Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Three O'Clock Rock - Total Soul - 07.27.09

Steve and I finally coordinated to get some climbing done. The goal was to head out to Darrington and get in a slabtastic time on the nice granite. We talked Sunday night and decided that our second attempt on Dreamer could wait, and we would head to 3 O' Clock Rock to see if we could accomplish multiple routes. We were headed there with the intent of climbing Total Soul (III, 5.10b?) and Silent Running (II, 5.9+?).

We got a late start and arrived at the trail head with no time pieces. We made quick time up the trail and stopped briefly to marvel at some cut tree trunks and a still standing western red cedar that had a 10'+ diameter at the base. Once at the base of the slabs, we made our way to the Total Soul route.

(Photo by Steve Machuga)

As we geared up, we discussed lead options, and I told Steve it didn't matter, I'd have to lead a 5.10 pitch no matter how we split them. So I told him to combine the first two pitches and give me the lead on the third pitch (a 5.7) so that could be my warm up lead. (Using the "Weekend Rock" topos.)

Looking down from two pitches up. (Photo by Steve Machuga)

Apparently I did need the warm up because after struggling to overcome one of the overlaps on the lower 5.9 section, I pulled on the draw to get over it. My lead went smoothly and soon Steve was leading the fourth pitch where the difficulty started to increase.

Starting the third pitch (Photo by Steve Machuga)

This was probably the hottest time on the slab as well. The sun was hitting us directly and we were lower and there was less of a breeze. The fourth pitch was some climbing that followed a quartz dike up with a minor crack system. For whatever reason, it was really hard on the feet and both of us had painful feet from that pitch on. (My feet didn't fully recover until getting a night of sleep.) To add insult to injury, the belay at the top of the pitch was an uncomfortable hanging belay. Fortunately for me, I was moving on to the next lead. Unfortunately, that meant not resting my feet or toes for the 5.10 pitch.

The next pitch starts interestingly enough with a few moves up an overlap to a branch pull and onto some ledges. From the ledges there are two variations; a line of bolts on the left (5.10b) or some on the right (5.10d.) The right looked easier at first, but then looked to be featureless steep slab. After contemplating the right, I choose the left line. I was able to clip the bolt and was attempting to move out left to start up, but couldn't maintain traction with my left foot. After a few balks, I went for it and slipped and fell. (I was at the bolt, so not really a lead climb.) I grabbed the draw to get back on, and then was able to climb through this crux cleanly to a small flake where the going got a bit easier. The pitch finished moving right again, so I experienced a bit of rope drag as I had not anticipated that directional change. After the move right, I went up through a bush to the next belay. (Looking at the Nelson book this morning, he has the ledge labeled "ant farm ledge" which would explain why I had ants crawling up my legs for the duration of this belay.)

Steve leading the second 5.10 pitch

I brought Steve up where he rested his feet on the nice ledge and cursed his luck for having drawn the hanging belays. This would also be the point we were both ran out of water. (Did I mention it was hot? On the drive home, the outside temp was hovering around 90°F. We did have more water waiting for us at the base of the climb though.)

After a short rest, Steve headed out on another challenging pitch. It started out easy enough following some features up to some overlaps. After one overlap the crux moves came climbing on top of a left facing shallow dihedral. Steve paused for a while before finally working out the moves. I kept a keen eye on him and was quick to arrest a fall should he have one. He clipped the second bolt and kept moving. Unbeknown to me, it somehow became unclipped and he used it to clip the third bolt on this steep smooth slab. When I arrived at these moves it took a bit of time to move off a small ledge on the first moves. I could see the minor bulges in the slab on where I wanted to put my feet, but the first right foot felt insecure. After finally deciding on a feature I moved up, only to slip off onto the ledge. Another attempt and I nailed it, keeping my upward progress going as the slab was thin and the climbing uncomfortable on my feet. I arrived at the next hanging belay panting and in considerable foot pain. Rather than stop at the uncomfortable belay, we quickly changed the rack and I headed out onto easier (5.8) ground.

Surmounting the overlap (Photo by Steve Machuga)

This pitch turned out to be the most wandering of the climb and somewhat varied. There was some initial thin moves to a small ledge with a small bush on it. After traversing left on the ledge there was a large overlap to surmount. Since the overlap was large, I couldn't bring my feet too far under it to get over it, which meant a bit of a high step to make it up. After going through a bunch of options, I got my left foot as high as it could go, and then put my right foot on the lowest lip of the overlap. With some manteling, I was up and moving onto the rest of the pitch. This was also the most gear intensive pitch and I placed about three cams and one nut. (I also somehow dropped my #2 Camalot down to pitch 2, so I'll have to replace that when I get the money. Not sure how it fell, as I wasn't even going for a piece at the time.) The rest of the pitch followed some overlaps and corners up to the belay. It was markedly more dirty/mossy than the previous pitches and gave Steve and I the impression people don't always climb the last two pitches.

The final .10b "headwall"

But we did, and after I brought Steve up to the belay he set out on the last 5.10 pitch which was thin and dirty. After gaining the steep slab, there were some leftward moves to the second bolt on thin features. He moved up slowly and made it to a tree from which he brought me up. I found there to be one committing move at the leftward motion, and the rest to be easier (although sketchier due to the dirty factor) than the other 5.10 bits on the route. Once at the top, we wandered around a bit to see some views. (Not much really, it isn't a true summit after all.) We then located the rappel tree (as well as the rappel sign) and mused at the uniqueness.

(Photos by Steve Machuga)

After a rap through the trees to another tree. (A rap anchor made with nylon nautical rope and 4" stainless rap rings.) A rap from the second tree got us back to the top of the 6th pitch. From there it was a bunch of double rope rappels back to the base. (We were able to make it into the gully from the top of the second pitch.)

(Photo by Steve Machuga)

Once back at the packs we drank a lot of water and packed up. We took a short exploratory hike over to another part of the slab before heading down to the car. We arrived back at the car around 6:45pm and drove home.

Overall I was happy with this trip. I really wanted to do more climbing in Darrington and got the chance. I think my rustiness of having only climbed three times since May showed. I think I am capable of climbing that route clean and without the aid. Hopefully Steve and I will head back and climb one or more of the other routes there and perhaps I'll get a little more practice in before heading back.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vesper - North Face - 07.26.09

Elevation Gain: 4100'
9 miles RT
Left car: 7:30 am
Summit: 3:00 pm
Back at car: 5:30 pm
10 hours car to car

Josh alerted me to a day he had available to climb, so we decided to take advantage of it. We both wanted to climb South Early Winter Spire, but the drive to Washington Pass for a day climb seemed a bit too long. So I looked around for ideas and came up with the North Face of Vesper. I knew the approach having scrambled the peak last fall with Julie. The drive isn't too long, and I knew we could be back in one day easy.

So away we went. We left Seattle somewhat casually at 6am. (There was a forecast of afternoon thunderstorms that should have had us starting earlier.) We were at the trail head and hiking at 7:30am and were covering ground quickly. (1000' ~45minutes) We were slowed briefly by my inability to jump from sloping wet rocks onto other sloping wet rocks just before leaving the woods. After leaving the woods, it was very humid and the alder and blueberries were wet with dew making the two of us a bit wet and uncomfortable. We had no issues getting to Headlee Pass and only had to cross about one patch of snow in the valley to get there.

After the traverse, we crossed the creek on a snow bridge and started heading up the scramble route. The skies were attempting to rain on us for a while, and when we got to around 5000', it finally started raining for good and hard. We stopped briefly to put on shell jackets and started to look for a large rock to hide under. We were cold and miserable, and this shower was not in the forecast. After about 20 minutes, the rain passed and we were at the top of the first notch in the sun.

We took a break to eat and let the sun dry out the rock on the route. Due to whatever oversight it was (not reading the route description again?) we set out down the first gully. We opted to take the moat down as the snow looked a bit steep and hard to tackle. This turned out to be the crux of the climb for us and a real time waster. Shortly after entering the moat we had a wet third class step to negotiate. Then there was a lot of slow going on loose rock before we decided that the snow angle was a little more favorable and we moved out onto the snow. My combination of approach shoes and crampons did not fare well and caused me to move equally as slow on the snow (if not slower.) We eventually navigated around the burgschrund and a few crevasses before reaching the base of the climb.

Once again, due to us not reading everything we had handy we ascended the gully. (And possibly due to the party who took the correct snow gully to the glacier and beat us to the base of the route.) We simul-climbed the mostly 3rd and 4th class gully until just below the top out. I belayed Josh us the last bit before we did a roped scramble up to the base of the giant slab.

From here I led out across the blank lower slab (low 5th or 4th class.) After about 50m of rope, I set up a belay where I could. Some beta said "anchors were difficult to locate." This is true and we had to stop when we found locations where more than one piece could go in so we could build an anchor. Even still, all our anchors wound up being two pieces. I brought Josh up and he started out on the next pitch where we agreed to head to the corner dihedral. He made an anchor in the large dish and brought me up where I started out on the first dihedral pitch.

I had a little difficulty making the first move into the dihedral as my foot kept slipping and I decided to climb the short slab to the left that would put me into the dihedral higher. After that it was easier ground with somewhat more opportunity for protection. Shortly before running out of rope, I built and anchor and brought Josh up. He continued to just past the top of the dihedral where he ran out of rope and built an anchor. I followed up and we were on the summit shortly afterward. Since we could see and hear thunderstorms coming from the east, we did not stay long and started the decent quickly after snapping a few photos.

The descent was quick and easy. We lost the first 1000' in about 20 minutes glissading down the snowfields. Before we knew it, we were back at Headlee Pass and heading down the trail. We hammered out the remaining distance and were back at the car without the thunderstorm soaking us.

Overall it was a fun trip. Also one I'd be interested in repeating. The drive isn't much longer than driving to Snoqualmie Pass, and the area is a bit more interesting. In the future I won't make the same footwear mistake on the glacier either. Also now having done the climb and reread the beta, I would climb the buttress on the right of the gully on the lower portion of the climb. (Beckey states 5.6 "1970" route.) It would be slower, but involve more real climbing. Also, if I wasn't to do that, I might as well do the 3rd class ledge traverse to the base of the slab. Next time, I want to venture out in the middle of the slab. It looked really cool out there and would be a change from the dihedral. Speaking of the dihedral, it is dirty and no where near the four star quality that the Diedre dihedral is in Squamish. However, rock is similar with some glacially polished sections and frictionless quartz dikes. This was a fun trip, and I'm a bit surprised people don't do it more often.

My pics are here.
Josh's pics here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Exit 38 - 07.24.09

I finally got to join Sammy and crew for the Thursday evening Exit 38 climbing. Unfortunately there was a late start due to traffic, and Sammy locking his keys in the car. So we changed from heading to the Far Side to the shorter walk of Deception Crags.

Brett working out the crux on the route not in the book.

Since it was open and we wanted to get climbing, we started on Write-Off Rock. Since it was about six weeks since I had been on rock, I wanted to start with something easier and I led the 5.7 on the right side. Amy led it after me, while Sammy and Brett climbed a newer route that isn't in the book. Sammy and Brett moved over to the 5.9 route while Amy and I moved onto the route that Sammy and Brett were on.

Sammy climbing the 5.9

After feeling done with that crag we walked over to the Hall Rock area. I led the right 5.8 (which felt harder) and Sammy led the left 5.8. Then Sammy was attempting the far left route (not in the book) and had to lower off. I gave the route a try to at least retrieve Sammy's gear. It was getting late and darker, and I just didn't have it in me. But I was able to remove his high piece and down climb from that point without leaving gear. After that we packed up and had a dark hike out in the woods.

A nice day to get out. Weather wasn't cooperative for swimming in the river, but we were running late anyway and didn't have time for that. We did have a good time, and I hope to join Sammy and the gang on future Thursdays out.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Paris - Recap

Our TGV ride back to Paris went off without a hitch, and we took the metro back to our hotel. (The same one we stayed in earlier.) We wandered about a bit to look for Le Maison du Chocolat, a famous Chocolate shop. On the way there we went into the Bon Marche a large high end department store. After only a few minutes, we felt out of place and exited the Bon Marche. We finally found Le Maison du Chocolat and purchased a few items before starting to make our way back to the hotel. On the way, we passed Napoleon's tomb and we visited the Eiffel Tower one more time. We went to dinner for a final time and had a nice meal before taking a stroll back to the hotel.

Napoleon's tomb

Au revoir Paris

In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel, and then headed to the airport.

Overall we had a great time on this trip. We enjoyed Paris, but it reminded me just how many people in Europe smoke. (It seemed like 80% of people over age 12 in Paris.) It has been a while since I've been to Manhattan, but Paris seemed dirtier. Most likely due to people not picking up after their dogs. (In defense of Paris, they encourage street disposal of garbage like cigarette butts into the gutter where they are washed into the sewers daily.) However the air was warm and humid and left me feeling dirty every day. It took some getting used to opening the doors yourself on the metro as well, but these are quirks that are enjoyable about traveling. At first in Paris we were very shy about talking to people and we got better throughout the trip as well. There are plenty of world class museums in Paris and lots of interesting things to do. We mostly stuck to the touristy things, but those can be fun too.

Alsace was a nice change from Paris as it was small towns and cooler temps. (At least they felt cooler.) It was fun to start sampling regional cuisine and get out on bicycles. It was a wonderful experience staying in the Medieval town and in an old building as well.

Burgundy was fun too. We were hoping to have more time, but the train mishap killed that time for us. Another bike ride to vineyards was scheduled, but we had to drop it. If we were going back to France, we'd hit the dining scene in Lyon more and give Lyon a second chance as well.

What can I say about Chamonix? I could live there. Well, except for the alpinism as fashion thing. Way too many people walking around the village in mountain boots and action pants. They aren't wearing backpacks, so theoretically they could have changed into more comfortable shoes (and pants) where they left their backpack. It is like people who leave their ski lift tickets on their jackets. That style sort of irked me, but the town is nice even with its limited options.

Provence was pretty great too. Unfortunately due to the holiday, we kept our Provencal excursions to a minimum. This meant we did not make it to the French Riviera which was on our list. I am also bummed about not getting to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Oh well, I guess there is next time. Dining in Provence gave us more access to vegetables which seemed lacking during most of our meals farther north.

We also were unable to fit in a viewing of Le Tour. This is mostly because we planned last minute and bookings were hard to come by. But also because we planned our itinerary to be almost opposite of where the tour was. We were in Colmar a week before the tour was supposed to visit, and we really hoped to watch it on TV when we got back home, but you need cable to watch the tour. Oh well. This is one reason I would consider going back during high tourist season.

We had lots of great food on the trip as well. However, I (being from the NE USA) am not used to the slow eating. Sitting down to eat would mean at least and hour and a half of restaurant time. The only way to eat quickly, which is what Jennifer and I did was to buy a baguette and cheese and eat it in the park. It is also quite difficult for Jennifer as a vegetarian in France. Fortunately she eats fish, but there are not a whole lot of main courses that don't involve meats. Some restaurants we had to seek out because they had vegetarian options. Others had noticeable vegetarian options so we chose those. It did mean we didn't always get to eat where I would like to, but compromises need to be made. France is also great for the ability to eat outdoors. I think we ate inside only three times on the trip (not including trains.) This made for some enjoyable dining. Except for when smokers would sit at the table next to you. So if you wanted to avoid smoke it made sense to eat indoors.

Our train travels and limited French vocabulary also made the trip interesting. Although it made us discuss entering The Amazing Race a bit more every time we traveled. We had a lot of fun overcoming the adversity and it made us stronger. Neither of us ever got frustrated to the point of being un-fun. (Although I was close with the unadvertised closing of the line that went to Versailles.)

Attempting to speak French was also a funny experience too. I had a few classes about 5 years ago before moving to Seattle, Jennifer actually got to finish the class, and had previous Spanish lessons, so I thought she would be better. But she often confused Spanish words with French words, while my French made me feel like I was fluent in German. (Which I am NOT.) We got by and had some fun with most people who did not speak English.

On that note, the people were very pleasant in France. There was really only one incident that is not indicative of society that stood out. We were walking down a street and a homeless Parisian man mumbled some angry stuff at me and then spit in my general direction. I am not sure that had anything to do with me being a foreigner as he may not have know that. Many times we would order from menus or ask for tickets at a museum and get replied to in French. Although I did ask for a map at Versailles (in French) and was asked if I wanted the English version of the map. (I'm sure my pronunciation is terrible for most things.) It was nice to know we could get by with our limited language skills.

Jennifer really enjoyed the trip as it was her first time off the continent of North America. Every place we went was new and exciting to her, and she always said we should have spent more time there. She had a lot of fun and it was her first time seeing, touching, and being in human structures that were 400+ years old.

It was overall a fun trip, and one that I wouldn't mind duplicating in a different country. Although I am not a big fan of going during high season because of the crowds and the costs. There are advantages though which was more festivals, special events etc. happen during the tourist season. But in the future we will have more time to plan. For now, I am glad to be back home in the Cascades.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Provence - 07.12-14.09

Once again the SNCF gave us misleading information about our trip. When we arrived in Chamonix we attempted to make a reservation for Avignon for Sunday morning. This would be the longest day of train travel (6-7 hours) all the way from Chamonix to Provence. We were told there were no reservations available on the TGV from Lyon to Avignon, and we would have to take the slow train. (This part may have been true, but...) we were given an itinerary at the train station that involved four transfers to get to Avignon. However, after taking the small train out of Chamonix, we needed only one transfer to get on a train bound for Lyon. Upon arriving in Lyon it was the "slow" train to Avignon instead of the TGV. Which due to the speed of standard trains and the later departure time of the TGV only put us in Avignon a half hour later. Unfortunately, our rental car pick up was at the Avignon TGV station, and not at the regular train station. So we had to pay for the shuttle bus between the two.

With our inability to get TGV reservations with two days notice, we immediately made for the ticket counter in the TGV station to get our reservations for the ride back to Paris on our penultimate day in France. Things didn't look good when we were told RailPass holders could not get reservations for any of the trains. Then the attendant said we could get on the 3:30pm train but would have to upgrade to first class. She explained that it was a high travel day being the day after Bastille Day and many people would be returning home. We thought about traveling the next morning, but didn't want to risk missing our flight. So we paid the extra up charge for the first class reservations. (About 50 Euros per person.) We got our reservations and started making our way to the car rental area when the attendant came out and chased us down. It turns out that because we had the France RailPass, and not the Euro RailPass we had a little more privilege. She could get us 2nd class reservations on the 1:15pm train to Paris. This was not ideal as we had to drop the rental car off at 10am, but it was the best we could get.

We once again headed out to the rental car lot to pick up our car. Since the difference between an "economy" and "compact" car for three days totaled 20 Euros, we opted for the compact. I was hoping for Peugeot 207, but we were given a Renault Megame. It was cool as I had never driven a Renault before, and the handling was not bad. The diesel motor was fun to drive as well. It was also "keyless" in that it just had a credit card sized fob which was placed into the dashboard and the "start/stop" button was pressed to start or stop the car.

We got in the car and made our way to Arles where we were headquartered for the next three days. The driving was a bit confusing at first, because we didn't have the map out, and we mostly followed signs for Arles. (Which works pretty well in France.)

Once we arrived we had some problems finding our hotel and then parked the car there, checked in and went to explore. As with most other places, our first step was to visit the TI and get a map. Then we went on our way. Since it was photography week in Arles, we went to a few gallery shows of photographic work. We also checked out the church of St. Trophime which has the skulls of a few and bones of a number of saints. We walked the city a bit before deciding on a place for dinner. We picked restaurant La Boheme. It was Jennifer's favorite meal of the trip. It is also where I first learned that if you seen something on the menu as an entree in Provence and it says something like "red peppers and anchovies" or "cheve and toast" that it is going to be a salad with those items on it. It seemed like all appetizers in Provence were salads, but usually given titles like the one's above. After having a great meal, we wandered a bit more before retiring for the day.

Since we had the car, we intended to use it to visit other locations. On the next day we drove out to the Camargue, where the Rhone delta meets the Mediterranean Sea. There is a regional park there as well as some agriculture. (Most notably bulls, horses, and rice.) There are also salt farming operations as well. We drove through and got to see the sights and then managed to find out way to the sea. Since the weather was cool and windy (and a bit rainy) we opted not to go in. (We actually didn't bring our swimsuits in the car either.) The beach we found was public, and there were a lot of RVs camping there, but no too many people on the beach. We dipped our feet in the sea, and went on our way.

The next stop was the Pont du Gard. Which is a Roman Aqueduct with supposedly the largest arch the Romans ever built. There was swimming in the river, but we still didn't have our swimsuits. We toured around a bit before leaving and heading back to Arles.

After a shared pizza at a cafe, we did some of the walking tours in Arles. (Arles has three major self guided walking tours: Ancient (Roman), Medieval, and Van Gogh.) We purchased a map for one Euro at the TI and checked out the sights. It was interesting to see the locations where Van Gogh painted and how some are still very similar today. (And how some do not exist due to WWII.) Getting a little more information on some of the Roman structures in town was also nice as well. There was plenty in Arles that was built in the first century and it was pretty wild.

After touring we got the last non-reserved table at Le16. (A recommended restaurant that we really wanted to try.) We had a lovely meal there and continued our walking tour in the setting sun afterward. Then it was time for bed.

The next day we were setting out to visit some Provencal wineries. But our first stop was Terascon where we hoped to see their Tuesday market. We parked on the outskirts of town. (Driving Medieval lanes is not as fun as they make it look in the movies.) Then we started looking for the town square. We stumbled upon a road with a steel fence and many people out and about. Were they awaiting the Bastille Day Parade? I turned around to see three gentlemen wearing red pants, white shirts, and a red scarves around their necks. Then I realized the fence was too strong for people. Shortly afterward, we hear a "gunshot" and some "cowboys" ride down the street with a few bulls in tow. We were witnessing a bull run. This was way more sedate and a smaller affair than you see in Pamplona. The bulls horns we even dulled. But it was an interesting occurrence to stumble onto. After watching a few passes of the bulls we decided to be on our way.

Next stop was a winery. We randomly picked it as it appeared they would be open on Bastille Day and they would not close for lunch. (A common way of doing business in France.) We arrived at a wonderful setting of the winery built into the surrounding hills. We sampled a few wines then were disappointed to find out they did not sell wine in the US. Since we had no way of getting it home, we had to leave without making a purchase.

Our next stop was supposed to be an olive oil producer a bit farther south. On the drive we unexpectedly drove through the Alpilles mountains which was a fun and scenic ride. We eventually stopped to have lunch on the side of the road while viewing the town of Les Baux. We did not stop as the small village was overrun with tourists, and we didn't know if we had a reason to. (Having read the Wikipedia entry, I would have loved to see the trebuchet demo.) Oh well. We continued over the ridge that Les Baux is on, and down to the valley to the olive orchard. Unfortunately it appears they were not open on Bastille Day. But we had a backup plan and headed back through the mountains to reach another olive farm. There we got to sample olives and olive oil and purchased a few items to bring home with us. The owner was very friendly and modest. (The oils were award winning, but unlike the other place which was our first choice, he did not have it printed in the tourist info.)

After leaving we headed back to the hotel to prepare for the rest of our day. We dropped the car at the hotel, and went into Arles to the Arena. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they have gladiator demonstrations that are free with admission to the arena. Since we would not be around for the bull fight [They have a 'tame' version where the man has to remove ribbons from the bull's horns. They also have the violent version.] the following evening. We got into the arena and watched as a bunch of gladiators came out two at a time and sparred. Afterward, they bring kid volunteers out and teach them some moves with wooden sticks and shields. We toured the 2000 year old arena and left to finish our time in Arles.

Our goal was to watch the Bastille Day fireworks over the Rhone. We figured it would start late, as it takes a while for the sun to go down (around 10pm.) But since it was nearly 7pm and we knew a sit down meal would be at least and hour and most likely two, we opted for truck pizza. I don't know if this is a Provencal thing or South of France, or just an Arles thing. But there were plenty of pizza trucks in Arles. (Think taco trucks in LA.) So we opted for one that was on our way to the hotel. We got two pies, one four cheese, and another we are not sure about but now suspect that it may have been honey. (We got it because it had olives on it.) We brought the pizzas back to the hotel to eat and cool off a bit before heading back into town for the fireworks.

We hit the river at just the right time. We both got seats on the wall and we waited about 45 minutes or so before the fireworks started. The fireworks were fun, and everyone got a kick out of a small motorboat which also sprayed fireworks as part of the show. I was expecting something a bit more patriotic, but pretty much the crowd dispersed when the fireworks were over. We went into town a bit to watch a free concert before heading back to the hotel.

The next day we awoke early enough to check out the market before heading to Avignon to drop off the car. There was some delicious produce. We wished we had the ability to carry more olives home, but our packing was already difficult with some wine and olive oil. So we just enjoyed the sites and smells of the market and we were on our way.

We returned the car which was stressful. (As we just made it before our 10am return time.) Then I had to park it in the lot which was full, and I had to wait for someone to leave before I could park the car. Then it was a few hours of relaxing at the train station before boarding for Paris.

Pics are here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chamonix - 07.10-11.09

It is not particularly easy to get to Chamonix by train. But I guess it isn't that easy by car either. (I noticed in our car rental agreement that if you were renting a car for the Alps in Winter, there was a $75/day snow tire charge. Yipe!)

It took three trains to get to Chamonix from Lyon. No matter what it takes two, as the train in Chamonix is just two cars long and has to climb up into the valley. Fortunately, all the transfers were pretty much right across the track and were not an issue. Although we did almost get off one stop too early on the Chamonix train, but it would have been OK, because it would have only been an extra ten minutes of walking.

When we arrived, it was late morning and Mont Blanc was mostly in the clouds. We went to the hotel to see if we could check in early which we could. Then we explored the town a bit before buying a lunch (bread and cheese) and some pastries to eat on our hike. A quick stop at the tourist info center to pick up the hiking map and we were on our way. Since Jennifer hadn't hiked in a while and we weren't willing to spend money to take a lift, we decided on the Petit Balcon Sud hike. It is across the valley from Mont Blanc and offers views when the clouds cooperate. There is a bit of steep hiking early and then the route traverses along the hillside before dropping back down into the valley.

We had a bit of difficulty finding the start which was near a gondola. (And tempted us to pay the ten Euro fee for a one time lift to the top.) But we found the trail head above and behind the lift station and we were hiking on trail. Before long, we started noticing wild strawberries on the trail side. They appeared ripe and we were eating some as we went along. These were the best strawberries I have ever had in my life! Jennifer said they were at least ten times better than the next best strawberry she ever had. They melted in your mouth and were super sugary with lots of strawberry flavor. They almost tasted artificial. I likened them to strawberry cotton candy. Our strawberry picking caused our hiking to slow dramatically.

Higher up we got some views and enjoyed them while now also scavenging for blueberries (or Myrtilles.) We then started the traverse in mostly forest with the occasional clearing for views. At one point we made the decision to climb a different trail to reach the Chateu de la Floria. It wasn't very steep, or much out of the way, and would be a good place to have lunch if you didn't bring stuff from the Patisserie in town. They do appear to have a few tables out for people who do bring their own food as well. (We don't read French signs all that well.) We stopped to eat our snacks while enjoying the view and then continued on.

We saw plenty of others on the trail and this always warrants a "Bonjour" to the others. There were plenty of people including mountain bikers riding down from the top and probably many hikers also hiking down from the top as well. (People do not hike uphill in Chamonix.) A short while after the Chalet, we were heading downhill and back to the valley. Since we were no longer in Chamonix proper, we had a 20 minute walk on a trail back into town.

Once back in town we explored the shops (especially the climbing/skiing gear) and decided on where to eat dinner. Since it had actually gotten a little cooler ~14°C we opted to finally get onion soup, and as a main dish, fondue. While onion soup is reportedly the only dish 'invented' in Paris, Fondue is an Alps staple (although probably more Swiss than French.) There were plenty of people at the restaurant eating Raclette, another traditional melted cheese dish. We walked around town a bit before retiring to the room for the long day we had planned for Saturday.

We awoke early to hopefully get on the first gondola up to Aiguille du Midi. Usually by the afternoon there are long lines and reservations are recommended. We had visited the ticket booth after our Friday hike and found that you did not need reservations for earlier gondolas, the first of which is at 6:30am. (Tourists, and most French are not usually up at this time.) So we headed over to the lift house and got on the second gondola up. We were the only tourists on a gondola full of alpinists heading for various destinations on the Mont Blanc Massif. There are two gondola rides to Aiguille du Midi. The first takes you to plan de l'Aiguille which is at 2233m. (Chamonix is at 1036m.) So the first gondola brings you up about 1200m. You then shuffle through the gondola house to the next gondola which brings you to about 3800m and the gondola house up top. There was a thermometer outside the second gondola and by the time we got to the top, it was around -5°C.

We immediately walked out onto a bridge (from the gondola house to the actual Aiguille du Midi) where the wind was blowing and it was very cold. We went back inside to warm up. Since there was no breakfast available in town, we were planning on eating breakfast up there. So we ordered some pastries and hot beverages and attempted to warm up a bit. The elevator was not yet running to the 3842m platform, and we would just have to wait anyway. We were also contemplating taking a gondola over to Helbronner Point but that also was not running at such an early hour. We went back outside to the viewing area above the restaurant to look around. It was cold and windy. We noticed that the elevator appeared to be opening and we got in line for it. (It was three Euros more per person.) The views from the observation deck were amazing! We were gifted with dramatic skies to enhance our experience. We stayed up top for a bit while snapping some photos, and then headed back to the warmth of the gondola building. We poked around the gift shop and wished we had not already mailed postcards as there was a post box there. We then debated the option of taking the gondola to Helbronner.

I was feeling a little queasy due to the altitude, but was starting to adjust. However, I could not adjust to the cold. Being this was the only time we would experience this type of cold, I did not really pack for it. I was wearing a (wool) short sleeve T-shirt, a light sweater, and a lightweight shell jacket, no long underwear, and nylon hiking pants. Jennifer did a bit better by having an additional layer than me and a nice wool hat. (I wore a thin hat that I felt would be more easily packed. We both wore light liner gloves.

We took a walk over to the gondola to Helbronner. I pointed to where it went, and Jennifer thought it to be less spectacular than she had originally envisioned. So we decided to head down and start our hike of the day.

Today's hike would be started at the midway gondola station. And was the Grand Balcon Nord trail. We were going to hike it to view the Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France. In the Winter, it is the main part of a 13 mile ski run back to the valley from the Aiguille du Midi. Before starting on our journey we made a side trip to Lac Bleu, a small tarn a few hundred meters from the gondola stop. After that stop we purchased a Toblerone at the hut and made our way to the trail. Once on the trail, it is about a 4km traverse over and then some hiking up over a ridge to view the glacier, as well as a hike down to the restaurants, hotels and train station at Montenvers. The hike over was wonderful. We would pass different types of rock on the massif. There was interesting flora, but the fauna seemed to escape our sights (other than birds.)

After much traversing we hiked up some switchbacks to our high point on the eastern part of the trail where we got our first glimpses at the Mer de Glace. We simply do not have valley glaciers like this in the lower 48 in the US. It was a wild site. We stopped to finish our Toblerone, and watched a party of French hikers below us picnic on cheese, baguette and red wine. In the stereotypical fashion, they also were smoking cigarettes. We hiked down to the train station and got some sandwiches for lunch before continuing back to town.

The route back to town was uneventful. Although we passed the area where you can take bob-sled runs. There was also an adventure park set up with numerous zip lines that kids were whizzing around on. It looked like a fun time for families.

Once back in town we stopped by the first day of a three day international climbing competition. We watched as the climbers ascended a difficult overhanging tower. Men were on one route, and women on another. We tried to stay long enough to see a woman complete the route, but none were successful. A handful of men were successful, and we also witnessed a lot of falls.

Back in town we did more tourist shopping and purchased bread and cheese for our train lunch the next day, as well as some pastries, as we were leaving before the shops would open. After returning the goods to our hotel we went out to dinner. We had already picked the spot the night before as it was the only place that served a vegetarian Tartiflette that Jennifer could eat. While not exactly traditional, it was a bowl of gooey cheesy potato goodness. After dinner we went to an ice cream shop and then prepared for the next day.

Overall, it was nice to be in the cooler climes of the Chamonix area for a bit. Our hotel was probably the best we had on the trip as well. We had a view of the massif from our balcony. (We had a balcony!) It was also very clean and bright, and about a eight minute walk to the train station.

Pics are here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Burgundy - 07.08-09.09

This phase of the trip appeared to start out well, but did not work as planned. We were to take a train from Colmar to Beaune where there would be a transfer at some point. The train station attendants told us to take the train to Chalon-sur-Saone and then transfer to a train going to Beaune. We confirmed this with the train schedule on the platform and then again with the conductor on the train. However, after the train made a stop in Dijon, it continued past Beaune and all the way to Lyon, which was supposed to be our stop the following day. We considered our options once we realized what was happening. Perhaps we could just stay in Lyon two nights and cancel our Beaune reservation? Unfortunately, Beaune was more important to us than Lyon and we really wanted to go to Beaune. So once we arrived in Lyon we hopped the next north bound train back to Beaune. We lost four hours, but we both felt like it prepared us better for The Amazing Race.

So we arrived in Beaune in the late afternoon. We immediately got a train schedule for our trip to Lyon the next day and then checked into our hotel which was right across the street from the train station. (Not the greatest location for sleeping, but convenient.)

We wandered the town to get a feel for it, then started to peruse the menus to see where we wanted to eat traditional Burgundy food. We eventually sat down for dinner and planned our next day's activities while eating delicious regional cuisine.

Our first stop on the following day was the medieval hospice hospital, the Hotel-Dieu. Since Jennifer is interested in hospice nursing this was a particularly interesting tourist site to visit for her. We toured the grounds and the interior which consisted of multiple areas where the sick were cared for. There was also a kitchen and pharmacy area as well. The hospice operated in a similar fashion until the 1970's. Parts of the building appear to still be used as an "old age" retirement type home.

After the hospice, we had more Burgundy cuisine for lunch and then we were off to one of the many cellars to do a wine tasting. There are many independent wineries in Beaune, and two large cooperatives that do free tastings. We opted for the one that has fewer finer wines rather than the one that has more lesser wines. The experience was great and the last wine we got to sample was around 70 Euros a bottle. We purchased some mustard there as well. (Dijon is close to Beaune, and mustard is a staple of Burgundy cuisine.) Then it was off to the train station. This leg proved a bit tiring as we had to wear our backpacks all day in Beaune after we checked out from the hotel.

We arrived in Lyon during the evening rush hour. The walk from the train station to the hotel reminded me of being on Manhattan streets. Lots of people, all going in different directions. It was a bit frantic as we attempted to reach the tourist information center before hitting the hotel, so we would have a map. We didn't get to the TI in time, and decided to make it to our hotel at that point. The hotel in Lyon was our worst. It was in a not so great neighborhood, and was small and dark. That was all right though as we were really only using Lyon for a dinner, and to have a shorter trip to our next destination.

It turned out that Lyon was more interesting that we had planned. We didn't see any of the sights or museums, and were only there to dine. While the food was not top notch, the dining scene was pretty great. In the old part of the city there are plenty of streets just lined with Bouchons. Like the Indian restaurants on 6th street in Manhattan, there is usually an employee of the restaurant near the menu posted on the street attempting to lure you in to their establishment. One such person told Jennifer and I that she would translate the menu for us even if we did not dine at her establishment.

After walking around a bit, we went to a place that had a great formule meal deal and grabbed the last open table on the street. The dining experience was great and we enjoyed the food. Jennifer had pike quenelles which are fish dumplings and a staple of Lyonnais cuisine. I opted for duck which was not particularly regional although the sauce was a Burgundy type sauce. Both were served with Lyonnais potatoes which were really creamy and delicious. After the dinner we headed to an ice cream parlor to pick up an extra dessert as recommended by Rick Steves. I got rhubarb, and Jennifer got Marron [chestnut]. After that it was hotel and sleep time for the ride to Chamonix the next morning.

On a funny note, when we went to leave the hotel and check out. (Probably around 5am.) The desk attendant was sleeping (snoring actually) on the couch. We attempted to find a bell on the counter, but to no avail. Neither of wished to jostle him to wake him, so I eventually dropped my keys on the counter and that did the trick. (Thankfully.) Then it was off to the train station.

Pics are here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Alsace - 07.06-07.09

On the morning of the 6th we woke early to catch the early TGV to Colmar. I'm not sure how fast this line runs, but it took about 2.5 hours to get to Colmar from Paris that morning. Judging from when the train was near highways, I'd say we were probably going about 150mph. Although it did not seem fast at all.

We arrived in Colmar and headed straight to the Unterlinden Museum. Like many European museums, it used to be a private space (in this instance a convent) before being turned into a museum. There were some nice pieces of artwork, and cool artifacts there.

After a lunch, where Jennifer had the Tarte Flambee and I had what was being called a rosti, but was more like a tartiflette. We checked into our hotel, which really is renting a room at a winery. This was the least expensive digs on the trip, but some of the best. We had a large room with kitchenette and couch. It wasn't well stocked with soaps and extras, but was really nice. There was even a computer with free Internet in a public space in the building. After checking in, we explored the town a bit before heading to dinner at one of the fancier restaurants. I had one of the local specialties choucroute, which was good, but a little too much pork (like 2 lbs!) for me in one meal. It also didn't smell as good as the choucroute from the restaurant we had lunch at.

The next day we rented bikes and rode a bit of the Route des Vin d'Alsace. We rode through Ingersheim without stopping and then onto Turckheim where we explored the town a bit and then stopped for a tasting at the Cave de Turckheim. (Turckheim Cellars, which appeared to be a cooperative for wine makers in the area.) After the tasting we headed off to Equisheim which is supposed to be one of the most quaint towns on the route and birthplace of Pope Leo IX.

Upon stopping in Equisheim we got a Onion Tart from the local Charcuterie. (Which is mostly like a deli with meats, baked goods, and bottled goods.) After eating the tart, we walked the town and enjoyed the scenery. There were plenty of storks there and we got to see many on the roof tops. (Storks are a symbol of Alsace.) We hit one organic winery for a tasting, and then started to ride back to Colmar. It rained lightly at times, but at least the temps were not so high as to be unbearable.

Back in Colmar we ate dinner (where this time I had the Tarte Flambee and Jennifer the "Rosti.") We then walked the town to the "Little Venice" neighborhood and enjoyed the heavily floodlit town.

Pics are here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Paris - 07.02-05.09

So this is our honeymoon. Since I was not working and Jennifer was about to start work and had time off. This was an ideal time to take a multi-week vacation. Since we didn't have much time to plan, we made a hasty plan to go to France and visit a few regions. We were intending on doing mostly the tourist stuff, and packed accordingly. I'll be posting the phases of the trip separately as I have over 1300 pictures to go through, and it will take a while to do all the typing. (French keyboards made even applying for jobs while in France difficult, let alone writing a blog.)

The idea was to sleep on the plane on the way to Paris. I think we were both too excited about the trip, and me too in love with the view out the window to get any sleep. (Sights early on consisted of a nice fly over Glacier Peak and later pack ice on Hudson Bay.) We had a short transfer in Amsterdam, and were in Paris by late morning. Since Northwest Airlines (and Air France) fed us well, we hit the ground running. After taking the metro to our hotel, we walked around the neighborhood a bit. We mostly viewed the Eiffel Tower and then our exhaustion hit us. We headed back to the hotel for a nap, and then took off to walk the neighborhood again before finally finding a location for dinner. We had a nice formule meal (Prix Fixe in the US) at a Creperie near the hotel. It was four courses (aperitif, salad, main, dessert) with delightful crepes and decent prices. We hit the hotel for sleep after that.

The second day started with the Louvre. We got there when it opened and purchased a museum pass to use there and at other locations in the city (and including Versailles.) The museum is overwhelming. Lots of great art and artifacts housed in a equally captivating building. We saw the two main attractions (Mona Lisa, and Venus de Milo.) We spent 3+ hours wandering around before we were Louvred out. Since the admission to the Louvre is re-entry, I'd recommend doing the museum in two blocks of time at different parts of the day. We had the first of our many bread and cheese lunches at the museum cafe and headed out.

We visited the Notre Dame Cathedral after the Louvre, and decided the line was too long to attempt to go to the top. We toured the inside and enjoyed the architecture before visiting the Jewish Deportation Monument. This was a very interesting small 'museum' behind the cathedral and was moving. The artist did a fine job.

Afterward, we wandered over to the Pompidou Centre for some modern art. This pretty much exhausted us and finished us on museums for the day. There was some great exhibits there, and the building was fun as well. The curator did fine work linking associated artists and art influences etc. After our time at the Pompidou, we hit the square next to it for some dinner and later had a light snack in a nearby neighborhood before retiring to the hotel.

The next day we started early with a visit to Versailles. Due to track maintenance that was not posted, we took very long to get there. (Our goal was to be there by the 9am opening, but wound up getting there later.) There were huge crowds of tourists being dropped off by the busload. We were able to get inside quickly with our museum passes and toured the building. While the palace is a nice example of the architecture, it gets redundant after seeing gilded room after gilded room. But it was an enjoyable time. The gardens are supposedly where it is at, but since it was Saturday and the fountains were on, this cost extra (8 Euros?) and we opted not to go for a stroll. We returned to Paris to hit the Picasso museum and the Arc de Triomphe to round out our museum passes. The Picasso museum was nice, if a little out of the way. (Although the neighborhood has some good Jewish eats if you are not visiting it on Saturday.)

The Arc was actually more enjoyable than expected with great views from the top. Since we were there on the Fourth of July, there was some type of ceremony going on. There were plenty of retired French troops, and a few American WWII vets. We must have missed the ceremony, but they were walking around afterwards and there appeared to be some wreaths laid. (The arc is also home to France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.) After our climb up the stairs in the arc, we walked down the Champs-Elysees. This is similar to walking 42nd street in NYC or the Times Square area in general. There are tons of tourists, and lots of shops. Some shops were high end, while others, quite touristy. A unique addition is the car dealerships. Mercedes, Renault and Peugeot were represented and the dealerships are more like museums and boutiques than dealerships. Some even had sit down Formula One car simulators to try for free. After that we headed back to our neighborhood for dinner.

We ate at a place recommended by Rick Steves which was enjoyable. Then we headed to the Eiffel Tower to go to the top. As we got to the tower, we watched a free concert nearby where there was Middle Eastern music, and Whirling Dervishes doing their thing. (This concert lasted from the time we arrived, to at least the top of the tower, if not later.) After watching the concert a bit, we made our way to the tower. We decided due to finances and wait time that we would take the stairs to the second level. (You can only take an elevator to the top, but have the option of stairs or elevator to the second level.) We hiked up to the first level and did a lap before continuing up to the second. The stairs are actually numbered every 10th step so you don't have to count them. Although the official stats say there are 700 stairs, the last stair labeled before the second level was around 670 or so. Anyway, a decent workout that I wouldn't have wanted to do with the sun high in the sky. We bought our tickets and got in line for the top elevator. The view was great looking down on the sights of Paris at night. We then got off the tower and headed back to the hotel for sleep.

After yet another (buffet, all you can eat) breakfast at our hotel, we spent our last day in Paris on this leg starting with a trek across town on the metro. We were heading to the highest point in Paris, Montmartre, where the Sacre Coeur Cathedral is. The cathedral is stunning white because it is made with travertine. It is located on the highest point and has a pretty good view. We hung out a bit and explored a few old windmills in the area. (The Moulin Rouge is down the hill from the cathedral as well.) We then made our way across town to the catacombs.

The catacombs are the result of Paris development and needing to use space occupied on the surface by cemeteries. In the late 18th century the city started putting the remains from surface cemeteries in old limestone mines under the city. This became the catacombs. After yet another bread and cheese (or was it bread and butter?) lunch we got on the line to enter. It was long, and we feared we might not make the cutoff of 4pm when they let the last people in. We made it to the head of the line with plenty of time to spare and started our journey. This consists of going down what seems like an endless spiral staircase before getting into the tunnels. The tunnels start as standard mine tunnels with a wet rocky floor and walls. At some point you reach the doorway to the burials. Beyond this point most of the walls are femurs and skulls. You occasionally see other bones like ribs and spine, but mostly femurs and skulls arranged in an orderly and artistic manner. At one point there is a chapel and it is wet and dark. After about 45 minutes of wandering, you get to another set of endless stairs that take you to the street.

After the catacombs, we headed back to our neighborhood and got dinner. We walked around a bit before going to the hotel to pack for our train ride the next day.

Overall, Paris was good. I think the museums are great, but it is pretty intense to try and do them on consecutive days (which is required with the museum pass.) The city itself seems similar to Manhattan, although the metro is cleaner than the subway. The weather while we were there also gave it a Manhattan feel. Hot and humid. Spending enough time outside, or in the metro left you with a film that wouldn't come off without a shower.

The dining was good, but not spectacular. According to Rick Steves, Paris does not have its own cuisine, and borrows from all other French Regions. This may be true, and may be why the food did not bowl us over. We enjoyed eating, but it was expensive and not "out of this world."

All the walking we did made my feet feel the way they did after hiking out of the Enchantments in June, and we were both feeling weary because of it.

Paris pics are here.