Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mt Sinai

Mt Sinai: 5/30/07

Of course this expedition would not be complete without a journey up, arguably, the most famous sacred mountain in the world. Rising up out of the dry sands of the Sinai desert, higher than the other rocky peaks surrounding it, is the towering Mt Sinai (2285m). İt is locally known as Gebel Musa. Although disputed by archaeologists and historians as the exact place, Christians, Muslims, and Jews all believe that God presented his Ten Commandments to Moses on its summit; a place profoundly sacred to all the world's major monotheistic religions.

To get there we got tickets for the "Fast Boat" ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt. Boy, that was not true! The "Fast Boat" supposedly left at 11am and took 1.5 hours (we will get there by 1 at the latest, we thought). We didn't even board until noon, we sat at the dock until 3, and we got there at 5:30. It was complete unorganized chaos... and they do the same trip every day... you would think they would have it downpat?!. At the port in Egypt we hired a taxi, driven by a Bedouin who had two wives (Rod was very interested in talking about that!), to take us to Saint Katherine's, a town deep in the Sinai desert.
We ate dinner with our driver at a Bedouin restaurant, then were dropped off at the road to St Katherine's Monastery. Situated right at the base of Mt Sinai, this monastery has been in continuous operation since AD 330. İt is believed to be built beside the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. It is one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of early Christianity's only surviving churches. Because it has never been raided or sacked, İt is filled with an amazing collection of artwork and theological writings compiled over centuries. To get to the monastery, we had to pass through an armed police checkpoint, and walk with bags in hand 1 km up the dirt road, to its entrance.
When checking into the St Katherine's Monastery Guesthouse, we asked about the route up to the summit. The monk suggested we take the "Camel Route". Everyone takes the Camel Route. Looking at the map, I saw another, more direct route up and asked about it. "That," he said, "ıs The 3750 Steps of Repentance. It is very difficult." Turns out this trail (staircase really) was laid by one monk as a form of penance. He must have been really bad, because that was some serious work!

We got up at 2AM and walked through the shadows inside the monastery walls toward the beginning of the 3750 steps. After shaking off the enterprising Bedouin guides, we started up the ancient steps. They quickly led up a narrow rock walled gorge, twisting and climbing through small patches of sweet smelling pennyroil and sage. The gorge just got more and more beautiful. Sometimes we would get up onto a wide ledge and see the other rocky peaks, silhouetted with stars, over the gorge walls. We passed a chapel part way, and later through two narrow freestanding stone arches. Something about the narrow steep path, the sweet smelling darkness, and passing through these old doorways, really made the act of climbing Sinai feel like a sacred journey. The path almost glowed with the power of over 1500 years of people making this pilgrimage.

We stepped through the second stone arch and reached a small plateau under the summit. There were two stone chapels, a light wind rustling through an old tree, and a quiet monk selling hot tea. We were one of only two groups of people who took the 3750 steps up. Everyone else took the camel trail, and we were stunned to see how many lights zig-zaged up the last few switchbacks to the summit. It was like a torchlight parade! With the skies windy and hinting of rain, we sat with the monk and enjoyed some sweet tea and simple conversation while watching the lights. So glad we came up this way and not up the boring route with the noisy throng of tourists. And it is not true, this route is not difficult or hard to navigate. It is really the only way to experience this mountain!

After tea we joined the masses heading up the final stretch to the summit. İt was still before dawn when we arrived, so Rod and İ found a wind sheltered spot between some rocks to sit and wait. While sitting there, we suddenly realized that we both forgot our first wedding anniversary! Oh, that is bad! But we also realized that it doesn't really matter that the day isn't exactly right, as far as we are concerned we are celebrating our anniversary by watching the sun rise from the summit of Mt Sinai. And instead of a romantic dinner with a bottle of sparkling wine or something, we would get a celebratory cup of hot tea to sip together on the way down.

After the sun rose, we got to see the magnificent magical views all around us. The rich colors, interesting rock shapes and textures, and misty skies over the Sinai desert are just gorgeous. We gave our offering of water and started the walk down. We were sipping hot anniversary tea while walking down when a Bedouin camel jockey offered us camel rides. How could we pass that up?! He led us to his animals, and after scaryly standing up, we began a very painful and funny journey down the camel trail. The way they have the saddles; a big wooden post is cramming into your crotch as you ride! The gangly awkwardly moving camels clomp heavily down the rocky trail, and the jockey doesn't give any instruction on how to ride comfortably. Ouch!
Back at the monastery, with aches in all the wrong places, we ate some breakfast, then found our driver to head back to the ferry and Jordan.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Mt Jebel Tannur

Jebel Tannur: 5/28/07

"We must have passed it."
"OK. I'll turn around, but I didn't see anything... and Ι was looking."
"It has got to be around here somewhere. Hey, look at that mountain, it looks like it is separated from all the others, unique... maybe it's that one?"

This is our conversation as we drive up and down Jordans Wadi Hesa valley searching for the elusive Jebel Tannur. Atop this mountain, if we ever find it, are the ruins of the Khirbet et-Tannur Nabatean temple. The Nabatean people were traders who flourished in southern Jordan and northern Arabia from about 500 BC to 50 BC. They traded goods and culture with the Egyptians, Greeks, and other cultures of the day, until the Romans ended things.

The Nabatean culture is important to this expedition because they worshiped mountains. Their temples, places of worship and sacrifice, were on the top of mountains. The archaeologist, Philip Hammond, comments that: “the god of the people was Dushares, 'Lord (dhu) of the Shara (Mountains)'. They had a mountain god... people of my own heart. Their major female deity was Al-Uzza, who was usually represented as a lion. Their major male deity was AlQaum, a warrior god, who was associated with the bull.

"I think i saw something! Turn around again."
"Yeah, that old rusted sign, i think i can read the word 'Tannur'."
"This is it!"

We turn off the paved road onto a gravel track skirting a small hill and head strait toward the one mountain that seemed individual in the area. When we park, we are passed by a Bedouin boy and his goats, walkiıng from his tent/house to pasture... İ cant imagine where. He looks at us like he can't imagine what we are doing there. We grab some water and start walking along the animal trails up the side of the mountain. Not really believing that we will find anything, we reach the summit and see the pillar bases and carved blocks of an ancient temple. The temple basically takes up the entire summit of this peak... we can only imagine how grand and impressive it was when it was standing. Rows of pillar bases surround a raised platform and altar. Much of the ground is flat, paved with rock squares. There are round fallen pillar pieces, carved roof blocks, and stones with engraved writing everywhere! Amazing! From the bottom you would never know this is up here!

We explore and admire for quite a while. Then head back down to the car and down the valley toward the southern coast of Jordan. Along the way we find another Nabatean ruin, Khirbet --ναμε---. Οη μαν, νος τηε αλπηαβετ ηασ βεψομε γρεεκ. ςηατ αμ ι σθπποσεδ το δο_ Ι δοντ κνος ηος το σςιτψη ιτ βαψκ!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Mt Nebo

Mt Nebo: 5/27/07

Following the twists of the road to the top of Mt Nebo, goats wander through the dry rocky landscape, tent homes of the Bedouin are scattered in the swirling dust, and huge machine guns are mounted to the top of hummers parked at the road's check points.

We are in the Holy Land. We are following the route Moses was forbidden to travel by the King Edom (Numbers 20), and headed to the spot where Moses was given a view of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1) and where Moses was later buried, by the Hebrew God himself. The episode of Balak and Balam (2:13-26) also took place here.

From the top (817 m, 2680 ft) is a panoramic view of the "holy land", including the River Jordan, the Dead Sea, and the Palestinian West Bank. They say that the cities of Jericho and Jerusalem are visible on a clear day (which is not surprising because they are just on the other side of the valley), but alas, it is not a clear day.

We walk up the stone pathway and into the courtyard of the Byzantine chapel at the summit. The chapel was originally built in the 4th century AD, and is now a mix of museum and peaceful sanctuary. The whole place has an easy, holy, peaceful feel. An olive tree outside, one among many, was planted by the Catholic Pope John Paul II, to promote peace between the Muslim and Christian people. The inside is a simple stone walled chapel and alter, flanked by beautiful, nicely preserved tile mosaics depicting animals and various christian stories. Outside is a very interesting sculpture of a cross with a serpent twisted around it.

As we look out over the valley of the River Jordan, I am struck by the power that the legends of this place have, and have had, over people. Wars and wars and wars have been fought over mere details pertaining to this place. I think about this as i meditate and make my offering of water to the mountain. When i pour the water out of the bowl, something happens that has not happened anywhere yet, one of the stones falls out of the bowl! I am not surprised when i realize that the stone that fell out is Rose Quartz. Rose Quarts, the stone of love. It opens up the heart for both giving and receiving love. It brings gentleness, forgiveness, compassion, kindness and tolerance. More of that is exactly what this place needs.

Soaking our feet in the altra super salty water of the Dead Sea.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Mt Atlas

Mt. Atlas (Jebel Toubkal), Morocco : 5/18-19/2007
I take a sip of hot, sweet, strong mint tea. Rod and the taxi driver are looking at our topo map of Jebel Toubkal as another young man points out the trail and route. We have just arrived after a two hour drive from Marrakesh, and are waiting for our lunch sandwiches (egg with fried onion and tomato in flat bread) to be made before we start our hike. The air is clear and hot, but the sad, desperate screams of two goats, who are laying on the ground, legs tied, awaiting slaughter, are making me uneasy. What does Atlas have in store for us?

A long time ago, Gaia and Uranus had 12 children. Known as the 12 Titans, these are the parents, aunts, and uncles of the Olympian Gods. The Titans Cronus and Rhea are the parents of Zeus, and Titans Lapetus and Clymene are the parents of Atlas. So, Atlas and Zeus are cousins. The Titan Cronus ruled the gods, but Cronus was getting old, too old. His son, Zeus, wanted to rule the gods, so set out to fight Cronus and take the throne. He organized his brothers and sisters into an army against their father. Atlas, in defence of Cronus, organized an army too, and they fought a battle for 10 years. Needless to say, Zeus' forces won. Zeus banished all those who fought against him to Tartarus (where they remain), but since Atlas led the opposition, he was punished more severely. He was sent to the farthest western corner of the world, where the sun sets, and there he must hold up the heavens on his shoulders for eternity.

The air is heavy as we set out from the village of Imlil, up the Mizane river valley, toward the climbers refuge where we will spend the night. The high Atlas mountains are beautiful, rugged, and brown, scattered with brilliant green oasis of palm trees or small irrigated plots of wheat or nut trees. We walk with full packs up the dusty trail, getting passed by horses loaded with the backpacks of other hikers, and then by the hikers themselves. At one point, we pass two Berber girls, selling bottles of soda cooled in a small waterfall. They decide to taunt Rod, yelling in Berber and gesturing to him that because he has a necklace on, he must be gay... or a dog... we aren't exactly sure. We stop in a little village for a cup of mint tea where the trail crosses the river. Later, tired and hungry, we finally see the climbers refuge in the distance. As we walk up the valley toward it, a cold wind picks up and we get basted with some icy rain.

A long time ago, Hercules walked up the valley toward where Atlas and his wife Phoebe had their home and garden. Hercules was completing the 'Twelve Labors' required of him if was to escape enslavement and become immortal. One task was to get a golden apple. In the orchard at Atlas' house was the golden tree, guarded by a fierce dragon, that bore golden apples. Hercules approached Atlas as he stood holding the heavens on the ridge top, and asked for a golden apple. Atlas thought his release had finally come! He said to Hercules, "Sure, you can have an apple. I can go get it for you from my orchard, the dragon cannot hurt me. If you just hold this burden for me, i will go get the apple." So Hercules took the heavens onto his shoulders. Atlas thought he was very clever for tricking Hercules. Atlas was free! That dumb lump could hold the heavens for eternity! So Atlas went to the garden and got an apple and brought it up to where Hercules was, like he said he would. Because Hercules could not take the apple into his hands, Atlas put the apple on the ground and thinking he was so slick, started to walk away. Hercules, thinking quickly said, "Oh how could i have been so tricked! Now i have to hold the heavens on my shoulders forever! Whew, this is really uncomfortable! If i just had a pad to put between my shoulders and the heavens, it might be more bearable..."
Atlas turned and looked back.
"Atlas, you have tricked me! You could at least give me a pillow!"
So Atlas, being kind, but not the brightest Titan, went and got a pillow for Hercules. When he brought it, Hercules asked him if he could just hold the heavens for a second, while he got the pillow situated. So Atlas took the heavens, and Hercules, laughing, grabbed the golden apple off the ground and ran off.

"Salam aleikum" the refuge keeper replies as we approach the door. "Take your shoes off."
We put our dusty, stinky boots on a shelf by the door and enter the large refuge. This is the biggest refuge we have seen yet, it sleeps 80 people, and has two dining rooms. The French Alpine Club built and manages the refuge, while local Berber men work there. There were many other climbers at the refuge, all resting and getting ready to climb tomorrow morning. A amiable chatter filled the room with the fireplace as evening set in. Unfortunately, the friendliness, of the keeper at the door did not extend to all the staff. One man in particular was openly hostile to us. I don't know why this was exactly (except that we were not either Moroccan or French), and it was not a common occurrence in Morocco, but the experience certainly discolored our moods as we prepared dinner and settled into our beds that night.

A long time ago, Atlas' wife, Phoebe brought the golden tree that bore golden fruit to their orchard. And Atlas was told a prophecy, that one of the sons of his enemy Zeus would come to steal the golden tree from him. Atlas, understandably, was not very keen on the family of Zeus having his best treasure. So one day, as Atlas was kickin' it high on the ridge with the heavens on his shoulders, Perseus, son of Zeus, arrived. Now, Perseus was not out to steal Atlas' tree, he was just really tired and hungry and in need of a place to stay... after all, he had just fought and beheaded Medusa. Atlas, thinking this was the thief of the oracle, refused him. Perseus was irritable, being tired and hungry, and got really mad at Atlas. He grabbed Medusa's head from his bag, and averting his eyes, he held it up to Atlas. When Atlas looked at it, he turned into stone... the stone that is Mt Atlas. And upon the shoulders of this mountain, all the stars and the heavens are held.

With so many people at the refuge, and heading out tomorrow to climb, we decide that we will get up extra early (3:30 am) to assure a pleasant climb with no other people around. We quietly prepare breakfast, and slip out before anyone else is up. Under the stars, we follow the route across the small river, and up the steep narrow valley directly east of the refuge. The icy wind is blowing (!), and the gusts make us stumble as we climb. Soon, we are walking up firm snow fields, and the sun rises as we crest the first moraine and see the summit in front of us. The wind up here is even worse! My fingers are painfully numb with the cold, and we bundle up with everything we have as we reach the top of the second moraine. Here, while trying to maintain balance as the wind gusts, we have the choice to either follow the normal route up the south ridge, or skirt around the large bowl under the summit and climb the north ridge. It is funny because the staff in the refuge last night insisted that there is only one possible route up to the summit, only one! And we can see two easy ones just up this side... there must be hundreds of ways to summit this non-technical peak.

We stash our crampons at the top of the snowfield, and begin the loose talus and gravel slog up to the ridge top. From the top of the ridge, we see the first of the other climbers coming up over the last moraine below us. We walk along the ridge top to the summit (4165 m), amazed by the beautiful views. To the east and west, more jagged peaks (the high Atlas mountains), to the north, faint mountaintops in Spain, to the south, the Sahara desert. We get to enjoy the summit in solitude, warming in the morning sun, as the brutal wind has died down. After a while, the onslaught of climbers begins. There must be 15 people on the summit when we leave, and we pass maybe 20 more climbing up as we descend. We decide to walk the south ridge down, to make a loop of it. The decent is fast because most of the snow fields have softened up, and we can have fun with sitting glissades.

Back at the refuge, we pack up our stuff and have some lunch. Then we begin the dusty walk down. As a man with horses passes us, Rod asks him if his animals can carry our packs. Relieved of our burdens, we walk more happily down, stopping for tea, and playing word and number games as we walk. In the village, our taxi driver is waiting for us, turns out, he came 2 hours early. We have one more cup of sweet mint tea and begin the drive back to Marrakesh. As we pass through the agricultural valley at the foot of the mountain, nice old Atlas gives us one last gift... in his orchard, we see a flock of nesting storks!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Mt Ausangate

Apu Ausangate: 5/1-7/2007

The best part about climbing this tall (6372 m, 20,905 ft) and revered Quechua Apu was sitting around the table in the kitchen tent after dinner and listening to our porters, two local men from the nearby village (Daniel and Adrian), tell stories of their sacred peak. The stories were told in Quechua, then translated into Spanish, then translated again into English... so, my re-tellings give the general idea, but have to be taken with a grain of salt. And, of course, Adrian said that when his grandpa tells the stories, they are much better.

This great, respected, and powerful Apu (god/mountain/person) is known by the locals as Hawan Qatteq. The Spanish took this name and changed it to Ausangate. The legends of this mountain hold it as a powerful protector of the Inca, now Quechua, people.

The Spanish were invading the Inca land and storming the city of Cusco. The Spanish were very powerful with their guns and cannons, the people only had clubs and waraka (ropes that you spin to throw rocks). So the people had to flee for their lives. They fled to Apu Hawan Qatteq, but the Spanish followed. The people hid behind the lake Yana Cocha, behind the 'gate' into the apu, Afuera. The Spanish got to the gate, but unable to go further, they camped there. The people kept coming to Apu, fleeing the Spanish from all over. It was hard for so many people to hide from the Spanish, so they began to fight with them. The Spanish had guns, so many people started to die. They asked Apu for help. Suddenly, a very big man appeared on the summit. He had on a red poncho, and sat on a big white horse. He started charging down from the summit and toward the gate, and down with him came all the thunder and lightning. The thunder and lightning hit the Spanish and killed them all. The people were safe.

Ausangate is hollow in the center and there is water and a jungle and corn and quinoa and the spirit animals- puma, condor, and others - living in there. When the Spanish came, the people fled to Ausangate. They took all their riches, gold, corn, llamas, coca and put it all into the mountain. It is still there. The mountain is full of gold. There is only one way/gate in, and only one way/gate out.

The Spanish were invading the land of the people of the Andes (interestingly, they don't call themselves the Inca or the Quechua, they are the people of the Andes). The spirit llamas decided to help. The llamas had colorful strings on their ears and around their necks. They tricked the Spanish into thinking they were people, and their friends. The Spanish looked at them and thought they were their friends. So they followed the llamas. The llamas led them to the gate of Ausangate. Again the large man with the red poncho on the white horse appeared. He rushed down from the summit toward the gate. Thunder and lighting came crashing onto the Spanish and killed them all. The Spanish were never able to pass the gate into Ausangate, and all the people who hid behind the great Apu were safe.

When the Apu distroyed the Spanish at the lake/gate (in) of Ausangate, all the guns were left on the ground. The people threw all the guns into the very center of the lake. They are still there. But if you go into the lake to get them... you can go in, but you cannot come out.

A few days before the stories at the dinner table, we hiked up to the lake, and past it; through the gate, and into the domain of Apu Hawan Qatteq. From there it was a two day hike, over passes lined with huge bright glaciers and steep rocky ridges. I could feel the magic and power of this protected place as we made our way around it to the South side.

We made a base camp under the mountain's south face in a wide meadow. While setting up camp, a condor flew over us. Adrian was very excited about this... it was a good sign. At base camp, the horses with us grazed happily, and periodically (usually around meal time) kids, would pass by with their flocks of sheep and stare at the strange foreigners and ask for bread. Rod and I rested the next day, while the porters carried some of the gear up to the High Glacier Camp (5770 m, 18,925 ft). The following day we hiked up the long moraine ridge as far as possible, until hitting the snow. Then a long slog up snow to the base of 'the wall', a 100 m steep ice/snow section that we will begin our climb with tomorrow. We pitched our tent in the High Camp on a narrow knoll framed by two deep crevasses. It was very cold. We ate an early dinner, set our alarms to wake us at midnight, and drifted into sleep.

BEEEEP!! BEEEEP!! Up. Cold. Breakfast. Cold. Crampons on. Cold. Headlamp and helmet. Cold. Tie into the ropes. Cold. Start walking. The morning started with cold (in case i didn't mention that) and then, the climb up 'the wall'. This was a calf tiring way to start the day; ~60 degree climb front pointing with two ice tools. But once we reached the top, the route to the summit was technically much easier. We switched from our crampons to snow shoes and slowly made our way up the soft snow, dodging crevasses, toward the summit. Surprisingly, the altitude had little affect on us, we felt strong and solid trudging up. As we got closer to the summit, the snow conditions started to deteriorate. Every year, the summit of Ausangate changes shape. The wind shifts the snow around, and the ice forms new blocks and features. No one knows what it will look like up there until you get there and see it. Standing at ~6350 m, 20,728 ft, about 60 m from the summit, the final ridge to the summit point was a very sketchy, unprotectable, totally exposed, windy walk of death. We decided not to walk the ridge of death, and call where we were the summit. Yes!! Apu Ausangate!! Standing there, i searched the ground for horse footprints, or maybe a red thread or two.

The Apu was very gentile with us, we felt strong, no accidents, no altitude sickness or even headaches, just a beautiful climb up a beautiful mountain. In thanks, we made the traditional offering to its spirit; coca, corn, and liquor, and started our decent. And here is the magical part... just down from the summit, Ausangate sent out the spirit animals to visit us. Really! The strangest mists appeared from the summit, and they formed into wispy clouds in the shape of Llama, Snake, Condor, Puma, and Dragon (I don't know what Dragon was all about). Now, usually I don't see shapes in the clouds... even if i try to. Cloud shapes are not precise enough, not exact enough. But the clouds coming off the summit of Ausangate were so sharp and precise that I saw the animals immediately, and without thought. The shapes were active and vibrant; moveing and gesturing as they drifted directly overhead. And it was not just clouds, we could feel that there was something special going on. The air was filled with a sense of welcome, of peace, of love.

This mountain is filled with gold; it has a heart of gold, truely a heart of gold.