Spain roadtrip 2019

IMG_3120 (2)This post is for the adventurous, curious, information seeking, not first-time traveler, and anyone who loves rock climbing and wants to visit some of the highest quality limestone climbing in the world. It’s been awhile since I wrote a trip report and thought this one deserved an entry. I hope to share my experience and logistics to make your travels as enjoyable, if not better, then my own. I’ll cover things from the angle that you have some experience with international travels because I don’t want to go into those logistical details too much. Spain is a big tourist destination and there will be other sites that can help prepare you for a trip. Meanwhile, sit back, relax and enjoy a brief story of my recent adventure and comprehension of logistics to travel to the world’s hardest climbing destinations in Catalonia, Spain.

Backstory

IMG_3382For the longest time, I had been putting off visiting Catalonia for climbing because I had an ambitious goal that wasn’t intended to be met there. I wanted to climb an 8b+ in Europe and thought, while it would be impressive to do it in Spain, for me, I wanted to do it somewhere else, first. I made some poor choices towards meeting that goal, favoring other life situations and with my latest injury setback, I figured now is as good a time as any to visit. Afterall, I’m finally through the worst of healing from my hamstring injury of over a year and half ago. I’ve had other tweaks and mainly been frustrated at how my lower extremities have compensated and become inflamed. To correct and heal from this, I’ve had to take too much time off…like a year off, from climbing. I’m early into this getting back into fitness phase, and Spain seemed like the best option to reinvigorate my psyche and get some outdoor action.

From the time the inflammation of my legs and a hand injury set in, I was depressed. I’ve come to realize that athletes injured more than a few months, suffer an extreme depression and anxiety about their fitness, ability, and potential to come back and train while preventing further injury. From an outsiders perspective, it seems like the injured could just do “something else” to avoid the injured area and stay active. However trivial this sounds, it is anything but!

IMG_3373Active people tend to want to stay active, as is the case for me. I do try other things and make the best of my situation, but it doesn’t lessen the blow of not being able to pursue what I enjoy most. There is more lost than just time climbing or training for climbing. I also lose connections with my community, which is built around climbing. If I’m not climbing or training for climbing, and I’m doing other things, suddenly I have to meet people who do “other things”.

It’s not hard for me to meet people. I generally feel comfortable putting myself out there, especially when motivated by a goal. People are friendly enough and I make some genuine friendships that span many different areas. But, I always come back to climbing.

IMG_1173To help me stay connected to the climbing community during the absence of the sport, I coach. And, to help me prepare for medical costs and earn some money during this downtime, I also generally take on more demanding and potentially more stable work. I’m very fortunate to have skills in software to get jobs with Enterprise companies like Microsoft and I take full advantage of the benefits I reap from it, especially getting the care I need to rehab and heal properly.

Being set in one city, working a corporate job again, has the benefit that I can focus on training and rehab to prepare myself for attaining this goal of mine in the future. Sometimes, when I’m traveling and climbing a lot, I’m not taking the proper time to train or condition myself to prevent injury. The latter is very important to the longevity of participating in this sport. Coaching also has the benefit of keeping me fresh with training research and new ideas.

In Catalonia live some strong Spanish climbers, none more known for training than Patxi Usobiaga. I had been writing Patxi to sit and chat training, but as a new Pappa, he had no time to respond. I also met Oli Grounsell from Lattice Training but was too busy climbing to engage in training chatter. Both are still on my radar to approach and discuss, while the experience of climbing here has sparked some new ideas of my own to bring back and test out.

IMG_E3114These times when I am not driven by a specific project or goal, are the times when I am happy to go wherever my friends are psyched to go and have no objective except to have fun and try hard (whatever that is for me at the moment). We explored the canyon of Tres Ponts, the cliffs of Terradets, the cave of Santa Linya, and the infamous wall of Oliana. Before I tell you more of that, let’s reflect on how the logistics of the trip came together and help you, the reader, understand some options you may have when planning your own travels to this region.

The Plan

IMG_3375It started with my desire to climb somewhere in China after an up and coming business trip there. Simultaneously, a friend of mine living in Munich wanted to travel somewhere for a 2 week climbing Holiday during this same time period. I’m not familiar with the regions in China and was looking for someone to connect with who knew something and wanted to join me or someone adventurous who would explore this with me. I didn’t find anyone psyched to adventure with me in China so when my friend suggested Spain, to join some mutual friends, despite the timing being earlier than desired, it seemed like a good alternative.

IMG_3366Since we knew the dates of our friends, I looked over my calendar and with a quick scan of flights, found an amazing deal from the States and booked it without hesitation. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go over with work since I hadn’t really given them much notice. Everything came together so quickly that I figured, I’d better just run with it and see what happens.

Air

IMG_3318Barcelona is the main hub if you want to check out the climbing from the south areas like Siruana to the northern areas of Lleida and Oliana. My friend found a cheap flight on Vueling direct from Munich and it’s always possible to find a cheap flight to London then transfer to a budget air like Vueling or RyanAir. Just be mindful of the budget air baggage allowances when doing that kind of trip. I’ve travelled this way before and because the 2nd flight is a domestic flight (as a separate flight, not a connection to your first), your bags will not be checked through to Barcelona and weight restrictions could be different with additional fees for checked bags. I recommend this option only for seasoned travelers. If you are not one of those, the best is to find the fare that takes you all the way to Barcelona and make things simple for yourself. The cost savings may not be worth it, anyway.

One of the airlines I was recommended to investigate was Aer Lingus. After browsing the usual sites for a range of fares for different dates, I found Aer Lingus offering a $450 r/t fare with dates that I could make work. The flight itself looked horrendous because of the 4/4.5 hour layover in Dublin, but the price was so good that I figured I could suck up the inconvenience.

The flight is a direct flight from Seattle to Dublin, then the layover and connection non-stop to Barcelona. My carryon was just a change of clothes (extra underwear), some essentials (soap, deodorant, etc) and plane amenities like plane socks, snacks, laptop, earbuds, etc. The checked baggage had all the climbing gear and extra clothes I would need. I still pack too much and could have gotten away with less

  • 1 climbing pant
  • 1 climbing legging
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 1 tank top
  • 2 sport bra
  • 2 long sleeve options
  • 1 set thermals (baselayer)
  • 1 leisure pant (for plane and rest days)
  • 1 leisure top, long sleeve
  • 1 fleece vest
  • 1 short sleeve tee
  • 1 set pjs
  • 1 fleece top
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair gloves
  • 1 puffy jacket
  • 3 or 4 underwear
  • 1 pair shoes
  • 3 pair socks (1 thicker pair, 2 thinner)

The important thing here is to know that you can wash your clothes if you need to so they can be re-worn as much as possible. I’m sure even some of my leaner packing friends would cut down this list even more. 😊

In your climbing gear, don’t forget things like

  • Climbing tape
  • Belay glasses
  • Belay device
  • Climbing shoes (maybe 2 pairs depending on the type of rock and need)
  • Climbing salve (if you use any)
  • Theraband (for warming up)
  • And of course rope and draws depending on arrangements you have made

I did not test taking any climbing gear in my carry on but have heard from friends that a rope in the carry on has been ok. I do know that if you travel with a gri gri, expect to be stopped and the gear inspected. Personally, for an overseas flight, I’d just put all of that in the checked bag. However, you might want to put a pair of climbing shoes in your carryon in case of bag delays or lost luggage.

Airport logistics

Barcelona is a big airport with 2 terminals. Aer Lingus will bring you into terminal 2B, which is nowhere near terminal 1. I arrived in the dark and upon exiting the airport was surprised to find myself in a bit of an isolated area. The taxis where traveling up the road, but I didn’t catch sight of any buses, hotel shuttles, or signs indicating where to find them. I did see signs to public transport and with the help of my phone found options to take to my hotel. In lieu of public transport given the hour and the time it would take me to arrive, I ended up taking a taxi even though the hotel was 3 Km from the airport. I did not try to call for the hotel airport shuttle because I didn’t want to walk the airport with my luggage to find my way. This was my decision after walking some distance of terminal 2B trying to sort myself. It was clear this was a satellite terminal with not many amenities. I was supposed to find the rental car place this night but opted to find it the next day when I went back to the airport to greet my friend arriving from Munich. More on the rental car, later.

By taking the hotel shuttle to the airport to meet my friend, I learned where the shuttle drops off departing passengers. I thought this must be where they pick up as well and made a note for when I would drop off my friend at the airport and need the shuttle back to the hotel.

When the time came and I called for the airport shuttle, this is how I learned some things about how to navigate the airport. The Hotel told me to go to parking G, where I would find the shuttle at a certain time.

Transportation

Hotel Shuttle pickup

Of note, there are a lot of signs directing people to various things and yet, they are not as intuitive as they may seem. Also, I was fortunate that my friend was leaving from Terminal 1 and the rental car agency was there for the return because I am not sure I would have achieved everything starting from Terminal 2B. For instance, this parking G. There are signs for parking noted by the big letter P and arrows to guide the way. Follow this and you will not find parking G. You will find A – F, but not G.

After walking the parking past F, I was humored that I almost walked to parking G by circumnavigating nearly the entire parking area. However, I cut through the parking garage just before I would have arrived at G and went back into Terminal 1, departure area to try again. This time, I found the sign that said explicitly “Parking G” and followed those signs. It took me out of terminal 1 and across the way where I found myself probably 400 meters further from where I had turned around earlier. There is no sign on the lower level where the shuttles park, but as I approached from the walkway above, it had to be where I was supposed to meet my driver so I went there.

This exploration took nearly the entire 45 minutes I was quoted to wait for the shuttle and I nearly gave up and took a taxi again. Feeling accomplished at finding the right spot, I waited the last few moments and my driver arrived to fetch me. Ironically, the driver then proceeded to Terminal 1 to wait for a few moments and drop off a passenger before proceeding onwards to the hotel. Why I couldn’t have just waited for a pick-up there, is unclear. And, it’s not just my hotel shuttle that does this. All hotel shuttles follow this procedure.

Taxi

Since I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel the night I arrived, I will say one thing about them. There is no negotiating the price and there is a minimum of 20 euro. So, for my 12 Euro, 10 minute drive to the airport 3 km away, it cost me 20 euro because of the minimum fee.

You don’t really need a taxi unless you are going somewhere transport doesn’t go or you just like the convenience. My hotel had an 8 to 10 minute walk after taking a train and a bus that I didn’t want to do in the dark for a total commute of 41 minutes, just to save 20 euro.

A1 Bus

This is a popular bus leaving the airport headed directly to Barcelona city center. It’s affordable and easy to find on the lower level below arrivals and runs every 20 minutes or so. There is a kiosk at the bus loading area where you can buy a ticket for travel, if you haven’t book anything at any of the upper level kiosks or online.

Train

I did not take any trains but with my experience of train travel believe it to be another good public transport alternative.

Rental Car

I’m not certain there is a rental car agency in terminal 2B because I didn’t see one straight away. However, there is one in Terminal 1 and that’s where I found the Hertz counter to rent my vehicle. The counter staff are very friendly and multi-lingual, but it helps to understand a few words of Spanish to make the transaction smoother. I booked my car online using my AAA discount and bought the extra insurance to cover any damages. Additionally, we added my friend as another driver. All of this pushed the cost of the rental up. The additional driver alone was 120 euro. If you have the time to plan your trip, spend a bit extra looking at good deals for cars with additional drivers and insurance so you can see if you can save any money. For me, the additional insurance cost 90 US dollars, which was a pretty good deal compared to 15 euro a day extra.

These rental companies can be very particular about scratches and things on the car so take your time going through it and note all imperfections or risk being charged for them later. Also, best to return the car full to avoid any fuel charges.

Probably the biggest challenge we had with the car was getting out of the parking garage. The exits are a bit hidden and once we figured out what we were looking for, we managed both the exit and the return. Helps that you have a passenger with you to pay attention while you drive.

All of the roads we drove on were fine for the rental car. Nothing needed better clearance or traction and most of the approaches were paved.

IMG_3386

That’s me the acrobat is jumping over!

Housing

Hotel – Barcelona

Because my friend and I were arriving and leaving at different times on different days because her trip was intra-European and mine was transatlantic, I looked for a room near the airport for one night each side of the trip. Again, using my usual discount searches, I opted for the Best Western Alfa Aeropuerto Hotel. I’ve used BW a lot over the years particularly for my international travels and have not been disappointed. In this case, the price was pretty good compared to my options and knowing BW properties, I knew it would be clean and the location was perfect.

This hotel is 3 km outside of the airport and not in the city center. It has a running path just outside, with access to the water (from the path). There is a bus stop just outside the hotel that will take you to the city center where you can catch the underground or transfer buses. If motivated, you can take public transport to the hotel from the airport, but there is the free hotel shuttle for that, too.

Another bonus because it’s so close to the airport is the running list of departures on a screen in the lobby with the terminal that the flight is departing from. This is super helpful because the shuttle will only drop you at Terminal 1 and you might get confused why you can’t find your check-in point there if you aren’t departing from that terminal. The staff are multilingual and very helpful. Everyone was professional and service oriented.

Breakfast was not included, but it is a hot and cold buffet of meats, cheese, eggs, and other dishes, including cereals, breads and pastries. Fresh squeezed juice, coffee and tea are also available. At the time of this writing, it cost around 10 euro to have. Tip, there’s enough food there for breakfast and to make a sandwich to take with you for lunch. For me, that made it worth it.

The hotel offers lunch and dinner and a bar for relaxing if you want that. There’s a fitness center, pool and sauna among other amenities. Each night I was there I was happy to have the space to sort myself before and after my flights. The room even came in handy to store things for the day while my friend and I went walking in the city center before her flight later.

If it fits your budget and desire not to be in the city center, then check this hotel out. It is possible to drive all the way to the climbing destination that night but after flying transatlantic (Seattle -> Dublin -> Barcelona), I enjoyed the chance to decompress and start fresh the next day.

Where to stay near climbing

There are many places to stay in the towns near the climbing areas. Europeans and people from the UK will often drive their vans over and stay in random van friendly locations, mostly non-descript locales that you will discover only from visiting. I cannot comment on the legality or length that they stay because I was fortunate to have housing sorted by my friend. We chose to stay in a house that rents out rooms to climbers. Airbnb is popular these days and easy to find that kind of housing for yourself. You simply need to pick the cliff or cliffs you wish to visit most and center yourself near there. For us Ponts worked great. It was easy to get to all of the areas we wanted and was a central point to head back to Barcelona.

Food

Groceries

For food options, you have many around Barcelona and fewer the closer you get to the climbing cities. We stayed in Ponts and there were a few mini-markets and one larger market that had everything we really needed or wanted. Still, without knowing this ahead of time, we stopped at a BonArea in a village along the way and bought waaaaay too much food for the time we were there. Everything looked so yummy and necessary when we were trying hard not to over spend. Tip, there is food in Ponts and nearby towns so there is no need to stock full at the start, which will save you extra headache of too much food left at the end. 😊

Eating out/Food markets

Do it. The food is amazing!

Here is a sample of things we saw in patisseries and food markets.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Money exchange

Most places still take cash and all of them take a credit card. I did take some cash from the airport ATM and in the end had too much left over. If you buy the initial groceries with a card, you really won’t need much cash to spend in town…unless you like pastries and trinkets to buy in the local markets or festivals. Do check with where you stay what form of payment they will take, if it is not paid ahead of time because in that case, you might need some cash.

Language

It’s possible to speak English and be understood and get around. Most people do understand, though it is easiest if you learn a few simple phrases or you could find the few people who don’t speak English very frustrating to communicate with. In Catalonia, they speak both Catalan and Spanish so there is no need to learn Catalan for the trip. Even my broken and poor Spanish got me by in every situation while I was in Spain.

Time of year to travel

Sites like 27crags have a good time of year approximation for when cliffs are climbable. The season can be quite long or short depending on how the weather is doing that year. This year, the weather was unseasonably warm and dry in late February.

Cliff Conditions

Tres Ponts

IMG_E3160Tres Ponts is in a canyon and can get windy and cold. The sun is on the wall early morning at this time of year and drifts past by mid to late morning and is in entire shade by afternoon. The hike is about 5 minutes and crosses the highway so take caution. Otherwise, it’s pretty flat. The ground beneath the walls narrows the further in you get and there are handrails at the thinnest parts. However, if bringing a family of small children or dogs, it would be wise to keep an eye on them or leash them so they don’t accidentally bound off the cliffside to the riverbed below.

Terradets

IMG_3170 (2)

Terradets is an elevated cliff wall approached via a rung ladder that feels a bit precarious when carrying a pack full of gear. Take caution if hauling up children or dogs. The hike meanders up about 10 to 15 minutes and is a gradual incline. The wall is southwest facing and sees full sun most of the day. Shade appears when the sun goes behind the mountains across the way sometime in the late afternoon (maybe starting around 4?). There are trees at the base of the cliff by the left side that keep the belayer protected. The middle is completely open and slopes downward. It is possible to have kids and dogs up there but keep an eye on them or they might slide off the mountain.

Santa Linya

IMG_3189

Santa Linya, Futbolin is a sector with a very short hike up to the cliff. The wall has a good base with lots of trees and faces southeast, so morning sun and afternoon shade. Good kid and dog friendly location, mind the ants because they are big and they bite.

Santa Linya, Cave is another sector just down the road from Futbolin. Here, the approach is flat, about 10 minutes walk from the parking. There is a swamp feel to the area so it’s a bit buggy and can feel humid on the wall at times. The sun traverses the wall so the left side comes into the sun by early afternoon and as the cave cools down the humidity seems to increase making holds feel a bit slimy as the day continued. The whole area is very flat and kid and dog friendly.

Oliana

IMG_3255

Oliana is an elevated cliff with a dirt road approach that can be avoided by parking on the street before the hotel and walking. The hike will be a bit long (20 to 30 minutes?) and of moderate difficulty. Mind the approach off the road and up to the cliff because it can be slick with lots of loose pebbles along the path. There are sections of the wall that are suitable for kids and dogs. Be mindful that they don’t wander off because it can be easy to fall off the cliff at the edges. This wall is purely south facing and doesn’t get shade until mid to late afternoon. The slab climbs can be nice to belay in the shade but the main wall will have you roasting if you go too early.

 

 

Posted in Climbing, Food, Fun, Road Trip, Travel, Writings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A new place to climb in the Red River Gorge, KY

 

Back in 2010 I ventured outside of the climbing community and into the local community of Lee County, Ky — the heart of the Red River Gorge for rock climbing. I was drawn with curiosity to discovering how I could bring my network and skills and contribute something in a place where I witnessed poverty and a lack of means that I took for granted elsewhere.  It started with fitness and nutrition consultations at the local recreational facility that had a stellar fitness and conditioning area, complete with treadmills, weight benches, and cable machines. While exploring that avenue, I ventured out to investigate what computer access was like. Climbing, fitness, nutrition, and computers are my primary skills so it made sense that after making headway with these skills that I would explore how to integrate climbing.

LCHS Senator McConnell

LCHS TEALS CS students get a photo opportunity with Senator Mitch McConnell during his visit to the school to learn more about TEALS in the region.

The Red River Gorge has the most amazing, steep sandstone in the world. People from all over the globe travel to climb here, spending months in the region, often rarely going into the neighboring towns for amenities. The reason for this is simple, the town is economically challenged and the offerings for these often urban acclimated visitors isn’t enough. Urban-ites want their Wholefood, organic, all natural, healthy, and gourmet options. It’s that simple. A town that has lost it’s major industries such as coal and tobacco is not one focused on opening new shops or equipping existing markets with specialty options. In recent years, they are bringing in more options for this clientele, but it is slow and marginal. Perhaps, if people stayed or visited the local communities, more offerings would appear.

audrey2.jpg

Photo by Mike Doyle

Last year’s economic impact study showed that climbers supported selective markets that were locally owned, think Miguel’s Pizza and Rockhouse. However, when you look at the numbers closer, you see that climbers who stay for a short period of time tend to spend more money (housing, food, fuel), than climbers who stay for longer. This might seem counter intuitive, but consider that there aren’t many things locally to attract a long term visitor. They tend to want to conserve money and reduce the number of trips into Lexington, Richmond, Winchester, or Stanton to get “real” supplies. This means, despite the number of people visiting the region, money is still leaving the area.

Now that we have a climbing facility built at the primary junction of climbers coming from the 498, heading to Lago Lindas or back to Miguels, they can stop in and get a training session whenever the Rec Center is open. Conveniently, the Rec Center also serves food, and while it’s not Miguel’s pizza, it’s still good pizza. And, they are willing to stock items that climbers are interested in once they know what the uptake looks like.

IMG_0315.JPG

Volunteers working long hours to finish the facility with quality and setting routes for the community grand opening. Photo by Joshua Sniezek

Now, with the attraction of a climbing facility for those bad weather days, the injured but committed days, the residential variation to training days, or the casual power rebuild day, we can start to serve healthier offerings. And, this isn’t just good for climbers, it’s good for the community.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted this facility was not simply to help attract climbers to stay locally and create more options catered towards climbers but to create healthier options for the locals, simply by proximity. Further, climbing is talked about in the community a lot, yet people are distanced from it. This facility brings climbing to the community and makes it accessible to everyone.

IMG_0377

Grand Opening saw climbers and Locals checking out the gym.

My vision is that over time, we’ll see a cross pollination of climbers and community members where together we will give back to the community through local events. This 90+% white town will have natural access to diverse backgrounds through interaction at the facility with people who travel from all over the world and will come session there. And, it’s not just diversity of race and culture that will be available to them, it will also be careers.

The economic impact study showed that climbers tend to be highly educated with most of them having college degrees (or working on one). This means, that kids will be exposed to different disciplines they might not otherwise be exposed to within their community. NPR did a study that showed why kids choose physics when others don’t (boys and girls). It comes down to role models. Is there someone in physics in their community? Transitively, if a kid can see someone doing something and it sparks an interest in them, it’s a win! A town in an economic depression is losing opportunities for their kids as more and more people leave the community, and yet, this is one place where they can regain some of that loss.

IMG_0374

Grand opening community clinics.

Similarly, while the community will benefit by climbers interacting more, climbers will also reap benefits. First, the stereotypes of what it’s like to be a kid or local in the community will be broken. It’s hard to hold onto stereotypes when you get to know someone. Climbers are genuinely good people (for the most part) and many of them have big hearts and want to help. Building a better rapport will help encourage them to participate in the community, which can help strengthen the community and forge better relations between climbers and locals. Finally, climbers spending money locally will help curb the economic depression the town is facing and over time possibly see new business opportunities appear.

metolius gear

Metolius Climbing sent us a box of goodies!

I have high hopes for this establishment, even though its modest in nature. It’s a start and it has a strong backing with solid potential. It was built by the community of climbers, climbing companies, friends, relatives, and Mission members, but it operates out of the hearts of volunteers. This is a non-profit establishment, built for the community. We have seen a strong uptake and are continuing to refine the operation and get the facility operating like fine tuned wheel. Right now, we are limping and looking for corporate sponsors, other fundraising opportunities, and financial support to hire a gym manager that can help us make this what we know it can become.

holds

Sifting through a ton of donated holds thanks to Metolius Climbing and Touchstone Climbing & Fitness.

Finally, this establishment has a spiritual backing. The Rec Center and the Climbing Addition operate under the Kentucky Mountain Mission and we are very fortunate that it does. The Director is a mentor to me and operates with utmost integrity. He lifts people out of poverty by caring for the community and providing them spiritual guidance, recreational options, food and clothing opportunities, and serving as the Chairman of the School Board to help children get the best education they can.

He supported the effort to bring Computer Science as a curriculum to his school and now the entire education system throughout Kentucky State wants the same thing. Kids that graduated out of the pilot program are now working as Computer Scientists in prestigious companies. Working with this man for the last 6 almost 7 years and all that we have accomplished and done for the community has built a significant trust between us. It is for this reason, I am honored to have worked with him to bring climbing into his facility.

girl stretching on wall

A local girl climbs during one of the community nights. Volunteers staff specific hours to make the gym available to the general public.

I’m overwhelmed at the support we have received to make this happen. After the grand opening weekend a few weeks ago, I sat in the room by myself and marveled that we did it. I brought together an amazing team and worked hard to get the funds needed to create a facility I am proud of. My heart is still bursting from the accomplishment.

Today, we are seeing a steady stream of people and more importantly, community nights are a hit, especially with the girls. Have a look at this short video and enjoy the journey. We still need money for operations so if this inspired you, please take a minute to make a donation.

Posted in Climbing, Fun, Road Trip, Travel, Writings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peru

Video summary of the trip

Image by Jacom Stephens Photography | based out of Salt Lake City, Utah | 801.979.1734 | http://www.jacomstephens.com

Spring leading up to this trip encouraged a profound sense of freedom along the Inca Trail and the children at the Aldea and the participants of this Radiating Hope trip warmed my heart in a way that was hard to say good-bye. In this blog post I will share a bit about my journey and give you tips for your own journey, should you decide to visit. I’ll include a gear list and some tips for training for the Inca Trail and time in Cusco.

Prelude

Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for some time, though as a climber it never became a priority. To organize and take on climbing in addition to the sights I wanted to see, would have been a big ordeal. I didn’t have the bandwidth to tackle all of that so I was grateful when I came across Radiating Hope and their promotion to do the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu as part of a team to help raise money for cancer care in underdeveloped countries.

Spearheaded by Brandon Fischer, an oncologist and a climber, Brandon incorporates climbing as his means for fundraising. A few years ago, I went with a small group to Kilimanjaro, which was my first Radiating Hope experience, and loved it. Like Kilimanjaro, everything was planned for me, with time built in for self-exploration. This made traveling to a foreign country exciting and logistically simple. Just show up.

The organization brings together a team of people to support you on the adventure. It’s a relaxing way to enjoy something magical. You have instructions on how to prepare for the trip both physically and medically. Things to know about where you are traveling, what to pack, and the itinerary. I was very thankful for all of this because I know if takes a lot of time and research to pull together for one’s self.

Inca trail start

Fortunate to have a friend take on this adventure with me. Marjo and I just before the hiking begins.

I wanted to take my niece on this trip with me because I knew it would be adventurous, yet, comfortable. Porters would carry the bulk of our things leaving us to carry a day pack. Tents and food would be waiting for us at each stop and guides would lead us with points of interest and concern for the group’s welfare, never abandoning anyone and tending to any altitude or other sickness. Experiencing that kind of care for me is a luxury and freed me up to enjoy the sights and trek to its fullest.

My niece was unable to join me, and I didn’t want to go alone so I was fortunate to find someone who had the same ambition and together we signed up for this trip, almost 10 months in advance. Just before committing, I hurt my leg climbing. At first, I thought it would heal after a few weeks or a month, then I realized, it wasn’t healing quickly and in fact, the inflammation was getting worse. I pulled back from climbing and by spring, stopped hiking as well. I wasn’t sure how to train for this adventure given my situation.

To complicate training further, I got a job to help pay for medical treatment. It had been 6 months of injury and I thought it was time to do more investigation into what was wrong. The job was supposed to be part time, but turned into full-time, travel and overtime. While it was good pay, I had taken some smaller jobs before landing this one and had to close out that work at the same time. This meant, I was working 6 jobs at once for nearly 3 months and doing no climbing or training.

Working was great, since I had been struggling for income the last few months of the year prior. The new year looked promising that way and I took full advantage. I lined up Physio and Dr. appointments to get imaging and a prognosis. I was doing very little regular physical activity and working a ton instead. Each time my Dr. would try a new treatment on me, I was told to try to be sedentary. What they said was to go about my daily activities and avoid biking, hiking, running, climbing, etc. To which I had to reply: “those are my normal activities!”

IMG_6782

Short runs testing out my leg

Those 3 months of overload went by and all the while I worried about this Peru trip. Would I be able to hike the Inca trail? Would I have problems with the altitude because I hadn’t been training? As work slowly closed out and I was able to concentrate on fewer tasks, I had more time to focus on rehab and trip preparation, oh, and finding a new job…to reduce everything to one job.

I started to feel caged in, handcuffed, unable to actively expend the energy I had bubbling up inside of me. I was moving from one Airbnb to another, sometimes house sitting, which kept me feeling unsettled as well. A guy I’d been hanging out with and cared very much for, and I started having serious friction and estranged from my climbing and social communities, the spring became a dark and heavy period for me.

IMG_6998

Rehab

Peru was slated for June. I had already committed my spot and I really wanted to still go, but I started having doubts that I was ready and entertained bailing. I couldn’t sell my spot because all the permits for the trail etc. had already been secured under my Passport. It was already coming up on May and I was barely treading water in my life when I got a job offer to return to work at Microsoft. In fact, at this time, I’d notified the company I was working for and they wanted to keep me, so I had 2 fulltime offers to consider! I’d been working on the Microsoft potential opportunity since December and was excited to finally have the option to consolidate my life and focus on one, solid income generator AND have good medical benefits to finally take care of my injury properly.

All the injections and rehab I’d been doing leading up to June, had not helped me get the inflammation under control. I tried PRP, cortisone, and sub cutaneous nerve injections. Each one needed time to have effect, except the nerve injections. Immediately after those, the inflammation was dramatically decreased and the pain site more isolated. I could now walk, get out of my car, and *gasp* hike! Without severe backlash. This was amazing, and Peru was only a week away!

I didn’t have time to focus on training because now that I was returning to Microsoft, I had to find an apartment and prepare myself to be ready to work when I got back from Peru. I was doing it, regardless of my fitness, and now that the inflammation in my leg was dramatically reduced, I was like an athlete poised at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off. I was ready to go!

Logistics

As with any underdeveloped country, or developing country, there is some concern for disease and sickness. In this case, for the Inca trail, there was no need for malaria pills, but some antibiotics and altitude sickness medication is a must. I always pack my vitamins and electrolytes as well.

DXUK3376Packing for the trip was a challenge because you don’t want to be hauling heavy bags between hotels or other locations. My best advice is layers. Cusco is the city you will stay in to acclimate and tour prior to heading out on the Inca Trail. The city lies above 10,000 feet. You will experience altitude here. What that experience is for you will depend on a lot of variables. Typically, 10,000 feet is not a problem for me, yet this time, I had the most intense altitude sickness ever. I felt my head was going to explode and broke down to take one of my altitude sickness pills to help ease the pressure. After that first night, I never had any issues again. Others, however, had varying illnesses with altitude and diarrhea throughout the trip.

At this elevation, the sun is hot. You might think the air temperature is cold and not put on sunblock, but that would be a mistake if you plan to be outdoors for an extended period. A hat, sunglasses and sunblock are necessary for prolonged outdoor exposure on sunny days. Cusco weather remains about the same all year long, with cooler nights, and crisp but warmer days with an occasional downpour or rain. Heading up into the Andes has a similar clothing requirement. However, because you will be walking for hours, there is the chance to get too hot and when stopped for lunch, site seeing, or for the night, you might get too cold. Sleeping in tents, it’s a must to bring your own sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Make sure you bring something warm enough for the coolest temps. Remember it is always easier to disrobe than to make more layers appear out of nothing.

IMG_1373

Layers

It is possible to get rain along the hike and while that might seem unpleasant, having a poncho or Gore-Tex jacket will save you and make the experience tolerable and maybe even enjoyable. If you have forgotten a jacket, there are stores in Peru (Patagonia, North Face) where you can buy one and lots of local markets sell ponchos for cheap.

Electrolytes are important for hydration. I prefer Elete electrolytes, easy to travel with and simply pure electrolytes, no sugar or other ingredients. It’s concentrated, which makes it easy to adjust the amount I want whether it’s in my water or added to my food. I brought a water bladder for the Inca Trail. When I arrived in Cusco, I bought bottled water and filled the bladder adding my electrolytes to it. Because the electrolytes are concentrated, I didn’t need to bring a lot, which meant they didn’t take up much room.  I was very thankful to have this for the summit push and shared with others along the way.

Travel tip

Be mindful of what you have packed in your suitcase. One of our participants had things stolen from hers. It’s a good idea to keep essentials and a spare pair of underwear, socks, maybe clothes if you have the space, in your carry-on. Naturally, never leave important documents in your checked baggage. Always carry your passport, IDs, credit cards, medications, etc. with you.

Cusco

IMG_1383

Locals

This city is amazing and alive. There was a festival taking place every day I was there, which was amazing to watch. Each one was uniquely different with vibrant colors, dresses, dances, and music. There are a lot of markets to explore and many of them sell the same kinds of things. This makes it nice to bargain hunt and to find that perfect color combination, while supporting the local community. Our tours prior to the Inca hike took us to different places with markets outside of Cusco and I recommend you do your shopping there. I didn’t because I didn’t want to leave my things in the suitcase as I was doing the trail. However, others did, and no one lost anything during hotel transitions.

Things to do and how to acclimate

IMG_7156Blanco Cristo is a beautiful scaled down version of the one in Brazil. It’s a great hike to take early on before the Inca Trail to get yourself used to moving in thinner air. Take the stairs up first thing in the morning and observe the club dwellers ending their night and take in sunrise over the valley foothills. Walk back to town following the morning commute of locals. This site doesn’t cost anything to see and you’ll want to remember to gaze upward at night from the city to view the statue lit up.

If you have a few days in Cusco before you head out for Machu Picchu or after your trip, I recommend buying one of the tourist booklets for additional sites in the area. There is a lot to see and everything is reasonably priced. You can always take a cab up, but if you follow an organized group, such as Radiating Hope or Explore Peru, they will often include these in your tour price and arrange all the necessary transportation.

Peruvian Food and drink

IMG_7110For some amazing Peruvian food, add the restaurant Morena to your list. The smoothies, preparation, service, and quality of food is worth the stop.

A must try when visiting Peru is the Pisco Sour.

Inca Trail

The biggest challenges to doing the Inca Trail are hiking at altitude, summiting over 13,000 feet, the number of stairs to descend, and hydration.

IMG_0113

Radiating Hope team

To be effective hiking at altitude, I recommend training hikes at altitude whenever you can. It would be best to hike with a pack and weight you anticipate taking along the trail with you. If you don’t have altitude, it’s possible to train your anaerobic system in preparation for the lack of oxygen you will feel while up there. Finally, regardless of your acclimatization training, hiking with a weighted pack for several hours and training your downhill muscles, will help.

In our group, we had people who had trained at altitude get sick on the hike and not enjoy the hike as much. They were often slower and in general sluggish. Then, there were those who hadn’t trained and were carrying full packs with no porters to offset the load and were doing completely fine the entire way. It was very individual, and I’m told fitness does not necessarily preclude your susceptibility to altitude sickness. It can help but you never know how it will affect you until you are there.

Avoid lots of alcohol or other substances that could leave you dehydrated and compromise your ability to function at high elevations.

IMG_7585The Inca Trail itself is a well-defined and well-traveled section of the Andes and because of that, it’s easy to put your head down and just go. If you are traveling in a group, expect the times between distances to be longer because the group will have varying speeds throughout. This may require patience if you find yourself at the front or back of the pack.

I didn’t have issues with altitude and after realizing my legs were doing fine with the hiking and weight, I simply had to bust ahead of the group when I could. I felt like handcuffs had been removed and I was free to explore, and roam and it was paramount that I find my own pace and just go. I am very glad that the guides and a few others, found that in themselves and together we kept a healthy distance ahead.  This helped me enjoy the trek immensely as the freedom factor increased such that by the time we got to Machu Picchu, I was not ready to leave the trail.

Some tips about this hike:

Make sure you have broken in your boots ahead of time. I wore hiking boots and did not regret it. You could do it in tennis shoes, but I wouldn’t advise it. If it rains, the path gets wet and the steps can be steep in places and uneven and can become slick. Some people slipped during our hike.

IMG_7352

Under the poncho, Andy carries an easy to access front pouch.

Make sure you have food, lip balm, tissue, camera, etc. pouch accessible at the waist from your backpack so you don’t have to take off your pack to dig these things out each time you need or want them.

Make sure you have your permits and passport with you when you head off on the trail. They will be checked at official checkpoints and they will turn you away if something doesn’t match: for instance, the names between the two.

Fill your water bladder with good drinking water and make sure you have your electrolytes either in the water or with you for along the way. Do not drink the local water. It will give you the runs and that’s the last thing you want when on the trail.

Eat at reputable restaurants, avoid street food. Be courageous after the hike.

Train your downhill muscles. There are hours’ worth of stairs to descend and it gets tough after a while.

Bring hiking poles, they can help take weight off and stabilize yourself under poor conditions.

Be prepared for rain or sun. Layers! And, don’t forget the sunblock.

Bring money for the porters, cooks, and staff who set up your tents and make sure you have an enjoyable, dry, experience to recuperate between hikes. If you want, you can donate school supplies, hiking shoes, socks, jackets, etc. These supplies and tips are usually distributed to the workers before the last hike to Machu Picchu so be prepared to hike with everything until then.

Packing suggestions:

Inca Trail

Our guide preparing us for the trail.

Prepare for Rain or Shine, warm and cold weather.

When hiking, you will be warm, but at altitude, if it’s overcast and rainy, it could be cool and crisp. If it’s clear and the sun is out, you will be very warm, even hot! In the evenings, temperatures can drop so layers will help. Don’t underestimate the sun at that elevation!

Since you will be hiking with a Day pack or full pack, it’s essential that you pare down to essentials. You won’t be showering for several days so you won’t need much in the way of clean clothes or shampoos. Dry Shampoo works well if you are desperate. Also, a washcloth and a touch of travel soap will take you a long way. All you need is some water to freshen up. I carried a Fozzil bowl with me, which is compact and ultra-portable as a tent wash basin. You can also carry two of them and use one for food, if you choose to carry food on the trail with you, such as oats.

IMG_7320Our guide service had amazing breakfasts, lunch, and dinners so I never needed to use any of the extra food I brought (as a just in case). Extra food can be cumbersome and add to the weight so think carefully before packing any.

Waterproof, breathable shoes. I wore these on the hike. If you can bring a pair of extra shoes for Machu Picchu, or after the hike and for the trip back to the hotel, you might enjoy that…also, could help if for some reason you get sore feet on the Inca Trail, or just for unwinding in camp (for camp consider these).

For a sleeping bag, I used this one.  Light, packs small, and warm.

Enjoying some sun

How quickly the weather can change! Pack layers.

You’ll want a couple of shirts, pick a short sleeve and a long sleeve that is moisture-wicking. I like to wear a fleece vest to add a touch of warmth, like this one. Easy to pack and a good layering item that won’t bulk up under a rain jacket, for example.

Take a rain jacket or invest in a simple poncho when in Cusco. I really appreciated this Gore-tex jacket. It’s both capable of keeping me warm, dry, and has lots of ways to open it up to add more breathability when needed. That coupled with a pack cover, kept me and my stuff dry.

Pants should be lightweight, breathable, and water proof. Invest in ones that can become shorts if you want versatility, too. I opted for two separate pairs of pants with the primary pair being a softshell, like this one. Aim for ones with zippers for breathability and an underlayer for warmth.

Merino wool socks are a must! Just do it. I wear DarnTough socks. They have a great assortment and if you want added warmth, go for these. For a simple hiking socks, try these.

Spare underwear, sports bras, gloves, hat are also pleasantries that can make the trek feel comfortable.

IMG_7430Hiking poles are nice to help take some pressure off the knees both up and down the trail. My advice, take them just in case. Also, remember to buy rubber tips. These are not optional on the trail.  I enjoyed using these Leki poles, which were compact, lightweight, and simply perfect. At 212 g per pole, this can’t be beat!

Don’t forget to pack a water bladder for your pack so you can easily drink while you hike. And, don’t forget the electrolytes! I use Elete Electrolyte Add-in, which is easy to consume and won’t create bacteria in the bladder. You definitely want this for the summit push. There are water stations scattered along the way up until the last push to the summit so it’s possible to take a small bladder and add bottled water collected along the way, which can save some space and weight.

Money

Unfortunately, if you decide to buy water and snacks along the hike, you will need some cash.  And, for the tips for the porters, staff, and cooks, you will need cash. How much you take is entirely up to you. Better to bring Soles (Peruvian cash, rather than Dollars or Euros). Remember, these people work hard and tips are a huge part of their income. There are a lot of people who make your trip happen so it takes more money to spread some money around. If you aren’t comfortable with carrying cash, or giving cash, consider packing extra clothes or donating hiking supplies such as your hiking poles, shoes, gloves, hats, jackets, shirts, etc. Just remember you will lose those items at the last camp before Machu Picchu.

Tourism

IMG_7116

One of the many festivals we witnessed in Cusco.

Spend time in Peru because it’s a beautiful and the people are friendly, the food is wonderful, and there’s a bit of everything to do: Historic sites to see, modern sites to explore, and lots of culture to observe and experience.

Closing

This trip was special, not because it was an exploration of a place I had wanted to see, but because I went with a group of people that made the trip special. Inspired by the hikers who themselves had overcome some feat, it put into perspective the struggles I’d had throughout the spring. I didn’t realize how many of our group had experienced and survived cancer. It was mind blowing to hear their stories and to think of how much they had endured and the strength it took them to make it on this trip let alone for some of them to complete the hike. It was incredible to be around such energy and life that it gave the trip something extra special. I felt privileged to share in their journey and get to know them and I keep them, and this trip, in my heart, even today.

Posted in Fun, Road Trip, Travel, Writings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment