All posts by Karen Berger

How Wilderness Stories Become Wilderness Skills

When I was nine, my father, my sister, and I went on a family vacation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was the first time I stayed in a hotel. I saw the “Old Man of the Mountains,” which was then the state symbol and is now a pile of rubble and rock dust. I rode the cog railway. I crawled around the boulders of the Lost River, shivered in the frigid waters of Echo Lake, and marveled at the dank, mossy canyons of the Flume. And in the summit house atop Mt. Washington, I saw, for the first time, the list of names of all the people who had died in the Presidential Range.

Fall in the White Mountains

The tour guide told us the story of Lizzie Bourne, who in 1885 died of exposure only a few hundred feet from safety at the summit house. Standing outside by the memorial plaque, near a giant cairn marked with the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, I wondered, how could you stand and die HERE, when safety was just over THERE?

And then clouds swirled round and the fog drifted in, a blue day turned gray and cold and damp, and in the sting of a bitter wind, I suddenly caught a glimmer of understanding.

That list on Mt. Washington keeps growing, and so do the stories. Hikers and skiers: Dead from falls, hypothermia, avalanches. Killed by the unrelenting chill of winter. Killed by a summer storm. Killed by a simple misstep, or a whole mountain of snow collapsing on top of them. Killed, sometimes, by ignorance or hubris or the simple inability to understand or imagine the brutal, stark finality when Nature runs amok.

They are stories we need to hear.

I was reminded of that just recently, when I read a blog post about a hiker dying in Glacier National Park. It’s called “You Just Never Know,” and it’s true: You just don’t. A fine day, a photogenic view, a fatal fall. Final.

Fog on Mt. Kenya

For the most part, adventure travelers go in and out of the mountains without incident. For all the potential dangers that are out there (and there are plenty of them)  the mountains rarely release their fury. And even when they do, good preparation or dumb luck, or both, intervene: You run out of water, but you stumble on a working windmill. You get lost, but someone appears and points you in the right direction. You suffer headaches and nausea on an ascent, and you run into more experienced climbers who tell you to camp with them because you’re showing symptoms of altitude sickness.

You could have become dehydrated. You could have been lost for days. You could have died of acute mountain sickness. But you didn’t.

Did you learn anything?

I gave a talk to a bunch of teenage adventure campers a couple of weeks ago, and one of the questions I was asked was “Did you you ever almost die out there.” The kids all leaned forward: NOW, finally, we were getting to the good stuff.

And then, I had to disappoint them.

Because the truth is that I’m a wimp. I always have an extra Band-aid, the right map, and the 10 Essentials on hand. You could spoof me in a satire, and you wouldn’t even come close. I think it comes from having read too many “Drama in Real Life” stories in the old Reader’s Digest when I was a kid. Or maybe it was tales like Jack London’s To Build a Fire.

Storytelling, I think, serves a purpose beyond recreation. Imagine early humans back in cave-dwelling times, sitting around their fires, telling tales of the hunt. Bragging rights?  Undoubtedly. Entertainment? Sure. But also education, warnings, advice. I wonder if perhaps storytelling might be genetically bred into us — an evolutionary strategy for education and survival. Groups that told stories learned and lived. Those that didn’t… didn’t.

I imagine the stories haven’t changed that much, despite the millions of intervening years. Our cave sisters and brothers might recognize those grizzly stories that were a staple of my childhood. They might have told the same stories of people getting stuck in mountains,  trapped in blizzards, lost in impenetrable forests. I liked to read those stories; I didn’t want to be the star of one. Perhaps that same thought occurred to some great-great-grandmother-times-a-thousand-generations as she sat around the campfire, cozy and warm, safe and hoping to stay that way. Perhaps we both survived because we both listened to the stories.

Several years ago, I was hiking the Arizona Trail. I had just finished reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, in which Abbey describes being stuck in a slot canyon: no way to go up, no way to go down. He thought he was going to die before he managed to haul himself out, and, being Edward Abbey, he wrote about it in a way that put me right in that canyon with him. The scorching sun reflected hot against the cliff and the air grew thick as furnace heat. As Abbey’s water supply ran down and what he had left got so hot it barely slaked the brittle claws of thirst that raked the back of his throat, I found myself reaching for my own water bottle. As I recall, Ed hauled himself up by the grace of a quarter-inch rope of vine that had the decency to hold his weight as he scrambled to salvation.

So, when I encountered a slot canyon traveling on a secondary, seldom-used trail, I remembered old Cactus Ed stuck on that ledge, convinced he was going to die. I was short on water. It was getting dark. Because Ed had gone down his slot canyon, I didn’t  go down mine. I turned around and back-tracked two miles before I even found a spot flat enough to camp. I’d tackle the canyon in the morning, when I could see. Be sure. Be safe. Be boring.

The unexpected: A yucca in a surprise spring snow.

So no, I don’t have any great stories about near death experiences. I’ve been cold, and thirsty, and I’ve had a touch of altitude sickness. I’ve been rattled at by rattlesnakes and I’ve argued with bears over the rightful ownership of my food bags. And I’ve been scared silly in grizzly country by the mere thought of what was lurking behind the next clump of huckleberry bushes. But I put on extra clothes, found some water, rested an extra day before continuing a climb, stepped around the rattlesnake, won the argument with the bear, and got over my fear of what crouches in the shadow of a huckleberry bush.

Still, part of what I take with me when I travel in the backcountry are the stories that keep me just slightly on edge, a little more alert. They are no guarantee: Things can still go wrong. But people who study such things come to the same conclusion time and again: Most wilderness disasters are at least in part caused by operator error. Conditions may factor in. Bad luck may factor in. Panic may factor in. But lack of preparation or poor decision-making can, and often is, the difference between life and death. So I listen to the bell in the back of my head that said “don’t go down that canyon tonight.” I look at a steep slab of ice or some gnarly rock on a slope and think of the hikers in Glacier who didn’t make it across. I remember Lizzie Bourne, out there in the cold clenching fog, minutes from safety. Then dead.

It’s usually a benign place, the wilderness. But not always, and therein lies the danger. If it were ALWAYS dangerous, we’d know enough to respect it. But there it sits with its crystal blue skies and gorgeous views, beckoning us, seducing, giving no sign of its evil twin.

Writing in National Geographic Adventure about Mt. Washington’s legacy of fatalities, backcountry safety expert Laurence Gonzales says, “We come from the relatively safe environments of the city, where our mistakes are mostly forgiven, and we bring with us the careless ways we’ve learned there. Worse still, we travel to these danger zones and have a benign experience — like mine on Mount Washington on that beautiful sunny day. And that gives us a false sense of security.”

Without the direct experience, it is the stories that may save us when Mother Nature changes her mind.

Nebraska’s Crane Migration: A Wildlife Wonder of the World

It’s February and the snow is almost spilling over the deck railing outside my window. My Florida friends are posting pictures of palm trees with snotty remarks about how they don’t need no stinking groundhogs, while my northern friends are unleashing a torrent of complaints as unrelenting and bitter as the cold.

So I’m going to tell you to go where in March? Florida? Hawaii? The Caribbean? All good choices, but how about Nebraska?

Yes, south-central Nebraska in March, where the temperatures may be in teens (or lower). Even more, I’m going to tell you to bring your warmest clothes, because you’ll be standing outside for a few hours — oh, at 5:30 in the morning.

crane migration 2
More than 500,000 migrating sandhill cranes — 80 percent of the world’s population of this species — migrate through south-central Nebraska.

Here’s what caught my attention last year: I read an article that said  that none other than Jane Goodall considered the annual Nebraska sandhill crane migration to be one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles. I figured Jane Goodall knows a thing or two about wildlife. So I went.

According to the Rowe Sanctuary, an Audubon facility in Gibbon, Nebraska, more than 10 million migrating birds fly north over south-central Nebraska’s Platte River every spring. The migration, which centers around the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, includes 400  species, including snow geese, hooded mergansers , the (occasional) rare and endangered whooping crane — and more than  half a million sandhill cranes. The cranes winter in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and summer in  Canada’s Hudson Bay and central Alaska. A few adventurous souls even cross the Bearing Straight into Russia. And in the fall they turn around and do it all backwards. Each time, they stop here feed and rest up for the remainder of their journey.

The Platte River: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Settlers heading west on the Oregon Trail described the Platte River as a mile wide and an inch deep. That makes it hell to navigate in a wagon, but it’s ideal for sandhill cranes, who like to sleep standing up in water so they can hear the splashing and dripping of any predators. Indeed, the region is so vital to birds that it has been designated an Important Bird Area of global significance.

crane migration 1
The Platte River is braided — settlers called is a mile wide and an inch deep,

Today’s Platte is not nearly as wide as the Platte that frustrated the settlers, although organizations such as the Audubon Society are working to preserve as much of it in as natural a state as possible. But in central Nebraska, it is still braided and shallow enough to provide the cranes with their preferred nocturnal habitat. The surrounding dormant corn fields, filled with last year’s dropped kernels, make it the avian equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Prime time for seeing the migration is dawn and dusk, as the cranes depart from and return to their sleeping quarters in the Platte River. So by 5:30 I’m on my way to see the sunrise at the Rowe Center, an Audubon facility that operates a series of bird-watching blinds and offers guided tours with naturalists during the migration.

It’s in the low teens when I arrive. We get a brief orientation. First rule: Silence is golden. We don’t want to startle the birds into rising in a panicked flock and possibly decapitating themselves on the electric lines that run near and across the river. Cells phones are muted, camera flashes are turned off, and, armed with flashlights pointed at the ground, we quietly walk to the blinds, which provide breaks from the wind, if not the temperature.

crane pair2The dawn air is taut and crackling sharp. It’s not exactly quiet – – there’s an ongoing murmuring, a companionable sort of conversation of squawks and hoots. Cranes are verbal birds with strong family bonds; they recognize each other by their calls, and they seem to have a lot to say. Mom, pop, and kids sleep in nuclear family groups. As the night slowly lifts, shapes emerge from the gloom, and the squawking gets louder. First one family, and then another, takes to the skies. The commotion wakes others, and bigger and bigger groups leave, noisily now, heading out for a day of binging on corn.

In the evening, the process reverses. This time, I’m at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Alda. Like the Rowe Sanctuary, the Crane Trust offers educational programs and blinds in which to hide.

Getting to the blind just before sunset, I stare at a deserted stretch of river. A few small groups of cranes swoop in, and land in the ice-cold water, choosing a spot to call home for the night. A few more groups, bigger now, arrive. And then, with the force of a locomotive, a thundering cacophony shatters the stillness of the evening. Thousands, tens of thousands, of birds arrive in a chorus  of urgent calls to mates, friends, families. They darken the sky, they swarm in to land, they fuss and bustle and jostle, and the river fills up, and the light fades, and still more and more and more birds keep coming. For almost two hours, stragglers continue to arrive.

But finally, with the light gone, the birds seem to be all in for the night. The squawks are muted now, and the black shapes of the birds all but dissolve into the black ink of the river.

I turn to leave, quietly, like leaving a sleeping child. As I walk back to the center, it occurs to me that people on the coasts call the Midwest, the fly-over states. They have no idea how right they are.



Ideas for Finding and Buying Cheap Hiking Equipment

Want to try backpacking? Don’t want to spend a lot of money before you even know if you like it? A full complement of hiking equipment is expensive, if purchased all at once, but there’s no reason to do that. Most beginning backpackers can find some ways to try before they buy, which gives them a chance to see not only how much they like backpacking, but how well they like certain types of gear.

Budgeting and Buying Tips for Hiking Equipment

  • Buy used equipment. Start at a local hiking club. Check the newsletter, which will frequently have a “for sale” section, or put in a notice. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s newsletter frequently has listings of used and not-so-used gear for sale. Craig’s List, eBay, and local garage sales are also possibilities. Or post a request on Facebook.
  • Borrow: Friends and relatives may have a stash of old gear available for borrowing, especially if they don’t use it often. This is a good way to check out various brands and models, although much of what’s sitting around in a friend’s garage is likely to be out of date.
  • Rent: Some outfitting stores such as R.E.I. in the United States rent major pieces of gear, including tents, sleeping bags, and packs. Backpackers traveling with an organized trip may get the use of gear included in the price they pay, or may be able to rent certain items from their outfitters.
  • Check end-of-season sales: The selection might not be enormous, but the prices are right. Last year’s stuff is out of fashion this year — but not out of function.
  • Ask about sales of returned items. Some outfitters have very generous return policies, and you can sometimes score a barely used piece of gear for a fraction of its original cost.
  • Hiker events (fairs, conferences, “rucks” (or gatherings) on the A.T. and other long trails) are good places to check out new designs in ultralight gear, often at good prices.
  • Check to see if local hiking clubs have a gear swap or sale day.
  • Make do. There’s no need to spend $200 on hiking boots for an overnight: Use a pair of running shoes. Old workout clothes make good hiking clothes (although it’s best to avoid cotton, as it absorbs moisture). A couple of soda bottles can be used for water (take a spare in case one cracks).

With a little bit of creativity and planning, it should be possible to assemble enough equipment for a night in the woods without having to take out a second mortgage. Of course, after a hiker gets hooked, that’s when “G.A.S.” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) kicks in, and if you really get into backpacking, you’ll want to carefully assemble equipment you can count on for longer trips. But it’s best to get some experience under your belt first, and learn from that experience just exactly what you do need — and, as importantly, what you don’t need.

Blisters: How to Prevent and Treat Them

I admit that I’m a bit of a nutcase on this subject. New hikers worry about big-ticket dangers like bears, rattlesnakes, and lightening strikes, but for me, the prosaic truth is that far more hikes are ruined because of blisters. What starts as a tiny, innocuous hot spot that can easily be ignored can quickly turn into a blister that proves the Chinese adage: “Failure results not from the length of the journey or the height of the mountain but the pebble in one’s shoe.”

Fortunately, it’s possible to prevent blisters with a little attention and care.

Pre-Hike Preparation and Boots Choices That Help Backpackers Prevent Blisters

  • Don’t go overboard on heavy footwear. Because of the lightweight backpacking movement pioneered by long-distance hikers, today’s backpacking and hiking gear is lighter and less cumbersome than yesterday’s equipment. You may not need boots! You almost certainly don’t need the stiff all-leather support of a waffle-stomping five-pound boot. For day hikes in temperate climates, lightweight trekking shoes are perfectly adequate, and for longer trips, most backpackers choose either trekking shoes or lightweight boots made of a combination of leather and lighter-weight fabric. Both choices cause fewer blisters than heavy leather boots because they are more flexible and better ventilated.
  • Make sure shoes or boots fit. especially when buying new boots, go to an outfitter that specializes in outdoor gear. It is much more likely that the staff is properly trained to fit boots. After the purchase, wear them at home around the house to double-check the fit. Boots can usually be returned as long as they haven’t been worn outside.
  • Break in boots and shoes. New boots (and even new trekking shoes) should be broken in by taking short “training hikes.” This is especially important for people who don’t ordinarily wear hard or stiff shoes (in which case the training hike may be more a matter of breaking in feet than breaking in boots). Training walks should include at least a little bit of uphill and downhill, as boots flex differently and feel different on slopes than they do on the flats.
  • Check the fit and feel of old boots, too. The boots that felt so comfy on last year’s hike may feel stiff and hard after a year in an attic store-room, or when reintroduced to feet that haven’t hiked in a while. Old boots can be treated with boot conditioner or saddle soap, and a quick training hike to reintroduce boots to feet won’t hurt, either.

How Hikers Can Prevent Blisters on the Trail

  • Protect the trouble spots. Most hikers know from painful experience where they are likely to get blisters. Common spots are the back of the heel, and around the sides or tips of toes. Pre-treat these spots by protecting them with a Band-Aid or a piece of Moleskin.
  • Wear wicking socks. Fabrics such as polypropylene wick moisture away from the skin, which helps prevent blisters. A cushier outer sock, made of wool, fleece, or a synthetic combination provides a bit of padding. Wear both, even with lightweight trekking shoes. Avoid cotton socks, which absorb moisture and contribute to blistering.
  • Take it easy! Especially on backpacking trips, it pays to start slowly. Don’t over-do the mileage, and pack as lightly as possible. Stop every once in a while to rest, and on long breaks, wash feet in cool water and let them air out a bit.
  • Listen to complaining feet. A hot spot can be caused by a pebble, grass-seeds, bits of dirt or sand, or even a wrinkle in the sock. It is easily ignored, especially if a hiker feels pressed to keep walking by a partner who doesn’t want to stop. But stopping to treat a hot spot is the number one thing hikers can do to prevent blisters from forming – and waiting too long to treat these hot spots is the number one cause of unnecessary blisters.
  • Treat hot spots. A piece of Moleskin can protect a hot spot and prevent it from becoming a blister. If the hot spot is painful or a blister has started to form, treat it with Spenco’s Second Skin. This dressing, available in pharmacies, is a gel-like layer that acts as a protective coating. Fix it into place with athletic tape, which should be in a first aid kit. (This type of tape has the best adhesion, and stays on even when feet get damp and sweaty.)

Once a blister forms, it can take weeks to completely heal, especially if the area continues to be irritated. On backpacking trips, blisters are especially subject to infection and to being exacerbated by continued pressure. By attending to these simple preventative steps, hikers, whether on long-distance trails or short day-hikes, can avoid this common, painful – but usually preventable – problem.

Leave-no-Trace Trekking in Nepal

We all know that tourism can have benefits for local cultures, especially if the economic infrastructure is set up in a way that provides good jobs (and training for even better jobs) and sources products locally. But there is a careful balance to be maintained: Too many tourists can shift the balance and cause harm, as well as good. Overdependence on tourism may threaten traditional ways of making a living, leaving locals vulnerable to global economics that affect tourism in their area. Well-meaning gifts can encourage children to turn to begging rather than education. Cultural conflict, economic disparity, and pollution can follow in the footsteps of well-shod tourists.

Treks on Nepal’s famous routes such as the Mt. Everest Trek or the Annapurna Circuit are on the life-list of many adventure travelers. That means crowds. Both the fragile alpine environment and subsistence culture are vulnerable to damage from tourism.

Environmental Issues for Trekkers in Nepal

High Country is Harsh and Fragile

The high altitude and alpine environment of most of Nepal’s trekking areas, such as the popular Annapurna Circuit and Everest Trek, makes these regions extremely vulnerable to pollution and overuse. Surprisingly, guided groups may actually have less impact than unguided independent trekkers, especially if the groups are run in an environmentally responsible manner.

Take cooking fuel. It’s a seemingly small issue, but it has big ramifications. Environmentally responsible groups bring in their own cooking fuel, rather than relying on locally sourced (and rare) wood.  In contrast, food prepared for independent trekkers is often cooked on wood-burning stoves, which contributes to deforestation — a major problem in fragile alpine areas. Cut-rate tours arranged in the back-alley outfitters of Kathmandu may not adhere to the same environmental standards as groups run by established tour agencies. When arranging a trek, ask about environmental issues.

Waste is another problem. Some popular sections of trails are strewn with waste, including toilet paper. The same leave-no-trace rules you follow at home should be followed on Nepal’s trails: Pack out all batteries and plastic waste, and as much as possible, all other trash. In the dry cold air of high altitudes, it takes a long time for anything to decompose, and this includes those pink “flowers” of TP.  Dispose of toilet paper by burning it, disposing of it in outhouses when they are available, or leaving it in a toilet refilled with earth – anything to be sure it won’t resurface as litter.

More Minimum Impact Tips

Annapurna Sanctuary
  • If camping with a group, share a toilet pit, and fill it in so no trace remains after use. It should be at least 100 feet from a stream or river.
  • There is no way to dispose of or recycle plastic water bottles in the remote villages. Instead of buying bottled water, use a purifier.
  • The widely available local staple food, dal bhat, is a combination of lentils and rice (and sometimes vegetables). It places fewer burdens on local villagers to produce this meal, as the ingredients are available locally.
  • Wash with bio-degradable soaps — again, not near a stream or river.

Cultural Issues for Trekkers in Nepal

For us tourists, the chance to interact with another culture is a precious one, and it can be hard to see that we can be doing harm when we visit a village, give presents to children, and photograph sacred sites. But too many tourists, even well-meaning ones, can place stress on indigenous and subsistence cultures. A society that has functioned on its own for centuries can find itself suddenly dependent on tourist dollars. Western values may erode cultural norms. To lessen impact:

  • Nepal’s’ culture is very religious, combining aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism. Always walk to the right side of the many mani walls (walls with carvings found alongside the trails), or counterclockwise around stupas and monuments. This ensures that no matter which way you go, when you return, you will make a full circle.
  • Resist the urge to give gifts to begging children. Begging undermines a culture. Those who wish to help can give a package of pens to a local school, share some food, or make a donation through one of the many aid agencies in Kathmandu. Himalayan Rescue Association is a worthy cause, as it provides medical aid to rural Nepali villagers and mounts an altitude sickness prevention education program for trekkers.
  • Hire porters. This is at traditional way of trekking in Nepal, and is a way of contributing to the economy without giving alms or undermining the culture: Trekkers pay for work performed. The cost is minimal, and the positive impact is huge.
  • Ask guides about the appropriate behavior at shrines and religious sites.
  • Ask people before photographing them; they aren’t objects.

By following these simple precepts, visitors can help ensure they are following the Leave-no-Trace edict of taking only pictures, leaving only footprints.

Volunteer Vacations on Hiking Trails

AT shelters are usually built by volunteers.

Ever wonder who makes and maintains the hundreds of thousands of miles of hiking trails that criss-cross America’s  backcountry? Without volunteers, hikers on America’s trails would have far fewer miles to trek, or would spend all their time bashing through blowdowns, trudging through nettles and poison ivy, and slogging through bogs and mud puddles. Volunteer vacations offer a chance to get outdoors, work on a worthwhile project, and meet like-minded people. And in a difficult economy, they also offer an affordable outdoor experience.

Where to Find Volunteer Work Trips and Vacations for Hikers

National Forests, National Parks, BLM, state and county lands, and, especially, wilderness areas (where laws dictate that all trail work be done with hand tools) use volunteers to do a variety of jobs. Long-distance hiking trails are largely maintained by volunteers, who spend thousands of hours doing everything from putting together newsletters to building bridges to clearing brush.

Major trail organizations such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition have well-organized trail maintenance programs. Members of the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association support regular maintenance projects, as do members of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Colorado Trail Society. To find a complete list, check out the American Hiking Society, which offers what may be the best vacation deal around: For a registration fee of about $260 (which usually covers meals), you get to join a work trip,  usually about five or six days long. the trips take place all over the country.  The Student Conservation Association also runs volunteer maintenance trips for teens.

How to Choose a Volunteer Trail Vacation

Some trail maintenance jobs require specialized skills in carpentry or construction, but many trips offer the opportunity to learn on the job. There are also jobs just about anyone can do, like hauling supplies and clipping vegetation.

Consider the difficulty of a trip. Cutting trail at 12,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains five miles from the nearest trailhead requires that volunteers be fit enough to hike those miles at that altitude — and then work. Don’t lie to yourself or to the sponsoring organization about your fitness…. you’ll have only yourself to blame if you can’t handle the demands.

Types of Volunteer Jobs on Hiking Trails

  • Trail construction. This can include building and maintaining lean-tos, bridges, and information kiosks, installing trail signs, and building water bars and stone steps.
  • Trail clearing. Anyone can clear trail. Trimming shrubbery, removing deadfall from ice storms, and cutting overhanging branches are jobs that don’t require specialized skills, but provide a crucial service in keeping trails open.
  • Maintaining a trail shelter. Hike in to a shelter, then sweep it out, pack out litter, clean out the fire ring, and make minor repairs.
  • Packing supplies in. On western trails, packhorses can be used to haul heavy supplies. Many trail organizations welcome inquiries from horse and mule owners willing to assist with this job.
  • Cooking for a trail crew. Hikers who like to entertain will get enormous satisfaction from cooking for a crew that’s spent an entire day building a trail — and building up an appetite.

Whether volunteers install rock walls, build a cabin, or paint blazes on trees, they soon learn that there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in helping keep America’s trails open. And they take proprietary pride in the trails they have worked on.

Annapurna Circuit: Best Long Hikes in the World Series

I’m going to jump around the world in this series. Keep things interesting. Nepal is about as far away from where I live as you can get on this earth, and the Annapurna Circuit is one of that country’s iconic treks.

It’s a  three-week trip that circles around the Annapurna Massif, which are among the world’s highest mountains. Annapurna I is one of the world’s classic 8,000-meter climbs.

Logistically, this is an easy trek to arrange. From Kathmandu, you take a bus to Besishahar. From there, it’s a two-hour drive on a rutted, pitted, washed out jeep track to Syanje, where the trail actually starts. (You can also walk it; plan for a full day). Negotiating passage on a truck or four-wheel drive vehicle is generally possible because trekkers are a big part of the economy here. The details, while not exactly controllable (ours involved a drunk driver and a vehicle that had a slight problem keeping the engine running), do seem to fall into place, at least in hindsight. It didn’t seem that way when we were stuck in a creek without the proverbial paddle, and all of the trekkers were trying to push the stalled vehicle through the boulder strewn river-bed.

The general contour of the trek is to circle the massif counterclockwise by going upriver, trekking across a plateau, and then going downriver. (That summary is kind of like saying the Empire State Building is a building somewhere in New York.) The route begins with an ascent of the Marshyangdi River valley, with  views of  Manashlu and Himal Chuli. The trek rises from rice fields and forests to scruffier subalpine vegetation, following the same pedestrian routes of travel used by villagers. There are no roads.

The trek then veers west, to the Manang Valley, a windswept, sandy, rocky, avalanche strewn landscape inhabited by Tibetan Buddists. This is part of the Tibetan plateau, and indeed, Tibet is just over the mountain range to the north. The trail then crosses the Thorong La (“La” means Pass), which at 17,800 feet is the highest point on the trail. After Thorong La, trekkers descend to the pilgrimage site of Muktinath, then continue down the Kali Ghandaki Valley, the world’s deepest gorge, with jaw-dropping views of the fierce-looking Dhaulagiri. This part of the trek can be done as a smaller subsection by flying into Jomson then trekking down-valley: With many guesthouses and restaurants, it’s come to be known as the Apple Pie Trek.

Buying last minute equipment en route.

Traditionally, trekkers stay in the small villages along the route. If you’ve booked a commercial guided expedition, you’ll probably be staying in tents pitched for you by your porters. If you’re on a private independent trek, you can carry (or hire porters to carry) tents, or you can stay in tea-houses along the way. The majority of trekkers hire porters to carry their gear. This makes the trekking easier, and porters hired independently (as opposed to pre-paid commercial expeditions) cost only about $15 – $20 US a day, depending on the trek. A guide might cost $20 – $30 a day, and he can help negotiate transport and stays at tea houses, give you cultural insights, and help with route finding and logistics on the more remote routes.

If you do book porters and guides independently, check their high altitude equipment: Many do not have adequate equipment (sunglasses, boots, warm jackets, hats), and won’t let you know until you are dependent on them, in a remote village, where some equipment may be available for sale from enterprising locals at a high prices (which you, as the employer, will be expected to pay). Also be aware that they will expect tips. Going on strike in Nepal is a time-honored porter tradition: A commercial expedition costs far more than an independently arranged one, but makes this hassle someone else’s problem.

Another concern for all trekkers in Nepal is hygiene and health. Arriving in Nepal after having spent several months in East Africa, after having spent another several months on America’s Continental Divide Trail, I thought my resistance was up to snuff. Not so: I was flattened by severe stomach trouble within a day of my arrival. Living and hygiene conditions can be, quite simply, life-threatening in Nepal, which has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Use every food caution you’ve ever heard of and then some, from opening your own soda bottles to using your own utensils and never eating anything raw.  Our pampered western immune systems simply aren’t tough enough for the bugs they’ll encounter here.

In the Annapurna Sanctuary

The final issue is altitude sickness. The typical schedules offered by the guidebooks and the itineraries followed by the trekking companies give plenty of time to acclimate to the high elevations. If you’re trekking on your own, don’t try to rush this part: The elevations are frankly dangerous, and to be safe, you’ve got to follow the rules.

A final alternative is to extend the 19 – 21 day circuit with another week of trekking into the Annapurna Sanctuary itself. This takes you to the all-white world of the mountaineer, and you can stay overnight at Annapurna Base Camp. If you’re coming all this way, it is absolutely worth the additional time.

Nepal is not an easy destination: The entirely different culture, the hygienic problems, the sometimes limited food choices, the Sanskrit alphabet, the unfamiliar religious customs which foreigners should respect but may not understand…. all of this leads to a feeling of what the French call depayse: being out of one’s element. But the dramatic beauty of the highest mountains of earth is worth every possible traveler’s travail. Among the highlights were the views of 7,000 and 8,000 meter peaks, the climb to nearly 18,000 feet, the stark whiteness to the Annapurna Sanctuary, the emerald green of the rice fields, the rhododendron forests in bloom, the sky-piercing point of Machapuchare, and the sheer power of the raging rivers that drain the snowmelt and the remnants of avalanches. All of which, added together, put this trek securely among the top hikes in the world.


Hiking Colorado’s Continental Divide

Rocky Mountain High.

If you want to see a sea of mountains for as far as the horizon goes, there’s no better place than Colorado’s Continental Divide National Scenic Trail — all 800 miles of it, which run approximately 800 miles from the New Mexico border to the Wyoming border. It’s part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, but as a summer-long hike, it stands alone. At an average elevation of more than 11,000 feet, it also rises far above the rest of the C.D.T.

The C.D.T. is one of 11 long-distance trails in America’s National Scenic Trails System, and one of the three so-called “Triple Crown Trails” (The other two are the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail Continental Divide). The Colorado C.D.T. contains the Continental Divide’s highest peaks, along with some of its most remote wildernesses and most spectacular mountain scenery.

Primarily a hiking and horseback riding trail, the Colorado C.D.T. also offers recreational opportunities to llama trekkers, cross country skiers and snow-shoers (in winter, of course), dayhikers, and campers. In some multiple use areas, hikers also share the trail (or dirt roads the trail occasionally follows) with mountain bikes, and, less often, with ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Regardless of the type of recreation, the Colorado Continental Divide poses challenges. Its elevations occasionally soar above 13,000 feet, and the entire trail averages more than 11,000 feet in elevation, making it the longest high trail in the United States. It is also remote: In some wilderness areas, such as the Weminuche in the San Juan Mountains, or the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in northern Colorado, the trail doesn’t even cross a road for days at a time. Hikers, riders, and other users must therefore be competent outdoorspeople, with the judgment and experience to deal with high country obstacles such as ice and snow (even in summer), bad weather, and route-finding difficulties.

Routefinding Tips for the Colorado Continental Divide

Bring a guidebook. Two are available. Colorado’s s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide by Tom Lorang Jones (Westcliffe Publishers) is on heavy paper and contains beautiful photos, but it hasn’t been updated in 10 years. The less glamorous Colorado C.D.T. Guidebooks (two volumes) by Jim Wolf, from the Continental Divide Trail Society, are meticulously researched and contain recent supplements and updates. And, at less than half the weight of the Westcliffe book, they fit better in a backpack.

In addition, bring a GPS and maps. Topographic maps from the U.S.G.S show the most detail. In wilderness areas, where the trail is well-marked and follows existing and maintained pathways, the Forest Service maps are often adequate. Map packs are available from the Continental Divide Trail Society.

Safety Concerns on Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail

Weather is the main safety concern on the Colorado Continental Divide. Colorado afternoons are famous for their thunderstorms, and treeline is sometimes a thousand or more feet below the trail. Be flexible in planning, and try to stay off of exposed ridges by mid-afternoon. The safest place is low down, in a protected group of trees. Caves, rock outcroppings, and solitary trees do not offer protection; to the contrary, they are more likely to attract lightning.

Ice and snow can also be hazards on the Continental Divide, particularly for travelers making their way into the mountains early in the season, when the winter’s snow has not yet melted. Bringing an ice ax and crampons (or, at least, in-step crampons) can help hikers get safely around late-lingering icefields. In a heavy snow year, horseback riders will have to take lower alternate routes, or ride later in the season. Generally, the high country is clear by late June or early July, but snowfall can vary widely.

Typical mountain clothing rules apply: Be prepared for four season’s worth of weather in any one day (although it usually won’t snow in July, it can drop into the 30s, with hail and wind.) Bring several layers of wicking clothing, insulating clothing, a hat, and rain gear. Avoid cotton.

Finally, don’t count on cell-phone reception: Much of the Colorado Continental Divide Trail is too remote for reception, or the signals are blocked by mountains. Give someone at home an itinerary, and sign in at trailheads where registration boxes or permit stations are in place. The information can help rangers locate a hiker in case of an emergency.

The Colorado Continental Divide Trail offers an unparalleled opportunity to stay at high elevations for days at a time. But, as with any alpine hiking or adventure activity, attention to weather, route-finding, and ice and snow hazards will help ensure a safe trip and a memorable mountain experience.

Crossing the French and Spanish Pyrenees

The Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southwestern France offer an unparalleled summer mountain hiking experience. Virtually every day features jaw-dropping views (along with muscle-straining climbs.)  And the towns and villages of the Pyrenees are picturesque rest-stops with food that well rewards the effort. (Don’t forget to try Basque chicken and cassoulet, the latter a hearty bean dish suitable for a hiker’s appetite.)

For their entire length, the Pyrenees follow the border between France and Spain, running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Although lower in elevation than the Alps, the Pyrenees are extremely steep and dramatically serrated. As a result hiking trails in the Pyrenees are both challenging and scenic.

Three major trails traverse the French and Spanish Pyrenees: The Grand Randonnee 10 (GR-10), the Grand Randonnee 11 (GR-11) and the Haute Route Pyrennean (HRP). There’s a lot of scenery compressed into these approximately 50-day hikes. (Figure around 600 miles of up-and-down-and-around-the-mountain hiking, although no one seems to know exactly.)

Hiking Routes in the Pyrenees Mountains

A campsite in the Haute Pyrenees
  • The GR-10 (Grande Randonnee 10) is the most popular route across the Pyrenees. It runs on the French side of the border. Of the three main trans-Pyrenees routes, the GR-10 is the best-blazed and the easiest to follow. However, while easiest logistically, it is physically difficult because the trail on the French side of the Pyrenees gets much more rain than the Spanish side, so the weather is more challenging. Also, the GR-10 is more demanding than the two others because of the long and steep descents and ascents into and out of the many precipitous north-south running valleys on the French side of the mountains. However, the GR-10 does offer the possibility of sleeping in a town or a refuge every night, reducing or eliminating the need to carry camping gear.
  • The GR-11 (Grande Randonnee 11) follows the French system of blazing and numbering, but it runs through the Spanish Pyrenees, on the south side of the border. The route is not thoroughly blazed, and can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it is extremely beautiful. Although very few people hike the entire GR-11 from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the trail can be crowded with day-hikers and weekenders, especially in the popular Spanish national parks.
  • HRP (Haute Route Pyrenean) is the High Adventure Route, which stays in the highest, most remote country as much as possible. It is usually blazed in yellow, although it sometimes follows the red-and-white blazed GR-10 or the GR-11. It goes through the middle of Andorra, the tiny country that occupies a small part of the Franc-Spanish border. When hiking in the remote central part of the Pyrenees on the HRP, hikers must carry all their camping gear, because towns and refuges are too far apart. Route finding is the major challenge, as the blazing is sporadic.

In all three cases, trail quality varies. The routes include paved roads, farm-roads, footpaths, and cross-country travel (mostly on the HRP). The Pyrenees are precipitous, and many of the trails are very steep, which reduces the number of miles it is possible to hike in a day.

Seasonal Information for Hiking in the Pyrenees

Crossing a snowfield in August

cause of the high elevations, thru-hiking the trail is a July-August venture. Part of the trails near both coasts have a longer hiking season – June to September, and indeed, may be more pleasant in late spring and early fall because they won’t be as hot. In the Basque country near the Atlantic Ocean, weather can be hot and humid. Near the Mediterranean, the climate is hot and dry. In between, in the higher mountains, the weather is extremely variable, with potentially violent electrical storms. At the higher elevations, there may be patches of snow, but ice axes and crampons are not usually necessary in summer.

Most thru-hikers hike from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, although the trail can certainly be hiked in both directions. A complete traverse takes about 50 days.


GR-5 Across Europe from Rotterdam to Nice

The windmills of Holland, the WW II battlefields of Belgium, the vineyards of France, and the highest peaks of western Europe: These are just a few of the attractions of the GR-5, which runs from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.  “GR,” or “Grande Randonee” means “Great Hike” in French, an apt description for a trail that traverses Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, with short detours into Switzerland and Italy. 

The Low Countries: Hiking the GR-5 in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg 

The Dutch section of the trail is, in a word, flat. Much of the route is through settled suburbs and farmland, with pleasant, easy hiking across beaches and parkland, making this a better choice for walkers more interested in culture and towns than in wilderness. Although many urban Dutch people are fluent in English, rural residents are less likely to speak English, and a phrasebook comes in handy.

GR 5 in Belgium

Belgium is divided into Flanders, which is the Dutch (or Flemish) speaking side, and Wallonie, the French-speaking side. Many Belgians speak English as a second language. The terrain in Flanders is hillier than in the Netherlands, and has a more rural feel. The route passes a number of World War I and II battlefields, including some bunkers. Every village has a war memorial listing the names of the dead. History buffs should explore some of the local museums. The route becomes even more rural in Wallonie, where the hills get bigger, and more of the trail winds through forests and fields.

Luxembourg is a compressed country with an astonishing variety of landscapes, from World War II battlefields, medieval castles, sunny vineyards, and bucolic farms. There is a section of limestone cliffs and ravines that have earned the name Little Switzerland. Tails are well-maintained and marked. In the trailside towns, hikers will find interesting side trips to museums and monuments, and a cuisine that combines French style with German heft.

Hiking the GR-5 in France, Switzerland, and Italy

In France, walkers follow the GR-5 through Lorraine, Alsace, the High Alps, and the Maritime Alps. It occasionally darts into Switzerland and Italy.

In Lorraine, the GR-5 alternates between forests and heavily settled areas with a gritty working class feel. This was, after all, the heavily industrialized region of France coveted by Hitler, and the trail actually passes the fortifications of the historic Maginot Line. Residents are friendly to Americans, especially the elderly, who are happy to share family stories of World War II.

The GR 5 in the French Vosges Mountains

Next door, Alsace is more attractive to tourists with its riverside vineyards, pretty villages, and the Vosges Mountains. This region has a long history of merged France-Germanic culture; a side visit to Strasbourg is a must, as is a much more sobering visit to the Stuthof Nazi concentration camp, which is right along the trail.

After traversing the Vosges, the trail follows the the Swiss-French border near Lake Geneva. Hikers cross the lake by ferry and ascend into Switzerland for a few days. The trail then returns to France and skirts Mt. Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe. In the high Alps, hikers enjoy generally mild weather (although it can snow, even in summer) and a system of high country refuges that provides lodging and family-style meals. Walking south along the Italian border into the drier, starker Maritime Alps, hikers see scenery that combines Alpine drama with Mediterranean vegetation. Best of all, the crowds are thinner here than in the High Alps to the North.

The GR-5 can be hiked in its entirety in three to four months, depending on your hiking speed and your interest in exploring the small towns along the route. Or it can be broken into shorter journeys. It is well-blazed for its entire length, and described and mapped in a series of topoguides, some of which are available in English.