I just finished the first year of my PhD program, so I took a weeklong vacation to Southern California. My friends Lisa and Lister were getting married, and I also wanted to do some hiking and exploring. I flew in on Friday, May 29 and stayed with a couchsurfing host in Claremont. On Saturday, I met up with my hiking partner, Richard, whom I had met through the MIT Outing Club a few months before, and we went up to hike Mt. San Antonio (aka “Baldy”). We took the ski lift and the devils backbone trail, mainly to get some acclimatization. It was very dry and dusty, and the sun was powerful. Even with sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses, I got burned on my neck. I was impressed with the diversity (ethnic, gender, age, etc) of people out hiking. The views from the summit were pretty nice. In the evening, I went to the wedding party in Monterey Park at a large Chinese seafood restaurant. It was quite an experience to see such a large number of people having such a good time. On the other hand, one thing that really struck me about LA was how few people I actually saw, because I seemed to be driving all the time from one place to another on the freeways. Having become accustomed to the car-free lifestyle in Boston, it felt alienating to not come into contact with people as I was moving around.

On Sunday, I bought supplies and drove through the Mojave Desert to Lone Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley. On Monday, Richard and I drove up to Horseshoe Meadows and hiked up Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Springs Lake, where we spent the night. The lake is at about 11,000 feet and is surrounded by cliffs. It was a beautiful area. We met a lot of Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers at the camping area. On Tuesday, we hiked north along the PCT and then scrambled up to Cirque Peak, which had a magnificent view of the surrounding area. It reminded me of Byers Peak in Colorado, another wilderness hike I had done with my Dad a few years before. It’s a nice feeling to look around 360 degrees and not see any sign of civilization. It’s humbling too.

We then descended to the trailhead and drove to the Whitney Portal. We started up the Mt. Whitney Trail with our 45 pound packs and camped near Lone Pine Lake. In contrast to Mt. Baldy and Cottonwood Pass/Cirque Peak, it was nice to see running water along the trail. The unique plants and animals were fascinating too, as well as the splendor of the high granite cliff walls on either side of the valley. On Wednesday, we hiked to Trail Camp (12000 feet) and I spent some time practicing my ice axe self-arrest techniques on a snowbank nearby. We met several interesting characters in the camp, including father-son team Carter and Theo Brown. They were working on the state high points and Theo (8 years old) told me he wanted to be an Arctic explorer when he grows up. Carter had completed many difficult hikes and mountaineering climbs and said that he “used to be a juggler“. While I admired his accomplishments, it made me realize that I don’t want to be a full-time adventurer like him, but rather, someone who occasionally goes on adventures but also enjoys life in other ways. Richard, who has a family of his own, agreed with me that there is more to life than climbing mountains, even though it is a really awesome hobby.

We left camp at 3am Thursday morning (June 4) to make our summit attempt. We ascended a moraine on the trail, then put on crampons and started across a snowbank toward the “chute”, a steep snowbank leading all the way up to Trail Crest at 13600 feet. Before we got to the base of the chute, we noticed thick, dark clouds moving in and blocking the full moon. We decided to turn back around 4am, not wanting to get caught in a storm that seemed likely to develop once the sun came up. We broke camp and carried our packs all the way down to the trailhead. The temperature dropped rapidly and it started to rain and hail, with some snow as well. Looking back toward the summit, we saw that dark clouds had enveloped all of the ridges above about 12000 feet. We were glad to be off the mountain safely.

I thought that I would be disappointed to not reach the summit, but surprisingly I was relieved. I had been nervous about driving all the way back to LA to catch my flight after such an exhausting day. Also, I think it is easy to fall into the habit of peak-bagging and counting high points, losing track of the fact that it is the experience of the hike, and the beauty of nature encountered along the way, that is the real benefit of hiking. By not reaching the summit, it changed my focus from “getting to the top” to “enjoying the experience”, which is something I probably needed. I am grateful to my companion Richard for sharing his wisdom and knowledge to be able to make the decision about turning around, and also in planning out the acclimatization hikes so that we did not experience any altitude sickness. I consider the trip to be a success, because we got to see some really cool natural enviroments, and because I learned a lot of new things. For example, I experienced several “firsts” on this trip:

  • first time to use a bear canister
  • first time to use a “WAG bag” to carry out waste
  • first time walking on a snowfield with crampons

Now that I’m back in Boston, I am ready to focus on my research and on spending more time with my wife. I am very grateful for her patience in my crazy goals of mountain climbing!

March/April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

I took the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where I spent the night with Ken, a Malaysian Chinese guy working in advertising, who it turns out was familiar with North Carolina because he had studied at Warren-Wilson College in Asheville. Ken organized a CS gathering at a food pavilion where I got to try many different kinds of delicious Malay food and meet some new friends. One of the guys there had recently graduated from Duke, and had ridden his bike all the way around the world! Also, I stopped by the Petronas twin towers (a childhood dream ever since I saw Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment”). It was also great to attend church with Ken. The pastor was from New Zealand, and I sat next to some guys from Africa, but the sermon would have been familiar to anyone from North Carolina! I found out later that even though Malaysia is largely a Muslim country, there are substantial numbers of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

My next stop, Kota Kinabalu, reminded me a lot of Wilkesboro (my hometown). As the capital of Sabah (aka East Borneo), a largely agricultural/forestry driven economy, there were tractors and pickup trucks everywhere in KK. After recovering from a brief bout of intestinal drama, I caught the bus to the base of nearby Mt. Kinabalu, which is actually the tallest peak in Borneo (13,400 feet, about 4,000 meters). I joined a couple of British guys and a Swedish fellow to make the two day ascent. We had a great time swapping Monty Python jokes and I was amazed by the diversity of rare plants such as orchids and Nepenthes pitcher plants along the slope. After a night in a chilly mountain hut, we woke up early the next morning to climb up above the treeline and watch the sunrise from the rocky summit. It was definitely a “mountaintop experience” and one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed.

After the steep descent from Kinabalu’s summit, my legs were about as functional as jello and we all headed over to the town of Ranau for some rest and relaxation. This sleepy little village surprised me in so many ways. First, I had to get my watch battery replaced. With rudimentary Malay, I asked a guy to do it, and he fixed it in 2 minutes and only charged about $1 equivalent (3 Ringgit). Beat that, Walmart! Secondly, when I went into a restaurant to get some “Roti Telur” (egg bread) and “Nasi Lemak” (spicy rice and sardines, tastier than it sounds), all of the local men were sitting around watching a grainy TV set. When I examined it more closely, I started laughing because it was playing a professional wrestling match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austen, who was really popular with kids in my old middle school. Finally, at the bakery, I tried to chat with the two girls behind the counter, and they explained that they were surprised I would take the time to ask about their lives, because they had never had an actual conversation with an American before. Wow, I hope I made a favorable impression! (CONTINUED in Part 2)