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 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!

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.