Monday, August 10, 2015

Answering the call of Mt Whitney

Why do you want to climb Whitney? "Because it's there." That's adapting Mallory's famous words about Mt Everest. This was the 4th year that I was going to attempt to summit Whitney. The last three years were unsuccessful due to various reasons including last year when we hit by a thunderstorm. Was 2015 going to be it? The weather forecast called for 40% chance of rain the following day. My friend's altimeter on his watch was beeping with pressure fluctuations. Was that a sign of the storm? Another guy had seen a red moon. Apocalypse anyone?

The day dawned bright and clear, we got an early start at 7:30am and I was feeling alive. Despite having a pack weighing in at 43 lbs, I was hiking at a brisk pace. I briefly stopped to chat with a guy
who seemed bursting with a joy that was contagious. I told him about my three previous failed attempts. He promised to send positive energy my way and said that I would make it this time. I decided that I was gonna summit on day 1 itself. All that interval run training was coming good and I made it to trail camp at 11:30am. I had hiked 6.3miles, 3800 ft in about 4 hours. I emptied my pack, had a quick lunch and refilled my water. I gave myself 7 hours to summit and be back at trail camp. That would be 9 miles and 2500 ft climbing. Doable. And I was off. 

I was feeling good, though the altitude was affecting me. The previous night I had slept at 5000 ft, not exactly at a high enough elevation to acclimate. Trail camp is at 12000 ft. I was getting a slight headache and was feeling a little short of breath. The smoke from a wildfire was irritating my throat.
But I stayed focused on a steady pace with a 10min break every hour. The scenery was stunning. Eastern Sierra is spectacular with a stark beauty of ragged mountains and deep blue lakes. I finally made it to Trailcrest and there was slight downhill of 200 feet that felt great after the 99 switchbacks of climbing. The fork in the trail marked 1.9 miles to go. The summit was in sight. But those last 1.9 miles took a good 2 hours. I had underestimated that hiking gets exponentially difficult as you climb higher. I stuck with my hourly breaks, but I was getting nervous about the time. Everyone was descending. I estimated that I had to summit by 4pm to have a good chance of making it to camp by dark. I reminded myself of the positive energy that was wished to me eons back. I kept my body fueled with water and food. Finally, after almost 9 hours of hiking, the little hut at the summit came into view. What a glorious sight it was! I had summited Mt Whitney! 

I was elated. I was on top of the world or on the top of continental US at least. Fabulous views in all directions, slightly blocked out by the smoke. I took a few pictures and soaked in the magnificent scenery. I wrote my name in the register and took a picture of it for good measure. Time to head back as I didn't want to hike in the dark. I made good ground until I came to the slight uphill of 200 ft. I could barely move. Every step was excruciating. My head was throbbing. I was a little concerned about falling into a stupor and losing my way. So I tried to stay alert by doing math problems. At one point, I wanted to sit and rest, but I was worried that I might not be able to stand again. So I just leaned against a rock and caught by breath. I remembered the positive energy wished on to me. I think that guy was God. He had taken me to the top and would take me back down. I dragged myself to trail crest after which the trail would be all downhill. After a mighty struggle I made it to Trailcrest. As I descended I got my wind back and picked up my hiking speed. I reached trail camp just after 7pm. A long 12 hour hike was done. It was time to bask in the glory of achieving 
something thousands of people do every year. But hey, I had earned it. And I had earned a good night's rest without the need to rise at 3am the following morning to summit.

The next day I woke up at sunrise. There she was bathed in morning light. I snapped a few pictures of the glory of God's creation. I packed up and headed down. Goodbye Whitney, it was nice meeting you. Someday we might meet again.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Running a Marathon, the whole 46,145 yards

The Marathon, the ultimate endurance race, the common bucket list item, the new years resolution, the passion, the ego booster, the masochist's hobby. I finally thought, why not? The idea to run a marathon came from a mixture of ego, vanity, Facebook, bucket list, 2014 new years resolutions, etc. The idea was just the beginning. The race is long after that.

Alright, I got the idea. Next up, which one? Schedule, logistics and level of difficulty were considered. I finally settled on Napa as it would give me a few months to train, it was within driving distance and it was a flat course. Also March would mean cooler temperatures, which would help my cause. Now for shoes. I started with Vibram Five Finger as I had enjoyed running barefoot in the past. But my feet were pulp after 7-8 miles on asphalt. I needed the padding. So I decided to go with Asics Electro 33. Now running shoes are a religion and I will not get into that debate. You have all sorts of theories as to what works. I went for low price, minimal sole and light weight. Now I was ready to hit the ground running.

So how to choose a marathon training plan? Depends on how long will your training stretch and how many days a week you are willing to train. I made a hybrid plan after looking at a few websites. My goal was a 3:59:59 marathon. The training definitely tested my resolve. Running in the pre dawn darkness on cold winter mornings can make you question your sanity. Weekends had to be planned around long runs. Food had to be planned starting the previous night. One Sunday morning, I started running at 6am in the hope of the beating the rain forecast for 9am. I had 18 miles scheduled. It was cold and windy, but I was determined. A few minutes in, and the heavens open up. Here I was running in the rain. I couldn't run fast enough to keep myself warm and I started shivering. I felt like a moron. I questioned the purpose of this endeavor. I thought about a warm bed and a cup of hot chocolate. I eventually put mind over matter and slogged on for nearly 3 hours. I was cold and tired, but I felt accomplished. Life can be that way. You have your aims and goals. The going gets tough, and that's when the tough get going. You are done only when you decide you are done. On the plus side, I got to know my neighborhood very well. Running endless laps on the side streets introduced me to yard sales, friendly neighbors, pretty gardens, annoying dogs and rude drivers.

I used Mapmyrun to track my training. I thought it served the purpose without too many distractions. I highly recommend cold showers and ice baths for a quicker recovery after each workout. At one point, a few weeks into the training, I experienced sharp knee pain. I thought I had hit my limit at 12 miles, but it turned out my shoes were worn out. I'd advice new shoes after about 200 miles. I'd also suggest biking and weight training to help your knees. Oatmeal served well for a pre training meal and Cliff bars for snacks during longer runs. Three weeks before the marathon you begin your taper. A couple of days before the race, you load up on carbs and protein and avoid any exercise.

Finally, it was D-day! All the months of training had come to this. I was at the pinnacle of my fitness. I was pumped. It was time to get a run for my money. A few short speeches and we were off! I was feeling good. The numerous photographers and the cheering spectators lining the course made me feel like a celebrity. I waved and smiled. I high fived random people. I felt light and happy. Every step took me closer. I had some difficulty in pacing myself as I didn't have my watch and there were no clocks or pacers to be seen anywhere. I decided to ask my fellow runners every now and then to help me keep a steady pace. And then it came, I hit the proverbial wall at 20 miles. I was tiring out. This was the farthest I had ever run. I was wilting in the late morning heat. Where was that second wind? I stopped to take a drink. I couldn't start again! My legs simply refused. Eventually, I managed to stumble forward. I had to put mind over matter. I didn't want to stop again lest I might not be able to start again. My legs felt like jelly. I closed my eyes and I prayed hard. I cussed. I remembered all those hours of training. I thought about my goal of 3:59:59. I thought of my ego. I had never pushed myself that much before. And then the final stretch, the end was in sight. I saw the clock and my heart sank. It was 4:04. For a brief instant, I thought I'd have to do it again. But my tired legs kicked that thought into oblivion. Never again! Never have I been in that much pain. At the end of the race I thanked God for carrying me through, but also asked for forgiveness for cussing so much.

I have great respect for all marathon runners, Ironman triathletes and others who do masochistic feats. But I am done. given that it's my first marathon it is also my PR. I needed to use Paul Ryan's calculator to get a sub 4hr time. And since I like quitting when I'm in front, it was also my last marathon. There are lots of could haves and should haves. But I can't go through this again. I gave it my 100% on race day and I can't see myself going through months of training again. I learned that the race is no place for an ego boost, as people two or three times my age passed me. In fact the race is with yourself and your goals. As it is said, “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory”. Well not exactly a moment, and not exactly a lifetime as well, but still... Wanna run?

Training schedule

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Free Spirited Hostelling.

After my epic and extended stay at the amazing BH2 at BPGC, I have yearned for more hostel experiences. Of course the hostels I now frequent are for travel purposes rather than a dorm during college. Hostels are and always will be a mixed bag. The places and the people have their quirks and characters that make them fun. It's a wonderfully communal way of spending a night. It is a cheap and convenient way to stay on budget when traveling alone. I've only stayed at hostels in the US so far, though I have heard it's more of a thing in Europe.

Hostellers are a motley group of people. But they tend to the more laid back, new age spirituality kind who talk about finding themselves, the universe conversing with their soul, karma of their past lives, etc. I must confess I rarely mention that I'm an engineer and have a office job. I think it stops conversation as I appear to be elitist. I have had numerous random experiences at hostels. I was offered weed on one occasion. Once my room had no floor but was just sand. Another time, the hostel had an outdoor hotub overlooking the Pacific, a million dollar view for $5. Then in this hostel above a nightclub, I had Kanye lullaby me to sleep. You have no idea who your roommates will be. I always carry ear plugs and eye covers so that I can zone out when I need the zzz's.

I think the best part is meeting people and listening to their stories of life, travel and adventure. These are people I'd never meet in my friend circles from a tech job and Church. It opens your mind and broadens your horizons. It enriches your life experience vicariously. You connect with a complete stranger over the most random thing. As an Indian, I'm the exotic guy who has lived their eastern spirituality. I politely mention that I'm Catholic but helpfully joke that I had a pet snake and rode an elephant to school as a kid. I once met a biker from NZ who biked in the Yukon territory and Alaska for months. Then there was this girl who moved from Wisconsin to Puerto Rico in search of finding a calling in the tropical paradise. I came across a Chinese girl who spoke better Spanish than English because of all her travels in Latin America. Once, a hostel host mailed me a $20 bill as a refund for the key deposit. Money I had thought lost after we had checked out before he had woken up. I was pleasantly surprised by his integrity.

Of all my hostel adventures, one will always remain etched in my memory. Last December, I was driving after dark on a cold rainy night on Hwy 101 in the remote NW corner of Washington state. The Google Maps voice said “You have arrived”. I thought to myself, “Where?”. Here I was stopped on a pitch dark highway. There was no sign of civilization. Suddenly I spotted a small sign that read “Hostel” and a narrow unlit driveway leading up besides it. I pulled up slowly to a small house with a dim porch light. I pondered whether I should go in or just drive off? I chose the former, thinking that if he has a website, he must be legit. Yeah, sound logic! An old man opened the door, which creaked on it's hinges. I greeted him nervously and peeped inside. It was his house. It was messy but looked clean. We exchanged what could pass off as pleasantries and I asked if he had any other guests. He replied none and mumbled something about off season. The last guest was a week before me. I took a deep breath, hoped he made it out alive and went to fetch my bag from the car.

The charge for the night was $13 and an additional 50 cents for a towel. I took the towel just so that I wouldn't be stuck with the number 13 in that creepy place. And there was the requirement of 20 minutes of chores which could be substituted if you paid an additional $5. I took the chores, which he said would be done in the morning. I inquired the time he woke up. He said he would be up when I was. I wasn't sure if that was funny or creepy. After some conversation I concluded that he was the kind of guy who was dissatisfied with the world for no specific reason and was trying to live off the grid. I retired early party due to fatigue and also to end the awkward sporadic conversation. The creaking and groaning of the house was magnified in the absolute stillness of the night. The creep factor was increased by the darknedd. I told myself to trust God and trust me. Somehow I managed to sleep peacefully.

The next morning when I woke up, Jim was already up. I asked him what my 20 min chores were. He told me to vacuum a few rooms. And he actually watched me do it as I tried to be diligent in getting under the tables and around the furniture. Finally I was done and I drove off into the pre dawn darkness. Back on Hwy 101, I wondered whether that was just a dream. Sometimes reality can be stranger than dreams.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make it back to Jim's hostel, but I'll definitely stay in hostels on my future travels. Hostels are a paradigm of “Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.” Unless of course it is a glass box, which is what Yelp can do sometimes. But still, I live in the hope of being pleasantly surprised on my travels.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lost coast is found

Last Fourth of July, I celebrated Independence day by wandering wild and free on California's Lost Coast. It is a hike in paradise. The rugged, wild and desolate beaches are part of the last remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline of the West Coast of the US. The hike is one long walk on the beach with waves singing to you and the wind caressing you. The blue ocean shimmers in the summer sun and you thank your stars for your chance to be in heaven.

The incredible beauty moves you to wonder, to believe in something deeper, something higher. There's something magical about staring into the blue ocean, smelling the salt and listening to the waves. There's something mysterious about the fog clinging to the hillside and settling over the ocean. There's something soothing about feeling the soft sand under your feet as you soak in a gorgeous sunset. Someday life will be perfect like this, but today I'll settle for this temporary perfection.

The hike from Mattole to Shelter Cove covers 25 miles of magnificent scenery. The Pacific, as blue as it can be, on your right and soaring cliffs and golden hills on your left. You hike to the rhythm of the waves with rocks crackling under your boots. You hike in the soft sand, leaving behind footprints soon to be wiped away by the tide. You hike on trails through open grasslands. You cross numerous creeks and streams which make great spots for snack breaks. The seagulls skim over ocean, wild and free. The sea lions lounge in the sun, grunting as you pass by. The otters glide smoothly over the waves, the hare looks at you out of curiosity and the snake slithers away as you reach for your camera. The beautiful driftwood littering the beaches is more forgiving to your slow reflexes with the camera. Your day starts with the mysterious fog clinging to everything around you until the sun blazes through. You day ends with a magnificent sunset over the Pacific. Camping on the beach is a dream come true. You end a perfect day of hiking with a dip in the ocean and a rinse in a stream. Chow down some delicious pasta on the beach and soak in a beautiful sunset. The waves lull you to sleep as you dream of another day in paradise.

Some useful tips on the logistics of the trip. Get a map to know the locations of the creeks. I purchased the map by Wilderness Press. The creeks are basically where you can camp at night. The map also shows the 'impassable at high tide zones'. Make sure you check the tide tables for the day of your hike. I'd say for safety, you should not be in those zones 4 hours on either side of the high tide time. Obviously the ideal situation is hiking in the zones when the tide is going out. But if you have a tight schedule and the high tide times are not at the opportune times, use my 4 hour rule of thumb. We camped at Spanish Creek on the first night and at Gitchell Creek on the second night. That was about 10.5 miles on day, 10 miles on day 2 and 4 miles on day 3. Most people hike in the north-south direction as the prevailing winds in the summer are from the north west. For that, you need to park your car at Shelter Cove and take a shuttle to Mattole. Blu with Lost Coast Adventures was our shuttle guy. Super nice and friendly. The shuttle schedule depends on the tides so you can cross those high-tide-impassable zones at low tides. Call Blu to discuss your trip. As for gear, in addition to the standard backpacking gear, you might also need water shoes as there are no bridges across the streams. But this year being a drought year, the streams were running pretty low and we could ford the streams by hopping on rocks. And bring a giant thrash bag for all your gear that you can't fit in your tent. The overnight fog will give everything that is exposed, a thorough soaking.

Hope you find yourself at the lost coast sometime. Life is a beach, go play in the sand.

More pictures can be found at  

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Book Review: Sinner, The Catholic Guy's Funny, Feeble Attempts to Be a Faithful Catholic

Being a Catholic isn't easy. You have the devil, you have people and you have yourself getting in the way. Lino Rulli embodies the struggle of the guy next door living a Catholic life. This book makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you cringe as you read Lino stumbling and fumbling his way through life.

Lino has an uncanny way of making you think in between his one liners. On soul mates "I can't imagine a loving God who counts the hairs on my head, loves me, and then says: 'I’ve created a soul mate for you.. good luck finding her.'" We have to trust God in being our wingman, but we have to be willing to take chances. On failure, "lots of people put their failures in the not-God's-plan category instead of the I-suck-at-that-category." We have to take responsibility for ourselves and suck it up sometimes. On temptation, "I fought, I struggled, I won-and I didn't give into temptation. Not exactly on my way to canonization, but I'm always grateful to God when I don't fall." We should celebrate the minor victories in our lives with God. On confession, "don't imagine you will confess something original to the priest. That's the sin of pride." This one cracked me up. Yes, the priest has heard every possible sin under the sun and the stars (if you prefer sinning by night).

Lino is brutally honest with his failings at finding a mate, with his pride after winning the Emmy, with his youthful misadventures (hilarious) and with his big nose. The chapter on him meeting the Pope is absolutely hilarious. I really wish I was there through that awkward episode. Or I wish JP-II wrote a chapter about his meeting with Lino. But the chapter also made me really want to visit the Vatican someday. Not that praying at the Vatican is any better than praying at home. But maybe it is just the ambiance that makes you feel closer to God.

This book has confirmed that "In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone." (St John of the Cross). At the end of my life I want Jesus to say, as Lino writes, "Eternal life goes to Daniel. Well done my good and faith full servant." Lino makes Catholicism seem like a simple yet profound journey. I think I will see my faith in a more joyful way from here on.  

You can also check out his talk show at