Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Brazilian Biker Wins Hearts ...and a Buckle

2,256 miles driven through 6 states during 13 memorable days, with 289 miles of mountain biking, 2 Colorado 14,000' peaks, and 1 belt buckle.
These are merely the stats of a journey that cannot be quantified in terms of pure joy, inspiration, and countless smiles created across two continents. This journey began for Thiago Ribeiro in Brazil but concluded for me with a bond of friendship and shared purpose that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. Thanks to the Brachial Plexus Nerve Injury support group UBPN, Thiago reached out to me online five years ago to share his story about his brachial plexus injury (BPI) that was sustained at birth to his right arm, just like mine. That single message set into motion a series of events that changed both of our lives. We compared notes (all via FB messenger) about our childhood, the fact we both played drums and loved riding bikes, and that until adulthood neither of us ever talked about our injury. We always tried to hide our arm in public, keeping it in a pocket or behind our back so our difference and perceived deficiency compared to others wouldn't be exposed.
Fast forward to Saturday Aug. 11, 2018, Thiago Ribeiro exposed to the world what he's really made of, and crossed the finish line of the toughest single-day bike race in North America - the Leadville 100. Starting at an elevation of over 10,000' and climbing over 12,000' throughout the course winding through the Colorado Rockies, Thiago finished 298th out of 1,535 racers. Due to race rules he had to start at the back of the crowd but managed to pass and finish ahead of more than 80% of the tough abled-bodied competitors. Riding a wheelie across the finish line at an impressive time of 9 hours and 17 mins, Thiago was awarded the coveted Leadville 100 MTB belt buckle for simply finishing the race in under 12 hours.
I have both Thiago and "One-Arm Willie" Stewart to thank for helping me with my own bike handlebar modifications and for providing the motivation so that I was able to earn the same belt buckle myself three years ago. (See "Brake"-through Mountain Bike Modifications post & video).  Most importantly it was all thanks to the Challenged Athletes Foundation for providing Thiago a grant to travel from Brazil, an entry spot into the race, and amazing support along the way.
In keeping with the theme of this blog, while Thiago was climbing towards his summit, Denise and I carried the CAF banner to the summit of two of Colorado's 14,000' peaks: Mt. Sherman at 14,036' and Mt. Massive at 14,421' (the 3rd highest peak in the contiguous United States).
Thiago would have joined us but he had to attend a mandatory athlete pre-race meeting one of the days and for the second peak his legs, lungs and liver were in recovery mode after the race and post-race celebration party.
Thiago and his bike (and his shiny new belt buckle) are now all safely back home in Brazil, but he will remain in our thoughts and in our hearts until we meet again! Keep riding and making a difference my BPI Brother!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Magical Adventure in Morocco

After our "Top to Bottom" tour of Jordan, we headed west to a country that we have wanted to visit for years - Morocco!  We arrived in Marrakesh on May 23rd and have spent the past week enchanted by the Arab and Berber people and their exotic kingdom.  The main square of Marrakesh is called Jemaa el Fna and is a circus-like atmosphere complete with snake charmers, acrobats, storytellers and a large souk similar to what we experienced a few years ago in Istanbul at the Grand Bazaar.  After 2 1/2 days exploring the city and sampling the Moroccan cuisine, we headed south towards the High Atlas Mountains and our objective, the 13,671 foot Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco as well as the highest in North Africa.  

We met our guides Mohammed and Omar in the tiny village of Aguersioual and began our trek at 5,280 feet. After 7 1/2 hours taking in the sights and mountain villages along the trail, we reached the refuge beyond Tizi Oussem at 7,425' and spent the night.  

Early the next morning we were treated to views of several beautiful waterfalls and later tormented by 99 switchbacks painstakingly taking us up to the Tizi Aguelzim Pass at 12,045 feet.  It was here where we caught our first glimpse of Jbel Toubkal and then began our descent into the valley down to ~10,500 feet.  We arrived at our campsite near the
Toubkal Refuge approx. 9 1/2 hours after our trek for the day began and just as the afternoon clouds arrived as well.

At 3:30 AM on day three of our trek, our alarm woke us signaling the start of a long and taxing day.  Along with our headlamps the stars and moon illuminated our route.   A cool breeze motivated us to keep moving upwards toward the point where the rays of the sun finally reached us and began to warm our chilled bodies.  

We eventually reached the summit of Jbel Toubkal just after 9:15 AM on Memorial Day in the U.S. Mon. May 28th.  We proudly raised our Challenged Athletes Foundation banner after high fives all around with our team for a successful summit of the highest peak in Morocco!  

The hike back down to basecamp and eventually to the village of Imlil totaled a bone jarring and muscle numbing vertical descent of over 8,000 feet.  By the time we reached our hotel for the night we had been on the move for more than 15 hours and were ready for a long overdue shower and a return to sleeping in a bed.  As tired and depleted as we felt, it made us appreciate the strength and fortitude of our guides Mohammed and Omar who were fasting from sunrise to sunset the entire trip as Ramadan continues.  Yet again traveling to a new country as unique as Morocco and experiencing this adventure has broadened our horizons and reinforced our gratitude for our freedom and ability to explore mountains around the world to support the mission of CAF. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Jordan - From the Top to the Bottom

Checking in from Amman with a report on our past week of exploring the fascinating landscape of Jordan.  We reached the highest point in the country, the 6,083' summit of Jamal Umm ad Dami near the northern border of Saudi Arabia, and also visited the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea.  In between has been an absolutely incredible tour of the entire length of Jordan hitting the ancient city of Petra, the adrenaline inducing gorge of Wadi Mujib, the Martian-like desert of Wadi Rum, and all the way south to the city of Aqaba to swim in the Red Sea.  And all of this was during Ramadan, as the month-long Muslim ritual of fasting from sunrise to sunset began the day before we arrived in Jordan.  Suffice it to say we did not participate in this tradition but it made for an interesting cultural experience, particularly as our guides, drivers, and the vast majority of this Middle Eastern population did not eat or take a sip of water all day in the hot sun with daytime temperatures never dropping below 90 degrees F. 

Extreme buoyancy floating in the salt and mineral dense water of the Dead Sea. At 1,385 feet BELOW sea level the increased atmospheric pressure is like have an extra 15% oxygen with every breath.  Less than 10 miles across the water is the West Bank of Israel.  

Venturing upstream into the deep gorge of Wadi Mujib was a spectacular geological sight wrapped into a fun and exciting experience unlike anything we have ever done before.  We spent 2 1/2 hours trekking, climbing over boulders and up waterfalls, swimming against swift river currents and pulling our body weight with the aid of ropes.  We were rewarded with a massaging shower under a beautiful waterfall and a
 return journey back downstream floating and even launching ourselves off the end of a smoothed natural rock slide into a cool deep pool.  
To fully appreciate Jordan you MUST partake in this Wadi Mujib adventure.  Thank you to John Parmentier for adding this to our itinerary and especially for inviting us to join you in Jordan in the first place and extending to us the immense hospitality of Aram Rabadi and his family to stay in their home and get a full immersion into Jordanian life.

The ancient and once lost civilization of Petra was the main allure of visiting Jordan, 
and it did not disappoint.  Carved into the side of a massive sandstone rock wall, the tomb known as the "Treasury" was a jaw dropping sight to behold.  Most recognize it 
from the Indiana Jones movie "Last Crusade" and the three of us even rode out by horseback emulating Harrison Ford!  

From Petra we continued south and east into the unique red desert of Wadi Rum.  More than 12 popular movies have been filmed here including the classic 1962 award winner "Lawrence of Arabia", and the more recent Mars movies including the 2015 blockbuster "The Martian" starring Matt Damon.  Both of these were shot almost 
entirely in Wadi Rum.  

We arrived in our Bedouin camp just in time to witness a breathtaking sunset over the "Martian" landscape and were then treated to a traditional Bedouin feast of lamb and other meats cooked underground to a tender and tasty perfection. 

The fuel and rest were definitely needed for our adventures that began early the following morning.  There was a small mix up between our van driver Mahmoud and our climbing guide Abdullah that necessitated taking the van a short distance across the desert.  The moment we began sliding and sinking in the soft sand, we knew we were entering a situation in which a phone call to AAA could not possibly resolve.  John, Denise and I began digging and pushing in the hot morning sun while our calorie-starved fasting Mahmoud hopelessly spun the wheels in the sand only to submerge our van even deeper.  

We toiled away at this for about 45 mins until Abdullah finally showed up in his 4X4 Landcruiser.  The start of our intended adventure to climb the highest mountain in Jordan, was now well behind schedule and the blazing heat of the sun was quickly intensifying.  An hour drive across the desert without a single sole in sight, along with a few unnervingly similar episodes of our 4X4 getting temporarily stuck, finally brought us at 10 AM to the base of our objective: Jabal Umm ad Dami, the highest mountain in Jordan.  

Other than the heat, the climb itself was not difficult, involving some scrambling/bouldering but no need for ropes.  Having Abdullah along to show us the route was extremely valuable, but half way up he announced he would go no farther.  Because of Ramadan he was fasting and had not drank one sip of water all day in the punishing heat approaching 100 degrees F.  He pointed us towards the summit and attempted to explain the direction of the route.  Abdullah was bound for some rest in the sparse shade of a large rock, and we were bound for the top!  

We were thankful for the ability to stay hydrated and on trail to eventually reach the summit by mid-day.  The views from the top and into the Saudi Arabian desert were fantastic and yet so foreign to us compared to the snow and ice capped peaks we are more accustomed to climbing.  

We retraced our steps back down the mountain and across the Martian landscape to rejoin Mahmoud and our van (now freed from its sandy trap).  At this point we changed our plans and opted to make a shorter drive to spend the night in the seaport city of Aqaba.  After a long and hot day in Wadi Rum, the allure of a swim in the Red Sea was too tempting to pass up.  It was well worth it and much to our surprise the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba were significantly cooler than our dip in the Dead Sea two days prior.  

All in all we cannot say enough positive things about our time in Jordan and the good people who were kind enough to show us their beautiful country.  

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Part II - Scott Fischer's Ice Axe Lives to Climb Again!

The rest of the story... As told from Hong Kong during a few days layover to visit Disneyland and to hike Tai Mo Shan (Hong Kong's underwhelming high point at 3,140 feet).

...back to Nepal at over 20,000 feet on our summit day Nov. 3rd.  Garrett Madison's dispatch referenced in our last post explained many of the details of our big day on Tharke Khang, so without repeating his excellent summary, here's what else happened from our perspective. 

The entire team had been pushing hard and ascending more rapidly than scheduled in the days leading up to our summit day. This was in part because we were feeling strong, and mostly due to the helicopter transporting us over the Ngozumba Glacier and icefall directly to ABC at 19,000 feet, gaining 2,500 feet in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless we had a good weather window to go for the summit so we all rallied and sucked it up, both figuratively and literally considering the limited oxygen in the air at this altitude. As an aside, this shorter than ideal acclimatization period makes the success of those who reached the summit even more impressive.

Denise was feeling much less energetic than usual when we left camp shortly after 2 AM.  But with some positive spousal encouragement and the help of only mild winds and illumination from the moon, we slowly and steadily climbed the steep wall up to the corniced ridgeline at just over 20,000 feet. It was at this point where Denise decided she didn't have enough gas in the tank to safely navigate up and down the rest of the treacherous ridgeline ahead. As much as I hated doing so, I gave her a kiss goodbye and watched her as she clipped her figure 8 onto the rope and began her rappel back down. Sid was waiting for me on top of the ridgeline and as soon as I climbed up over the lip, we both watched carefully to make sure she descended safely. We then continued on and quickly caught up to the others. It was at this point when Phil decided his risk meter was nearing its limits, so he turned back as well. Again Sid and I stopped and waited to watch from this last vantage point to make sure he also descended safely. Then it happened.  I believe my words were "HOLY SHIT!" Phil just slipped and fell! I wouldn't have predicted this event as Phil seemed to be a very skilled and experienced climber. Sid and I watched helplessly as he began sliding down the extremely steep and sustained headwall slope that we spent all morning climbing up (well over 1,000 vertical feet). The chances of surviving an unprotected fall from here were slim. Fortunately Phil was properly clipped into the safety line and it held his weight when the full force of his body tugged on the rope. Disaster averted.

Sid and I refocused our attention on the steep slopes above us and the vertical wall that would soon become my nemesis. I'll spare the technical discussion why a safety line should be rigged slightly longer than an ascender leash (something I should have paid more attention to earlier) suffice it to say I got hung up on the overhanging section of the wall as I tried to climb up. It required Sid's expert guiding skills to extract me from my predicament - thank you again Sid. Once the pressure was relieved from my carabiner I was ready to go! Unfortunately at that point so was Sid.  He made a comment about some adage in mountain guiding that you're allowed one "F-up" but not two. We already had our close call with Phil, so as far as Sid was concerned it was time to go back down and quit while we were still ahead. Despite my strong desire to continue on and achieve a first ascent with Garrett and the others, I respected Sid's professional call to turn around. After all that's why we hire experienced professional guides who can make difficult decisions like this and help keep us safe. Of course guides are human and capable of mistakes as we all know, but far better to be conservative when lives are at stake.

It was not lost on me that in my hand was Scott Fischer's ice axe, a constant reminder that things don't always go as we hope or plan in the mountains (or in life) but that's exactly what makes for a great adventure!!!
View from slopes of Tharke Khang at well over 20,000 feet.

Steep descent from where we watched Phil slip below.

Nemesis turnaround point ahead.

Visiting the Himalayan English Boarding School in Lukla, funded in small part by the donation
made for Scott Fischer's ice axe in the auction. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Scott Fischer's Ice Axe Lives to Climb Again!

We are thrilled to report that a successful first ascent of the unclimbed "Secret Mountain" Tharke Khang has been achieved! Sadly we were not among the three Westerners to stand on the top out of the total nine clients and guides on our team, but we are elated to be a part of the remarkable effort to reach the objective and climb where no humans have ever gone before. We hope Scott Fischer wouldn't be too disappointed that we were unable to get his ice axe to the summit, but I'm sure he would appreciate we all got down safely. A special thanks to our friends Aang Phurba Sherpa, Lakpa Dandi Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, and Pasang Dawa Sherpa for your hard work and helping to keep all of us safe on a difficult, demanding and extremely treacherous peak. We knew very little about this mountain before setting foot on its flanks, and without your machine-like efforts, this pioneering feat could not be attained.  
South side (Nepal) view of Tharke Khang from our Puja stupa at Base Camp at 16,500 feet 
Extreme steep from high on the Tharke Khang ridgeline Nov. 3, 2017
Notice tiny dot (Dave Landman) below

We are proud of the decisions made high up on the mountain that lead all of us to safely return to tell the tales. Garrett Madison did an excellent job recounting the details of our summit day that began at 2:00 AM on Friday Nov. 3rd, coincidentally Garrett's birthday. I highly encourage you to read his Madison Mountaineering dispatch and see the photos to more fully appreciate what took place and what was accomplished:
Happy Birthday once again GM, we can't imagine a better gift for such a strong and selfless professional guide than your very own first, First Ascent on your birthday. You will not read this in Garrett's dispatch because of his humble nature, but Garrett previously decided when we were at base camp on Wednesday to defer leading the final stages of the climb to our two other Western guides, giving them the opportunity to claim the first ascent accolade. For a professional mountain guide the accomplishment is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award or perhaps a Presidential Medal of Honor. When we heard of Garrett's decision to put all self-interest aside and defer the opportunity, we were stunned. After much debate among the team we were able to persuade Garrett to come along as previously planned. We're glad we spoke up and the decision was made, and I'm sure that now in retrospect the GM is pleased too.
Among many life lessons we have learned on this amazing adventure here in Nepal, the Buddhist doctrine of Karma is a powerful force. Thank you Garrett for demonstrating to all of us through your actions how good karma really works.
In my next blog post I'll elaborate a bit on difficult decisions made and why we turned around before reaching the summit. But for now we want all of you to know we are safely off the mountain and thanks to the miracle of helicopter transportation, we are already back in Kathmandu and once again enjoying the conveniences outside the expedition tent including fresh food, shower, bed, and an internet connection. ... not to mention the extra oxygen we have been missing out on above 20,000 feet! We also want you to know how much we appreciate all of you for following along on our adventure and for your support and friendship.
Thank you,
Paul and Denise Fejtek
North side (China/Tibet) view of headwall from ABC at 19,000 feet
Notice our Sherpa team (three tiny dots)