The day after Thanksgiving, my friends and I drove out to Mecca Hills, CA to participate in REI’s OptOutside campaign. Since it was such a far drive, we decided to make a weekend out of it. Our first hike of the weekend was suggested by my dear friend Ava and took us through the narrow walls of Skeleton Canyon. We didn’t find any skeletons out there, but had a spook of a time!
On this leg of the hike, we trekked from Les Contamines up the Chemin Roman and through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve to the Col du Bonhomme. At an elevation of 7,641 ft, it’s still not the highest point on this route. However, the steep, rugged climb provided us with sweeping vistas of high peaks and beautiful landscapes.
After reaching the Col du Bonhomme, we were only about halfway done with the hike. Since our destination for the day was the Refuge des Mottets, we had to traverse across more rough and rocky ground to reach the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. After that, it was on to the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Col des Fours at an elevation of 8,750 ft.
Instead of this being an 11-mile hike as we had anticipated, the route ended up being more like 15-20 miles. I almost gave up completing the tour after this, but some encouragement from my friends helped me to keep going.
In August, my friends and I fulfilled a big dream together and hiked the world famous Tour du Mont Blanc. This trek had been on my to-do list for a while and I was scoping it out with REI Adventures when a friend suggested that I join their group. They were doing the express version of the hike in 6 days, so their trip was more budget-friendly.
REI’s trip was 13 days, so it was nearly double the price of what we paid, and that didn’t even include airfare. It’s a little bit crazy to take on this level of a hike in such a short period of time, but entirely doable. We saw a video of a couple that did it in the same amount of time, so that gave us more confidence.
The trip wasn’t without its challenges, though. However, this first day of the journey was relatively mellow and provided a good warmup for the rest of the trip. On this first day, we hiked from Les Houches, France via Col de Tricot and Le Truc into Les Contamines, France where we spent the night. It was a total of 11 miles with 4,728 ft elevation gain and 4,144 ft elevation loss.
I dropped Mr. Frodo off at the pet hotel Friday morning shortly after 8am and went home to finish my last bit of packing. The driver showed up promptly at 11:15 as promised. I got a nicer Mercedes than I had requested. The driver, Arman, was very nice and professional and we had a good conversation on the hour-long drive to the airport. I wasn’t trying to be all high society or anything. I had a voucher for this great car company and decided that my first trip to Europe was the best opportunity to use it.
When I arrived at the Tom Brady International Terminal at LAX, I realized I had never been to that part of the airport before. When I went to Israel two years ago, I flew on an American airline, so I was in a different wing. As I entered the terminal, it felt like I was in another country already. I heard so many different languages being spoken and so many dialects that I was in awe of all the diversity around me. The terminal was really amazing and had a nice shopping mall inside. I noticed lots of people walking around carrying neck pillows and thought it would be a good idea for me as well, so I bought one on the way to the gate.
I hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast so I braved the long line at Panda Express and ordered a chicken entree. Since I was already in vacation mode, it didn’t bother me that this wasn’t part of the vegan diet I was supposed to be on. I didn’t even eat all of it, just enough to get rid of the hunger. I knew dinner would be served on the plane.
I had to make this leg of the journey alone and face my fears only with God’s help. I was already heartbroken from having to leave Mr. Frodo at the pet hotel. Of course, he didn’t take it well, as usual. I just showed him as much love as possible and prayed over him before I left, but I had little time to be sentimental. I was also worried about my own health and wondered how I would hold up on such a long flight after the DVT I had two years ago.
The plane, an Airbus 380, was the biggest plane I had ever seen. When I stepped on board, the fears I had became less relevant. As the plane backed out of the gate, I knew I was past the point of no return. I said my prayers and left everything in God’s hands. I followed my doctor’s orders and took one full-strength aspirin per day for three days prior to the flight and wore my compression socks to prevent my calves from swelling. I sat in an aisle seat rather than my preferred window seat so that I could get up and walk around as much as possible. The stairwell in the back of the plane was great to use as a stair-master to keep my blood flowing.
I was a little scared initially because it felt like the blood wasn’t circulating well in my right leg. It started shortly before I boarded the plane and lasted quite a while. About halfway through the long flight, the blood felt like it was flowing normally again. The flight went very well otherwise and I arrived in Paris Friday morning on time. Paris’ airport didn’t seem much different than LAX, except maybe a little more chi-chi.
The arrival in Paris marked the end of my solo part of the journey as I met up with my friend Stephanie who had arrived a few days early to tour Paris. We were flying into Geneva, Switzerland on the same flight and would meet up with the rest of our friends there. I was thankful to not have to go into Geneva and have to figure out currency conversion and the airport transfers alone.
The flight from Paris to Geneva was only an hour and fifteen minutes. I was randomly assigned a window seat with extra legroom at no additional charge. I didn’t mind since the flight was so short. They served a snack and I must have dozed off shortly after that. I was awakened by a bump and realized the plane had just landed.
When we went to collect our luggage, Stephanie told me she got a text from our friends that they left Amsterdam late and we would most likely get to meet up and share the airport transfer with them after all. They were scheduled to arrive in Geneva well before us and probably weren’t going to wait if our flight was delayed. After we all met up at baggage claim, we stopped at the ATM and withdrew some Swiss Francs (because the machines didn’t give us the option to select Euros) and headed over to the Mountain Drop-offs station to meet our driver who was already there waiting for us.
It was raining when we left the airport. And I don’t mean the LA kind of rain where it’s barely misting. It was really raining. The air was so moist and cool. It was great that the van was large enough to hold all twelve of us and that our other friends we had yet to meet up with had made other arrangements since they were arriving much later.
The drive to Les Houches, France from Geneva took about an hour. Our driver, Johnny, was very friendly and talkative. He taught us the correct pronunciation of some of the French names we saw and recommended some clubs in Chamonix since my friend Tina and I wanted to check them out. We’re not typically party people in the clubbing sense. We just wanted to do something out of the ordinary in a new place.
When we arrived in Les Houches, I wasn’t really prepared for the cold temperatures we were met with. It had stopped raining but the ground was still wet and there was a lot of moisture in the air, so it felt good to get inside the cozy hotel. For some reason, my room wasn’t ready, so I had to wait a few minutes. I wasn’t happy about that because I was so exhausted and just wanted to rest, but I had to be patient. Finally, the clerk came and brought my room key so I was able to go put my heavy stuff down and relax a bit before meeting up with the group to discuss the next day’s itinerary.
The hotel was rustic yet charming. It was more like a chalet. I had a single room that I loved. Although it didn’t have a spectacular view of the mountains as I was placed facing the back of the property, I had a peaceful view of the woods. I loved how everything was so green there. There was fresh snow on the mountains, but the clouds covered them providing us with only a partial view.
After discussing our plans for the next day, some of us walked the grounds checking out the scenery and taking pictures. I was in awe of that beautiful place, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. I so looked forward to hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc and seeing more of what that part of Europe had to offer. Our first dinner in France was excellent.
Afterwards, we were fueled up and ready for the next day’s adventures!
The look on my face explains how I felt on much of the Tour du Mont Blanc. It’s the anguish you feel after you’ve reached the summit only to realize you’ve still got one, two, three more summits standing between you and your destination for the day. Or when you discover that the downhill section you’ve been looking forward to is much more challenging and taxing than the uphill slog. One thing is for sure, the trails in Europe are not the same as our trails here in America. Trails that I once considered insanely brutal pale in comparison to the trails in the Alps. However, at the end of the day, every painful step, every moment of agony, every tear shed was all worth it.
Maybe you find yourself in one of life’s uphill slogs and you’ve reached one of those false peaks only to be disappointed when you realize there is another, bigger peak towering between you and your goal. Stay with it. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t try to take on the mountain all at once, just one methodical step at a time. Don’t forget to admire the views along the way. They get better with each step. Before you know it, you’ll have reached your goal. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. 🙂
I was originally set to camp at Carrizo Plain National Monument this past weekend with friends, but due to the rainy weather on Friday, coupled with a series of other events, the plan fell through. After hearing all the talk of Carrizo and seeing the breathtaking pictures, I knew I needed to get up there and soon. The wildflowers won’t be there forever.
I thought about maybe driving up there for a day trip on Sunday or Monday and decided I’d sleep on it Saturday night. When I woke up Sunday morning, I knew I was supposed to go, so I checked out the BLM website to see the recommended route on getting there and what to see, saved it, got in my car and hit the road.
The route that I followed took me to the north entrance of the monument and BLM recommended driving down Soda Lake Rd. to explore the length of the plain and exit on Highway 166 at the south end. It sounded like a great plan to me since I wanted to see as much as possible in the time that I had.
Somehow, I ended up taking a left turn too soon and thought I was on Soda Lake Rd., but it turned out to be Elkhorn Rd. There was a sign pointing to Soda Lake, so I thought I was going the right way. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong way, just not what BLM specified in their directions.
I was looking for an attraction called “Overlook Hill” and the Soda Lake Boardwalk. Well, I saw a big hill on the left with tons of people ascending, so I thought that was the overlook. The trail took me to some stunning views and I got to see lots of pretty flowers, mostly of the yellow variety. However, the trail just went on and on and kept ascending further into the mountains. No one seemed to know where it ended, so I stopped about two miles in and turned back. I didn’t want to spend too much time in one place. Plus, the trail was very steep in spots and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.
I followed the road further down and ended up on a dirt road which I later discovered was 7-Mile Rd. It brought me close to the shores of Soda Lake and I was expecting to see the boardwalk soon, but I never saw it. There were plenty of opportunities to pull off to the side of the road and take pictures of the flowers and I later walked down to the shore of Soda Lake for an up close and personal view.
The next stop was the visitor center where I was surprised to find a line waiting to get in. It was such a small building that they could only allow so many people in at a time, which turned out to be a good thing. Once inside, I asked the rangers where the boardwalk was. They took out a map and showed me and that’s when I realized why I hadn’t seen it. I turned off too soon and missed it. But it wasn’t a big deal. The overlook and the boardwalk were only about two miles the other way on Soda Lake Rd. so I went there to check it out. I didn’t want to miss anything.
After visiting the Soda Lake Overlook and Boardwalk, I headed back south down Soda Lake Rd. as the ranger suggested and encountered a long stretch of dirt road that did eventually take me to Hwy 166 to go home, but it was a bumpy ride. At times, I was afraid and thought that I should turn back and leave the way that I came in, but I stuck with it and was treated to some more amazing views, pronghorn sightings and a beautiful sunset.
September 2015 was one of the most devastating months of my life. First, I was hospitalized with a DVT in my leg, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse that month, the bottom completely fell out as the shocking news of a tragedy involving some of my most treasured hiking companions unfolded.
I was at work going about my usual daily routine when a strange email came in from one of the hiking group co-organizers asking for details of who was on a Zion trip. Apparently, a small segment of the main group got together and planned a trip to Zion National Park in Utah, a trip I wasn’t aware of, so the email took me by surprise.
Figuring something must have happened back at home, I dismissed the message and went about my day. Then, various reports started coming in regarding flash floods in Utah and at Zion National Park and it all began to make sense. I wondered if some of my friends may have been caught in some type of peril. Whatever happened, I knew they would all come out on top of it, because that’s just who they were. Because that sort of thing just didn’t happen to adventurers like them.
By the next day, I knew who was on that Zion trip. Five of them were my friends, including the main group leader. Two of them were friends I had not yet met. Later that afternoon and evening, there were reports of casualties being pulled from the flood waters at Keyhole Canyon. At that time, names had not been confirmed, but from the description of the people in the group rescuers were searching for, it was either one big coincidence that a group of the same size and description were in the same canyon at the same time, or these were really my friends being pulled out of those murky waters.
By Thursday, it was confirmed that all seven friends from the hiking group that inspired most of my hiking adventures had perished in the flash flood at Zion National Park. It was the most horrific thing I could have ever imagined. My hiking world was shaken to its core and I didn’t know how it could ever be set right again. One thing was certain: the trails would never be the same.
When you’ve shared the trails and so many of your life’s most memorable experiences with dear friends who departed from your life so suddenly and tragically, it is tough to move on. As I was in the process of overcoming a separate traumatic situation around the same time, it was a couple of months before I could hit the trails again. When I did get back on the trails, it was hard not to think about The Seven.
Hiking is an inherently dangerous sport, as our late hiking leader always put in his disclaimers. Every hiker knows that and we do our best to prepare for things to not go as planned. Sometimes, things just happen, despite our most careful precision and preparation. When we go out into the nature, we seldom think about the very real possibility that we may not return home that night. The awareness is there, but it’s more of an afterthought, one of those things we’d rather not think about for fear that the very thought might draw it into reality.
We train, we research, we acquire all the right gear and sometimes our best efforts are not good enough to shield us from imminent disaster. We know all of these things the moment we go out, and yet we still hike. Knowing and understanding this about myself and my friends that lost their lives in the flood was one of the best comforts for me in dealing with the tragedy. I also found much comfort in revisiting some of the places I had previously hiked with those friends and by sticking close to my other hiking companions that share in the loss.
Seven years prior to the Zion tragedy, I experienced another gut-wrenching loss, the loss of my mother, who was my treasure. Not long after that, I moved to LA where I was introduced to hiking. The pain of losing my mom was unimaginable and I wouldn’t have wished anything like it on anyone. I didn’t realize how wounded I was until I started doing extreme hikes.
The tough hikes pulled more out of me than sweat. I found that with each grueling ascent, more of the tears I didn’t shed at my mother’s funeral broke free. I think about my mom often on the trails. My entire body grieved her loss to the point where I felt physical pain like muscle soreness all over for about a month after her passing. Hiking healed and carried me through that grieving process. I have had conversations with friends on the trails who shared similar stories of hiking through grief.
The grief process never ends, but you reach new stages of it as your life’s journey progresses, and you find new and innovative ways of dealing with the loss or tragedy you’ve suffered. When it’s all said and done, you begin to realize that the one(s) you’ve lost are never truly lost. They are with you always in your heart, and being on the trails helps make the crooked places in the process a lot straighter.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.