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Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

mt sinai

Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

dahab

dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab

dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

dahab

Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

sinai

Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

sinai egypt

There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

sinai egypt

Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

sinai egypt

At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

sinai egypt
I’ll always have Paris!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

sinai egypt

It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

sinai egypt

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

When I first started researching the Poon Hill Trek, I read countless accounts of exhausted hikers waking up at 5am and climbing the “hill” (translation = a 10,000-foot peak that would be classified as a “very tall mountain” anywhere else) in the freezing cold to watch the sun rise.

“Dumb morning people,” I muttered to myself, knowing that I’d never be seen among those idiots who awoke that early and climbed an icy mountainside…in the dark.

I mean, what’s wrong with waiting until later in the day? It’s not like Poon Hill (or the Himalayas) are going anywhere. It’s not as if they won’t be there at midday or late afternoon.

Well, that’s kinda true…but also kinda not. You see, at this altitude, the mountains basically create their own weather. All those glorious photos you see of the bare snowcapped Himalayan peaks? I can almost guarantee that those pictures were taken before the hour of 9am. Because once that magical hour hits, the clouds start to form, obscuring the peaks for the remainder of the day.

Akash explained all of this to us on the trek up, so I already knew what I was going to be doing at 5am today.

I was going to wake up – freezing – and hike up an icy mountainside in the dark – freezing – just like all of those idiots I’d read about (and pitied, because I knew they were freezing).

And indeed, at the gloriously dark hour of 5am, Jeremy, Akash, and I set off from our guesthouse, armed with the flashlights from our trusty cell phones, and joined dozens of other bleary-eyed tourists in trudging up, up, up Poon Hill. From the village of Ghorepani (9,429 feet/2,874m), we had to climb an additional 1,000 feet to the hilltop – the highest point in the trek – which maxes out at 10,475 feet (3,210m).

I was already struggling with the altitude the day before. (Did I mention this is classified as the “easiest trek” in Nepal?) I really, really didn’t stand a chance of having an easy hike.

But I know now why mountain climbers feel so incredibly victorious when they reach the summit. For over an hour, I gasped, wheezed, sweated profusely, shivered, stopped a million times to catch my breath, nearly slipped on icy steps, wanted to scream, shout, burst into tears, and quit, almost turned around and gave up on several occasions…

And then – and THEN – two stone pillars and string of colorful prayer flags are there to greet you, assuring you that you did it. You made it to the top. With the last vestige of my energy and determination, I climbed the final step and set foot on the top of Poon Hill, just as the sky was growing pink and the perfectly clear, cloudless peaks became visible…and I suddenly understood.

I was standing on top of the world.

We limped over to the conveniently placed coffee shack (the only sign of civilization for miles around) and ordered three life-saving cups of masala tea, warming our frozen hands on the tin mugs while we awaited the sunrise. I met the tired eyes of other trekkers, and unspoken communication passed seamlessly between us: “I know…This totally sucks…I hate life right now too…It’s going to be alright…It’ll all be worth it…Right?”

A few minutes later we got our answer, in the form of a gloriously golden sunrise that lit up the peaks like a bonfire in the sky. Directly in front of us were some of the tallest mountains on the face of the earth: Dhaulagiri (26,817 feet/8177m), Annapurna (26,545 feet/8091m), Annapurna South (23,920 feet/7219m), and Machapuchare or “Fish Tail Peak” (22,956 feet/6991m).

I’m a writer, but I don’t have words to describe what it was like to stand there, on the rooftop of the world, and behold such a sight. Whatever it is that passes through your mind and heart at that moment – be it spiritual, religious, a sense of inner peace or personal enlightenment – there’s no way you can be unaffected by what you’re seeing.

And all of the sweat, tears, and effort it took to get to this point all magically melt away, like it never even happened.

Of course, you’re reminded of it pretty quickly when you turn around and start heading down the hill. The trek down was a breeze compared to the trek up, but our day was just getting started. Akash told us that we had the longest and highest day ahead of us – seven hours, at best, along the ridgeline…and we’d be hitting snow and ice along the way.

Since that was the case, we thought it best to enjoy a little levity (and more breathtaking views) on the way down.

So! After downing more amazing potato roasties for breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction from Poon Hill, climbing for a brutal hour to the top of Gurung Hill. The views were spectacular, although the clouds were rolling in to obscure the peaks (aren’t we glad we got up at 5am to see them?).

As we pressed onward, the sky grew grayer and the temperature dropped, promising fresh snow in the future.

Sure enough, right as we entered the village of Deurali, the skies opened up and big white snowflakes began swirling through the air. This just happened to coincide with the most treacherous part of our trek – the steep, narrow winding canyon between Deurali and Banthanti. We were informed, in fact, that the previous day an unfortunate Japanese man had just broken his leg in that canyon and had to be air-evacuated out!

Fortunately for us, we had Akash. And Akash had done his homework – he knew this area would be snowy and icy, so he’d told us ahead of time to buy crampons for the trek. So out come our shiny new crampons – basically metal spikes you affix to your shoes – and down we go.

Without the crampons, it would have been a terrifying and dangerous trek. The stone steps were covered in thick ice, the trail was frozen solid, and the bridges were a scary mix of snow and slush. With our trusty crampons, though, we traversed the frozen landscape without incident – although we definitely had to take it slower than planned.

We were so slow, in fact, that by the time we reached the village of Banthanti we realized that we weren’t going to reach our goal of Ghandruk before nightfall. But we were all safe and uninjured, so that was the most important thing, right?

The great thing about this trek is that you have plenty of options for food and accommodation. When I pictured hiking in the Himalayas, I pictured starkness and miles and miles of empty nothingness. Higher up, I’m sure it’s like that. But “down” where we were (hard to imagine that 10,000 feet is considered “low”), guesthouses and teahouses abound, so you’re not forced to stick to a tight schedule. You can simply go at your own pace – or the pace Mother Nature forces you to go at!

After a solid 9 hours of trekking (including our early climb up Poon Hill) we reached the beautiful village of Tadapani, nestled below the impressive peak of Machapuchare (elevation 22,942 feet/6993m).

(Fun side note: Machapuchare, also called “Fish Tail Peak,” is a sacred mountain in Nepal, said to be home to the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is one of very few places on earth where no man has ever set foot. A British expedition set out to climb the mountain in 1957 and – at the request of the Nepalese King – stopped 150 feet short of the summit.)

Dead to the world, we dragged our weary bodies into the common room (with a wood-burning stove – THANK GOD) and basically collapsed there through a late lunch, early dinner, and painfully slow WiFi. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I still can’t believe it’s possible to GET WiFi up there!)

It was an epic day – a day I’ll remember forever – but I won’t lie…it was TOUGH.

And we still have one more day to go…

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani

Well, the good news is…we survived the night. I was rather happy to wake up alive this morning.

(Just for the record, though, midnight bathroom runs in a Nepali guesthouse with no heat are NOT fun. That’ll teach me to drink a gigantic pot of tea before bedtime!)

Anyway, considering the brutal nature of our first-day climb, we expected to be basically immobilized this morning. I’m not going to lie and say there was no pain – we both had sore legs and blistered toes – but it was nowhere NEAR as bad as I thought it would be. The relentless cold was actually harder to deal with than the aftereffects of the hike.

And on that note, too, let me say that it’s not actually THAT cold, at least according to the thermostat. I don’t think it’s gotten below freezing (33F/0C) the whole time we’ve been here. Being outside, warmly dressed, walking or climbing, is usually pretty comfortable. The hard part is afterwards, when you’re tired and damp and chilled and just want to get warmed up…and you can’t.

Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

That’s what we’re struggling with. Despite our “-20C” sleeping bags and two heavy blankets, I still woke up every hour last night shivering, simply because I’ve never slept in a room this cold. And the common room/dining room is about the same temperature as the outside air, so when you’re just sitting there, weary from the trek…it gets cold really fast.

But anyway, enough about the cold. If you come trekking in the wintertime, consider yourself warned!

Dinner, breakfast, and two beds at the guesthouse in Ulleri came to a total of $23, which seemed more than fair considering we were basically in the middle of nowhere. Since it was dark when we arrived last night, we had no idea of the view that awaited us until we stepped outside and saw the magnificent peak of Annapurna South, soaring to an impressive 23,683 feet (7219m) into a cloudless sky.

Now this was the Nepal I came to see!

Today we had another 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation to climb, topping out at 9,429 feet (2874m) at the top. My Colorado-turned-Thai lungs sure aren’t used to this thin air anymore, because I was huffing harder than a 90-year old with emphysema on the way up. Okay, maybe not quite that bad…but it was a serious workout.

Today’s trek was definitely different scenery than yesterday, starting with a killer view of the mountains from the beautiful little village of Ulleri. Were we in Nepal, or the Swiss Alps? For a moment, we couldn’t be sure.

The next several hours’ trekking was very pleasant, through thick green forests, waterfalls, and the villages of Banthanti and Nagethanti.

View of Machapuchare (Fish Tail Peak)

We also made friends with some furry mountain puppies, fuzzy ponies, and adorable little goats, and we passed more than a few water buffalo and baby yaks along the way!

After a solid five hours of climbing up undoubtedly thousands of additional stone steps (because the Steps of Ulleri weren’t torturous enough), we entered the village of Ghorepani and received a wonderful surprise from Akash – we were done for the day! We thought we were only having lunch here and pressing on, so that was a wonderful surprise for our weary lungs and legs.

Another wonderful surprise? An honest to goodness fireplace in the common room of our Ghorepani guesthouse. It doesn’t give off a ton of heat – I’m still wearing four layers and my snowboarding socks, fireside – but it’s definitely warmer than any other room we’ve sat in this week.

How cold our bedroom will be remains to be seen…but let’s not think about that yet.

Dinner tonight (and lunch, come to think of it) was an incredible Nepali concoction called a potato roasty. What is this delicious delicacy? Diced potato, onion, cheese, and spices, pressed together into a thick, crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-in-the-middle-pancake, pan fried to perfection, and topped with a fried egg. It is the ultimate comfort food, and just perfect for a starving trekker!

Oh, have I mentioned the showers yet? Most of the guesthouses along the trekking route offer a hot shower option (usually 100 rupees or $1), and this may sound like a wonderful option to have, but…

BUT…

Remember that there is no heat in the building (if the shower is even inside the building – in some cases, it’s basically a “shower outhouse”). I decided I was tired of being cold and indulged in a $1 high-altitude hot shower in just such a detached room.

And I thought I was cold BEFORE? Ha!! The water is indeed hot, but it barely trickles out enough to dampen your skin, leaving you soaking wet, shivering, in a steamy makeshift “room” that’s the same temperature as the winter air outside. Then there was that wonderful moment when I’d had enough shivering, turned off the water, and realized I DIDN’T HAVE A TOWEL.

Because…why on earth would I have a towel with me, trekking into the Himalayas? I’m carrying enough crap in my backpack as it is, and I hadn’t planned on taking any showers en route.

So what does my freezing, shivering, soaking wet self do? The only thing I could do – I used two shirts to dry off as well as I could, then hung them up over the fire in hopes they’d dry overnight. And they did (kind of). Then I limped off to my below-freezing room and attempted to sleep, but between the cold and the altitude, I didn’t stand a chance.

Luxury, you guys. I’m telling you, it’s all luxury over here.

But at least our room comes with a pretty sweet view…

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 1: Nayapul to Ulleri

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 1: Nayapul to Ulleri

Did I just say that yesterday was a long day?

Apparently I forgot that I was waking up this morning to go trekking in THE HIMALAYAS. Apparently I whined about sitting on a bus for eight hours without thinking about the miles and miles and miles of steep mountains – the tallest mountain range in the world, in fact – that I was about to climb!

Silly ol’ me.

What was I thinking, anyway?

Today I did something I’ve never purposely done in my entire life: I got up to watch the sunrise. That may sound ridiculous to some of you, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not a morning person. If it were up to me, mornings wouldn’t exist in the first place. The world would go from pitch black night to – POOF! – instant noontime, with no transition.

However, personal feelings aside, when one is staying in the beautiful lakeside city of Pokhara, Nepal, one gets up at 6:30am to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Because, you know…you have to. It would be a crime to sleep in while the morning sun illuminates the world’s most spectacular peaks right outside your hotel window.

Plus – travel tip #37 – your best shot at seeing any peaks in the Himalayas is first thing in the morning, because the mountains create their own weather, and they’re frequently obscured by clouds by midday. That was the case today – before we even went downstairs to have breakfast, the peak of Machapuchare was invisible behind puffy white clouds.

But early this morning? Atmospheric perfection. Not a hint of a cloud anywhere in the sky as the sun crept over the horizon and turned those peaks into a dazzling palette of gold and pink. It was truly a sight worth waking up for, even for me, who wishes mornings didn’t even exist.

The peak of Machapuchare, elevation 22,942 feet (6993m)

It was a good thing we were up early, though, because we still had a lot to do to get ready for our trek. We sorted our belongings into a “take with us” pile and a “leave at the hotel” pile, cutting down to only the barest essentials for our 4-day journey.

(Hotel Orchid, incidentally, is a fantastic place to stay in Pokhara. Aside from wonderful staff, they have a killer location right in town, close to the lake and lots of restaurants, and also a magnificent view of the mountains from the balconies and rooftop. Added bonus: Their rooms comes equipped with A/C and HEAT!)

Anyway, we had to complete the paperwork and wait for our trekking permits to be processed, which didn’t actually happen until 11am. We also had to dash back to the gear rental store for crampons (metal spikes you attach to your shoes) when our guide Akash informed us that the highest sections of the trail would be snowy and icy!

Whose idea was it to go trekking in the dead of winter, anyway? Oh, right. It was mine.

Finalizing our trekking permits

When everything was finally in order, we jumped into a cab and began the trek before the trek – a 1.5-hour drive up out of Pokhara to the tiny town of Nayapul (elevation 3510 feet/1070m). We bid farewell to our cab driver, showed our shiny new trekking permits to the appropriate authorities, and off we went!

Today’s trek: Nayapul (very bottom) northwest to Ulleri
Setting off from Nayapul
Nayapul River
Presenting our trekking permits for approval
Crossing the bridge to Birethanti
Permission granted in Birethanti – the trek officially begins!

Like everything else on this trip, the scenery was nothing like I anticipated. We wound around the valley floor for a couple of hours, past lush green farmland, rice paddies, and a crystal-clear river. The trail was flanked by tall trees and nearly vertical hills that somehow had been terraced to perfection.

Along the way we passed through lots of little villages – Mathathanti, Lamdali, Sudame, Hile, and Tikhedhunga – getting a nice glimpse at the local rural lifestyle. The trek is nowhere near as isolated or desolate as we expected – we passed plenty of other hikers on their way up or down, porters carrying impossibly heavy loads of luggage, an occasional Jeep that definitely had 4-wheel drive, and lots of friendly locals offering us food, tea, or a room in their guesthouse.

Because of our late start, however, we didn’t have much time to lollygag. Akash (kindly but firmly) pushed us uphill for a solid 3 hours before we stopped in Tikhedhunga for a late lunch – fried rice, vegetable momos, and Nepali’s famous dal baht.

Egg and veggie fried rice
Dal baht – lentil stew with rice and curried vegetables
Steamed momos – tasty dumplings filled with vegetables

After lunch was when things REALLY got interesting, as we were trying to reach the town of Ulleri before nightfall. With the sun sinking in the sky and rainclouds rolling in, we began a journey up the infamous “Ulleri Steps” – 3,421 carefully laid stone steps STRAIGHT UP the mountainside.

Yes, some poor soul actually counted. And we poor souls had to CLIMB them.

And climb we did…straight up, past more terraces, over rickety suspension bridges, and more guesthouses and teahouses. Up and up and up we climbed – drenched in sweat, despite the chill in the air – until our lungs were burning and our legs were screaming for mercy. The Ulleri Steps are the equivalent of climbing a 342-story building, if you can imagine such a horrific thing.

It is, quite literally, the Staircase from Hell. It was so hellacious that I couldn’t be bothered to take a single photograph of it.

Just picture a staircase. In hell. And that’s the Ulleri Steps.

With the first drops of rain falling and the sky nearly black, we finally – FINALLY – dragged our panting, wheezing, gasping, pathetically out-of-shape selves into the village of Ulleri (elevation 6400 feet/1960m), which means we gained an impressive 3,000 feet (900m) in elevation in one afternoon.

The victory celebration would come later, though. The first thing we did when we arrived at our little $5/night teahouse was collapse.

The only one of us who wasn’t exhausted (I don’t even think he broke a sweat) was our 21-year old, half mountain-goat guide Akash, who we affectionately nicknamed “The Beast of Annapurna.” Seriously, he’s a beast. He became not only our guide but also our porter once we realized that carrying our own backpacks was going to be impossible.

Our very fit guide, Akash

(Travel tip #29: HIRE A PORTER if you go trekking in Nepal. Don’t attempt to carry your own stuff unless you’re the Incredible Hulk or you’re on a suicide mission. These guys do this trek every day and they’re in better shape than you’ll ever be. So fork over $15/day and hire a porter, help feed their families, and treat them like rockstars, because they deserve it – they’re making your life SO much easier!)

Awesome, hard-working porters

Oh, and in case you’re wondering where we found Akash, look no further than ABC Trek and Tour. These guys seriously took care of us and told us exactly what we needed to be prepared for our trek. If you go to Pokhara, use them…they’ll do everything for you except the actual walking (that part you gotta do yourself)!

I’d love to recount you with exciting tales of village nightlife in the Himalayas, but after a big pot of ginger tea, a few bowls of soup, and one deliciously hot shower, I am signing off. At the ripe ol’ hour of 8pm.

Because guess what I get to do tomorrow? You guessed it…keep on trekking!

Our humble (and cold) accommodation for the night
Extreme New Zealand: Conquering Fox Glacier

Extreme New Zealand: Conquering Fox Glacier

Picture the scene: You’re on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. You awaken to a rare sunny day on this coast, as it covered with lush temperate rainforest and receives over 50 feet of rain every year. You step outside your cabin and are greeted by the majestic snow-capped peaks of two of the country’s tallest mountains, Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. You inhale a deep breath of salty air because, despite the fact that two 10,000-foot peaks are right in front of you, the Pacific Ocean is directly behind you.

Today you are going to visit a river…and you are going to walk on it. You can do this because the river you’re walking on is in fact frozen. This river is known as Fox Glacier.

After working for two straight weeks without a day off, Jeremy and I were blessed with two days off in a row – and they were even the SAME two days! Since we’ve barely seen the world outside Rydges Hotel for fourteen days, we immediately planned our escape route. Our drive began up the long and winding Cardrona Pass between Queenstown and Wanaka, where we were surprised to find that all of the snow was gone for the summer. It’s still a beautiful spot, but somehow it looks a little barren without the white peaks!

From Wanaka, our route turned west and north and across one of only three roads that traverse the Southern Alps. We entered the mountains and instantly were transported to another world of lush green rainforest, soaring trees and ferns, massive waterfalls, and crystal clear water.

Beautiful trees of the temperate rainforest
Beautiful trees of the temperate rainforest

Unfortunately it wasn’t the clearest day – as there are rarely any days in this area without rain – but despite the clouds and misting rain, it was still a beautiful sight. We stopped at the “Blue Pools,” which is essentially an alpine lagoon with the most startlingly blue water you’ve ever seen.

Blue pools
Blue pools

A few more spectacular rivers and waterfalls later, we emerged at last at Haast Junction, the southernmost town on the west coast.

Gigantic rocks in the Haast River
Gigantic rocks in the Haast River

We fueled up, devoured some fish n’ chips, and continued on our way, stopping briefly at a coastal overlook. And here we discovered something terrible.

For those of you who have believed (like us) that nothing evil exists in New Zealand…I have news for you. Allow me to introduce you to a nasty, biting, stinging, blood-sucking beast called the sandfly. They attack you in swarms and relentlessly look for open flesh to feast on – like tiny flying piranha.

Only worse.

While we’d heard of the little buggers from other fellow travelers, we’d not yet experienced them until we opened our car door at the overlook and had HUNDREDS of them swarm into our car! It took nearly an hour of driving with all the windows open to get the last little devil out, but not before they’d stung the heck out of my poor bare feet (while I was driving, by the way – NOT fun).

The overlook where we were attacked by sandflies
The overlook where we were attacked by sandflies

Anyway, seven hours later we finally arrive at the tiny town of Fox Glacier and immediately turn off on the access road for a distant view of the frozen river we’d soon be hiking. It really doesn’t make any sense to hike through lush green rainforest and suddenly see an 8-mile long gigantic river of ice!

It takes a while for your brain to catch up and process what’s right in front of you. The only other place in the world with the rainforest/glacier combo is in Patagonia in southern Argentina.

First glimpse of Fox Glacier
First glimpse of Fox Glacier

Thrilled now at the prospect of our hike, we headed into “town” (that is SUCH a relative term in these parts), found a room at a holiday park, and hit up Cook Saddle Bar and Restaurant for some steak and barbecued spare ribs – yum!!!

We awoke in the morning to a rare sunny day, packed up, grabbed some snacks, and checked in for our half-day trek. They provide some serious hiking boots, jackets, alpensticks (wooden hiking stick with an ice spike at one tip), and crampons (spiky attachments for the bottom of your boots so you don’t slide on the ice).

Then we’re briefed on the fascinating history of the glacier. Centuries ago, it flowed all the way to the coast and an additional SIX miles out to sea! Today it remains a steady eight or so miles long and covers approximately the same area as the city of Phoenix, Arizona. At its deepest point, it would completely BURY the Eiffel Tower! It advances anywhere from 2-5 feet every day, constantly melting and grinding against itself as it flows down the valley.

Beware of falling white and black!
Beware of falling white and black!

Every morning, guides go out early and carve steps into the ice for tour groups – which only last for the day, by the way, since the ice is constantly shifting. We arrived at the car park and had a half-hour walk up to the towering face of the glacier, where an impressive river of melted ice churned out like a chocolate milkshake.

We approached the massive face of the glacier but didn’t go up it – far too steep and dangerous (people die every year trying to climb the unsteady face). Instead, we turned onto the mountainside and climbed 800 steps over the next half-hour, through thick forest, over waterfalls, and along a cliff face so steep and narrow we had to hold on to a chain mounted on the cliff face!

The coolest, cleanest water on Earth
The coolest, cleanest water on Earth

At last we arrived at our entry point of the glacier, secured our crampons to our boots – and we were off!

The pictures tell the story of our hour spent walking on this thing. It was truly breathtaking, and surprisingly easy to walk on. No slipping or sliding at all, thanks to your handy dandy crampons! Every few moments you hear a loud sound, something akin to someone’s knuckles cracking, which was in fact the glacier creaking and moaning and shifting on its way down the valley.

We crossed a few glowing blue crevasses, watching ice climbers from afar going straight up the vertical faces of the glacier while a cold katabatic wind whipped down from the mountaintop. On the valley floor and in the forest, it was easily in the 70’s or 80’s, but on that ice, you’ve got a near-freezing wind chill.

Jeremy and I were right up behind our Welsh dreadlocked guide Llewellyn, where the running joke got to be, “Follow the Floridians to certain death!” (As if we had ANY business being on a glacier, ha!) It was truly awesome.

The weather was pristine for our drive back across the Alps and into Queenstown, so we got to enjoy the view of some stunning peaks that had been obscured by clouds the day before. It’s back to work tomorrow, but hey, at least we had a fantastic getaway.

And we can now safely cross “glacier trekking” off our bucket list!