Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Soaking in the Splendor of Sněžka

Our journey to the highest peak in the Czech Republic was preceded by a full week of meetings in Prague, and concluded with one of the most unique and outrageous experiences that most people in North America have likely never heard of. An experience which some would only imagine in their dreams.

Before I get to the outrageous experience, business first. The entire reason for our trip to Eastern Europe (including our tour of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro) was to visit the Czech Republic, the homeland of both of my parents. My grandparents had some real estate interests in Prague which were passed on to my dad and his siblings. As a result of my dad‘s passing last summer I joined my aunt and uncle to sort out and help manage some of these matters. Along the way I got to meet some second cousins, longtime family friends and even the Portuguese Ambassador to the Czech Republic! Czechs are of course passionate about their Pilsner, so as not to offend any of our guests at dinner meetings all week I was obliged to drink my share!
Once the meetings were all complete on Friday, my uncle Ian, Denise and I headed 2 1/2 hours north to the Krkonoše Mountains, the “Giant Mountains” which aren’t very giant at all. Sněžka, meaning the Snowy One is the highest in the country at a whopping 5,260 feet. Pec pod Sněžkou is a quaint resort village at the base of the mountain which could easily be mistaken for a scenic alpine retreat in the Swiss or Austrian Alps. We tested the limits of our Czech-made Škoda rental car by driving all the way up a steep single lane road in first gear, and then checked in to the Hotel Emerich. Not only did it have stunning views and excellent service, in the winter the hotel is only accessible by snowcat and sits in the middle of the ski runs. Our kind of place! 
View from the deck at Hotel Emerich with Pec pod Sněžkou below and Sněžka peak on the horizon (right).
The next morning Ian, Denise and I met our Prague accountant, Pavel Kuře who joined for the hike along with his family and two-year-old son on his back. We also met our friends Eva and Antoine who we got to know last year in Vietnam climbing Fan Si Pan (Good Morning Vietnam blog post).
Together we all had a pleasant walk socializing as we hiked up an easy path to the summit. Along the way we crossed the border into Poland for a short while and before we knew it, in less than three hours we were at the top. 
With Eva Beranova and Antoine Kermarec
Pavel Kuře with one of the Sněžka Sherpa Cup competitors carrying 132 lbs on his back.
It was great fun to cheer along the strong and determined Czechs who were reaching the summit finish line of the annual Sněžka Sherpa Cup. Some of the participants hauled 60 kg loads (132 lbs) all the way from the base almost 3,000 vertical feet below. Their reward: a shot of Slivovice (Czech plum brandy, or as I refer to it “devil water”). Next year maybe we’ll have to sponsor a team of our Sherpa friends from Nepal and see what happens! At least we know the big Czech guys will be sure to win any drinking competitions afterwards.
June 8th at the summit of Sněžka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic.
Speaking of which, we are finally now at the point where we had our most unique and outrageous experience which was definitely one for the memory books. Upon completing an 11-mile loop over the course of seven hours, we returned to the trailhead area and the Pecky Pivovar brewery. About a year and a half ago the brewery decided some of its patrons might enjoy (perhaps ecstatically) the idea of soaking their entire body in a beer jacuzzi! So they built a beer spa, adjacent to the big brew tanks where weary skiers and Sněžka hikers like us can rejuvenate their bodies in a jetted tub of warm beer. It even has a self-serve tap to supply copious amounts of cold beer to the inside of the body for a full restorative effect! 
After a day of hiking, toasting our Sněžka summit in a tub full of Czech beer!
Forget Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, the beer spa at Pecky Pivovar in Pec pod Sněžkou is reason alone for a trip to the Czech Republic! I am proud of my people for bringing into existence this great contribution to human happiness. ...and I suspect it would also bring a smile to my dad’s face if he could see us enjoying the fun!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Montenegro’s Zla Kolata: The Evil Mountain

Also known as the “Accursed Mountains” in Prokletije National Park (the highest part of the Dinaric Alps stretching across Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo) Zla “Evil” Kolata lived entirely up to its foreboding names. It wasn’t because I took a wrong step onto a slick wet rock, slipped, fell and drew some blood from my shin and scraped my hands. It wasn’t because of an arduously long day climbing 4,833’ in elevation covering 12 miles over the course of 11 hours. And it wasn’t because of the rocky terrain with very few clear trail markings or the steep snow covered slopes with many exposed sections where falling would be ...”bad.” Normally we would have enjoyed all of this (except for the falling part) in the course of a challenging adventure. But in our case the “accursed” and “evil” mountain was fitting due to the simple fact that it rained on us ALL DAY!
We started hiking early at 6:15 hoping to get at least a bit of dry weather ahead of the forecasted showers, but we only had 15 minutes before the first raindrops arrived and they became increasingly more intense until we were thoroughly soaked. Even our boots couldn’t repel the continuous onslaught of water. 

It was a stark contrast to the Beautiful Bosnia weather we enjoyed a few days earlier climbing Maglić. Another difference here in Montenegro was having a “true” mountain guide with us, which eliminated the need to constantly be checking our GPS track in the wet and cloudy weather and wondering if we were going the right way. Instead we simply followed Binak, an incredibly kind man who lived in the tiny village of Vusanje a few houses away from the quaint lodge where we were staying.
With Helga on the back porch of our lodge, the Moonlight House the day before our climb (while the weather was still nice).
Another nice treat was to be accompanied by our good friend Helga Hengge who flew in from Munich to join us for this part of our Balkan journey. Helga is the first German woman to summit Mt. Everest and we had the pleasure to first meet her in 2009 in Antarctica while climbing the Vinson Massif. Helga also joined us last year in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco for our Jbel Toubkal adventure for those who may recall reading some of those blog posts. Helga frequently speaks to large corporate clients like BMW, Airbus, Siemens, etc. and as luck would have it she was able to squeeze in a few days to join us right in the middle of two of her previously scheduled talks.

As the wind picked up chilling our rain drenched bodies, and as the cold wet snow we were hiking through made our wet feet feel numb, I asked Helga if this might be the point when she was regretting her decision to fly to Montenegro for three days for this type of punishment!
She laughed and reminded me that this wasn’t nearly as cold as Antarctica! After nearly six hours we reached a saddle and briefly crossed into Albania in order to reach the summit ridge. Within 30 minutes or so we were standing on the 8,317 foot summit of the “Evil Mountain” Zla Kolata (aka Kolatta e Keqe in Albanian). The views from the top in the midst of the rain storm were ...less than stunning. But we made it to the summit and it was particularly meaningful (and completely unplanned) that on this same day May 27th in 1999 Helga stood on the top of Mt. Everest! We wished her a happy 20-year “summit anniversary” and promptly began our 4,800 foot descent towards a warm, dry lodge and a hot meal waiting for us back down in Vusanje at the Moonlight House! 

Despite the ominous sounding names Prokletije National Park is an incredible place to visit and still relatively undiscovered (it only became a national park in 2009). We didn't see any other people at all on the trail all day, and even in the height of the summer season, we understand that not many people come here.
Summit of Zla Kolata: Highest Peak in Montenegro
In front of the Moonlight House with Binak, Helga and on the right Lilly, who manages the lodge with her family.

Sveti Stefan and the Aman Hotel
Kotor, Montenegro hiking the city wall to the fortress above the bay

Monday, May 27, 2019

Beautiful Bosnia

Every mountain we climb has a story, this one began with Sergei the Bosnian-speaking National Park guide saying “the mountain is not safe to climb right now.” 
The translations continued with  “...the cables (meaning via ferrata-type hand rails for safety) are buried under the snow and I will go with you to the cables but I won’t risk my life so I won’t go any higher.” 
Maglić is the highest mountain in Bosnia & Herzegovina at 7,828 feet and she sits on the border with Montenegro to the east within the scenic Sutjeska National Park.  We knew climbing it in May would involve steep snow slopes and we came prepared with crampons and gear to give us the best chance to reach the summit, which was after all one of our main reasons for visiting this country in the first place.  Arranging for a guide many weeks in advance was another measure we took so we could have somebody to help with route-finding and to generally increase our safety and chances for success. 
So when we heard Sergei say the mountain isn’t safe and he didn’t want to go, we had a decision to make.  It was a fairly quick and easy one for us actually, especially after learning that this man (despite his strong, rugged and hardened-looking appearance) was actually a “tourist park ranger” and not a true mountain guide. Through our translator friend at the hotel, we thanked Sergei for his time and told him we had climbing experience and that we would head up Maglić on our own. 

Fortunately back at home before the trip I had downloaded detailed topo and satellite maps of the mountain and the climbing routes. With my new Gaia GPS app on my phone, we successfully navigated 12 miles of dirt roads, found the correct trailhead and from there the two of us headed on foot towards the snowy flanks of Maglić! 

The weather was perfect, clear blue skies, sunshine, pleasant 40 - 50 degree temps and no wind. We were quite fortunate to have clear skies in order to find the route visually from afar rather than rely solely on maps and GPS.  This was particularly  true when trying to navigate our way up the imposing rock fortress like wall of more than 1,000 feet. We needed to get up this somehow in order reach the ridge, and I knew there was a way, but without a guide it would be much more challenging.  Luckily we ran into a group of climbers from Macedonia and Serbia who had a guide familiar with the way up to the ridge.  We chatted for a bit, he pointed out the way and then we went ahead since they were a large group so we were able to move faster with just the two of us. 

As we climbed higher we reached the point where our would-be guide Sergei was talking about with the cables being buried under the snow. We clearly understood the reason for bolting the cables in thatparticular spot.  ...there was a seriously steep slope where a slip would result in plunge over a cliff of several hundred feet down to the rocks below.  
After studying our options we decided that the safest way across was climbing on the rocks above the slope to get as far as we could and then wedging ourselves into the bergshrund to traverse the rest of the distance.  We repeated this process again for several other similar crossings and did some straightforward climbing up over rock and snow until we reached the top of the ridge.  After four hours and over 
2,500 vertical feet we reached the summit and were standing on the highest point in the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina!

Stark Most: Old Bridge in Mostar destroyed in 1990’s civil war and later rebuilt. 
Blagaj Tekija: 15th Century Dervish Monastery

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Crazy Cambodian Climb

Phnom Aural is the highest mountain in Cambodia that very few people ever visit or climb because it is extremely remote and involves difficult logistics and a trek through the jungle to simply get to the base.  It's also not very high at only 5,948 feet so reaching the summit almost seemed like an unworthy challenge.  ...until Denise pulled off the second blood sucking leech attached to her leg! This was after starting the first day at 4:30 AM wearing clothes and a backpack that were dripping wet from a large puddle that formed inside our tent from an unexpected overnight rainstorm.  Despite the leeches, wet clothes, mud, heat and humidity, we were actually having loads of fun the majority of the time and appreciating the lush beautiful scenery and the means by which we were transported to this isolated corner of the world. Due to the severely rutted and otherwise impassable dirt "roads", we arrived at the foot of the mountain by way of two separate tractor rides, one from a local rice farmer and the other from a logger.

Another good reason for our good humor in the midst of the adverse conditions was our guide Phanina. We were extremely lucky to find him and when we first met at the bus station in Phnom Penh, his warm welcoming smile and giddy enthusiasm convinced us we were in good company.  
It's not often he gets to guide clients up this mountain due to lack of interest, so he considered it a privilege and genuinely seemed excited to be on this adventure with us. Aside from a few blog posts, there is very little information 
online about climbing this mountain so if you happen to be interested please feel free to contact Phanina directly, his email is kimphanina@gmail.com or call him on Skype at kimphanina.  His English is excellent and he is also a knowledgeable professional guide for the more typical tourist sites like the Killing Fields and Cambodia's crown jewel - Angkor Wat. 

Back to the mountain; although there are absolutely no trail signs whatsoever, after wading across several small rivers and pushing through the jungle we reached the "trailhead" at an altitude of less than 700 feet above sea level.  We spent about 3 1/2 hours climbing up to a high camp at approx. 3,795 feet. There were a few steep sections where Phanina's friend had previously attached some ropes on a prior trip, and luckily we didn't encounter any more rain of significance to make the slopes and tree roots underfoot any more slippery and dangerous.  

Once at camp we had a rest and some lunch, set up our tent, re-filled our water bottles and continued on to the summit. Unlike most peaks we have climbed where we are well above the tree line, in this case we were within the heavy tropical vegetation so there wasn't much of a view from the top.  ...but there was a small pagoda and statue of Buddha.  
We paid our respects, took photos and were back down to our high camp in 3 1/2 hours where we ate some hot onion and vegetable soup and went to sleep. During the trek back down the next morning we were treated by the sounds of birds and cicadas and the eerie sound of Great Hornbills flying overhead.  It became quite hot near the base of the mountain when we were no longer shaded by the jungle canopy but a dip in the river cooled us off and it was a perfect conclusion to a Crazy Cambodian Climb! 
No trip to Cambodia can be considered complete until visiting the temples of Angkor Thom in Siem Reap. The most famous of which is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world. And of course the tree roots overgrowing the temple Ta-Prohm best known as the location for the 2001 Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider. 

Thanks for reading and signing off from Siem Reap.  Until the next Summit for CAF adventure...

-Paul & Denise

Monday, November 5, 2018


Xin Chào from Hanoi!  At 10,312' Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam and also the highest on the Indochinese Peninsula. In addition to wanting to see the beauty of Vietnam up close (and get a good bowl of Pho) we decided to come here to climb it!  The hike was about 5,400' vertical from the trailhead and took us two days with an overnight camp.  We woke up early Saturday and left our hut at 4:15 AM in order to reach the summit to view a stunning sunrise.  

Two years ago the government of Vietnam invested $2 Billion to build the world's longest three-rope cable car and an enormous complex on top of the peak, complete with elaborate temples and a 71 foot tall statue of Buddha.

Although the tram would have been a much faster and easier way to get to the top, we enjoyed the challenge of the trek up but decided to save our knees some punishment and opted for the luxurious cable car ride back down. 

After reaching the town of Sa Pa we made our way back to Hanoi to meet our friends Bryce and Camille and then continued to the coast to board an overnight cruise on a junk in the famous Halong Bay. We lucked out with a fun, international group of Brazilians, Argentinians, and two Bulgarians.  We kayaked together, swam, hiked, explored caves, enjoyed cocktail hour, great food and even Tai Chi exercises this morning on the top deck of our boat. 

A Good Morning in Vietnam has turned into several great days and more ahead!  RIP Robin Williams, thank you for all the laughs and especially your many years of enthusiastic support of the Challenged Athletes Foundation!