valentine’s Day and Ethan’s birthday.  That was the day that I began to despise the bathroom.  Perhaps it was my frequent commute to it or perhaps it was that the cool marble floors now seemed frigid.  I don’t know.  Let’s just say that I wasn’t the only one blessed with what the local’s call “Bandung Belly.”  Ethan and I both had it.  As the day wore on, the endemic blessing became epidemic among us “Bulehs” (pronounced boo-lays meaning white foreigners).  Pray for Ethan as he’s still got it.

Day four, feeling better, but still not 100%.  We did alot of teaching that day.  It was very enjoyable.


(At the Volcano)

Day five was interesting.  We went with some guys from the company that lived there as kids and hadn’t seen each other in 30 years.  They swapped malaria tales and near-death jungle experiences as we drove up to the volcano and hot springs.  On the way there, we stopped to taste a local delicacy called “Durien fruit.”  It’s the local equivalent of beer.  It wasn’t as bad as everyone said that it would be.  It was however, aptly described as having the taste of both moldy cheesecake and wet socks.  Yum!  We made it to the top of the volcano and it was very cool to look down and see the inside of the volcano smouldering.  We continued to the hot sulfur springs and boiled some eggs and ate them.  I’m not really an egg person, but when in Rome, right?