Freedom and Blue Skies

Last week I hiked up to the Segnés Pass, 2627 meters. It wasn’t a pretty sight, me scrabbling up those last few meters, grappling with my sticks in one hand, scrabbling for a handhold with the other. At the pass itself, there’s an old military barracks that’s been repurposed as a simple guesthouse. From it, a young man watched me with concern, and offered help. “I’m alright,” I said, faintly embarrassed.

And I was. Because I saw this:


Altogether, my hike was more than six hours, an elevation of 1200 meters on foot, and the same down again. Why do I do this?

To answer the question, I need to tell you a bit about how I grew up. Like most households, mine was run by my mother. As a venerable old person, she lives a tightly circumscribed, almost cloistered existence. Shifts in temperature distress her; she makes minute adjustments in her curtains and windows to control her environment. Last time she was to travel, she cancelled because the heat was turned off in her apartment, and she didn’t want to return to a cold home.

In other words, she’s like a beautiful hot house flower. Precious orchids thrive in glass houses, which could be a prison of sorts. It was for me. As a child, I had insomnia, and my dreams were marked with images of flight. I like nothing better than to see endless sky and distant vistas spread out before me.

Freedom. Freedom to go where I want, when I want. The freedom that comes from knowing I can take some discomfort. Maybe I’ll be sweaty, maybe it will be windy, I might even have a blister. I can handle it.

Village of Elm. Taken from my hotel room


My hike begins in the village of Elm.  In October of 1799, villagers bore witness to the hunger and desperation of General Suvorov’s Russian army, fleeing the French under the command of General Molitor. Starving and barefoot, the 17,000 Russians, Tartars, Kalmucks, and Cossacks resorted to boiling goatskins taken from the villagers, and bolting them down, with the hair still on. Despite Suvorov’s efforts to maintain discipline and order, some soldiers killed livestock and ate it raw. The villagers, forced to accompany them as guides for the mountain crossing, fled under the cover of dark, leaving the soldiers to make their own way. Over 2000 of the emaciated, weakened men perished in the same range I’m about to hike.

I intend to climb well-fed, and I know where the pass is.

I’m staying at the Hotel Segnés so I can get an early start the next day. Dinner is whatever’s on offer, which happens to be a tasty lasagna, with a big fresh salad, and dessert. For a Swiss meal it’s a bargain, which is a good thing, as Elm doesn’t offer a variety of restaurants.

I’m up by six and fed before eight. Since I don’t want to hike more than 7 hours, I’m taking the cable car part of the way up, through the Tschingel ravine, named after the Tschingelhörner, the hornlike peaks where I’ll be crossing over into the canton of Grisons. (Graubünden). The majesty of the dark and gloomy ravine is marred by an ongoing silly recording broadcast loudly in the cable-car.

            I escape the cable car and head up. The “horned gods” are Tschingelhörnerawaiting. I draw closer and closer to the Martin’s hole, a circular break in the peaks. The church in Elm is lit by sun pouring down through the opening twice a year. Legend has it that Martin was watching his sheep, when a giant climbed over from the neighboring canton, with an eye for some mutton. The brave shepherd fought for his flock, and flung his shepherd’s crook at the intruder. Instead of hitting the giant, the crook flew into the stone wall Martin's Holeand shattered it, creating a hole. Much thunder ensued. Presumably the sheep were saved, hopefully not for General Suvorov’s starving army.

            As mentioned before, the old army barracks is right at the top. There, I spend close to an hour chatting with Patrick, the young Austrian who serves me soup and warm tea. The simple stone hut isn’t much of a tourist draw, and not busy. Patrick has arrived for his three month stay fortified with books. He’s just finished a book by the Dalia Lama. I suspect he likes the freedom up here, and the quiet.

Segnes Pass Lodge

Then I’m off to the other side, Canton Grisons. After a tricky descent, which is secured with some wobbly chains, but is still very steep, I arrive at a flat high plateau. Streams spread out like a web over the short grass and isolated clusters of brilliant blue gentians. As I descend off the plateau towards the Swiss Alpine Club hut Segnés, the flowers become numerous. There are thousands of yellow buttercups interspersed with white yarrow and more gentians. Some wild pinks and the orange of hawkweed dot the grass. I follow the famous Flims waterway down to Foppa, where I catch a ski-lift down to Flims itself.

In the mountains above Flims
In the mountains above Flims

Of Origins and Onerous Ascents

IMG_0490Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.

It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.

Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.

Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.


Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.

View from Mythen

A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.

Heraldic emblem on chairback
Heraldic emblem on chairback

I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.

Door, town of Schwyz
Door, town of Schwyz

Annapurna and Macchupuchre


The sixth day of our trek starts in Dovan, where my friend Jan and I had a lovely meditation at the river the night before. We spend a few hours in the gloomy forest, but get enticing peeks at the snowy Annapurna range and nearby Macchupuchre, known as Fishtail

2016-09-27-04-23-51Getting closer. Macchupuchre is considered sacred, and therefore, has not been climbed.

At Deurhali, the trees start to thin. We’re now at 2900 meters, about a 1000 meters higher than the tree-line in the Swiss alps. (almost 10,000 feet.) By the time we’re close to Macchupuchre Base Camp, the usual thick fog has settled in. I make a tactical mistake not following our porters closely, and find myself wandering along the lodges in search of our party. Here’s where I find out that the tea houses are not all the same. We have been staying in the nicer ones.

Our party arrives, including my sick spouse, who is now running a fever and coughing so hard he sounds like a barking seal. This is a clear case for the antibiotics I brought, and we start them at once. Fuel is hard to get up this high. Porters seem to carry in everything on their backs. The main room of the teahouse is kept heated, and after all the tourists are served and have returned to their rooms, the porters and guides sleep on the cushioned benches that line the periphery of the dining area. At least that way they can keep warm, because after carrying all our belongings, they don’t have room to pack extra warm clothing for themselves.

The next morning makes the cares of the night before seem far away. Our destination in this machu picchu tours, is the Annapurna Base Camp, is less than two hours away for the motivated hiker. Confident that I won’t get lost on this short stretch, I’m off and away. I can definitely tell I’m at 4000 meters, but other than slight shortness of breath and a mild headache, my body seems to rise to the challenge. Once I reach ABC, at ten in the morning, I position myself at a table at the edge of the terrace. As I climbed, the snowy peak of Annapurna South faced me directly. Off to the right, the other mountains in the Annapurna range unfolded. Now I let myself open to the peaks and their energy, before turning back and contemplating Macchupuchare again. I feel suspended and cleansed by the energies between the mountains, which I visualize as a sea of moving blue waves moving through me. It’s a transcendent moment and the highlight of the trip.

the-fourAt Annapurna Base Camp

Only later do I find out from my friend Jan that much of the nearby glacier has melted, exposing nearly half a mile of moraine, just out of sight.

2016-10-01-18-45-39-2This is where the glacier used to be

The return is hard on me, and by the end of the trek, I’ve picked up an annoying cough. Our second to the last day I walk in a dissociative trance, putting one foot in front of another, my mind a depressive blank. Bliss has evaporated, replaced by exhaustion and gratitude for the company of my friends and our supportive guide. Eleven days on foot. It’s not so much that my body rebels. My mind can’t cope. I want working lights and washing machines and fresh fruit and internet access.

Now I have them again.

But I can’t forget that I have access to those luxuries just because I was lucky enough to be born in the West, to a middle class family.

Makes you think.


Annapurna Trek: Part 1

We start our trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Pokhara. A private car takes us to Nayapul, where we pile out, anxious to be on our way. Our cheerful porters Anik and Teka hoist up their packs and start off ahead. Nayapul seems to go on for a while. Rows of tiny shops crowd the dirt street: jumbles of modern clothing, alternating with shops with wooden display shelves of chips, bottled water, and soft drinks. The absence of pavement means we’re kept alert by oncoming traffic, often the bleating trucks from India known as Tatas. Dogs lie in dispirited heaps in front of stores or snuffle among the garbage. There’s some buying going on, but mostly people line the streets, chatting, smoking, or looking at cell phones. Unlike some other impoverished areas of the world, the Nepalese do not try to frenetically engage with the tourists, although some call out as we pass.

img_3201The town of Pokhara is the gateway to the mountains

The hot sun, humidity, and traffic combine to make us long for a more natural setting. After an hour we’ve walked through fields and crossed a river. On the other side of the modern bridge, our guide Madan takes care of our trekking paperwork while we take a long lunch break. A young woman is painting a second-story ledge there; finally she climbs off it by exiting through an open window. We’ve noticed a lot of paint ads.  Nepalis are serious about painting their lodges, especially after the monsoon’s come through, and a new influx of tourists are expected. Blue corrugated roofs crown the buildings, mostly white with decorative elements. Unlike Bavaria, people here don’t have the leisure to plant many flowers, so we see them mostly sprouting up in unattended wasteland. Thickets of blue morning glory wave tendrils in the air; cleome, the spider flower, pops up here and there.

Dwellings give way to pasture land, clumps of grass with thickets. There’s no large-scale grazing. Animals are encountered singly, humped buffalo or a rangy goat. Amazingly, chickens roam without molestation by the mournful skinny mutts, we recommend you take a look on the guide of because you will see a lot of animals.

We spend the night in a lodge in Tikedhunga, balanced on a hill-top above a rushing waterfall. All night long the sound of rushing water fills our ears.

The next day our friend and trekking companion Ted sees a mushroom harvest in progress and buys mushrooms. We inveigh on our wonderful and accommodating guide, Madan, to have the lodge prepare them as part of our lunch. As we continue on, Madan shows us the ripening millet heads in nearby gardens. Fields of emerald rice are spread out below us as we climb.

2016-09-25-00-12-31Rice fields on the way to Annapurna

Lodges and tea houses seem to be the only businesses about; if it weren’t for the tourists, like us, the area would have almost no income. Harvests are not adequate for generating cash. Some lodge owners have put an effort into making their places attractive; plastic buckets filled with marigolds and dahlias add brightness and cheer. The Nepalis we pass greet us without great cheerfulness, but I also don’t see any looks of hostility. Our porter, Anik, brightens up as we get to know him, and reveals a fondness for singing and dancing. The porters, Anik and Teka, and our guide, Madan are from a Tamang village. The Tamang people are known for business acumen. Anik explains that he and the other tribesman have Mongolian origins, unlike the people of Nepal who have an Indian origin. Indian people are of Aryan descent, and lack the sharp cheekbones and slanted eyes of the Tamang, and numerous other tribal people.

img_3326One of our friendly porters, Anik. He likes to practice his English.

The trail for Annapurna continues in the Himalayan foothills. The morning after Tikedhunga we cross a river and are confronted by a challenging series of stone steps cut in the hillside. We’re on our way to the village at the top, Ulleri, 1960 meters. I climb ahead of our group, happy I invested extra time in training. Every time I start to curse the never-ending stairs, I notice another group of school children climbing next to me. They have to make the trip all week long. School starts at ten. The children are wearing uniforms, and also have to pause and rest, like we all do. Occasionally we all have to step to the side for mule trains or ponies descending. It’s a long way to the top. So long.

After a tea break and an impromptu fight between a Tibetan mastiff and a skulking stray, which stops when a couple of tourists lure the stray away from the teahouse with kind words, we descend into a river gorge. The high cliffs provide welcome shade. Ferns that could be maidenhair and staghorn cascade down the stone sides of the mountains. Lunch at Banthanti is enhanced by the cilantro from the nearby garden.

We spend the night in Tadapani, a big settlement, where once again Madan takes care of paperwork for us. Morning call is for 4am for a visit to Poon Hill and views. After finding out that we’ll have similar views further along the trek, I decide to sleep in.

img_3243Poon Hill, a popular destination

We hike down to another river, the Kimrong Khola. A noisy Chinese party interrupts my quiet meditation. They prance back and forth across the bridge, yelling exhortations to each other and taking photographs.

Soon after crossing the river, the real forest starts. I’m comfortable in the gloom and the shade, as the sweat of climbing has drenched my T-shirt. Though many other people are underway, during the day our groups spread apart. It’s easy and fun to imagine myself as a solitary explorer in the days of the East India Tea Company, mapping a route to Annapurna. The thick forest crowds right up to the edge of the path. The trees are mostly rhododendrons.  Though they’ve already bloomed in spring, I still find their reddish twisted trunks and dark green leathery leaves attractive. Delicate plans with azure blue dainty blossoms dot the stone pathway. The dappled shade gives ways to vistas of steep rice terraces shrouded with mists, and then the forest comes again. I notice other flowers, orange flowered ginger and what could be a type of trailing snapdragon, or asarina. The rest of journey, several days more is mostly through this terrain, until we pass Dohvan and the tree-line. Then we’re close to Annapurna. Check in on the next post…



Advice about #Trekking in #Nepal

To research the third book in the Falcon Series, I decided to travel to Nepal. In The Falcon Soars, Peppa Mueller journeys to a Western province: the Humla region, which would have involved several weeks of traveling and camping. Instead, though the climate and terrain would be different, my friends, husband, and I chose a trip to Annapurna Base Camp (4100 meters, 13,451 feet), for a taste of the trekking experience. We brought our bows and after reviewing some of the best bow sights, we decided to get sights for our bows.

img_3416We made it! Ted and Jan from California, me and the editor-spouse

Our research on treks and our subsequent experience have both practical and journalistic components. It’s my intention to deal with each separately. In this entry, I’d like to discuss the logistics of trek planning, and give my honest opinion as to the best way of traveling.
I started off my preparations by reading Trekking Nepal, by Stephen Bezruchka and Alonzo Lyons. This is a hard-core trekking book, which relies heavily on Dr. Bezruchka’s early experiences in Nepal, before trekking became popular. Bezruchka suggests a simple approach, like many of our friends did. According to them, it’s possible to travel to Nepal and once there, engage porters and a guide oneself, although Bezruchka does stress that those doing so are responsible for the safety and well-being of the porters, they do recommend to be prepared with an International Insurance plan, just in case.

In addition to lots of travel in Europe I traveled off the beaten path in Mexico a few times, and consider myself a seasoned traveler. But let me tell you, working through a trekking company in advance helped make this challenging journey endurable.

The landscape is grand and beautiful, but after you’re done walking at the end of the day, you’ll want a place to relax and sleep. After the initial novelty of a new culture wore off, I found the lodge environment a challenge. The owners do their best, but they’re doing business in a country with no sewage system or trash pick-up. Laundry is done by hand under running water, and the smell of used cooking oil permeates the large dining rooms where people settle in. The villages on the Annapurna Base Camp trek have between four to fifteen lodges, of varying quality. (I know this because I looked at a couple of different ones once, when I got ahead of our porters and arrived early).

Stephan Kocher of Swiss Family Treks ( organized a wonderful guide for us, Madan. Madan brought two porters from his village, the vivacious and friendly Anik and a young, quiet fellow, Teka. It took some close observation to learn what Madan did for us, because he’s very humble. He chose the best lodges, and confirmed reservations, some several times. On the descent, we stopped at a lodge in the middle of the afternoon, and some of us wondered why we didn’t keep going. Shortly after we got there, it poured. Could be a coincidence, but it was consistent with Madan’s level of service.

2016-09-27-21-13-26-1Our guide Madan

As soon as we arrived at each lodging, while we collapsed, he and the porters made sure our food would be prepared in a timely fashion by taking our orders, and then Madan prepared our purified drinking water for the next day. (You can buy bottled water, but the plastic containers pile up in the garbage heaps.) In his unobtrusive, quiet way, Madan wrangled the best rooms, and made everything look effortless.

While the Swiss connection and its implicit focus on competence and good service was a factor in choosing Swiss Family Trekking, I have no personal reason for recommending Kocher’s company other than the experience we had. I just saw what happened with some other trekkers.
One group did not have reserved rooms because of some rescheduling, and had to walk down from Annapurna Base Camp for ten hours, part of it in the dark. A young Chinese girl actually got separated from her party and ended up in a tiny village by a river, bawling her eyes out. It’s definitely worth it to go with a reputable company.

Annapurna Base Camp is one of the most popular destinations, right behind Everest Base Camp. The physical exertion involved in climbing up to ABC is definitely challenging, but does not require alpine skills, and there is no tricky footwork involved. It just takes stamina. I was unprepared for the immersive experience in constant humidity, except at the end of the ascent. You will never feel completely dry. Avoid cotton shirts, which will hang on you like a shroud. Do not be a fool like I was, and bring cotton bras, because you will feel self-conscious trying to find some place to dry them. drying-bra

The sun is shining. Quick, hang up some clothes

Wash a pair or two of socks any time you see the sun peeking out, and make sure your back pack has a place to hang something, so it can dry while you walk. Oh, and bring toilet paper.

One more item of note: my friends wanted to hire a private driver through SNFT to bring us to Pokhara, the gateway to many treks and our trailhead. Before I actually experienced the highway, I thought this was an extravagance. Now I regard it as one of the best decisions we made. The road is harrowing, and the buses are packed full. I got nauseated even in a private vehicle with AC; a bus ride would have been a disaster.

With a good guide, friendly porters, and some enthusiastic traveling companions, you’ll have a memorable experience. You’ll see things you never would elsewhere; both beautiful and depressing in a Third World country. And you can say, as I do, that you’ve met the Annapurna challenge.